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American Methodist Churches

Though John Wesley* had served as a missionary in Georgia (1736-38) before his Aldersgate experience, and George Whitefield* had after 1740 visited America several times during the Great Awakening,* Methodism as such was brought to America in the 1760s by unofficial lay preachers. Among these were Irishman Robert Strawbridge who worked in Maryland and surrounding areas, Philip Embury,* and Captain Thomas Webb, a British officer who reinforced the society in New York and planted Methodism in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey. In 1768 Wesley sent the first two official missionaries, Joseph Pilmoor and Richard Boardman. In 1771 came Francis Asbury,* later the greatest leader of American Methodism, and Richard Wright. They were followed in 1773 by Thomas Rankin and George Shadford. That year saw the first American conference at St. George's Church, Philadelphia. The South proved particularly receptive to Methodism, and in Virginia, where Methodists worked with Anglican Devereux Jarratt, a major revival broke out as the Revolutionary War started.

The Revolution precipitated a major crisis. All the British Methodist missionaries except Asbury returned to England. After great internal struggle and a period of forced inactivity, Asbury finally identified with the emerging nation. Anglicanism, with which Methodism had identified, was devastated. To meet the chaotic situation Wesley took the step-a very difficult one for him-of ordaining two elders and Thomas Coke* as general superintendent to establish in America an adequate system of church government. Soon after their arrival in America, the Christmas Conference of 1784 was called to found the Methodist Episcopal Church as an autonomous denomination. Asbury was ordained deacon, elder, and joint superintendent on successive days, though on his insistence only after his appointment had been confirmed by unanimous vote of the conference. According to Wesley's recommendations, a ritual, twenty-five Articles of Religion (abridged from the Anglican thirty-nine), and a discipline were adopted. The church thus founded consisted of 18,000 members, 104 traveling preachers (plus as many local preachers and exhorters), 60 chapels, and 800 recognized preaching places.

The next six decades were a period of phenomenal growth. By 1844 the church had grown to about 4,000 preachers and over a million communicants. After 1792, annual conferences became regional and a general conference met quadrennially. By 1812 the general conference was reorganized on a delegated basis. Leadership fell more and more upon Asbury, who began against Wesley's wishes to use the title “bishop.” The itineracy, firmly administered by Asbury until his death in 1816, was admirably suited to the American frontier. Annual conferences and presiding elders supervised the work of circuit riders who followed American pioneers in the westward expansion. Methodism rode the crest of the Second Great Awakening* at the turn of the century and picked up and perfected the institution of the camp meeting.*

But growth was not without tensions. In 1792 Asbury clashed with James O'Kelly over the appointment of preachers. O'Kelly wished the right of appeal to the conference if a preacher should be dissatisfied with his appointment. When O'Kelly's resolution lost, he withdrew with a few other preachers to found the Republican Methodist Church. Perhaps 8,000 members defected, but the group eventually withered away. Similar issues led to the founding of the Methodist Protestant Church in 1830. From 1820 some had advocated an elective presiding eldership, lay representation to conference, and major alteration of the episcopacy. Agitation over these issues continued and led to the 1827 expulsion of several persons in Baltimore and final split in 1830. In 1858 about one-half of this group seceded over the issue of slavery to form the antislavery Methodist Church, but after the Civil War the two parts reunited.

It was over the slavery issue that Methodism really floundered. As early as 1786 friction developed between blacks and whites worshipping together in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Under the leadership of Richard Allen,* a remarkable man who had managed to purchase his freedom and become the first Negro ordained by Asbury, and Daniel Coker, a freed mulatto who became a teacher and preacher, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1816 (see American Negro Churches). Similar problems led to the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1821 in New York City. But the white church split also over the issues of slavery and race. For Wesley, slavery was “that execrable sum of all villanies.” Asbury seems to have held similar opinions, and slavery was regularly condemned by early conferences, but as Methodism became a national church, pressures toward accommodation increased. Asbury acquiesced, and conference resolutions became tamer. Yet the controversy which split the nation remained in the church and was fired by the rise of abolitionism.

