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United Methodists: freedom and grace.

The huge arena of the Baltimore Civic Center will be filled on May 6 when United Methodists from all over the country--an expected 24,000 of them--will assemble for Festival 200, a celebration of the bicentennial of Methodism in America.

Two hundred years ago, 60 circuit-riding preachers gathered together on Christmas Eve in a small meetinghouse on Lovely Lane, just a few blocks away near the harbor of old Baltimore, to organize the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church. From meetinghouse to civic center, from a few thousand members to 9.4 million in the United States alone, the United Methodist Church has grown by leaps and bounds. More than 40 U.S. denominations today trace their beginnings to that now famous Christmas conference.

at the time of its founding just after the Revolutionary War, Methodism was well known--notoriously well known, in fact, after its founder, John Wesley, an Anglican priest of London, reissued under his own name a tract titled, "A Calm Address to Our American Colonies." It counseled against rebellion and encouraged loyalty to the English crown. Methodist preachers in America became instantly unpopular, suspected of being Tory sympathizers. They were harassed and often beaten as they rode along their circuits. Most returned to England, and many like Francis Asbury, who stayed behind, were forced to hide out in farmhouse attics until things cooled off.

Although most anybody would recognize the United Methodist Church as one of the largest mainline Protestant denominations in the United States today, many would be hard pressed to describe just who United Methodists are, what they believe and what they do. Even members suffer from a kind of "identity crisis." One of the stated purposes of all the bicentennial events planned for 1984 is to instill a sense of pride among United Methodists themselves and create a positive public image for the church.

some say with derision and some say with pride that Methodism is "the most American of the American churches." It was the first Christian denomination to be organized in America. Obviously John Wesley wasnht happy about the outcome of the Revolutionary War, and he never intended to establish a church separate from the Church of England. But he was a practical man. Ties between the crown and the colonies were severed, and the Methodist movement in American was adrift. So Wesley took it upon himself, as a last resort, to ordain Thomas Coke and send him to America with authority to ordain Francis Asbury, among others. Coke and Asbury were to be "general superintendents." By now well-acquainted with the democratic spirit of his adopted homeland, Asbury insisted on getting the vote of the ministers at the Christmas conference before being consecrated as bishop.

It's no accident that America and Methodism grew up together. In the wake of its horseback-riding ministers, the church was able to keep pace with the country's westward expansion. It carved out circuits, formed annual conferences and established colleges, usually before a territory reached statehood.

Accounts of frontier preaching read more like a grade-B Western, for instance this letter from Charlie Russell to "Brother Van": "The eavning [sic] you came there was a mixture of bullwhackers, hunters and prospectors who welcomed you with ... hand shaks and rough but friendly greetings. I was the only stranger to you, so after Bab interduced Kid Russell he took me to one side and whispered, Boy, says he, I dont savy maney sam singers, but Brother Van deels square. And when we all sat down to our elk meet, beens, coffee and dryed apples under the rays of a bacon grease light, these men who knew little of law and one among them I knew wore notches on his gun, men who had not prayed since they nelt at their mothers knee, bowed there heads while you, Brother Van, gave thanks; and when you finished some one said Amen."

Embracing the democratic spirit of its new home, Methodist church structure was set up according to the model of the U.S. government. It is a representative democracy, made up of a series of 73 annual conferences, each of which represents both a geogrpahical area and a yearly assembly. The general conference, the denomination's top legislative assembly, meets every four years. A council of bishops makes up the denomination's executive branch, and a judicial council of nine elected persons interprets the church's constitution. A book of discipline, subject to changes by the general conference, provides the guidelines for the entire denomination.

For some, democracy in church government was too slow in coming in those early days. Dissatisfied with the exercise of episcopal authority and the lack of lay representation in the conferences, a few leaders withdrew from the ME Church in 1830 to form the Methodist Protestant Church. Nicholas Snethen was elected president at its 1834 general conference.

Records of the earliest Methodist societies in America show that they included black members. The most famous preacher of that time was Harry Hosier, a freed slave who traveled with Asbury in the 1780s.

Slavery was as devastating to the church as it was to the entire nation. John Wesley had staunchly opposed slavery, and the earliest Methodist disciplines followed his lead. But as the young church became more American and less Wesleyan, the rules against owning slaves were relaxed.

Still, there were Methodists on both sides of the issue. Some, like Luther Lee, were strong abolitionists. Lee spoke often and eloquently at meetings of the Wesleyan Anti-Slavery Society and often risked harassment at the hands of mobs under the influence of "king alcohol." On one such occasion, he was shot between the eyes by a squirt gun loaded with whisky and lamp-black. Undaunted, he said, "I finished my discourse, for I found that I could talk with a black face just as well as with a white one."

The northern and southern factions of the church tugged at each other for years. Push came to shove when a Methodist bishop from Georgia inherited slaves through his wife. General-conference delegates with antislavery sentiments were outraged. They insisted he free the slaves or resign. His home state, however, prohibited manumission. All efforts at compromise finally broke down, and in 1844 the ME Church North and the ME Church South went their separate ways, just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War.

