Few religious movements can claim the social impact of American Methodism. It began as an evangelical revitalization movement within the Church of England in the early eighteenth century and spread to the American colonies in the 1760s. In both Britain and America, its early membership came mostly from the poorest and most marginal social classes. However, by 1830 the Methodist Episcopal Church had become the largest religious denomination in the United States, and its influence was so great that more than one historian of religion has dubbed the nineteenth as America's "Methodist Century." Although Methodism split into various denominational forms over the years, the Methodist Episcopal Church's most direct successor, the United Methodist Church, is currently the second largest of the Protestant churches in the United States. Taken together, the Methodist family of denominations remains a powerful influence on the nation's religious culture.
The success and popularity of Methodism stems from two mutually reinforcing factors. First, Methodists learned to foster a range of powerful religious experiences that they put at the center of their worship. Second, they learned to channel the religious enthusiasm that came from these experiences into a tightly structured organization. This combination proved peculiarly well suited to reaching out to the newly rising class of British industrial workers, who had been largely ignored by the established church. It also proved effective in evangelizing America's expanding frontier population as well as attracting many people from the established churches in the colonies of the Atlantic seaboard.
John Wesley (1703-1791)
Methodism's founder, John Wesley, was an Anglican priest whose own religious experiences spurred him to try to reinvigorate the religious lives of people throughout the English-speaking world. Himself the son of an Anglican clergyman, Wesley first attracted attention to his work in the 1730s as a tutor at Oxford University, where he and his brother Charles brought together a group of pious students and instructors. It was during this period that Wesley and his followers acquired the name "Methodists," a derisive reference to the methodical way they went about their religious devotions. It was in these Oxford years that Wesley became associated with George Whitefield, who would later become one of the leading lights of England's Evangelical Revival. In numerous preaching trips to America, Whitefield also became one of the fathers of America's (first) Great Awakening.
The Wesley brothers attempted to take their message to the American colonies as well, and set sail in 1735. However, the trip was a disappointment for both, and a near disaster for John. After a broken romance with the daughter of a Georgia magistrate degenerated into a flurry of lawsuits, he shipped for England in 1738. Disillusioned, Charles also returned home. But on the trip to England, John fell under the influence of a party of the Moravian Brethren whose emphasis on faith as a total reliance on Christ, rather than as a mode of intellectual assent to revelation, had a great impact on Wesley. He began to attend Moravian meetings in London, where he soon experienced a great conversion, more powerful and thorough than his early experience of "justification." This "Aldersgate Experience" had the effect of energizing Wesley and motivating him to promote his new understanding of Christianity and spread to others the same experience of grace he had.
Wesley began to recruit others to his plans for promoting the kind of religious experience he had at Aldersgate. The year 1738 marked the start of the Evangelical Revival that swept England. For Wesley, furthering the revival meant he had to push the church to reconsider a comfortable posture in society and take the experience of the gospel beyond the upper and middle classes to evangelize among the poor. However, rather than expect the Church of England to bring evangelical religion to the people, he thought the peo- ple could evangelize themselves and eventually transform the institutions of the church. His announced object became to "reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness over the land." John Wesley's great ally in this work was his brother Charles, whose influence on Methodism was chiefly in the hymns that he wrote for the new movement. Among populations with a low rates of literacy and at a time when books were scarce, the hymns of Charles Wesley became primary instruments for the communication of religious ideas as well as a source of inspiration and communal solidarity.
John Wesley also wrote a number of hymns, but his special genius seemed to be organization and evangelization. He developed a formula for recruiting lay preachers from among just those groups he most wanted to reach. They became itinerant circuit riders whose job was to produce conversion experiences among their listeners, and organize those listeners into Methodist societies and class meetings, in which the people engaged in regular group prayer, song, and mutual criticism. Some individuals who could not travel as itinerants were licensed to preach in their local societies in the long periods between visits by the itinerant assigned to them. This organizational formula promoted local organizations that could function with a great deal of independence under the leadership of lay leaders chosen from among themselves, in their own communities. At the same time, these different local "societies" were held together by the network of circuit riders who were shifted around and tightly managed by Wesley himself and, as the organization took off, through the presiding elders Wesley placed over the itinerants. Wesley himself maintained a rigorous regime of travel and constant preaching. The result was a network of industrial laborers and itinerant evangelists dedicated to living life with the sort of austerity and piety that they thought they discerned from the Bible as God's will. It was a self-consciously countercultural position, at odds with the prevailing social values of all classes.
The Evangelical Revival in England was largely an affair of the lowest orders of British society. Its profound effect on the customs and values of the British working class has been the subject of great speculation and some important research. At the turn of the last century, French theorist ╔lie HalÚvy speculated that the rise of Methodism in England headed off the kind of revolutionary cycle his own countrymen experienced. His 1906 book, The Birth of Methodism in England (reprint edition, University of Chicago Press 1971), supported his claim with few facts or historical research. But HalÚvy's ideas inspired a later generation of Marxist scholars, most notably historian E. P. Thompson, to find just this sort of evidence. Thompson presented his evidence in his 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class (Vintage 1963). In it, he attempted to show how Methodism helped create the conservative character of the British proletariat.
