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What makes a Methodist?

With their talk of social reform and personal discipline, John Wesley and his followers touched a chord in people's hearts that turned backwoods revival camps into one of the largest mainstream churches in America.

When John Wesley launched a revival of early 18th-century Anglicanism, he began a religious movement that at one time reported the largest membership of any American church.

Today the World Methodist Council represents 29 million members of some 60 churches that trace their heritage to Wesley and his brother, Charles. Of these, more than half live in North America, which means that Methodists are scattered rather thinly across the rest of the globe.

From a constituency of a few thousand at the time of the American Revolution (which Wesley himself opposed), the Methodists grew to make up the largest church in the U.S. by 1850. Later, they were overtaken by the Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists, but the Methodist family of churches - the United Methodist Church (UMC), three predominantly black Methodist bodies, and several smaller churches - still ranks third in number.

Often characterized as the quintessential American denomination, the United Methodist Church has been accommodating in theology, optimistic, ecumenical, activist, and superbly organized. Over the years Methodism has moved from a church of the poor to what one Methodist bishop called "the chaplain to the middle class."

Methodists outnumber any other group of Protestants in Congress, but only three Methodists have occupied the White House: Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and William McKinley. Such household names as Walter Mondale, George McGovern, David Frost, and Fran Tarkenton grew up in Methodist parsonages. Today Methodist ranks include Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, singer Dionne Warwick, Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and football coach Tom Landry. When Oral Roberts left the Pentecostal Church in which he had been ordained, he joined the United Methodist Church.

Like most other mainstream Protestant churches, the UMC has seen a substantial decline in membership in recent decades. When the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968, the combined membership exceeded 11 million. Since then, the population of the U.S. has grown about 30 percent, but the UMC has fallen to 8,725,000 communicants. These United Methodists attend 37,000 local churches whose average size is about 235 souls. (In contrast the average Catholic parish registers 2,900.) Any village or town large enough to support a post office probably also supports a Methodist church. About 7,000 of these UMC congregations report fewer than 50 members while some city and suburban churches register thousands.

Unlike earlier reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin, Wesley sought to arouse the lethargic Church of England rather than to challenge medieval Catholicism. He lived and died a priest of the Church of England and never himself belonged to a Methodist church.

Several Catholic scholars have observed that in different circumstances Wesley would probably have become the founder of a religious order, such as the Franciscans or Dominicans.

This remarkable Christian was born to the rector of a small Anglican parish and his wife in 1703. Wesley had 18 siblings. He left for prep school at Charterhouse in London in 1714 and entered Oxford University six years later. He studied for the ministry and was ordained an Anglican priest in 1728. For a time he served as curate in his father's parish and then returned to Oxford.

There Wesley discovered that his brother Charles and some companions had formed a small club aimed at fostering the spiritual growth of its members. Wesley soon assumed leadership of the group. These young men were expected to study the Bible every day, pray regularly, fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, and engage in evangelism and charitable works. Wesley's favorite book became The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, a 15th-century monk. Some of their Oxford classmates dubbed the members Bible Moths, Holy Clubbers, and, because of their religious regimen, Methodists. The last name stuck although the distinctive character of Methodism would not evolve for some years.

Wesley and his brother volunteered to go to the colony of Georgia in America to try to convert the Indians and minister to the settlers - mostly debtors and prisoners. During the arduous eight-week voyage to the New World, Wesley was particularly impressed by the faith and piety of a band of Moravians on board. These German Protestants were the spiritual heirs of John Huss, the Bohemian reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415.

Unfortunately the Georgian experience proved to be an unhappy one for Wesley. The Indians, whom he called "gluttons, thieves, liars and murderers" were indifferent to the preaching of the Wesley brothers. Furthermore, Wesley wooed and lost a young lady who eventually married another colonist. Later Wesley would write: "I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God."

Saving grace

A year after Wesley's returned to London he did undergo a spiritual conversion that changed his life. He had been attending meetings held by a small group of Moravians. At one of these - the date was May 24, 1738 - the 35-year-old Anglican priest later wrote: "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Since the Moravians had exerted such a powerful influence on his religious life, Wesley spent some time at their headquarters at Herrnhut, Germany but finally decided against joining them. Instead he went back to England. From then on he and his brother tried to carry the message of the gospel to the common people - the factory workers, miners, and farmers. Denied access to Anglican pulpits, the brothers preached wherever they could in rented halls, on street corners, in fields. Their goal was to establish a spiritual elite within the Church of England that could revitalize that church and reform the larger society.

