Theological Reforms Adopted within the Methodist Episcopal Church from Its Beginnings to the Present

August 17th, 2017

The Wesleys formed the Holy Club at Oxford as a protest against spiritual mediocrity. The protest did not contest doctrines or theology of the Anglican Church. Rather, it was about the church’s failure in praxis, that is, its preaching, teaching, and application of its own core doctrines and theology. This protest sparked a Methodist movement of reform and renewal that continues in many places across the world today.

The Methodist movement grew like wildfire at first through unauthorized field preaching and the multiplication of small groups for accountable discipleship. Methodist and German Pietist immigrants and missionaries transplanted this drive for spiritual reformation to North America. According to its first Discipline in 1784, the two-pronged mission of American Methodism was “to reform the continent, and spread scripture Holiness over these Lands” (emphasis added).

Once Methodists in North America traded the direct authority of John Wesley for a quasi-democratic system of governance, however, it became increasingly difficult to carve out clear pathways for reform. It quickly became evident that, in many cases, reform held opposite meanings from one Methodist to another, and this sometimes included opposition to John Wesley’s reform initiatives.

For example, Wesley was widely known for employing female preachers. Nonetheless, American Methodist protest effectively banned women from Methodist pulpits for nearly two centuries. Notable exceptions were the Methodist Protestants and United Brethren in Christ, which often employed women as preachers and began ordaining women in 1877 and 1889, respectively. Only in 1956 did the Methodist Church finally concede to the reform of ordaining women. It took the United Methodist Church and predecessor denominations 172 years to arrive at a reform John Wesley had initiated centuries earlier.

Another prime example of conflicting ideas of reform had to do with slavery. The first American Methodist bishops, Asbury and Coke, followed in Wesley’s antislavery reform footsteps. They ensured that the first General Conference in America in 1784 prohibited slaveholding. Then, as a result of powerful protests by slaveholding southerners, this position was officially reversed within only six months. Those with vested interests in slavery argued that antislavery reform was, in fact, a form of regression that would weaken the church and its witness in the South. Only after a denominational split in 1844, and reunification with the costly compromise of a racial Central Jurisdiction from 1939 until 1972, did the reunited United Methodist Church rid itself of its most blatant forms of institutionalized racism. This occurred 187 years after the 1785 southern counter to reform was enacted to accommodate the institution of slavery.

Opposition of a similar intensity has countered many American Methodist efforts at reform. This has meant that many changes adopted by American Methodists took years, and sometimes lifetimes, to accomplish.  As a consequence, entire groups have exited the denomination over matters they deemed urgent and important enough. Slavery, racial prejudice, and differing understandings of holiness cost the Methodist Episcopal Church (and MEC, South) the loss of at least five denominations of Methodists: The African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816), AME Zion Church (1821), Christian Methodist Church (1870), the Wesleyan Methodists (1843), and Free Methodists (1860).

Similar stories can be told about reforms related to temperance, divorce, laity rights, and myriad other issues. Currently, reform agitation in opposing directions around sexuality commands enormous attention with arguments seemingly virulent enough to split the denomination yet again.

Despite the volatility of its reform efforts, Methodism’s innate capacity to reform is one of its strengths. Without it, Methodism and its ministries through the centuries would not have existed. Yet the nature of reform is often subjective and controversial; its timing is unpredictable, and its outcomes must be judged, ultimately, by God and history.

It is no accident that the early American Methodist mission agenda paired reform with holiness. John Wesley defined holiness, most simply, as “pure love.” While holiness is often seen as an end goal, it is also the Wesleyan way of being on the journey of a godly Christian life, including one that pursues reform. It’s difficult to accomplish reform, let alone to practice holiness, when we’re busy undercutting each other.

On the other hand, the practice of holiness cultivates relationships, even with enemies. It witnesses to faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in ways that fuel reform and renewal. One might argue that Methodists of all stripes need holiness as much as we need reform. 

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