In America, Methodism evolved somewhat differently. The movement hit a snag when the revolution erupted, and Wesley sent a letter admonishing his followers to stay loyal to the king. All but one of the several British-born itinerants sent by Wesley returned to England to ride out the war. Additionally, the Methodists were still technically Anglicans and depended on the Church of England to provide the sacraments. This situation was rendered impossible when much of the Anglican clergy fled the colonies during the war years and made only a very slow return in its aftermath. Wesley and his associates saw they had little choice but to authorize that American Methodists become an independent church, a step Wesley's English followers did not take until his death in 1791.
Wesley decided that there was scriptural precedent for the priests of the church to ordain others as priests and to elevate some from among themselves to the episcopal office. He chose one of his English itinerants, Thomas Coke, to be ordained on both counts and go to America. Coke's mission was to ordain all of the American itinerants as true clergymen, and to elevate one of them, Francis Asbury (the only English itinerant to remain in America during the fighting), as a second superintendent. He also sent over a set of rules by which the new church was to abide. The Methodist Episcopal Church came together at a conference of the itinerant preachers in Baltimore on Christmas Eve, 1784. Asbury asked that the conference vote to confirm him and Coke as superintendents. It was a gesture more symbolic than substantive, for as Wesley's influence over American Methodism began to wane with age and distance, and as Coke eventually returned to England, Asbury would come to exercise a dominant authority over the new church. He was quickly given the title bishop , although Wesley opposed it, and exercised a rigid control over the new denomination.
Francis Asbury adapted Wesley's form of organization to the much larger geographic scale of North America and inspired a new generation of itinerants and presiding elders to evangelize every place inhabited by Americans, either white or black. When the Great Revival broke out on the southern frontier in the years bridging the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Asbury enthusiastically joined the forces of his church with ministers of other denominations to promote and spread it. The most important institution in spreading the revival, the camp meeting, was eventually abandoned by most other churches as too hard to control and subject to undignified emotional excesses. But Asbury and the Methodists embraced camp meetings and similar revivals with great enthusiasm. Under Methodist control, the meetings became a highly organized ritual dedicated to the mass replication of a certain religious experience. This experience was developed in two parts. In the first part, the sinner was called to acknowledge his or her sorry conditionto be convicted of inherent sinfulness. The second part was to accept Christ as savior from that sinfulness. This conviction-conversion scheme of personal religious experience became the standard structure of Methodist religious conversion in the early nineteenth century, and Methodists soon developed a variety of revival forms that produced it in large numbers of people.
Historian Nathan Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale University Press 1989) has suggested this early evangelical phase of American Methodism was part of a larger democratic revolution in society, and that the Methodists were essentially democratic because they were involved in spreading this experience among the common people, empowering them spiritually, without regard to class or education. The Methodist itinerants were themselves drawn from among the common people of the new nation. On the other hand, the American Methodism that Asbury shaped was hardly democratically run. Even after Asbury died, and his successors to the episcopacy allowed the itinerants a little more leeway in decision making, the business of the church was entirely within the hands of the clergy. Lay Methodists exercised their leadership only at the local level, and even there the decisions they made could be overridden by the itinerant clergy. The more conservative strain in the Methodist character was reinforced by the experience of the denomination as it moved westward with the population. Because Methodist itinerants were willing to travel into the far reaches of the frontier country, they were frequently able to organize their societies long before the educated clergymen of the older denominations ventured beyond the Eastern seaboard. Consequently, Methodist churches became part of the original institutional infrastructure of many Western communities. As the wealth of the frontier population increased with time, so did the Methodist Episcopal Church see itself become identified with a rising middle class.
Fissures and Fusions
Much of the energy of Methodism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been taken up in debates over issues of decentralization and democratization. Some Methodists pulled out of the church in the 1790s, upset with Asbury's dominant position. In addition, the opposition of some Methodists even to having the office of bishop led to the 1830 secession of the Methodist Protestant Church. Even the 1845 separation of the southern conferences over the issue of slavery was technically fought over different interpretations of the relationship of the bishops to the General Conference. The result was the proslavery Methodist Episcopal Church South.
Other notable splits in the Methodist fold erupted over the treatment of African American Methodists by their white brethren. In 1816, blacks in Philadelphia set up the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E. Church) under the leadership of Richard Allen. Similar circumstances led to the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (A.M.E.Z. Church) in New York, in 1821, under the leadership of Peter Williams and James Varick. A third African American Methodist denomination came together in 1870 when the black members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South split away to become the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (C.M.E. Church).
As American Methodism became more identified with the American middle class in the nineteenth century, it began to develop more stately and emotionally restrained styles of worship. In response, a revitalization effort rose within the Methodist Episcopal Church to reemphasize personal religious experiences along with the quest to "perfect" the individual. This became known as the Holiness Movement. When it began in the 1840s, it enjoyed the support of many of the bishops; however, by the turn of the century it had acquired a constituency beyond the membership of the Methodist Church and an institutional structure organized around its summer encampments. Many holiness leaders became dissatisfied with the Methodist Episcopal Church and split away to form new denominations. This led to the separation of the Church of the Nazarene in 1908, the Pilgrim Holiness Church in 1897, and the Evangelical Methodist Church in 1946.