The brothers' basic plan was to organize classes, or cells, of a dozen people who would meet weekly for prayer, Bible study, and mutual confession of faults. Wesley appointed lay preachers to supervise these classes but directed his followers to attend worship and receive the sacraments in the Anglican Church.

The influence of Wesleyanism on society was profound. William Lecky, in his book The History of England in the Eighteenth Century, maintains that Methodism saved England from the violent revolutions that broke out in other countries. Large numbers of the masses found hope in the new religious ideas and saw some possibility of improving their conditions.

Wesley's basic theological positions were those of the Church of England, but he opposed the Calvinism of some Anglican divines. He preached that Jesus died for all and not just the elect, that a person achieved justification by faith but could then cooperate with grace and perform good works, and that one could be sure of his or her salvation while recognizing that it could be forfeited by sin.

Undoubtedly the concept of perfectionism was Wesley's chief innovation. He believed that if a person could avoid sin for one hour or one day, he or she could avoid sin altogether until death. The believer could reach a state free from all temptation. Although Wesley never claimed to have reached this state himself, he taught that it was an attainable goal for all Christians. Lutheran and Calvinist theologies, with their emphasis on total depravity, gave no hint that a Christian could achieve perfection. Eventually the main Methodist churches would de-emphasize perfectionism, but the doctrine was preserved by the Holiness and Pentecostal sects that sprang from Methodism.

To many of his fellow Anglicans, this and other characteristics of the Methodist societies bordered on fanaticism. Doors were closed to the brothers and their allies. When one bishop accused him of being an interloper in his diocese, Wesley declared that "all the world is my parish." During his long life he would travel more than 250,000 miles on foot and horseback and deliver tens of thousands of sermons.

At the age of 47, Wesley married a widow after a two-week courtship. They were ill matched, and the union was marked by quarrels and separations. During one of these separations Wesley's wife died, but Wesley did not hear the news until after her funeral. It is said his only child was Methodism.

While Wesley became the spiritual director and organizer of Methodism, his brother Charles became its poet. He wrote more than 4,400 hymns, such as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" is considered to be Charles Wesley's finest; it is found in nearly every hymnal and translated into almost every known language. (One of Charles' sons became a Roman Catholic at the age of 18 and went on to become a foremost organist.)

The land of opportunity

Methodism crossed the Atlantic. Missionaries established societies from New York to Virginia. Like their English cousins, the American Methodists were instructed to attend Anglican services and receive the sacraments from Anglican priests. But most of the Anglican clergy returned to England or left for Canada after the Revolution. Few remained to succor the growing number of Methodists, and the bishop of London refused to ordain lay preachers to serve the Methodist societies.

Wesley understood the problem but hesitated to act since he was a priest, not a bishop. Eventually he was persuaded that the powers of a priest were not significantly different from those of a bishop. At the age of 81 he began to ordain ministers to shepherd the societies in the New World.

Wesley appointed two men, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, to superintend the American congregations. The Methodist Episcopal Church was formally organized in December 1784. Soon the two men assumed the title of bishop over Wesley's vehement objections.

Wesley wrote Asbury: "How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called a Bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, scoundrel and I am content but they shall never by my consent call me a Bishop! For my sake, for God's sake, for Christ's sake, put an end to all this." But Wesley's fulminations an ocean away did not deter the Americans.

The pivotal figure in American Methodism, Asbury, arrived in 1771. A blacksmith-turned-preacher, he planted Methodist outposts throughout the colonies and supervised the corps of circuit riders, known as traveling preachers. These circuit riders formed a sort of religious order within Methodism. Like Asbury, most of them were celibates, lived on a pittance, and obeyed their bishops. The life was hard; of the first 700 circuit riders nearly half died before the age of 30. Their dedication was key to the rapid growth of Methodism in this country.

American Methodists paid little heed to Wesley's admonition: "I live and die a member of the Church of England, and none who regard my judgment will ever separate from it." In America the Methodists went their own way; they had their own bishops and ministers, church laws, and traditions. In 1776 there were only 65 Methodist congregations compared with 668 Congregational and 588 Presbyterian churches. By the mid-19th century Methodists were 34 percent of all church members.

While the older churches - the Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Congregational - clung to the Eastern seaboard and insisted on a seminary-trained ministry, the Methodists and Baptists commissioned thousands of self-taught preachers; only a handful had gone beyond grade school.

Besides those on the frontier, the preachers won thousands of converts among African Americans, both slave and free. Over the years, groups of black Methodists organized their own denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church (currently reporting 3.5 million members), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1.2 million), and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (718,000). Today the UMC reports 245,000 African American members, 50,000 Asian Americans, 40,000 Hispanics, and 14,000 Native Americans.

