DescriptionAt the start of the Revolutionary War in 1776, most Americans had never heard of Methodism; only a few thousand followers of Methodist founder John Wesley dotted the towns and countryside of the middle colonies. This relative obscurity changed dramatically during the next several decades, as a legion of native-born itinerant preachers fanned out on their self-appointed task ""to reform the continent, and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."" By the Civil War, Methodism had over a million members and several times that many constituents, becoming the largest Protestant denominational tradition in the United States—a status that it held until the Baptists overtook the Methodists a century later.
Established at the same time as the U.S. government, the Methodist church developed along with the American nation, so much so that many observers remarked that Methodism was ""the most American of all churches."" Today, there are more United Methodist congregations than U.S. post offices, and Methodism exists in more counties than any other denomination in America, demonstrating its geographical breadth. Beyond the statistics, Methodism has shaped and been shaped by U.S. culture, becoming the quintessentially American denomination. It has often acted as a sort of unofficial religious establishment, representing—according to historian Nathan Hatch—""the vast, uninspired middle of American society."" Present-day national figures who claim Methodism as their church home include people as varied as President George W. Bush, Vice President Richard Cheney, Senator Hillary Clinton, former presidential candidate George McGovern, civil rights leader Rosa Parks, and black theologian James Cone. Over fifteen million Americans are members of the Methodist family of churches, which include The United Methodist Church (the largest Methodist denomination), three predominantly African-American Methodist churches, several Holiness denominations, such as the Free Methodist Church and the Church of the Nazarene, and numerous smaller groups.
Reflecting the larger American culture in another way, Methodism has faced—throughout its history—contentious issues of power, class, race, and gender, frequently becoming a bellwether for the rest of mainline religion. Since the 1960s, the challenges surrounding such issues have resulted (in the case of The United Methodist Church) in increased polarization and a lack of institutional cohesion. Nonetheless, in spite of numerical declension in some quarters, the Methodist movement in America has endeavored to continue its mission of reforming the continent.