The hidden history of Methodist schism

February 19th, 2020

As United Methodists face General Conference 2020 and the potential of forming new church bodies, it feels as though the denomination is at a significant crossroad. As if we are doing something we have never done before. If only that were true.

The truth is, Methodist history is fraught with conflict. Two centuries of it. It’s part of our DNA. It’s who we are. Splitting and reforming is woven into our very being. Truth be told, historically there are more divided Methodists than there are united Methodists.

I recently had the opportunity to lead a session on Productive Conflict with Bishop Jimmy Nunn of Oklahoma. In preparation for our time together, he pulled together two centuries worth of Methodist tussles — theological and organizational — that have resulted in splits. Splits in the 1800s produced the following new denominations: African Methodist Episcopal, the Methodist Protestant, the Primitive Methodist, the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South, Free Methodist, Salvation Army, Christian Methodist Episcopal and Nazarene.

Splits in the 1900s produced these movements: Pentecostal Holiness, Social Gospel, Methodist Church, Southern Methodist Church, Evangelical Methodist, Association of Independent Methodist Churches, United Methodist Church, Autonomous Methodist Churches and the Autonomy of Methodists in South and Central America.

Turns out schism is nothing new. It’s in our blood. It’s right there in the history books.

Twenty years ago, I mapped my family genogram. I was startled to realize that I wasn’t the only person in my family to have changed their name. Decades earlier my Italian Catholic grandfather had changed his surname from Scozzafava to Scott. On the other side of my family, my Orthodox Jewish uncle had changed his first name from Harold to Hillel. My cousin Todd became Adlai. All of a sudden, my unique and significant history wasn’t so unique or significant. In fact, it was almost predictable. It was in my DNA. It was part of my own hidden history.

In a similar fashion, the people called Methodist have been doing schism for a very long time. Perhaps what is different this time is that we haven’t split YET over this issue. In the past, splits took place every 20 years on average.

It’s not like the previous issues were less significant. In fact, as Bishop Nunn reminded us: “Methodist schisms fall into three distinct categories: theology, inclusion and polity. Our present conflicts have roots in all three areas.”

“This realization should lead us to ask these three questions,” Bishop Nunn believes. “What do we believe and how do we live out our beliefs? Who is fully included in the life and ministry of the church? What is the balance between connection and autonomy?”

As we well know, today’s United Methodists respond differently to these questions. Our varied responses give rise to another dynamic that is at play. Historically, when a reform movement happened, it was followed by a restorationist movement. And vice versa. Often these counter-splits happened the very next year.

Our current issues have all the makings of a historical split. We have good drama. We have restorationists and reformers. We have the urge and precedent to split.

I wonder if we are freer when we split. After all, there is a certain energy that comes with divorce. A sudden burst of freedom, of independence. However, this new energy must not be sustainable, because we continue to divide.

Perhaps it’s time to split once again. Perhaps the genetic/cultural temptation is too strong to withstand, and the call of the times too strong to ignore. On the other hand, maybe we’ll decide to do something really different and find a way to work together — reformers and restorationists under one big tent. If so, we would finally have the opportunity to live out John Wesley’s aspirational thought, “Though we may not all think alike, can we not love alike?”

Learn more about how to turn destructive conflict into Productive Conflict through our upcoming online class, March 16-April 20.

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