The question of slavery split the Methodist Episcopal Church long before the Civil War. Church law forbade ministers from holding slaves, but one bishop inherited some slaves and married a woman who was also a slaveholder. Southern Methodists defended the bishop while Northerners demanded his removal. The issue could not be resolved and resulted in the formation in 1845 of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

Baptists also divided over the race issue and remain so to this day. But the Methodists were able to reunite their two branches in 1939. Then in 1968, the Methodists came together with the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which traced its history to groups of German-speaking Methodists. The new body took the name United Methodist Church, then the largest Protestant church in the U.S.

The UMC has traditionally been long on organization and short on theology. A convert need only affirm that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and everyone's personal savior. In Beliefs of a United Methodist Christian, Bishop Emerson Colaw writes: "Methodism stands in the mainstream of Christian tradition, yet each member must conclude what is essential in his/her faith pilgrimage. There is no 'litmus test' of orthodoxy which every United Methodist must pass."

The church finds its doctrinal standards in the 25 Articles of Religion, the sermons of John Wesley, and his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. Wesley selected 24 articles from the 39 Articles of Religion of the Church of England and the Americans added one that recognized the independence of the colonies. Methodist theologians commonly speak of the quadrilateral sources and guidelines of their faith: scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. Wesley wrote: "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."

Like other Protestants, the Methodists observe two sacraments. They baptize infants as well as adults - the form can be pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. The Lord's Supper is viewed as a memorial: "The body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner." All Christians are welcome to receive the bread and grape juice in the Communion service, which is usually scheduled quarterly or monthly.

Fasting played an important role in early Methodism, and Wesley warned that the "man who never fasts is no more in the way of salvation than the man who never prays." Like weekly communion, the encouragement of regular fasting disappeared in Methodism's adaptation to American life.

Methodism has long been associated with the temperance movement, but total abstinence from liquor is no longer a requirement of membership. Methodist Frances Willard founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union, which prayed and lobbied for an end to the liquor traffic. Methodist men organized the militant Anti-Saloon League. Charles W. Ferguson in Organizing to Beat the Devil wrote: "Prohibition was Methodist. Temperance, which was at first essentially educational in tone and reach and aim, was sharpened by Methodist crusaders into Prohibition, which was legal and harsh and compulsory." Still opposed to drinking, the UMC also focuses its attention on trying to curb the spread of legalized gambling.

The UMC considers divorce regrettable but recognizes the right of divorced persons to remarry. It believes in the "sanctity of unborn human life" but reluctantly admits there may be situations that justify abortion.

Once upon a time Methodist preachers warned their flocks against dancing, card playing, the theater, circuses, and other diversions, but now only the smaller churches in the Wesleyan tradition, such as the Free Methodist and the Wesleyan churches, expect their adherents to avoid these entertainments.

Recently Newsweek profiled Hillary Rodham Clinton and saw in her Methodism the basis for her social concerns. The magazine commented: "More than other Protestants, Methodists are still imbued with the turn-of-the-century social gospel, which holds that Christians have been commissioned to build the Kingdom of God on earth."

Modern methods

Like other Christians, the Methodists in the pew get their spiritual direction from their clergy. The UMC recognizes two orders of ministry: deacons and elders. Ministers in full connection serve whatever congregation to which their bishops assign them; so long as they remain in good standing they will be assured a position. The days of the circuit riders have gone, but typically the 35,000 Methodist ministers will stay at one church for only four or five years before being reassigned.

Women served Methodism as local preachers from the earliest days, but it was not until 1956 that the UMC extended full ministerial credentials to women. Several have since been appointed bishops.

A district superintendent looks after a group of UMC churches in an area about the size of a Catholic deanery. Bishops are elected for life but must retire at 72. Unlike Catholic, Orthodox, and Episcopal bishops, these Methodist bishops exercise no special spiritual power; their role is more that of an administrator. Methodism's top governing body, the General Conference, meets every four years. Its 1,000 delegates are almost equally divided between clergy and laity.

As American Methodists grew more prosperous, congregations began to ask for seminary-trained pastors, and families sought church-related colleges for their children. The UMC attempted to fill these needs. The UMC supports 13 seminaries, although some ministers receive training at interdenominational seminaries, as well. Some colleges and universities, such as Northwestern and Southern California, were founded by Methodists but have loosened church ties. About 120 institutions retain affiliation, including Boston University, Southern Methodist, American, Drew, Emory, and DePauw.

