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Family resemblance: Methodism’s cousins span wide range Mary Jacobs, Aug 22, 2008
REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE METHODIST LIBRARY AT DREW UNIVERSITY
John Wesley, founder of Methodism.
By Mary Jacobs Staff Writer
To gather all of the spiritual descendents of John Wesley for a family reunion, you’d need one very large tent—big enough to hold more than 75 million people.
“The entire Methodist family is much larger than the United Methodist Church, by a factor of seven or eight times,” said the Rev. William B. Lawrence, dean of Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
Among the millions who call themselves “Methodists” are members of the United Methodist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the AME Zion Church, and independent Methodist churches in other nations, such as the Korean Methodist Church or the Methodist Church of Mexico.
The tent gets even bigger when you add denominations without “Methodist” in their names but with historical ties to Methodism and John Wesley, including the Wesleyan Church, Church of God and the Pentecostal Holiness Church.
“Most United Methodists may know about the AME or the AME Zion churches, but they don’t have any clue that denominations like the Church of the Nazarene or the Salvation Army are direct descendents of the Methodism movement,” said Dr. Doug Strong, a church historian and dean of the School of Theology at Seattle Pacific University. “The term ‘Wesleyan’ is much, much larger than the United Methodist Church.”
A brief genealogy: Methodism began as a renewal movement within the Church of England led by John Wesley in the 18th century. Shortly before the American Revolution, Methodism spread to the colonies in North America.
Upon a request sent from the colonies, John Wesley appointed two missionaries in 1769 to begin to organize Methodism in America. Members were still expected to receive the sacraments from clergy of the Church of England. But that changed after the Revolutionary War, as fewer priests from the Church of England remained in America.
John Wesley ordained two lay preachers and “set apart” Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as joint superintendents for the new nation. On Christmas Eve in 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church—essentially, the forerunner of what is the United Methodist Church today—was organized in Baltimore, Md.
“At that point, Methodism in the U.S. broke from England and began sending its own missionaries all over the U.S.,” said William Oden, Bishop in Residence at Perkins School of Theology. “Meanwhile, British Methodists began evangelizing in Europe and Africa. So two ‘orbits’ of Methodism began to develop.”
In the U.S., by the 19th century, dissatisfied groups began to leave the Methodist Episcopal church. The primarily African-American denominations, including the AME Zion and the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, were founded by people who left the Methodist Episcopal Church, unhappy with the its position on slavery and segregation. Some left for movements initiated by black Methodists; others were forced out by white Methodists.
“The CME was created by Methodists in the South following the Civil War, when the white members essentially evicted the black members,” said Dr. Lawrence.
Not all those that left over slavery were African-American Methodists. In 1860, the Free Methodists split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, touting the slogan “Free grace, free pews, free men.” They took issue with the denomination’s condoning of slavery, as well as its perceived neglect of the doctrine of sanctification—and because some Methodist Episcopal churches had begun charging rent for pews.
“The Free Methodists felt that if the poor couldn’t come to church, then the church wasn’t living out its holy purpose,” said Dr. Strong. Today, there are about 80,000 Free Methodists in the U.S. and more than 700,000 worldwide.
In the second half of the 19th century, another series of groups left the Methodist Episcopal Church, believing the denomination wasn’t sufficiently emphasizing Wesley’s teaching of sanctification.
These “holiness” churches included the Wesleyan Church in 1844 and the Church of the Nazarene at the end of the century. Some of those denominations, in turn, later spun off or inspired new groups, which Dr. Strong calls the “grandchildren” of Methodism. The Pentecostal movement was founded by preachers that came out of holiness churches, for example.
Rounding out the modern worldwide Methodist family are Methodist churches around the world that were originally founded by missionaries from the U.S. or Great Britain. Some remain part of the United Methodist Church, but many became independent by the late 20th century. (In Nigeria, for example, there’s an independent Methodist Church as well as the United Methodist Church.)
Today, the United Methodist Church stays connected with other Methodist and Wesleyan-based denominations through the World Methodist Council (WMC), the Pan-Methodist Commission, and a range of ties to Methodist churches in other nations.
The WMC functions as a way for Methodists around the world to share their theological heritage and avoid duplicating one another’s services. The United Methodist Church, for example, would not evangelize to “make more Methodists” in Mexico, because the UMC recognizes the Methodist Church of Mexico as an affiliated but separate church body.
So, aside from historical curiosity, what do all these connections mean today?
“Each one of those groups that left the Methodist Episcopal Church felt that there was an emphasis that was lacking,” said Dr. Strong. And in his opinion, “If you look at the history, often it truly was lacking.”
As Methodists became more affluent in the 19th century, he said, the denomination became less willing to take a radical stand against slavery and lost its “prophetic edge.” He quotes church historian Nathan Hatch, who observed that by the mid-19th century, “Methodism became the bland, uninspired middle of American society.”
Although many of the “spin-off” churches later became similarly complacent as well, “we need to see that their emphases are ones that are perhaps aspects of our practice or theology that we have neglected,” Dr. Strong added.
Learning about other Methodist groups, says Bishop Oden, also reminds church members of what makes Methodism unique, beyond the denominational structure.
“Three things: the inclusive theology, which says that God’s grace is available to all; the strong sense of social justice, and the importance of making and nurturing disciples through small groups,” he said.
“I think it’s important to appreciate that there’s a much broader history and theological diversity to our church than may be apparent in any single denomination,” said Dr. Lawrence. “We have a lot more in common then we may realize.”
According to the website of the General Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concern, the United Methodist Church connects with “the world Methodist family” through the following organizations:
The World Methodist Council, www.worldmethodistcouncil.org. The World Methodist council comprises 76 member denominations in 132 countries and represents about 75 million people, which makes Methodism one of the largest Protestant denominations worldwide. Members include the United Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church, the United Church of Canada, the British Methodist Church, the Uniting Church of Australia, the Wesleyan Church, and the Church of the Nazarene.
The Pan-Methodist Commission, www.panmethodist.org/panmeth. The historic Methodist churches in America assemble to worship, plan, and work toward a future with greater cooperation. The members of the Pan-Methodist Commission are: the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the African Union Methodist Protestant Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church, the Union American Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church.
Affiiated/autonomous churches, www.gccuic-umc.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=72&Itemid=157. These are churches located outside the boundaries of the jurisdictional conferences and which have entered into relationship with the United Methodist Church, including some which send delegates to General Conference. (Some delegates are observers only; some can participate but not vote.)