Historical Notes – Lay Ministry

One thing that is remarkable about our church for its size is the number of accomplished lay speakers we have. I can think of at least eight people, some with formal lay speaker training and some without, who have done a wonderful job when called upon over the years. (That’s roughly 10% of our typical attendance.) This is in keeping with Methodist tradition because as most of you probably know, Methodism began as a lay movement in both England and America.

John and Charles Wesley were originally sent to the American colonies as Church of England missionaries. They arrived in Georgia in 1736 and within two years they both returned to England discouraged. It was not a successful endeavor. Although neither of them would return to the colonies, Methodism would grow rapidly and at one point be the largest Christian denomination within the United States.

Soon after John Wesley returned to England in 1738, both brothers had transforming religious experiences. The experience where John’s heart was “strangely warmed” was at a Moravian prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street, and both he and Charles were influenced by the personal piety and faith that the Moravians demonstrated. This experience marked the beginning of John Wesley’s emphasis in his sermons on personal salvation and grace “free in all, and free for all.”

John Wesley first preached in the open air at the invitation of George Whitefield a former “holy club” member from Oxford. At first John was uncomfortable with this idea as he believed the Church of England had much to offer, but soon as his preaching style and beliefs began to cause problems within the church he saw it as an alternative. Denied access to local pulpits, his work was largely among those who were needy and neglected by society. The work was great and too much for a few to handle, so he approved lay preachers and ministers to help. In spite of his troubles with the church, he remained a member and didn’t start a new church, but after American independence he realized that a different strategy might be needed.

Wesley’s renewal movement soon spread to America as people undertook the journey to the new world. As people immigrated to the colonies they began to organize Methodist Societies. In the 1760s, people such as Robert Strawbridge, Philip Embury, Barbara Heck, and Captain Thomas Webb organized work in Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania. In 1769, Wesley supported the work by sending lay preachers Richard Boardman, Joseph Pilmore, Richard Wright and finally Francis Asbury with whom most of us are familiar. Other members in America accepted the call and became lay preachers as well. In 1773, ten men met in Philadelphia at the first conference of Methodist preachers. At that meeting they confirmed an allegiance to Wesley’s teachings, but agreed that members would receive the sacraments at the local Anglican Church because they were all lay members, not ordained ministers.

After the United States won their independence, Wesley sent Thomas Coke to the US with a copy of a prayer book he had written and two other preachers whom he had ordained, Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey. This set the stage for the Christmas Conference in 1784 where the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized. It was attended by most of the American preachers including two African-Americans Harry Hosier and Richard Allen.

We have a rich history of lay ministry that laid the foundations of the UMC and continue to sustain it today.


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