The Methodist branch of Protestant religion traces its roots back to 1739 where it developed in England as a result of the teachings of John Wesley. While studying at Oxford, Wesley, his brother Charles, and several other students formed a group devoted to study, prayer and helping the underprivileged. They were labeled "Methodist" by their fellow students because of the way they used "rule" and "method" to go about their religious affairs.
The beginning of Methodism as a popular movement began in 1738, when both of the Wesley brothers, influenced by contact with the Moravians, undertook evangelistic preaching with an emphasis on conversion and holiness. Though both Wesley brothers were ordained ministers of the Church of England, they were barred from speaking in most of its pulpits because of their evangelistic methods. They preached in homes, farm houses, barns, open fields, and wherever they found an audience.
Wesley did not set out to create a new church, but instead began several small faith-restoration groups within the Anglican church called the "United Societies." Soon however, Methodism spread and eventually became its own separate religion when the first conference was held in 1744.
George Whitefield (1714-1770) was a minister in the Church of England and also one of the leaders of the Methodist movement. Some believe that he more than John Wesley is the founder of Methodism. He is famous for his part in the Great Awakening movement in America. As a follower of John Calvin, Whitefield parted ways with Wesley over the doctrine of predestination.
Several divisions and schisms occurred throughout Methodism's American history. In 1939, the three branches of American Methodism (the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South) came to an agreement to reunite under the name "The Methodist Church." This 7.7 million member church prospered on its own for the next twenty-nine years, as did the newly reunited Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1968, bishops of the two churches took the necessary steps to combine their churches into what has become the second largest Protestant denomination in America, The United Methodist Church.
(Sources: ReligiousTolerance.org, ReligionFacts.com, AllRefer.com, and the Religious Movements Web site of the University of Virginia.)