A group of tutors and students meeting at Oxford University in the late 1720s became known as theOxford Methodists. The group included John Wesley, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield. In 1735 these three men became evangelical missionaries in America.
After three years with the English settlers in Georgia, John Wesley and George Whitefield returned to England and in 1739 built their first Methodist Chapel in Bristol. Wesley and Whitefield also gave sermons in the open-air. They travelled the country where they mainly visited poor neighbourhoods. Wesley, who had emerged as the leader of the Methodists, told the people who attended his meetings that if they loved God in return, they would "be saved from sin and made holy". Wesley also had a lot to say about personal morality. In his sermons he encouraged people to work hard and to save for the future. Wesley also warned against the dangers of gambling and drinking.
Although there were Methodist ministers, John Wesley encouraged people who had full-time jobs to become lay preachers. This gave working people valuable experience of speaking in public. Later, some of these went on to become leaders of trade unions and reform groups.
By the time John Wesley died in 1791, the Methodist movement had over 76,000 members. After Wesley's death the Methodists formally separated from the Anglican Church. Membership continued to grow and by 1801 reached 87,000. The movement was weakened in 1808 when followers of Hugh Bourne were expelled. Bourne's followers became known as Primitive Methodists whereas those who remained were called Wesleyan Methodists.
Methodists were active in the campaign for religious emancipation. Victories included the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828, the voluntarization of the church rate in 1853 and the 1871 the Universities Tests Act opened Oxford and Cambridge to non-Anglicans. In these struggles the Methodists became closely associated with the Liberal Party. Throughout the 19th century, none of the many Wesleyan Methodists elected to Parliament were members of the Conservative Party.
In the 1840s the Wesleyan Methodists started an ambitious and expensive programme of chapel and school building. Two new seminaries were opened and the wages of ministers increased. As a result of this new campaign membership increased to 285,000. Methodism remained weak in London and the rural areas but was strong in the textile and mining districts of England and Wales.
The majority of Wesleyan were women. However, female preaching, which had been encouraged by John Wesley when he was alive, had now died out. Women were still active as Sunday School teachers and some were recruited as deaconesses for inner-city mission work.
In the 1880s, Hugh Price Hughes emerged as the new leader of the Wesleyan Methodists. A dynamic preacher, Hughes attacked the Anglican control of education and gave strong support to the Temperance Movement. By 1901 the membership of the church had reached 412,000.