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 while they were at Oxford, where John was a fellow and later a lecturer at Lincoln College. The Holy 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. Wesley took the attempted mockery and turned it into a title of honor.
Initially the Methodists merely sought reform, by way of a return to the gospel, within the Church of England, but the movement spread with revival and soon a significant number of Anglican clergy became affiliated with the movement in the mid-18th century. The early movement acted against perceived apathy in the Church of England, preaching in the open air and establishing Methodist societies wherever they went. 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 Methodists. Three teachings they 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.
Methodist preachers were notorious for their enthusiastic sermons and often accused of fanaticism. In those days, many members of England's established church feared that new doctrines promulgated by the Methodists, such as the necessity of a new birth for salvation, 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 Behavior, 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." But the Methodist movement thrived among the working class despite the attacks—mostly verbal, but sometimes violent—against it.
John Wesley came under the influence of the Moravian Church and of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). Arminius (the Latinized form of the name Jakob Harmaens) denied that God had pre-ordained an elect number of people to eternal bliss while others perished eternally.[b] Conversely, George Whitefield, Howell Harris, and Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon were notable for being Calvinistic Methodists. Whitefield, who had been a fellow student of the Wesley brothers at Oxford, became well known for his unorthodox ministry of itinerant open-air preaching and inspired Wesley to likewise preach to those excluded from the Anglican Church. Differences in theology put serious strains on the relationship 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 these 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. As a final testimony of their friendship, John Wesley's sermon on Whitefield's death is full of praise and affection.