The historical perspective outlined below was written by Rev. Lawrence A. Hinshaw.
Societal culture when Methodism emerged
Methodism was born in the 18th century which was a harsh and undisciplined era. And, it brought to that time a sense of God's love and presence and a well-spring of hope. At that time the rich were very rich and the poor were very poor. It was widely thought that the wealth of the few was predicated upon the continuing pool of poverty. Anyone tampering with that pool naturally offended the landed gentry and royalty. As you would expect there were differences between Methodist practice and the moneyed class from the very beginning.
The historical perspective outlined below was written by Rev. Lawrence A. Hinshaw.
Societal culture when Methodism emerged
Methodism was born in the 18th century which was a harsh and undisciplined era. And, it brought to that time a sense of God’s love and presence and a well-spring of hope. At that time the rich were very rich and the poor were very poor. It was widely thought that the wealth of the few was predicated upon the continuing pool of poverty. Anyone tampering with that pool naturally offended the landed gentry and royalty. As you would expect there were differences between Methodist practice and the moneyed class from the very beginning.
The eighteenth century was a time of three revolutions. The first of these was in agriculture and resulted in the enclosure of many small farms into larger operations with the resulting dislocation of families from that land which they knew and loved. Most of them moved into the cities. Then came the industrial revolution which sounded the death-knell for many family industries. Unable to compete with mechanization, many once proud artisans swelled the ranks of those employed in factories. The cities were crowded, sanitation was poor, and daily labor was hard.
Remember, in those days, there were no child labor laws, and no societies for prevention of cruelty to children. Hence it was common for young children to slave 12-14 hours a day. There are accounts of workers chained to machines and being spoon-fed in order not to break the desired rhythm and thereby hamper production. The days were cruel. Capital punishment was permissible for more than 200 crimes, mostly having to do with infractions against property. It was a sad time when property was more valuable than human life. Seven and eight year old boys were executed for theft.
Humanity had so lost its moral bearings that immorality seemed the order of the day. Every sixth home in London was a grog shop. On many signs these words appeared, “Get drunk for a penny, dead-drunk for tuppence.” Straw-covered places were provided to “sleep it off.” We must not think this was a lower class phenomenon. Read the chronicles of the “upper crust” and you will find that immorality infected the entire social fabric.
All these things, taken together, provide the ammunition for a bloody political revolution which never came to England, according to historian Lecky, because of the Christian revival from the Wesleys. Lost values and lost peoples were found again. Human dignity was restored in large measure. Working people found their place in the sun. And the church was revitalized! United Methodists, affirm the universality of grace. We are not God’s chosen few. Jesus Christ was not sent to minister to the landed gentry, those of the northern hemisphere, the educated and clean, to one nation or race above another, but to all.
To America - a continent in revolt
Methodism, a movement of revival since 1739 in England, came to America in 1766 but was born into a new church in 1784 in Baltimore. John Wesley was very much present in spirit and he had for the occasion prepared well in ordaining lay persons to the ranks of the clergy, ordaining the Rev. Thomas Coke as Superintendent and naming Francis Asbury to be a Superintendent as well.
The Christmas Conference lasted only ten days but it firmly planted Methodism in America. About sixty traveling preachers were present. Of these, Richard Allen and Harry Hosier were black. The Methodist Church was the first national church to be established in the new world. It was distinctive in polity with all the clergy holding membership in a Conference and being appointed annually for ministry.
In our first Discipline the Methodists declared that God raised up the Methodist Church “to reform the continent and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” These have represented our marching orders. March we did!
