Primitive Methodism

Primitive Methodism


Primitive Methodism was a major movement in English Methodism from about 1810 until the Methodist Union in 1932. The Primitive Methodist Church still exists in the United States.


Primitive Methodism was born in Staffordshire in 1811, when two groups joined -- Hugh Bourne's 'Camp Meeting Methodists' and William Clowes' 'Clowesites'.

The movement was spawned from the personal followings of two men. Bourne and Clowes were charismatic evangelists with a rebellious streak. Both had reputations for zeal and were sympathetic to ideas the Wesleyan Connexion condemned. Their belief most unacceptable to the Wesleyan Connexion was support for "Camp Meetings." These were day-long, open air meetings involving public praying, preaching and Love Feasts.

Clowes was a first generation Methodist convert -- at the age of 25 he renounced his desire to be the finest dancer in England. The movement was also influenced by the background of the two men, Clowes had worked as a potter, while Bourne had been a wheelwright. Both of them had been expelled from the Wesleyan Connexion -- Bourne in 1808 and Clowes in 1810. The reason given for Clowes' expulsion was that he behaved "contrary to the Methodist discipline," therefore he could not be a "preacher or leader amongst them unless [he] promised not to attend [camp] meetings anymore."

It seems likely that this was not their only concern regarding the pair. Bourne's association with the American evangelist Lorenzo Dow would have put him in a dim light with Wesleyan leaders. The Wesleyan leadership's hostility to Dow is demonstrated by a threat Dow received from prominent Wesleyan (and twice president of the Conference in 1797 and 1805) Thomas Coke, on his arrival in London around 1799. Coke threatened to "write to Lord Castlereagh to inform him who and what you are, [and] that we disown you,... then you'll be arrested and committed to prison."

The Wesleyan Connexion was also concerned about Bourne and Clowes' association with the "Magic Methodists" or "Forrest Methodists" led by James Crawfoot, the "old man of Delamere Forest". He was significant to both Bourne and Clowes and was for a time their spiritual mentor. He held prayer meetings where people had visions and fell into trances. Crawfoot, according to Owen Davies, had developed a reputation for possessing supernatural powers. Indeed Henry Wedgwood, writing later in the century, recalled that many locals at the time were terrified of the magical powers of an innkeeper called Zechariah Baddeley, but that they considered Baddeley's powers nothing next to the Crawfoot's prayers and preaching.

The enthusiasm associated with revivalism was seen as disreputable by the early 19th Century establishment. In 1799, the Bishop of Lincoln claimed that the "ranter" element of Methodism was so dangerous that the government must ban itinerancy. Men like Bourne and Clowes were not educated members of the establishment and so their preaching and mass conversion was a challenge to the hegemony and its conceptions of manners, as well as to paternalism and order.

The Wesleyan Methodists, such as Dr. Coke, wanted to distance themselves from popular culture, which bourgeois society considered vulgar. Their impatience with the less respectable elements of the Methodist movement was exacerbated by wider developments. The death of John Wesley removed an important restraining influence on popular Methodism. After his death there was no obvious leader to take control of the movement and power was invested in the Wesleyan Conference. The movement no longer had someone who could say conclusively what the Methodist position on any subject was. The Camp Meeting Methodists were able to look back to the early days of the Methodist movement and conclude that amongst other things, field preaching was acceptable.

Also, the Wesleyans formally split from the Church of England, which led them to greater organisation and self-definition. Speaking for the whole of the church necessitated imposing a greater level of discipline on members. The leadership could withhold the tickets of members, like Bourne and Clowes, that did not behave in the way expected by the Conference. The result was that there became less toleration for internal dissent, and there was a profound weakening of the movement's leadership.

The Methodist response to the political situation

The leadership of the newly-formed Methodist Church was made particularly sensitive to criticism by international events. Britain had been involved in almost perpetual war with France since 1793. A succession of defeats to allies and the threat of the 'Continental System' increased tension at home.

The establishment faced an alarming threat in the shape of the revolutionary anti-monarchical beliefs of the French government. The war and the French Revolution encouraged a fear of a rebellion in Britain. The repressive laws enacted by the Pitt government came from fear of internal dissent.

In this atmosphere the Methodist leadership feared repression and strove to avoid antagonising the government. The Methodist movement challenged the Church of England - an institution widely regarded as a bulwark of national stability. As Mcleod highlights, Methodist members and preachers could be outspoken in their criticism of the Church of England . The movement grew rapidly, especially amongst the expanding working classes.

