Review: Methodist Experience in America

January 9th, 2012

There are so many books about how to "fix" the church, not least of which is the five-part Adaptive Leadership Series,” published by Abingdon Press to provide provocative assessments of The United Methodist Church's Call to Action. We Americans, especially, are so results and action-oriented, eager for fixes and solutions, motivated by a strong sense that we can favorably mold the future if only we land on the perfect fix-it scheme. History is humbling. It also provides perspective and distilled wisdom. It cautions and corrects. It inspires and provokes. It provides a kind of plumb-line, or perhaps several, against which the urgency of the moment can be tempered. Reading a history like Methodist Experience in America, Vol. 1 (Abingdon, 2010) grounds immediate decisions and plans in a deep, diverse comprehension of methodist history and ecclesiology.

This new volume in the excellent Methodist Experience in America (MEA) reference series is a treasure chest, a scrapbook, a family album to be cherished and revisited many times over.  It is a book for delegates who will study, and discuss, and discern, and vote. It is a book for preachers, who will find it chock full of stories, songs, and vignettes ready to salt sermons galore. It is a book for everyone who loves our precious heritage and prays for a robust and faithful future. 

Commissioned by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for use in United Methodist doctrine/polity/history courses, this book is a companion to the previously published MEA Vol. 2, A Sourcebook.  It is clearly the long-awaited, one-volume go-to book for a history of American Methodism, covering the years 1760-2000.  In addition to use in doctrine/polity/history courses, it should also make its way into church libraries and pastors’ studies.   

Russell Richey, Dean Emeritus of Candler and the William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor of Church History Emeritus, Kenneth Rowe, Emeritus Professor of Church History and Methodist Archives Librarian at Drew, and  Jean Miller Schmidt, Professor Emerita of Methodist Studies at Iliff, form a dynamic trio of Methodist history luminaries, uniquely qualified for this monumental undertaking.   

They have maintained the six-part periodization of the earlier volume so that source documents can be easily partnered with this new material.  They also focus in on three pivotal moments, snapshots of pivotal years—1816 in Baltimore, 1884 in Wilkes-Barre and 1968 in Denver.  These snapshots provide a kind of freeze frame, a fleshed-out look at a moment in time, which, in retrospect, was in fact an important transition year.  These three snapshots illustrate the authors’ conviction that Methodist history can be viewed through the three frameworks of piety, nurture, and advocacy.  While all three are present in each phase of our history, one of the three has received greater emphasis in each given segment.  What is perhaps most helpful to a contemporary participant in the decisions that will shape the future is the authors’ reminder of the important tension and relationship between all three.  Piety, nurture, and advocacy belong together, they maintain, and mutually reinforce one another.  This particular foundational dynamic of Methodism provides a helpful template for assessing proposals for restructuring and resource allocation.

Many current issues and tensions will be illuminated by exploring their roots and origins—from the impact of immigrant communities once the object of mission, to the provenance of the Social Creed, to the role and women, to racial injustice and reconciliation, to high church/low church worship debates, to the appointment system, to the “proper” role of bishops, to the purpose of the mission of the church itself, and so on...architecture, liturgy, hymnody, ordination, the work of conferencing.  To name all these still cannot exhaust the many illuminating insights gleaned from our rich, complex, sometimes contradictory, always fascinating history.

Still, it would be trite, as well as inaccurate, to conclude that there is nothing new under the sun.  Worshipping and serving a God who makes all things new, perhaps a concluding word comes out of the second General Conference of the Methodist Church held in 1944. America was at war, and the debate raged between advocates of pacifism or military service.  Alluding to the war itself, the then Dean of Drew Theological Seminary, Lynn Harold Hough, asserted that “God himself has a stake in the struggle.” (p.375)

This timely, timeless book of history reminds us powerfully that in every moment, in every decision, God indeed has a stake in the struggle.

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