Francis Asbury was elected as Superintendent and on three successive days starting with December 25, he was ordained deacon, elder, and Superintendent, later taking the title of Bishop. The Rev. Philip William Otterbein, a Reformed Minister took part in the ceremony. Asbury outrode Wesley, traversing some 175,000 miles, most of it wilderness trails: “From Maine to Virginia, through the Carolinas, wading through swamps, swimming the rivers that flow from the eastern slopes of the Alleghanies to the Atlantic, on down to Georgia, back to North Carolina, through the mountains to Tennessee, three hundred miles and back through the unbroken wilderness of Kentucky, back again to New York, to New England, then from the Atlantic to the Hudson, over a rough road, mountainous and difficult, on to Ohio.” (Luccock, The Story of Methodism, 235)
In 1784 there were 83 Methodist Preachers and 15,000 recognized members. When Asbury died, there were 200,000 American Methodists and 700 preachers. Our early growth was largely due to the efforts of the Circuit Riders. The work was hard and the loss factor very high, often from death. Nearly half died before they were 30 years old. Two thirds died before they could give 12 years of service.
Heroines ad well as heroes
While many of the early Methodist’s heroines deserve much to be celebrated: Barbara Heck and Francis Willard among them; these Circuit Riders were young men. “There was no minimum age limit in the early Methodist itinerancy. Martin Ruter was admitted on trial into the New York Conference when he was only 16 years old. Henry B. Bascom, when only 17, was given his first appointment – the Deer Creek Circuit in Ohio, which had 27 regular preaching appointments each month. In 1799, when he was 17 years old, Joshua Soule began his itinerant work under Joshua Taylor, a presiding elder, who was 24 years of age, but who had already seven years experience in the ministry.”
They rode the trails westward across the land, and sometimes blazed new ones. The good news in them must be preached. Christ must be offered to this new world. These were self educated men. Peter Cartwright asserted that when he entered the ministry in 1804 there was but one “college-bred” minister in The Methodist Church.
It is said that the Circuit Riders were certainly not omnipotent, or omniscient but that they were very nearly omnipresent. One such “Rider” named Nolley swung in behind fresh wagon tracks headed into a remote area in Georgia and at length came upon the weary newcomer with an enthusiastic greeting in the name of the Lord Jesus. After learning who Nolley was, the settler exclaimed in disgust: “Another Methodist preacher! I left Virginia for Georgia to get clear of them. There thy got my wife and daughter, and I came here, and here is one before I get my wagon unloaded!”
By 1839 there were more than 6000 Methodist preachers in the United States and Great Britain and missionaries in Sweden, Germany, France, Cadiz, Gibraltar, Malta, Africa, Ceylon, India, New South Wales, New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji, the West Indies and elsewhere. Today there are more than 54 million Methodists in the world.
The Methodists have brought education wherever they have planted the church. Consider the impact of the Church School. In the early days adult education was presumed to be well cared for in the Class Meeting. So, the preachers at the Baltimore General Conference of 1784 were asked, ”What shall be done for the rising generation?” According to the Discipline they were instructed to answer: “Where there are ten children whose parents are in society, meet with them at least one hour every week.” And so the Church School took root on American soil.
The Methodist Church is unique among denominations in that it was born in a university and thus from its inception has held education in high esteem. Bishop Francis Asbury urged congregations to erect a school in the vicinity of every church ”…to give the key of knowledge…to your children, and those of the poor in the vicinity of your small towns and villages.” (To Give the Key of Knowledge: United Methodists and Education, 1784-1976, 13).
“More than one thousand schools, colleges and universities have been founded in the two centuries of the American Methodist movement including those founded by the followers of Phillip Otterbein.” (Dr. F. Thomas Trotter, “Into The Third Century: United Methodist Ministry In Higher Education”, 3)
At one time, our denomination had forty-one schools for Native American young people. Our twelve colleges historically serving black people still vividly express this mission. (Trotter, 7). We have some things to celebrate: 8 universities, 80 four-year colleges,13 theological seminaries, 15 two-year colleges, 1 professional school, 1 graduate school, 8 secondary schools, and one elementary school. The total enrollment is 212,630 with a faculty of 13,313. The total assets are a stunning $5,633, 693,000; their combined operating revenue for 1981-2 $2,105,878,000–50% larger than the income received for all purposes by the denomination itself. (Trotter, 4, revised by 1988 #s of schools).
Merger with the Evangelical Church and the United Brethren
One of the most important developments of this past century was the merger of three similar bodies to form the United Methodist Church: These three added great strength and the particular gifts of their separate denomination.
