Methodism is one of the expressions of Protestantism and has given rise to one of the largest evangelical churches in the world (about 70 million believers). It is characterised everywhere by profound spirituality, energetic evangelisation and marked sensitivity to ethical, social and political problems.
Methodism belongs to the “revival” or “awakening” movements, that are a constant spiritual component of Protestantism, and aim at bringing evangelical spirituality back to the centre of church life, when this seems to have become too institutionalised or when theological speculation risks making faith too abstract and distant from the single believer’s experience of life. Hardly ever have revivals intended to cause a schism; only when the existing ecclesiastical structure has opposed a conservative wall without any openingto revival has the necessity arisen to form an autonomous church.
In theological terms, revivals re-evaluate the fundamental principles of the Christian faith, based on placing Christ and the Bible at its centre. From the ethical point of view, the rediscovered faith is not merely “joining the club”, however active and participatory, but a complete renewal of personal life. A much-used term is “conversion”, which does not mean passing from one church to another, but changing from a life dominated by the influence of the “world” to a life that has the person of Jesus Christ at its centre, through a personal decision and an internal experience.
The Methodist movement was started in England in the 18th century, by an Anglican priest, John Wesley (1705-1791). His original intention was to create a current of revival within the Anglican Church, at the particularly delicate and difficult time that was the birth of the industrial revolution. Initially, Wesley formed an association of students at Oxford, who wanted to subdivide their days “methodically” between the study of the Bible, prayer, and service to prisoners, the poor and the neglected: hence the name “Methodists” (originally given them in a derogatory way by their critics). Later, Wesley travelled to North America and, through his contact with the Moravian Brotherhood, he approached the Lutheran roots of the Reformation, focusing on the concept of the love of God, who forgives and saves through grace alone by means of faith, and who offers His grace indistinctly to all human beings, who can accept it or refuse it.
The Methodist spiritual experience is based on conversion to the Gospel and sanctification, meaning the believer’s response to God’s love, through a commitment to transform one’s own life. One of Wesley’s happy intuitions is that God has given us everything, so we ought to give everything. There is therefore an unbreakable link between salvation received as a gift and commitment to one’s neighbour. Here lies the root of Methodism’s strong inclination to social action outside its own circle, wherever there are unjust situations. Wesley’s motto is significant: “The world is my parish”. The first converts to the new faith were social outcasts, miners, agricultural labourers, the poor classes of the industrialised cities. Later it also attracted members of the middle class.
From the beginning, Methodism was an essentially popular movement, aimed at the improvement of the whole person, and this was just what made it fuse with the social life of the time. Indeed, one cannot preach salvation, God’s love, Christ’s brotherhood with each person, without also promoting the intention of establishing a new society that respects the dignity, value and rights of each person. Wesley preached mostly in popular circles, organising the believers in small groups (classes). In view of the very small number of Anglican priests who joined the movement, Wesley decided to authorise lay preachers, who quickly became one of the pillars of Methodism.
The official separation of Methodism from the Anglican Church came about only in 1795, four years after Wesley’s death. He left an organisation of 135,000 believers and 541 itinerant preachers. Methodism first grew in England and North America, and its missionaries soon spread it to continental Europe and the rest of the world.
Methodism is essentially a practical and non-dogmatic faith. However, Methodist theology is characterised by the emphasis it places on the personal relationship with God. First of all: salvation by faith alone, extended to all believers (at the time of the great eighteenth-century debates, Wesley was inspired by Arminianism, contrary to the doctrine of predestination). Second, the principle of sanctification, meaning the effort to perfect one’s conduct, through faith and above all through the work of the Holy Spirit, despite the realisation that our human nature conditions us.
The centre of Methodist theology is not therefore human sin that has made us unworthy before God, but God’s grace that restores us to the position as His children through our faith in Christ. The individual who has accepted God’s grace and has converted to Christ is a completely different creature: this is why one may speak of being born again.
The sacraments, as in all the Protestant churches, are only those indicated in the Gospels: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist). The Lord’s Supper considers the spiritual presence of Christ in symbolic terms.
The creation of an institutional church is not in contrast with the model of small groups of believers, which were already present in the primitive Church; so Methodism envisages the institution of classes, as providing the ideal setting for worship, witness and the study of doctrine, both directly (evangelisation) and indirectly (social action). A peculiar characteristic of Methodism is that, besides its ordained pastors, it has a considerable number of lay preachers (men and women), who play an important rôle in evangelisation and preaching, after having received suitable theological training.
Methodism spread rapidly in England and, soon afterwards, among the pioneers in North America, whose environment was very different from that obtaining in Europe. This rapid spread was particularly due to the large number of itinerant preachers, who travelled mostly on horse-back. Besides this impressive evangelisation, social commitment also developed, especially to the abolition of slavery. With the independence of the United States of America as a political and territorial entity, an independent and autonomous Methodist church was founded there.
Methodism soon became a great missionary church that spread all over the world. Its maximum expansion occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century, parallel with the development of the industrial and middle-class society. In Great Britain, the Methodist classes became the centres where the first workers’ movements were forged; these later gave rise to the Trade Unions and then attained the level of political representation, through the Labour Party.
The twentieth century, on the other hand, saw the fusion of various churches that had been formed on the basis of geographical, ethnic and cultural differences. In several cases, the Methodists came together in “United Churches”, fusing with other Protestant denominations, as in Italy, for example.
The Methodist churches of the world are organised along one of two lines: the presbyterian (based on the joint management by pastors and lay members, as in Italy) or the episcopal (based on the hierarchical management headed by a bishop). It is to be noted that in this latter case a Methodist bishop is not invested with the charismatic and “monarchical” position of a Roman Catholic bishop, for he is a pastor elected temporarily by an assembly as a manager. The highest organism is the World Methodist Council.
Methodism was established in Italy only in 1861, with the arrival of Pastor Henry James Piggot (1831-1917) from England. He founded a church along Wesley’s lines. Only seven years later there were already 16 places of worship, 24 preachers, 179 Sunday schools, and 592 pupils enrolled in scholastic education. The unification of Italy was the great opportunity awaited by all the evangelical movement. In 1873 Pastor Leroy M. Vernon (1838-1896) arrived from the United States, and he founded a church along episcopal lines. Piggot and Vernon reached an agreement whereby the two branches of world Methodism would always act in a complementary way in Italy as regarded the foundation of churches and charitable institutions. In the thirty years over the turn of the century, Methodist commitment was considerable with the foundation of day and evening schools, cultural centres, newspapers/magazines and, above all, material and spiritual assistance in some areas with a high concentration of labourers, who often came from far away and were therefore in greater need of help.
The two branches of Methodism, the English and the American, united in 1946, founding the Evangelical Methodist Church of Italy. In 1975 the Methodist Church made a pact of integration with the Waldensian Church, forming the Evangelical Waldensian Church (Union of the Methodist and Waldensian Churches). This has enabled both churches to have a single pastoral roll and share common local and central burocratic organisations. Today, the Methodist Church of Italy numbers 39 communities and churches, with 5,000 full members and an unspecified number of “sympathisers” (who attend the church services fairly regularly but do not join officially as members). It also runs nearly a dozen charitable institutions and various cultural centres.