The combination of rapid growth, popular appeal, and enthusiasm alarmed many. Fear of the Methodist membership seems to have been shared to an extent by the Wesleyan leadership. Dr. Coke even suggested he would not be surprised if, "in a few years some of our people, warmest in politics and coolest in religion, would toast… a bloody summer and a headless king ."

The leadership reacted to criticism and their own fears by introducing further discipline. They expelled the prominent Alexander Kilham in 1795, and one year later they forbade any itinerant from any publishing without the sanction of the newly created book committee.

From 1805 the use of hymnals not issued by the Book Room was banned, and in 1807 Camp Meetings were condemned. Through discipline they hoped they could evade the tarnish of disloyalty.

The leadership reacted badly to Lorenzo Dow, and Bourne's association with him. Dow was a republican and a millenarian. He made wild anti-establishment speeches and did not distinguish between religion and politics. In a tract of 1812, he preached that "May not the 'Seventh Trumpet' now be sounding, and the 'seven last plagues' be pouring out? " Dow accused the British government of being tyrannical and repugnant to God's laws of nature. As a separate church, conscious of their own public image and fearing repression, they had to disassociate themselves from him. The Wesleyan leadership's measures to evade repression led to the imposition of greater internal discipline. Members who were seen as a liability were expelled. Views that were anti establishment were condemned.

Wesleyan propaganda

The Wesleyan leadership did not undertake to improve their reputation with discipline alone. Through propaganda they capitalised on the greater level of discipline in an attempt to reform their image. Hempton claims the Methodists used propaganda to project an industrious and well disposed image.

The "Methodist Magazine" was utilised to print supportive tracts about the monarchy, praising his wariness of reformers. The movement was portrayed as a conservative force; the leadership claiming Methodism promoted "subordination and industry in the lower orders." While promoting this image of Methodists, the Wesleyan leadership also moved to escape old slurs. One obstacle to Methodist respectability was their association with ignorance and superstition. The leadership tried to shake off this reputation. In Wales, 1801, they warned their members against involvement in sorcery, magic, and witchcraft, and in 1816 fifty members of the Portland Methodist Society were struck off for maintaining belief in the supernatural. Not only does this demonstrate that the Wesleyan transition to denominational conservatism resulted in less toleration for alternate beliefs; it also demonstrates that there was less toleration for non-bourgeois beliefs. This illustrates why Bourne and Clowes association with Crawfoot was unacceptable to the leadership. It also suggests a gulf between the outlook of the Wesleyan leadership and the Methodist rank and file.

Disillusion with the Wesleyan leaders

There was a level of disillusionment with the Wesleyan leadership. There was a level of dissatisfaction with the leadership's conservatism and with their financial policies.

The reaction of the Yorkshire membership to the leadership's support of the government after Peterloo is illustrated by the rumour that the Wesleyan leadership had "lent the government half a million of money to buy cannon to shoot them with ." When a local preacher in North Shields criticised the actions of the magistrates at Peterloo, he faced criticism from itinerants and 'respectable friends.' The leadership judged however, that they could not afford to expel this preacher because of the support he commanded locally. This incident demonstrated that the leadership was not representing the interests and views of some Methodists. The leadership's policies frequently did not favour poorer Methodists. The leadership introduced numerous measures to raise money. They introduced weekly and quarterly dues, yearly collections, the payment of class and ticket money, and seat rents. These fees bore severely on the poor during the war years, and in the depression that followed. They also opened a gulf between richer and poorer members. Seat rents marginalised a chapel's poor, while exalting the rich. The poor were often relegated to the least popular part of the chapel, and implicitly their involvement was devalued. Attendance at the chapel, which had once been a means of pride in the face of social superiors, now reinforced their inferiority. Likewise such developments led to the disillusionment of rural Methodists. The poor contributions of many rural societies to the Connexional funds resulted in pastoral neglect. This stress on financial contributions upset and alienated many.who Illustrative of the disillusionment of many, a pamphleteer in 1814 said "You complain the preachers never call to see you unless you are great folks... Well you may see the reason; you can do nothing for them; money they want and money they must and will have ." The disillusionment of many Methodists with the leadership of the Wesleyan Conference increased the possibility of schism.

What was at stake

The crucial factor was that these events occurred at a time when the movement had more to lose than ever before. Following their exit from the Church of England, chapel building and a larger ministry became a necessity. In addition to this the Connexion invested in schools, pension funds, and foreign missions. Also, through hard work and clean living, many Methodists had increased their wealth and owned property. All of this could be lost to a paranoid wartime government or a baying mob.

