United Methodist Church(redirected from American Methodism)
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United Methodist Church
United Methodist Church(religion, spiritualism, and occult)
People who study and label such things often refer to the theological spectrum in terms of opposite poles. On the "religious right" are the conservative, fundamental groups who often carry denominational brand names like Baptist, Pentecostal, or "Bible-believing."
On the "religious left" are the Unitarians, perhaps left-wing Episcopalians, or simply "liberals." In the middle are churches often called mainstream. These are the typical Protestant churches you will find in every city or town across America. Of this broad spectrum, perhaps no church is more representative than the United Methodist Church. How it got to be this way is an interesting, very involved, story. It began with a liberal Anglican priest and evolved into an American frontier church of whose clergy it used to be said, "The weather's so bad today there ain't nothin' out but crows and Methodist preachers!"
It all began because of a rainstorm.
In 1736 a group of Moravian missionaries set sail to begin work in the American colonies. The Moravians had just settled a longstanding argument with the German Lutherans and had begun to reach out to new boundaries. Traveling with them as ship's chaplain was an Anglican priest named John Wesley (1703-1791). They were headed for Georgia, where Wesley had been invited to serve as pastor of the Anglican Church in Savannah. Wesley hoped to parlay this job into an opportunity to preach to Indians, who he was convinced were something like what Jean-Jacques Rousseau would ten years later call the "noble savage."
The voyage went well until they experienced a severe storm that split the mainmast and left the ship helpless. For a few minutes it appeared they were going to go down. The crew, including Wesley, would have completely panicked had it not been for the calm conviction of the Moravian contingent, who quietly sang hymns throughout the ordeal. John Wesley discovered, much to his chagrin, that he was more concerned with his own safety than anything else. He realized that he had witnessed, in the Moravians' reaction to imminent death, a religious conviction he did not have. Wesley began to doubt the sincerity of his own faith. He later wrote in great detail about the profound effect this demonstration had upon him. He had been converted and saved. He had been the leader of a group others derisively called the Holy Club, because members spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible together. Now, at the very beginning of what was supposed to be a great career, he felt he had failed miserably.
What made things even worse was that he had expected great things of his new Savannah congregation. They, on the other hand, figured they were doing him a favor just by showing up on Sundays. The situation became too much for him. He sailed back to England, the whole experience festering in his soul.
In this frame of mind, as he later recalled, he attended a church service one night:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading 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.
Wesley was changed forever. He had previously been "born again." Now he was "filled with the spirit."
During those days other momentous events were taking place. George Whitefield (1714-1770), another member of the Holy Club, had become a famous preacher, dividing his time between Georgia and England. He had begun to preach to his English audiences outdoors, just as he had done in Georgia. The crowds were growing. He needed help. He turned to Wesley.
Wesley didn't like outdoor revivals. He later said that at one time he was so concerned with doing everything "decently and in order," as the Bible dictates, that he questioned whether God could save anyone outside a church building. But he obliged, and eventually he learned to preach with such conviction and authority that people would weep, moan, and otherwise be convicted of sin. Turning their lives over to God, they would finally feel "cleansed of inequity."
Whitefield and Wesley disagreed about one important theological point. Whitefield was a Calvinist who believed in predestination (see Calvin, John, and Jacobus Arminius). Wesley believed in free will. He was convinced people had to choose whether or not they would follow Christ. This disagreement eventually forced them to separate.
Wesley had no intention of starting a new denomination. He always thought of his outdoor preaching engagements as a means of introducing people to the Anglican Church. But "societies" formed. Religious groups met in members' houses, patterned after the Holy Club. Pretty soon they had their own buildings to meet in. Wesley's method of organization was so efficient that it wasn't long before outsiders began to mock them, calling them "Methodists." Later, his followers wore the name with pride.
To his dying day, Wesley reproved those who talked about splintering off, leaving the Anglican Church and forming a new denomination. But the group grew too large, too quickly. The break was inevitable.
While all this was taking place, however, two important things had happened. Methodism had "hopped the pond" to America where it was spreading by leaps and bounds along the borders of the new frontier. The common people had caught the revival bug. Not only did it speak to their souls, but they could be Methodists without being Anglican. The great western land rush carried the new faith far away from places where older, established churches were willing to go. Anglicanism was for downtown city streets, not the wilderness clearings served by Methodist "circuit riders."
This caused a problem. In 1777, Wesley had sent Francis Asbury (1745-1816) to the colonies to represent him. Asbury was the driving force of frontier evangelism. When the colonies declared their independence, Wesley strongly opposed the whole thing. But American Methodists, while still admiring Wesley, were not about to let religious organization keep them from fighting for their political freedom.
So American Methodists, now calling themselves the Methodist Episcopal Church, ironically became an official denomination even before their English counterparts. The word "Episcopal" comes from the Greek episopus, referring to church governments that place authority in the hands of a bishop. The "Episcopal" part of the new denomination's name, therefore, was derived from the fact that the American denomination appointed bishops without following strictly the Anglican rites. Wesley, still an Anglican, referred to himself as a "superintendent" rather than a "bishop" (see Anglican Church). Anglicans practiced the policy of apostolic succession. You didn't just bandy about the distinguished title "bishop" if you lived in England. But the Americans did. Wesley was furious when he discovered Asbury had called himself a bishop and appointed others without proper "laying on of hands" in the time-honored tradition. To this day, American Methodists have bishops. Their English counterparts do not.
Finally, after the inevitable struggles all denominations go through, the Methodist Church became a separate, Protestant denomination. Although originally distinguished from Calvinist traditions such as Congregationalism, Reformed, and Presbyterian by their belief in free will instead of predestination, at a typical Methodist service today, most people in the pews aren't even aware there is a theological distinction. The big difference between Methodists and Presbyterians, in the minds of many, is that the Methodists have a newer hymnbook. Also, their organization is different. They practice an Episcopalian form of church government. Their ministers are appointed and move more frequently than those of many other Protestant denomiations. But their choir members sing in the ecumenical chorus sponsored by the local council of churches. They have great potluck suppers, just like the Congregationalists. And their churches are apt to be federated—that is, two or three churches of different denominations have dwindled in size and found it easier to support a minister and carry on if they join together.
It was this similarity and common tradition that formed the United Methodist Church on April 23, 1968. Bishop Reuben H. Mueller, representing the Evangelical United Brethren Church (the EUB), and Bishop Lloyd C. Wicke, representing the Methodist Church, joined hands in Dallas, Texas. They prayed, "Lord of the Church, we are united in thee, in thy Church and now in the United Methodist Church." And the new United Methodist Church was born.
You might say it was a marriage made in heaven. Philip Otterbein (1726-1813), founder of the United Brethren in Christ, the spiritual parent of the EUB Church, had assisted in the ordination of Francis Asbury, way back in colonial times. Asbury had gone on to be the first "bishop" of the American Methodists.
John Wesley would turn over in his grave to hear it, but it seemed as if the two churches were "predestined" to become one.