Melbourne's social reform movements, its excellence in education, the city's wowser image and suburban culture, have all been significantly influenced by Methodism.
Melbourne Methodism was shaped by the enterprising young English Methodists who came to the Victorian goldfields in the 1850s then settled in the city. They were evangelical, sober, self-improving and had a strong social conscience. By 1900 Methodists were around 12% of Melbourne's population, part of a strong nonconformist influence in the city. In the period after the gold rush Methodism was arguably Melbourne's most active denomination with a large proportion of members participating in worship, Sunday School and church activities. Wesleyan theology and tradition of lay leadership by men and women were the foundations of this religious activism.
Methodist organisation was well adapted to Melbourne's city growth. The annual State conference represented clergy and laity and governed through a centralised administration. It supported the development of new congregations, and the circuit system, where one minister was responsible for a number of churches, enabled the denomination to spread 'like a banyan tree' during times of rapid metropolitan expansion. The emphasis on lay involvement was well-suited to the suburban nature of Melbourne, and church members, mainly drawn from skilled workers, small business owners, shopkeepers, teachers and clerical workers, were active in suburban councils, schools and community activities. Ministry to suburban families came through participatory church governance, Sunday Schools, women's organisations and activities for young people and children.
Methodism is identified with Melbourne's wowser tradition, sectarianism and reputation as a staid city. Members of the denomination were opposed to betting and gambling and supported Sunday observance and temperance. Early in the 20th century they were involved in conflicts over local option polls and clashed with John Wren and his followers over gambling and liquor licensing laws in 1906. They supported the introduction of Melbourne's infamous six o'clock closing of hotels during World War I and continued to support early closing up to the hard fought and successful Stick to Six campaign in 1956.
So-called wowserism was one extreme of a social conscience that more broadly responded to the development of urbanisation and industrialisation of Melbourne. Central missions were established at Wesley and other inner suburban churches in response to poverty and suffering in the 1890s depression. The first Wesley Central Mission superintendent, the Reverend A.R. Edgar, held popular Pleasant Sunday Afternoons (PSA) as a forum for Christian responses to the burning social issues of the time. The Reverend Irving Benson, superintendent of the Mission before and after World War II, was a public figure in Melbourne and developed a wide audience for the PSA through radio broadcasts. Methodists were prominent in the city's numerous reform movements, especially the campaign against slum housing in the 1930s, and two Methodists, Oswald Barnett and Frances Penington, were founding commissioners of the State's public housing authority. Methodism has provided a wide range of social services in Melbourne, including the Orana Peace Memorial Homes for children, homes and services for single mothers, the Tally Ho Boys' Village, aged care homes, Epworth Hospital and the telephone counselling service, Life Line.
Methodist schools were among Melbourne's leading Protestant secondary colleges. Wesley College and Methodist Ladies' College opened in the 19th century and other schools supported by the church include Box Hill Grammar (now Kingswood College) and Essendon Grammar (now Penleigh). Teachers and principals of Methodist background have been leaders in the city's government schools and their administration. Queen's College is a major residential university college at the University of Melbourne and the focus of Methodist theological education. The Reverend Edward Sugden was the first of a distinguished list of masters and theological professors.
A high point for the church in Melbourne came in the 1950s and 1960s, especially through its successful youth organisations fostered by the Young People's Department under the Reverend Cliff Wright and Beryl Phillips. The Mission to the Nation captured the attention of postwar Melbourne and the Reverend Arthur Preston rejuvenated the Central Mission and supported the anti-war protests that enveloped the city during the Vietnam War. In 1977 the Methodist Church joined the Presbyterians and Congregationalists to form the Uniting Church in Australia. Methodists supported women as candidates for ordination in the new church, a recognition of their important leadership role in Methodism. Melbourne gained a more focused Protestant presence with the Uniting Church but lost some of Methodism's evangelical spirit and flexibility to respond to the more complex, ethnically diverse and socially divided city.