The Wesleyan 'clergy' derived their income from the Church and had a vested interest in ensuring a conservative policy. It was easier for men from the lower sorts, artisans like Bourne and Clowes, to put revivalism ahead of expediency. They had less to lose. The Primitive Methodist movement can therefore be said to have started in reaction to the Wesleyan drive towards respectability and denominationalism. It was a movement led by the poor and for the poor.

imilarities to, and differences from, the Wesleyans

Perceived irreconcilable differences led to the schism of the Methodists movement and the formation of Primitive Methodism. In the early twentieth century, however, the Wesleyans and Primitives were reconciled and reunited.

The structure of the Primitive Methodists, though superficially broadly similar to the Wesleyan Connexion, was profoundly different. Both Primitives and Wesleyans employed a Connexional system, employing a combination of itinerant and local preachers. Their organisational structure had much in common, utilising an array of local, circuit, district, and Connexional officials and committees .

According to James Obelkevich, Primitive Methodism was more decentralised and democratic. Werner concurs that the movement was decentralised. Most decisions and day to day policy were decided at a local level. The circuits were virtually autonomous and their administration was not dominated by church officials, but by the laity.

The expansion of the movement, through the commissioning of new missions, was directed by individuals or circuits, and not by a central authority. Decisions effecting the whole movement were taken at the annual meetings. Even these meetings were highly democratic with the laity outnumbering the itinerants in voting power. The 'church' could not dictate policy to its members. Compare the expulsions of Kilham from the Wesleyans (1795) and an outspoken "malcontent" from the Primitive Methodists (1824). While Bourne had to engage in a long and difficult argument before winning a vote, Dr. Coke rejected a democratic decision making process. In the early years of Primitive Methodism the membership had considerable power and freedom.

Primitive Methodist preachers and communities differed from their Wesleyan counterparts. Although the Wesleyans tended towards respectability, Primitives were poor and revivalist. According to J.E. Minor Primitive Methodist preachers were less well educated and more likely "to be at one with their congregations" or even "dominated by them ." Primitive Methodist preachers were plain speaking in contrast to Wesleyan services "embellished with literary allusions and delivered in highflown language ." Primitive Methodist preachers were plainly dressed and poorly paid . Though Wesleyan ministers in 1815 could command about £100, a house and a horse, the Primitive Methodist superintendent of the Gainsborough circuit received £62 12s in 1852. The second minister at the Gainsborough circuit received £36, about as much a farm labourer . If Primitive Methodist Preachers did not have enough money they were expected to turn to the Lord for support. There was also a disparity between the wealth of their congregations. The Wesleyan congregations were more likely to be from a lower middle class, or artisan, background than the Primitive Methodists. Primitive Methodists were most likely to be small farmers, servants, mill workers, colliers, agricultural labourers, weavers and framework knitters .

The Primitive Methodist movement exalted its poor congregations by glorifying plain dress and speech. They promoted it for two reasons. Firstly they thought plain dress was enjoined by the gospel and secondly because it made them distinctive. In a time when Wesleyans sought assimilation and respectability, they wanted to stand out as a "peculiar people." The Primitive Methodist movement made a virtue out of their difference.

Preaching and revivalism

The Primitives were more likely to go against society's norms. The Primitive Methodist maintenance of revivalism is indicative of this.

They were visible and noisy, they made use of revivalist techniques such as open air preaching. Their services were conducted with a fanatical zeal the Wesleyan leadership would have considered embarrassing. The hymns they sang were heavily influenced by popular culture and not considered respectable. They were often sung to popular tunes and they were full of references to heaven as a place of opulence.

As Werner comments, their hymns were a contrast to the "more staid hymns sung in Wesleyan chapels ." All their members were considered equal and were addressed as brother or sister. Even children were able to participate fully.

Many children actually became preachers, for instance boy preachers such as Thomas Brownsword and John Skevington. There were also many girl preachers, such as Elizabeth White and Martha Green who preached as 15 year olds.

The Wesleyan Conference had condemned female ministry in 1803. Professional Wesleyanism had effectively closed its doors to female preaching. Women were limited to work in Sunday Schools and speaking at 'Dorcas Meetings.' Their role was also contrary to the zeitgeist of wider early 19th century society, illustrated by The Laws Respecting Women, Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, and Rousseau's Emile. In Primitive Methodism the poor, the young, and women could gain public influence.

The Primitive Methodists were more receptive to the views of such people, and as a consequence took a different line on the supernatural. Wesleyans were trying hard to distance themselves from superstition, and superstitious popular culture. The Primitive Methodists engaged with popular beliefs in their portrayal of an interventionist God whose powers could be called upon by preachers.