The wounds brought on by the schism between the northern and southern churches took a long time to heal. After years of negotiation, three major branches of Methodism--the ME churches north and south and the Methodist Protestants--met in 1939 and formed the Methodist Church.

Today the United Methodist Church, its black membership estimated at more than 360,000, has more black bishops and other elected and appointed leaders than ever. But the church, like the nation, continues to struggle with racial inclusiveness.

"We represent the greatest cross-section of American life of any denomination," says the Rev. William K. Quick, senior minister of Detroit's Metropolitan United Methodist Church and a member of the bicentennial committee. "We are the most broadly based, with churches in all but 133 of the nationhs more than 3,200 counties, with the greatest ethnic mix other than the Roman Catholic Church." In addition to its strong black membership, the denomination today includes 40,000 Pacific/Asian-Americans, 40,000Hispanic-Americans and 18,000 Native American Indians.

From its early days, Methodists have taken forthright positions on controversial issues involving Christian principles. "there is hardly any cause in which Methodists have not had an active role," says Robert Lear, director of the United Methodist News Service Washington, D.C., office.

Today's social principles deal with family life, the economy, human rights, labor, Indian treaty rights, sexuality, nuclear disarmament, military service, alcohol and drug abuse and many other matters.

Women have played an integral part in Methodism's history all along, but they haven't been visible in general leadership until the 20th century. Women like Madame Russell, sister of the American statesman Patrick Henry, gave of their time and material resources to establish and strengthen Methodism on the frontier. They taught Scripture, held class meetings, raised money and provided room and board for the circuit preacher making his rounds.

Women also acquired a strong role in Methodism's mission program when the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society was founded in 1869. The women's division now raises in excess of $17 million annually for mission work around the world, and its 1982 assembly in Philadelphia drew more than 10,000 people.

In 1906, the first woman was seated at a general conference--belatedly, but still nearly 15 years before women were given the right to vote a U.S. citizens. Now some 1,400 women serve as ministers in the denomination. At the 1984 general conference in Baltimore, a woman bishop, Marjorie Matthews of Wisconsin, will be present for the first time in history.

In its early days, Methodism was by definition a missionary movement. John Wesley said, "The world is my parish." The establishment of a special missionary department came later and was inspired by the work of the black lay preacher, John Stewart, among the Wyandot Indians.

Today the stereotype of the white missionary in a pith helmet surrounded by scantily clad "heathens" no longer applies. From being a small missionary movement, Methodism has become a worldwide church with all members sharing equally in the tasks of evangelism, education, feeding the hungry and caring for the stick. Today's emphasis is not so much on an ever increasing number of missionaries, but on helping churches started by earlier missionaries to become self-sustaining partners in mission. It's just as likely today for Korea to send missionaries to the United States as the other way around.

As part of its mission, the church maintains relationships with 367 retirement homes and long-term-care facilities and 65 child-care facilities. It also has a strong educational program and broad publishing interests.

One of the earliest acts of organized Methodists was to open Cokesbury College in 1787 in Abingdon, Virginia. The institution lasted seven years until, plagued with misfortune, it was moved and then destroyed by fire. As part of its educational concern today, the church supports eight universities (including Southern Methodist and Boston), 80 four-year colleges and 13 theological seminaries to train ministers.

Established in 1789 in Philadelphia, the church's publishing house today is its largest agency, having 1,450 employees and 45 retail outlets and mail-order centers in 23 states. A self-supporting body with a gross income of $65 million a year, a portion of its net income is dedicated to ministers' pensions.

United Methodist involvements spread across the whole range of human endeavor, and the programs and institutions meet an equally broad range of human needs. Considering its cultural, ethnic, political and social diversity, it's no wonder the United Methodist Church sometimes seems amorphous. But if its "identity crisis" has been a hindrance in recent years, it could easily become its greatest strength--if United Methodists are ready to claim their future as well as their past in their bicentennial year.

The comments of United Methodists themselves may give a clue to the church's future opportunities. New members, especially, often talk about a sense of openness, of acceptance, the feeling there are no stringent doctrines to keep people out, but a strong belief in the inclusive power of God's love. John Wesley gave the world, through Methodism, an interpretation of Scripture that still offers soothing words to some contemporary hurts. In an age of uncertainty, Wesleyan theology offers assurance. Out of his own heart-warming religious experience, Wesley was convinced that God's gracious gift of salvation is available to everyone and cannot be taken away.

Without any formal creed, the church asks new members to confess Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and to promise, "according to the faith given you," to live a Christian life. Allowances are made foro differences in the interpretation of Scripture. United Methodists use the "Wesleyan quadrilateral" as a guideline, which describes four sources for Christian belief: Scripture, tradition, experience and reason. Above all else, Wesley believed that the true essence of religion is not to be found in correct theology, but in purity of heart. Perhaps most encouraging to a fragmented, contentions world are his words: "If thy heart is as my heart, give me thy hand."

Methodists across the country are using the momentum of the bicentennial to address needs they see in the church today. They are "claiming the past, celebrating the present" and will go into 1985 "challenging the future."
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Author:Cryer, Newman
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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