The Spirit of Methodism

From the Wesleys to a Global Communion

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Jeffrey W. Barbeau
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , August
     224 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Denominations have creation stories. For the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, it is the Angel Moroni appearing to Joseph Smith and telling him of the golden plates; for the Church of Christ, Scientist, it is Mary Baker Eddy’s miraculous healing from reading the Bible; for the Seventh Day Adventist Church, it was the hundreds of visions that God showed to Ellen White.  

In The Spirit of Methodism: From the Wesleys to a Global Communion, Jeffrey W. Barbeau tells the Methodists’ creation story: the saintly influence of Susanna Wesley on her sons, John and Charles; John’s miraculous rescue from the fire that burned their home; and John’s experience at Aldersgate, where he reported that “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” The story is familiar, one that has warmed the hearts of countless Methodists through the years.

Barbeau’s discussion of Wesley’s beliefs concerning grace, Christian perfection, and other matters is brief but clear and provides solid ground for the rest of the book. His goal is to “provide a historical and theological framework . . . to help Methodists (and those who want to know them) think clearly about the meaning of one of the most influential and fruitful movements in Christian history” (xiv).

One of the book’s biggest achievements is its description of succeeding generations of Methodist leaders and how they adapted Wesleyan beliefs, preserving some and revising others to fit societal context or personal preferences. He calls this “Broad Church Methodism, . . . an inherent diversity within the movement that springs from the practical orientation of Wesleyan theology” (xx). For example, the evangelist George Whitefield stressed the traditional sovereignty of God. Wesley agreed, of course, but he feared that overemphasizing the point might lead Christians to downplay the role of human agency and action, an important part of his “new” theology. Some Wesleyan preachers took the enthusiasm that (mis)characterized much of the early movement to a different extreme, preaching millennialism and the gifts of the Spirit (healing, prophesying, and speaking in tongues, for example), a move that Wesley opposed. Still, Barbeau suggests that Methodism, even as it engendered various controversies in its first few decades of growth, remained within the Wesleyan tradition.

The second of the book’s three parts looks at Methodism in America. Francis Asbury, a young man sent by Wesley to the American colonies shortly before the Revolution, found a setting quite different from England. American Methodism emphasized an uneducated clergy, an increased role for the laity, and a greater social component to religious life. Opposition to hierarchical authority of the Methodist Episcopal Church (established in 1784) led to more democratic American offshoots, including the short-lived Republican Methodist Church and later the Methodist Protestant Church.

American Methodists had to deal with the increasingly fractious issue of slavery. Asbury, like Wesley, strongly opposed the institution, but the harsh reality of American slavery divided the church in 1844. Barbeau covers not only the split, but also the African American Methodist branches that grew out of the context of enslavement. Especially welcome is his discussion of Harry Hosier, Richard Allen, and other African American Methodist leaders.

Barbeau also does a fine job examining the role of sanctification and Christian perfection in American Methodism. His discussions of temperance (Welch’s grape juice for communion!) and outreach to Native Americans are especially interesting. Again, he brings in people who have often been on the margins of Methodist history: William Apess, a Pequot who pushed for Native rights; Phoebe Palmer, who promoted the “higher Christian life,” an early part of the holiness movement; Frances Willard, who pushed for a larger role for women in the Methodist church; Lucy Rider Meyer, an early proponent for the Social Gospel; and Georgia Harkness, a theologian who argued that “the work of God” belongs not just to the clergy, but “to all people in every sphere of life” (98).

The American section ends with the reunification of the northern and southern Methodist churches in 1939 and the merger with the Evangelical United Brethren (a denomination with Wesleyan and Mennonite roots) in 1968, which formed the United Methodist Church (UMC). One of the first major controversies of the UMC involved Rev. Gene Leggett, who had kept his homosexuality private. When it became public, Leggett’s ordination was suspended and a sentence was added to the Book of Discipline (the UMC’s governing document) in 1972 that said, in part, “we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider the practice incompatible with Christian doctrine.”

The topic of the third part, global Methodism, is probably the least familiar to most readers. Barbeau uses the careers Thomas Coke, E. Stanley Jones, and D. T. Niles to show that “Methodist witness to Christ abroad required translation for the people and culture of the local soil” (106), just as it had in the United States. Separate chapters show how this played out in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Barbeau’s effort to tie Chile’s Methodist Pentecostal Church to Wesleyan principles seems a bit forced; he is more successful with the emphasis on Wesleyan social ethics among Latin American Methodists, especially in terms of dealing with effects of the region’s poverty.

In his epilogue, titled “Hope for the Future,” Barbeau addresses the current controversy in the UMC over the issues of gay clergy and same-sex weddings. The situation threatens to split the church just as slavery did in the 1840s. The Spirit of Methodism is Barbeau’s attempt to find a persistent meaning in Methodism’s creation story. He hopes that with a knowledge of Methodist history and tradition, as well as an understanding that “unity is not uniformity” (161), the church might avoid another schism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David B. Parker is a professor of history and assistant department chair at Kennesaw State University.

Date of Review: 
March 29, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey W. Barbeau is professor of theology at Wheaton College. He is the author or editor of several books, including Religion in Romantic England: An Anthology of Primary SourcesSara Coleridge: Her Life and ThoughtColeridge, the Bible, and ReligionThe Image of God in an Image Driven AgeSpirit of God: Christian Renewal in the Community of Faith; and Coleridge's Assertion of Religion: Essays on the Opus Maximum.


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