The leading Methodist abolitionist was Orange Scott, who addressed the general conference on the subject in 1836. When abolitionism was consistently repressed in 1840, Scott joined Lucius Matlack, LaRoy Sunderland, and others in founding in 1845 a Wesleyan Methodist Connection which opposed the episcopacy as well as slavery. Within a year the group numbered 15,000, but after the Civil War resolved the slavery issue, many returned to the mother church. The Wesleyan Methodists continued as a separate body and identified themselves as a “holiness” church. In 1968 the Wesleyans merged with the Pilgrim Holiness Church, an early twentieth-century product of the American Holiness Movement,* to form the Wesleyan Church of America.

In 1844 the issue of slavery came to a crisis over slave- owning bishop James Andrew. The general conference deadlocked over this and the polity issues involved, and eventually agreed to a separation of the church into the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, officially founded in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1845. Controversy continued to rage between the two churches until the Civil War. In 1870 the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America was founded in the South for blacks who had been members of the Southern Church but now wished to organize separately. In 1956 this denomination was renamed the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

In the latter half of the nineteenth century Methodism came into its own. It was populous, affluent, well respected, even imitated. Theology and theological education flourished, the camp meeting declined, discipline slipped, and holiness preaching began to vanish. The Free Methodist Church was born in protest against these tendencies. A party of “Nazarites” emerged in the Genesee Conference to recall the church to holiness, decry organs and choirs, denounce pew rentals needed to support elaborate churches, etc. B.T. Roberts, leader of the Nazarites, was finally expelled and led in the founding of the Free Methodist Church in 1860. The “free” in the name testified that the new church was delivered from secret societies, slavery, rented pews, outward ornaments, and structured worship.

A similar protest may be discerned in the rise of the Holiness Movement within Methodism. In 1839 Timothy Merritt in Boston launched a periodical entitled Guide to Christian Perfection, later renamed Guide to Holiness. Phoebe Palmer of New York City, founder of the “Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness,” later edited the Guide and had great influence on those who established the National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness in the late 1860s. At that time nearly all agreed that Methodism had been raised up to spread the message of Christian holiness, but by the end of the century the church had polarized. Most of the holiness advocates drifted into such groups as the Piligrim Holiness Church, the Church of the Nazarene, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana). Holiness partisans who remained within Methodism rallied around Asbury College and Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.

Before the turn of the century, some had raised the question of reunion within Methodism. Efforts to bring together the black churches failed. Significant steps were taken toward reuniting the Northern and Southern churches in 1876, but it was not until 1939 that reunion was finally achieved when the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged to form the Methodist Church, which remained the largest American denomination until the mid- 1960s. In 1968 the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.

In the twentieth century the Methodist Church has distinguished itself by continued emphasis on world mission, social reform, and ecumenism. American Methodists have been active in the National Council of Churches, whose predecessor the Federal Council appropriated in 1908 the Methodist Social Creed, and more recently in the Consultation on Church Union. Theologically Methodism has followed the dominant schools-liberalism earlier in the century and to a lesser extent Neoorthodoxy later. In response to these theological and ecumenical currents the Evangelical Methodist Church was founded in 1948 and the Evangelical Church of North America after the 1968 merger.

Membership of the more than a score of American Methodist bodies numbers some 15 million. Methodists vie with Baptists as the largest American Protestant religious movement. But whatever the statistics, Methodism can claim to be the “most American of Churches”-or in the judgment of Lutheran Jaroslav Pelikan, “Methodism, equally with Puritanism, constitutes the mainstream of American religious history.”

W.W. Sweet, Methodism in American History (1954); J.L. Peters, Christian Perfection in American Methodism (1956); E.S. Bucke (ed.), The History of American Methodism (3 vols., 1964); R. Chiles, Theological Transition in American Methodism 1790-1935 (1965); C.W. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil: Methodists and the Making of America (1971).