OUR SPECIAL DOCTRINES:
We are a people of faith. The Bible tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). The focus of many religious groups today seems to be upon the inherent sinfulness of humankind and the need to flee from the wrath that is to come.
The United Methodist accent is rather upon the promise in all of creation which, with Paul, we see as being pregnant with hope. It is not that we are not aware of the perversity in humankind or unaware of the demonic elements in history.
It is because we are so profoundly aware of the love of God which is in and through all and which overcomes all. We are great doers of the Word, believing that hearing without acting is an act of unfaithfulness. So you will find United Methodists in the forefront of every movement for social justice and I trust, also, in the vanguard of those who want to plant a personal gospel in every heart.
In this we are like our father, John Wesley, but also like him, we are most profoundly aware of the assurance of the love of God that accepts and forgives and transfigures our life through grace. Do you remember how he put it after his experience in that little Society on Aldersgate St. in 1738 where someone was reading from Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 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”.
This washing of the human spirit is God’s mighty act and not our own. John says it: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sins” (I John 1:7) and “He is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2).
Ours is a theology of grace and assurance! We affirm the universality of grace. We are not God’s chosen few. Jesus Christ was not sent to minister to the landed gentry, those of the northern hemisphere, the educated and clean, to one nation or race above another, but to all. More, we believe that God’s love never fails, that God never gives up on humankind. We may fail God, but God does not fail us. I believe with all my heart that God does have the power and the desire and the intention to redeem this whole world.
The source of our theology as Methodists is the Bible. It is the means by which God has chosen to make himself known to us and is the record of his mighty acts calling man from the bondage and slavery of sin to a life of freedom and hope through Jesus Christ.
We cannot save ourselves. Yet, even in a state of sin, God reaches out to us through his prevenient grace. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and yet not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world.
The Wesleyan doctrine of salvation may be summed up: “All (persons) need to be saved; all (persons) can be saved; all (persons) can know they are saved; all (persons) can be saved to the uttermost.” (Philip Watson the Message of the Wesleys). ”God forgives us our sins for Christ’s sake and declares us to be justified, and that by grace alone. But at the same time he cleanses us from sin and transforms us into righteous and upright people. Then we move on toward sanctification until love becomes the very nature of our lives and our dominant thrust” (adapted from Bishop Cannon 186 (18).
John Wesley had put it: “If you seek it (salvation) by faith, you may expect it as you are, and if as you are, then expect it now….Stay for nothing: why should you? Christ is ready; and He is all you want. He is waiting for you: He is at the door!”
More, we United Methodists believe that God’s love never fails, that God never gives up on humankind. We may fail God but God does not fail us.
United Methodists believe that sanctification begins with justification of the individual.
First we must come to terms with Jesus Christ. What has he to do with our lives? Justification (the knowledge that we have given our lives to Christ and have been graciously forgiven) is the prerequisite for sanctification. Some would like to omit coming to terms with their sins and with God’s righteousness and move right on to perfection. That is not the way.
As Wesley claimed, ”…from the moment we are justified, there is…santification, a growing in grace, a daily advance in the knowledge and love of God” (The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, Thomas Jackson, ed, p. 329).
At the same time, spiritual growth is the very character of eternity. Thank God we can grow! We may grow in grace and in love.
John Wesley never claimed that he had arrived at perfection. Confronted with a rumor that he “professed to be cleansed of all sin”, Wesley replied: “Whether all sin is taken out of my heart, and the possibility of grieving the Spirit of God, I do not determine; neither do I think that I love either God or my neighbor as I ought, or as I shall. I am helpless, but God is my strength. I live by faith.”
4. ENTHUSIASM AND JOY
In Wesley’s time the religion of the established churches had grown cold. The church had become intellectualized, formalized and no one much expected hearts to be warmed within the walls of the church. Methodists brought an infectious joy that caused great enthusiasm among the common people.
