The Methodist revival began with a group of men, including John Wesley (1703–1791) and his younger brother Charles (1707–1788), as a movement within the Church of England in the 18th century. The Wesley brothers founded the "Holy Club" at the University of Oxford, where John was a fellow and later a lecturer at Lincoln College. The club met weekly and they systematically set about living a holy life. They were accustomed to receiving Communion every week, fasting regularly, abstaining from most forms of amusement and luxury and frequently visited the sick and the poor, as well as prisoners. The fellowship were branded as "Methodist" by their fellow students because of the way they used "rule" and "method" to go about their religious affairs. John, who was leader of the club, took the attempted mockery and turned it into a title of honour.
In 1735, at the invitation of the founder of the Georgia Colony, General James Oglethorpe, both John and Charles Wesley set out for America to be ministers to the colonists and missionaries to the Native Americans. Unsuccessful in their work, the brothers returned to England conscious of their lack of genuine Christian faith. They looked for help to Peter Boehler and other members of the Moravian Church. At a Moravian service in Aldersgate on 24 May 1738, John experienced what has come to be called his evangelical conversion, when he felt his "heart strangely warmed". He records in his journal: "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Charles had reported a similar experience a few days previously. Considered a pivotal moment, Daniel L. Burnett writes: "The significance of [John] Wesley's Aldersgate Experience is monumental … Without it the names of Wesley and Methodism would likely be nothing more than obscure footnotes in the pages of church history."
The Wesley brothers immediately began to preach salvation by faith to individuals and groups, in houses, in religious societies, and in the few churches which had not closed their doors to evangelical preachers. John Wesley came under the influence of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). Arminius had rejected the Calvinist teaching that God had pre-ordained an elect number of people to eternal bliss while others perished eternally. Conversely, George Whitefield (1714–1770), Howell Harris (1714–1773), and Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707–1791) were notable for being Calvinistic Methodists.
George Whitefield, returning from his own mission in Georgia, joined the Wesley brothers in what was rapidly to become a national crusade. Whitefield, who had been a fellow student of the Wesleys at Oxford, became well known for his unorthodox, itinerant ministry, in which he was dedicated to open-air preaching—reaching crowds of thousands. A key step in the development of John Wesley's ministry was, like Whitefield, to preach in fields, collieries and churchyards to those who did not regularly attend parish church services. Accordingly, many Methodist converts were those disconnected from the Church of England; Wesley remained a cleric of the Established Church and insisted that Methodists attend their local parish church as well as Methodist meetings.
Faced with growing evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities, Wesley and Whitefield appointed lay preachers and leaders. Methodist preachers focused particularly on evangelising people who had been "neglected" by the established Church of England. Wesley and his assistant preachers organised the new converts into Methodist societies. These societies were divided into groups called classes—intimate meetings where individuals were encouraged to confess their sins to one another and to build each other up. They also took part in love feasts which allowed for the sharing of testimony, a key feature of early Methodism. Growth in numbers and increasing hostility impressed upon the revival converts a deep sense of their corporate identity. Three teachings that Methodists saw as the foundation of Christian faith were:
- People are all, by nature, "dead in sin", and, consequently, "children of wrath".
- They are "justified by faith alone"
- Faith produces inward and outward holiness.
Wesley's organisational skills soon established him as the primary leader of the movement. Whitefield was a Calvinist, whereas Wesley was an outspoken opponent of the doctrine of predestination. Wesley argued (against Calvinist doctrine) that Christians could enjoy a second blessing—entire sanctification (Christian perfection) in this life: loving God and their neighbours, meekness and lowliness of heart and abstaining from all appearance of evil. These differences put strains on the alliance between Whitefield and Wesley, with Wesley becoming quite hostile toward Whitefield in what had been previously very close relations. Whitefield consistently begged Wesley not to let theological differences sever their friendship and, in time their friendship was restored, though this was seen by many of Whitefield's followers to be a doctrinal compromise.
Many clergy in the established church feared that new doctrines promulgated by the Methodists, such as the necessity of a new birth for salvation—the first work of grace, of justification by faith and of the constant and sustained action of the Holy Spirit upon the believer's soul, would produce ill effects upon weak minds. Theophilus Evans, an early critic of the movement, even wrote that it was "the natural Tendency of their Behaviour, in Voice and Gesture and horrid Expressions, to make People mad." In one of his prints, William Hogarth likewise attacked Methodists as "enthusiasts" full of "Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism." Other attacks against the Methodists were physically violent—Wesley was nearly murdered by a mob at Wednesbury in 1743. The Methodists responded vigorously to their critics and thrived despite the attacks against them.
Initially, the Methodists merely sought reform within the Church of England (Anglicanism), but the movement gradually departed from that Church. George Whitefield's preference for extemporaneous prayer rather than the fixed forms of prayer in the BCP, in addition to his insistence on the necessity of the New Birth, set him at odds with Anglican clergy.
As Methodist societies multiplied, and elements of an ecclesiastical system were, one after another, adopted, the breach between John Wesley and the Church of England gradually widened. In 1784, Wesley responded to the shortage of priests in the American colonies due to the American Revolutionary War by ordaining preachers for America with power to administer the sacraments. This was a major reason for Methodism's final split from the Church of England after Wesley's death. This split created a separate, eventually worldwide, group of church denominations.
With regard to the position of Methodism within Christendom, "John Wesley once noted that what God had achieved in the development of Methodism was no mere human endeavor but the work of God. As such it would be preserved by God so long as history remained." Calling it "the grand depositum" of the Methodist faith, Wesley specifically taught that the propagation of the doctrine of entire sanctification was the reason that God raised up the Methodists in the world.
The influence of Whitefield and Lady Huntingdon on the Church of England was a factor in the founding of the Free Church of England in 1844. At the time of Wesley's death there were over 500 Methodist preachers in British colonies and the United States. Total membership of the Methodist societies in Britain was recorded as 56,000 in 1791, rising to 360,000 in 1836 and 1,463,000 by the national census of 1851.
Early Methodism experienced a radical and spiritual phase that allowed women authority in church leadership. The role of the woman preacher emerged from the sense that the home should be a place of community care and should foster personal growth. Methodist women formed a community that cared for the vulnerable, extending the role of mothering beyond physical care. Women were encouraged to testify their faith. However the centrality of women's role sharply diminished after 1790 as Methodist churches became more structured and more male dominated.
The Wesleyan Education Committee, which existed from 1838 to 1902, has documented the Methodist Church's involvement in the education of children. At first most effort was placed in creating Sunday Schools but in 1836 the British Methodist Conference gave its blessing to the creation of "Weekday schools".
Methodism spread throughout the British Empire and, mostly through Whitefield's preaching during what historians call the First Great Awakening, in colonial America. After Whitefield's death in 1770, however, American Methodism entered a more lasting Wesleyan and Arminian phase of development.