Examples of this can be found in the Primitive Methodist Magazine. For instance the December edition from 1824 contains an anecdote of a cripple being healed through her conversion to Primitive Methodism . Likewise the November edition from the same year contains a chapter on "raising the dead" (V) under the title "A TREATISE ON THE CULTIVATION OF THE SPIRITUAL GIFTS ." Primitive Methodists saw the Lord's work in everything. The Primitive Methodist Magazine of 1821 asserting that the movement had begun "undersigned of man" and was an example of "Divine Providence ." The magazine continues to reveal further examples of God's power and favour towards them. A man who set out against the Primitive Methodists was struck down by illness, and a preacher who became lost and stranded was saved when the Lord sent people to find him. The leadership clearly believed in what many at the time would have derided as popular superstition. For example Clowes claimed to have fought with the Kidsgrove Boggart as a young man and Bourne believed in witches. About a woman he met at Ramsor, Bourne wrote,

:"I believe she will prove to be a witch. These are the head labourers under Satan, like as the fathers are the head labourers under Jesus Christ. ... For the witches throughout the world all meet and have connection with the power devil. "

The magazine finds the exhaltions of the laity to be one of the most important happenings at the Camp Meetings. For instance, it reports that at Sheshnall 1826, one woman fell to the ground under the purifying power of the Lord, while another cried aloud. The Primitive Methodist Movement was more consenting to working class thought and practice than the Wesleyans were.

Common factors

The Primitive and the Wesleyan Methodists had much in common. They were both very anti-catholic. Their social background was not completely different. There were many poor Wesleyans. It was in influence that middle class Wesleyans dominated the movement, not in numbers.

Many Wesleyans did not agree or abide by official policy. Many were sympathetic to revivalism and popular culture. The existence of an alternate sect, Primitive Methodism, did not end dissent.

In official policy and outlook the two movements had much in common. They were both Biblicist and a shared similar outlook on society and morality.

The Primitives were more radical than the Wesleyan Methodists. Armstrong claims, Thomas Cooper found the Primitive Methodists "demurred to [his] reading any book but the bible, unless it was a truly religious book ." Likewise, both the Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists wanted to reform popular behaviour. Again the Primitives were more radical than the Wesleyans and less in keeping with bourgeois correctness. Bourne was not just in favour of temperance, he disagreed with alcohol altogether and thought of himself as the father of the teetotal movement . The Primitive Methodists were a religion of popular culture. While the Wesleyans attempted to impose elements of bourgeois culture on the lower classes, Primitive Methodists offered an alternate popular culture. They timed their activities to coincide with sinful events. For instance, as an alternative to the race week at Preston they organised a Sunday School children's parade and a "frugal feast." Both tried to inculcate the doctrine of self-help into the working class. They promoted education through Sunday Schools, though the Primitives distinguished themselves by teaching writing. Through a combination of discipline, preaching and education both Primitive and Wesleyan Methodism sought to reform their members morality.

By 1850 the Primitives and Wesleyans were showing signs that they could surmount their differences. Primitive Methodism was mellowing. It was less distinctively non-bourgeois by 1850 and more in keeping with social norms. Less emphasis was placed on the supernatural. In 1828 Bourne said of trances,

:"this thing still occasionally breaks out. It is a subject at present not well understood and which requires to be peculiarly guarded against impropriety and imposture ."

Hymns about hell were sung less frequently and the Providence section of the Primitive Methodist Magazine declined in importance . It was dropped altogether in 1862. The Revivalist enthusiasm of the Primitive leadership dimmed. Even Clowes once an ardent enthusiast became,

:"convinced that religion does not consist in bodily movements, whether shouting, jumping, falling, or standing ."

The Primitives became less ardent in their support of the female right to ecclesiastical equality. In 1828 women were forbidden from becoming superintendents, and in the mid century there was a cessation of the biographies eulogising female preachers in the Methodist Magazine. Preaching changed considerably. Services became characterised by their decorum and the ministry was increasingly professional. The dress code was dropped in 1828 and preaching became more urban based . The community's values were more in line with bourgeois respectability, Parkinson Milson reported that local preachers and class leaders were offended at his plain speech.

Convergence begins

In the 1820s the Primitive Methodists were showing signs of increased conformity. At the same time the Wesleyan Methodists were relaxing their opposition to Revivalism.

In 1820 the Conference permitted an altered form of camp meeting but gave them a different name. Wesleyan preachers adopted door to door techniques and in 1822 there were numerous open air meetings. The official Wesleyan attitude was not only softening in regard to Primitive Methodist revivalist techniques. It was also softening in regard to the Primitive Methodist promotion of non-worldliness. The Methodist Magazine printed a series of articles titled "On the Character of the Early Methodists." The magazine praised their "plain dress" and simplicity of manners." This represented an attempt to re-engage with the poor. By 1850, both Primitive and Wesleyan Methodists were finding that the differences were less significant and aroused less passion.