Nathaniel Burton said of the early preachers that ”…they never preach monotonously” because their personal experience of Jesus Christ “keeps their feelings in a shout…they preach…with a gospel underflow of hallelujah.”
And that is how we are to live. We may not lay claim to perfection in this life but we are to give ourselves joyously to the task of bringing God’s good news to his world, to ordering our lives after the spirit of Jesus Christ and to the giving of ourselves in loving service to God’s world.
Ours is a positive, joyous, enthusiastic faith. We believe that all the promises of God find their “yes” in Jesus Christ. When John Wesley was asked what he thought the end point of history would be like he answered, “Glory to God in the Highest and on earth, peace, goodwill among men.”
Here is part of Wesley’s description of a Methodist: “A Methodist is one who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him. One who loves the Lord his God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. He rejoices evermore, prays without ceasing, and in everything gives thanks. His heart is full of love to all mankind and is purified from envy, wrath, malice, and every unkind affection. His one desire and the one design of his life is not to do his own will but the will of Him who sent him.”
We believe that God is active in history and is working his purposes out. I am impressed that so many radio and television preachers espouse a theology of gloom and doom with a focus on the end time of history. They seem to relish whatever signs of gathering darkness are here and to rejoice in whatever the measurable increase of sin because they say it as the harbinger of the end of the age and the reentry into history of the cosmic Christ. But our focus is upon spreading scriptural holiness across the land and sharing the love of God.
We sing of our desire to become new creatures in Christ: ”Finish then thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be.”
When we speak of the Holy Spirit, in the words of one of our creeds, we are speaking of God present with us for guidance, for comfort and for strength. We are a people of spirit. “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is the one true church.” ”As many as are led by the spirit are the people of God”.
We understand the church to be the assembly of God’s people, the ekklesia, called out and chosen for God’s purposes and empowered by the spirit.
Wesley’s greatest fear was not that the Methodists would fail to exist but that we would be only a dead sect without the power which he reckoned would happen if we lost the doctrine, spirit and discipline evident in the beginning. United Methodist people of the spirit will be passionately concerned for social justice as well as for personal holiness.
6. OPENNESS AND INCLUSIVENESS
We are a church well grounded in our theology but also permitting persons of conscience to hold thoughtful and diverse positions on matters of faith. Our insistence is that our theology be grounded in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. And it is not to be lightly grounded in any of these but well-supported and affirmed.
You will find a wide spectrum of theology in our churches but more especially you will find an insistence upon a personal relationship to Jesus Christ and a social expression of your personal commitment. About thoughtfully and considerately held theological differences, John Wesley said If your heart is as my heart then give me your hand.
Baptism is the entry rite into the Body of Christ and the mark of the Christian disciple. There is a certain arrogance, in my opinion, in some denominations that reject our baptism and require theirs. United Methodism accepts the efficacy of baptism offered in the name of the father, the son and the holy spirit and in so doing is truly universal and catholic.
And we are the most inclusive and racially plural of churches in America. The United Methodist Church includes most ethnic cultures and many of the world languages. We have within our membership
2,462 Black churches (361,000 members);
214 Hispanic churches (37,000 members);
202 Asian churches (36,000 members); and
147 Native American churches (13,400 members)
(p. 84, The United Methodist Primer, 1986)
There are more than 38,298 organized United Methodist churches in the USA with a membership exceeding seven million. These churches gave more than $1,794, 706,741 for all purposes in the last year for which I have the record. And there are 4,000 UMC churches outside the USA with nearly 407,000 members. There are 857 persons in the World Division of the United Methodist Church, including 505 U.S. missionaries and 442 Missionaries in the National Division. Giving for these causes is over $50 million annually.
We accept each other as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and, even if we are vastly differing in the kinds of our gifts and at some variance in their quality, we know we belong together and together make up his body. And as Paul himself put it: “If one members suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (I Cor 12)
We believe in the immediacy of God. God is not an absentee landlord, having abandoned his creation to his creatures. Rather God is present now, caring and loving and redeeming, now, saving now, and calling his new creation into being. And it is God who is calling into being the new creation.