Methodists have established more colleges, hospitals (57), child-care facilities (59), and retirement homes (156) than any other Protestant denomination.

In England a 19th-century Methodist preacher William Booth found his lower-class converts turned away from "respectable" church doors as did Wesley in an earlier age. Booth then founded the Salvation Army to reach the poor and needy. Methodists in the U.S. started Goodwill Industries in 1902 as part of their social-outreach program. Goodwill employs people with disabilities to repair furniture and appliances and mend old clothes.

The UMC has always been in the vanguard of the ecumenical movement. Methodist layman Dr. John R. Mott is acknowledged as the father of the modern Protestant ecumenical movement. Unlike the larger Southern Baptist Convention, the UMC belongs to the World and National Councils of Churches, and its ministers and laypeople usually participate actively in state and local councils of churches.

Methodist observers, including Dr. Albert Outler of Perkins Seminary at Southern Methodist University, attended all sessions of the Second Vatican Council. At its 1968 General Conference, the UMC agreed to remove from its 25 Articles of Religion "any derogatory references to the Roman Catholic Church."

During his long life, John Wesley was subjected to stoning and verbal abuse, and some of his enemies went so far as to accuse him of being a Roman Catholic in sheep's clothing. Neither of the Wesley brothers had much direct contact with Roman Catholicism, but they affirmed that true Christians could be found in the Church of Rome as well as in other churches.

The UMC, like many other denominations, faces serious problems in the 1990s. Membership continues to decline, per capita contributions rank among the lowest of any mainline denomination, and conservatives in the "Good News" movement have attacked the bishops for failing to remain true to Christian and Wesleyan beliefs. A position paper by this group charged that Methodist seminaries were "promoting a brand of religion akin to Unitarianism or secularism."

Those distinctive Methodist institutions that propelled the church to the preeminent position in 19th-century America have all but vanished: the circuit riders, class system, camp meetings, and revivals. Some who once sat in Methodist pews have been drawn to the Assemblies of God, Holiness, and fundamentalist churches.

The people who flocked to Methodist churches in the 18th and 19th centuries - the poor and disadvantaged - are less likely to turn to middle-class Methodism in the 20th century.

Geoffrey Wainwright, professor of systematic theology at Duke Divinity School, has observed in Doctrine and Theology in the United Methodist Church: "While the flexibility of Methodism helped it to grow, overstretching appears to have led to such a loss of contour that there no longer exists a sufficiently coherent identity to attract and retain many new adherents."

Yet the UMC represents a substantial proportion of U.S. Protestants - more than the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and United Church of Christ (the Congregationalists) put together. The considerable challenge to American Methodists is to rekindle the fires set by the Wesleys and Francis Asbury.

RELATED ARTICLE: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

Hark! the herald angels sing, "Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth, and mercy mild - God and sinners reconciled!" Joyful, all ye nations, rise, Join the triumph of the skies; With th'angelic hosts proclaim, "Christ is born in Bethlehem."

Christ, by highest heav'n adored, Christ, the everlasting Lord: Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of a virgin's womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th'incarnate Deity! Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav'n born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness! Light and life to all He brings, Ris'n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die; Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of Nations, come! Fix in us Thy humble home: Rise, the woman's conq'ring seed, Bruise in us the serpent's head. Adam's likeness now efface, Stamp Thine image in its place: Second Adam from above, Reinstate us in Thy love.

RELATED ARTICLE: Jesus, Lover of My Soul

Jesus, lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly, While the nearer waters roll, While the tempest still is high! Hide me, O my Savior, hide - Till the storm of life is past; Safe into the haven guide, O receive my soul at last!

Other refuge have I none - Hangs my helpless soul on Thee; Leave, ah, leave me not alone, Still support and comfort me! All my trust on Thee is stayed - All my help from Thee I bring; Cover my defenseless head With the shadow of Thy wing.

Thou, O Christ, art all I want, More than all in Thee I find; Raise the fallen, cheer the faint, Heal the sick and lead the blind. Just and holy is Thy name - I am all unrighteousness; False and full of sin I am, Thou art full of truth and grace.

Plenteous grace with Thee is found, Grace to cover all my sin; Let the healing streams abound, Make and keep me pure within. Thou of life the fountain art - Freely let me take of Thee; Spring Thou up within my heart, Rise to all eternity.

William J. Whalen, professor emeritus of education at Purdue University in Indiana.
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Title Annotation:includes text of hymns
Author:Whalen, William J.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 1995
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