In 1864 the Primitives established Elmfield College in York

The Primitives were becoming more like the Wesleyan Methodists. The same forces that promoted schism in Wesleyan Methodism operated on Primitive Methodism. Their leaders became more conservative as they got older. They showed signs of a move away from Revivalism and the leadership became intent on imposing a greater discipline on the membership. They experienced their own schisms in the 1820s. These Primitive Methodist troubles were blamed on the admission of "improper" preachers and "questionable characters. " The sentiment of this explanation is similar to Bunting's comments that "schism from the body will be a less evil than schism in it ." The Primitive Methodist problems in the 1820s were often related to money matters. The conference of 1826's decision to impose tighter fiscal discipline on the circuits led to the exodus of members and thirty itinerants. The movement became more geared towards consolidation through greater organisation. In 1821 preachers were called upon to record their activities and in 1822 a preachers manual was published. Preachers now had guidelines, an element of accountability had been introduced, and the leadership had asserted the Connexional accounts had priority over spreading the word.


The Prims held an annual conference, including the following places:
*1853 (York): ...
*1859 (Newcastle-on-Tyne):
*1860 (Tunstall):
*1861 ( [Derby):
*1862 ( [Sheffield):
*1863 (Leeds?):
*1864 (York): This authorised the purchase of property at Elmfield “for a sum not exceeding £1,350” for Elmfield College; gave trustees the go-ahead for plans to enlarge the school; Rose Cottage was rented and its use authorised as a dormitory house (Booth: 29)

ee also

*United Brethren (England)


*Primitive Methodist Magazine, (Derby, Richardson and Handford Marketplace, 1821)
*Primitive Methodist Magazine, (Derby, Richardson and Handford Marketplace, 1824)
*Primitive Methodist Magazine, (Derby, Richardson and Handford Marketplace, 1826)
*Primitive Methodist Baptism Records, Sunderland Local Studies Centre
*Armstrong, Anthony, The Church of England, the Methodists and Society 1700-1850 (London, University of London Press, 1973)
*Bebbington, D.W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain (London, Unwin Hyman, 1989)
*Colls, Robert, The Collier's Rant (London, Croom Helm, 1977)
*Davies, Owen, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture 1736-1951 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999)
*Gash, Norman. Aristocracy and People: Britain 1818-1865 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.
*Gunter, Stephen W., The Limits of Love Divine (Nashville, Kingswood books, 1989)
*Hempton, David, Methodism and Politics in British Society 1750-1850 (London, Hutchinson and Co., 1984)
*Kent, John, Holding the Fort (London, Epworth Press, 1978)
*Lowther, John, Primitive Methodism (Sunderland, CIL Press, 2003)
*Lowther, John, Methodism in Sunderland (Sunderland, CIL Press, 2003)
*Matthew, Colin, The Nineteenth Century (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000)
*Mcleod, Hugh, Religion and the Working Class in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Hong Kong, Macmillan Publishers LTD, 1984)
*Milburn, Geoffrey, Exploring Methodism: Primitive Methodism (Peterborough, Epworth Press, 2002)
*Moore, Robert, Pit-Men Preachers and Politics: The effects of Methodism in a Durham Mining Community (Bristol, Cambridge University Press, 1974)
*Obelkevich, James. Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825-75 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1976)
*Rack, Henry D., Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (London, Epworth Press,1989)
*Valenze, D.M., Prophetic Sons and Daughters (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1985)
*Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class (London, Penguin books, 1991)
*Ward, W.R., Religion and Society in England 1790-1850 (London, B.T.Batsford Ltd, 1972)
*Davies, Owen, Methodism, the Clergy and the Popular belief in Witchcraft and Magic, History, 82 (1997)
*Gareth Lloyd, The Papers of Dr Thomas Coke: A Catalogue, with an introduction by Dr John A. Vickers, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, vol. 76, no. 2 (1994), pp. 205-320.
*J.E. Minor, The Mantle of Elijah: 19th Century Primitive Methodism and 20th Century Pentecostalism, p142, Proceeds of the Wesleyan Historical Society [GB] (1982, Vol 43(6) PT1) pp141-149

External links

*Burbeck, James, The French Revolt and Empire,
*Pate, Deborah, 19th-century working-class evangelicalism in Britain
*About Dr Coke,
*A Historical Introduction to Methodism in the Isle of Man,
*William Clowes,

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