Our History and Heritage
It is generally accepted that the founders of the Methodist movement were John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley (1703-91) and his brother Charles (1707-88) were part of a large family, and were born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, where their father was a vicar. Their parents, Samuel and Susanna Wesley, both came of Puritan stock, but had moved to High Church beliefs: influences from both traditions may be found in their sons.
Both John and Charles went to Oxford University. John became Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726, and was ordained a priest in the Church of England (Anglican Church) in 1728. Charles, still a student began to meet with a group of friends for reading and religious study. John became involved as the group's senior member, and its activities expanded to include charitable work among the poor and the imprisoned. Their concern for disciplined spirituality earned them the nickname "The Holy Club" or "Methodists" for their methodical approach.
John Wesley's quest for holiness and peace with God took him to the new colony of Georgia, in 1735, to work among the settlers and the Native Americans. After a disappointing ministry in Georgia he returned to England three (3) years later, but during his time there he made contact with a group of Moravian Christians whose vibrant faith and assurance made a deep impression on him.
Religious renewal was to spread in Britain in the late 1730's, sometimes in churches, sometimes through open air preaching, often through voluntary religious societies like the Oxford Methodists. The Wesleys were drawn into this movement, and in May 1738 both experienced a sense of assurance of God's love for them. The following year they joined the ranks of those clergy and lay people who were preaching the Gospel in the open air.
The Wesley's Methodism was only one element in the eighteenth century Revival, and there were tensions within other groups over theology and organization. Gradually John Wesley built up a network ("Connexion") of preachers and groups bound together by shared beliefs, a common structure and loyalty to him. Although property was acquired for Methodist services, the movement remained a voluntary organization within the Church of England, and calls for separation were firmly resisted. The Methodists were expected to attend services in their parish church, as well as the meetings of the Methodist ‘societies'. As the societies grew they were subdivided in to groups called ‘classes' which were made up of up to a twelve (12) members for pastoral oversight.
John Wesley's long lifetime saw Methodism evolve slowly into a movement with a distinctive organization and ethos. The movement was dominated by Wesley, who determined its structure and defined its doctrine through several volumes of published sermons and Notes on the New Testament. The preachers some ordained and laymen, appointed by Wesley were summoned to meet with him at the annual Conference. The preachers were assigned to different areas of the country to work and they travelled round their ‘circuit' of Methodist societies, administered by stewards and had their own preaching houses. As Wesley grew older, the personal ‘connexion' was given legal identity, as power after his death was vested in the Conference and limited to one hundred named preachers.
As may be imagined, this developing structure did not sit comfortably within the established patterns of the Church of England. Bishops disapproved of Wesley's freelance activities, local incumbents resented the invasion of their parishes by Methodist preachers, and pressure was built up within Methodism for greater independence. There was no formal breach during Wesley's lifetime, although some of his actions, like ordaining people for service in America (1794), allowing Methodist services to take place at the same time as services in the parish Church, and registering Methodist property under the Conventicle Act (1788) pointed to a separation. The disengagement of Methodism from the Church of England took place in the decades after Wesley's death (1791), but the speed of separation depended considerably on local conditions.
After 1791 the leadership of Methodism was placed in the Conference and a scheme for a Methodist episcopate (bishops) was rejected in favour of an annually elected President. Tensions over theology, church government, mission strategy and personalities led to a whole series of splits in the movement over the next sixty years. A bewildering number of Methodist groups came into being, emphasizing different parts of the Wesleyan heritage. From the late nineteenth century onwards most of the groups re-united, with the three largest blocs coming together on 1932. Differences in emphases, represented by various uniting strands, still appear in Methodism.
From its history, Methodism inherited a Connexional structure rather than a congregational one. Congregations are not autonomous and cannot act without regard to the rest of the Connexion.
Methodism in the Caribbean
It is generally accepted that Methodism came to the Caribbean in 1760 when a planter from Antigua, named Nathaniel Gilbert. Gilbert was a lawyer, the owner of two sugar estates returned to Antigua and the Speaker of the Antiguan House of Assembly. He was, prior to his religious experience, very suspicious of and averse to anything that savoured of "enthusiasm".
Sometime in 1755, Nathaniel Gilbert was sill and sent his daughter Mary, who was five years old to fetch a certain book from another room. While we do not know what book he wanted, the book that Mary brought to him was a treatise of John Wesley, "An Appeal to men of Reason and Religion." This had been sent to him by his brother Francis and was in fact not the book he had wanted at the time. However, with time on his hands, the ill Nathaniel Gilbert read it and was never the same man again.
As a result of this Gilbert two years latter journeyed to England, with three of his slaves. A drawing room meeting was arranged in Wandsworth on January 15, 1759, with John Wesley as the preacher. Nathaniel Gilbert and two of his slaves were converted. He returned to the West Indies in 1759. With his return Gilbert began to preach to his slaves in Antigua.
When Gilbert died in 1774 and the work was continued for a year by Francis Gilbert, the brother of Nathaniel Gilbert. But Francis had to return to England owing to ill health. At that time there was approximately 200 Methodists in Antigua. The work was, however, carried on by "a Negress and a Mulatto", Sophia Campbell and Mary Alley. These devoted women kept the flock together by carrying on Class Meetings and Prayer meetings as best as they could.
On April 2, 1778, John Baxter landed at English harbour in Antigua. He was a skilled shipwright from Chatham in England. He was offered a post at the naval dockyard at English Harbour (now called Nelson's Dockyard). Baxter was a Methodist Local Preacher, and he had heard of the work of the Gilberts, and had heard of the flock that was awaiting a new shepherd. When he arrived in Antigua he began preaching and meeting the leaders of the island Methodists. Within a year the Methodist community had grown to 600 persons. By 1783 the first Methodist Chapel was built in Antigua, with John Baxter, as the local preacher. The chapel was a wooden structure and seated about 2,000 people.
In 1786 Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, arrived (by providence) in Antigua. He was travelling to Nova Scotia but his ship was blown off course. Coke was made Superintendent of the Church in America by Wesley in 1784. It was in 1786 that the missionary endeavour to Caribbean was officially recognized by the Conference in England.
In 1884 an attempt was made at autonomy with the formation of two West Indian Conferences. However by 1903 the venture had failed. It was not until the 1960's that another attempt was made at autonomy. This second attempt resulted in the emergence of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas (MCCA) in May 1967.
The MCCA has eight Districts and has its headquarters in Antigua. The eight Districts are Bahamas/Turks and Caicos Islands, Belize/Honduras, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Panama/Costa Rica and South Caribbean.
Up to 1996 the Conference of the MCCA met annually in May. In 1997 the MCCA made some changes to its structure. The Conference was renamed the Connexional Conference and now meets every three years. In between the meetings of the Connexional Conference its executive body, the Connexional Council acts on its behalf.
Also in 1997 Districts were given greater responsibility to make decisions affecting their work. Consequently the District Synod was renamed the District Conference, and the title Chairman of the District is now called District President.