Ultimately the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the Methodist Church in 1939. In 1968, this body merged with the Evangelical United Brethren (a body formed in 1946 by the merger of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church, two originally German-speaking denominations with Methodist organization and theology). The result is the United Methodist Church, which is currently the largest Methodist denomination.
An American Church
From the middle of the nineteenth century on, the Methodist Episcopal Church moved toward a close identification with the American middle class and its values. Methodist Episcopal Churches of both the North and the South gave enthusiastic support to their respective governments and the war. By the end of that century, Methodist leaders, especially in the North, were deeply committed to notions of progress and improving the human condition. Methodists invested heavily in educational institutions, even as they resisted making a college education a prerequisite for entering the ministry. The church began to see itself as a guardian of "American-ness" and as a bulwark of American virtues threatened by the influx of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. Although it advocated a compassionate and fair treatment of the new industrial workers, church publications and position statements make it clear that it identified most with the managers of the factories rather than the largely immigrant workforce.
From the 1870s on, nearly all Methodist denominations played an active role in the movement to ban alcoholic beverages and cooperated together in the support of such middle-class-based organizations as the Anti-Saloon League, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Prohibition Party. Methodists dominated all these organizations.
At the same time, the nature of Methodist religious experience and activity broadened. The Holiness Movement promoted the older forms of the conviction-conversion experience and found its greatest success among Methodists who had been born in rural settings but who had migrated to the cities. The advocates of the Social Gospel also had a great influence on the church. In 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted a "Social Creed," which later became the basis for the Social Creed of the Federal Council of Churches.
Theology has rarely been the cause of division or marked enthusiasm among Methodists. The denomination has always been more invested in issues of social behavior and organization. Wesley adopted a theology based on the ability of individuals to accept and reject a universally offered salvation. This "Arminianism" distinguished Methodists from the various Calvinist sects and their predestinationist theologies. But Methodists never made agreement on theological fine points a qualification for membership. More central was the experience of the believer and a basic faith in Christ as Savior. This enabled Methodism to avoid deep involvement in the modernist controversy that rocked many American religious denominations, and it also has made for a relatively free play of ideas in most Methodist colleges and seminaries.
Since the 1960s, the United Methodist Church, along with most of the churches based in the American middle class, has suffered an erosion in its membership base and has fallen to second place behind the Southern Baptist Convention as the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. In The Churching of America (Rutgers University Press), sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark have looked at Methodism as a prime example of what happens to any denomination that makes too many accommodations with the larger society. They claim that the Methodists began their decline in the 1850s, about the time they became closely identified with the middle class and the dominant values of society. Finke and Stark contrast Methodists with the Baptists, who began as a movement among the same class of people as the Methodists but who have retained a greater degree of sectarian suspicion of the world. Other scholars dispute this theory and object that the Methodist numbers actually grew relative to other Protestant denominations until the latter half of the twentieth century. Whatever the explanation, in 1996 the United Methodist Church in the United States had 36,559 local churches. There were 8,588,116 full members, and that figure has stabilized in the last 12 years, dropping at an average of 0.5% per annum.
See also Earl D. C. Brewer, Church-Sect Theory
S. M. Blumin, "The Hypothesis of Middle-Class Formation in Nineteenth-Century America," American Historical Review 90(1985):299-338
E. S. Bucke (ed.), The History of American Methodism (New York: Abingdon, 1964)
N. Clark, Deliver Us from Evil (New York: Norton, 1976)
R. H. Craig, "The Underside of History," Methodist History 24(1989):73-88
M. E. Dieter, The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1980)
E. S. Gaustad, "The Pulpit and the Pews," in W. R. Hutchinson, q.v . (1989):21-47
J. R. Gusfield, Symbolic Crusade (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963)
N. B. Harmon, The Organization of the Methodist Church (Nashville: Methodist Publishing House, 1962)
W. R. Hutchinson, Between the Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989)
C. E. Jones, The Holiness Movement and American Methodism (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1974)
D. G. Jones, Perfectionist Persuasion (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1979)
K. A. Kerr, Organized for Prohibition (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979)
J. W. Lewis, The Protestant Experience in Gary, Indiana (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992)
W. W. Sweet, The Story of American Methodism (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1974)
C. I. Wallace, "Wesleyan Heritage," in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience , ed. C. H. Lippey and P. W. Williams (New York: Scribner, 1988): 525-537
J. Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (London: Wesleyan Conference Office, 1872)
J. F. White, Protestant Worship (Louisville, Ky.: Knox, 1989)
C. Yrigoyen, "United Methodism," in Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience , ed. C. H. Lippey and P. W. Williams (New York: Scribner, 1988): 539-553
|return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents|