How did we get here from there?

By Riley B. Case

The greatest revival in religious history was fueled by Methodists in America between 1784 and 1850. This period marked the 66 years after Methodism was formed in this country. During that time, Methodism grew from 2 percent to 33 percent of the religious adherents in America.

In 1850, 12 percent of all  Americans were Methodist. This was accomplished without the benefit of seminaries, or professionalized Sunday schools, and with almost no church bureaucracy. According to the American Almanac in 1837, Congregational seminaries enrolled 234 students, Presbyterians 257, Episcopalians 47, Baptists 107, and Methodists none. Instead, Methodists at the time were organizing camp meetings, composing gospel spirituals, and crisscrossing the country with their system of circuit riders.

Analyzing Methodist spiritual strength in America, Bishop Matthew Simpson wrote A Hundred Years of Methodism in 1876. Simpson was known at the time as Mr. Methodist. Converted at age 18 at a camp meeting, Simpson felt called to preach and was on a circuit at age 23, became a college president (Indiana Asbury) at age 28, elected editor of Western Christian Advocate at age 37, and elected to the episcopacy at age 41. Simpson fought against slavery and alcohol, was a friend of Abraham Lincoln (and preached his funeral sermon), and lobbied four different presidents for Methodist presence in government. He served as a bishop for thirty-two years.

According to Simpson, Methodist growth and influence could be summed up by three factors: Methodism’s doctrines, its piety and zeal, and its system of government. Simpson referred to the Articles of Religion for doctrine, the General Rules for moral purity, and the conferences for system of government.

Simpson summarized Methodism’s doctrine as follows:

“Its creed may be styled evangelical Arminian. It teaches the natural depravity of the human heart; the atonement made by the Lord Jesus Christ as a sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; that salvation is offered to every individual on conditions of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; that a man is justified by faith alone, but that good works follow and flow from a living faith. It teaches that every believer may have the witness of the Spirit attesting his sonship, and insists upon ‘following after holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord.’”

On zeal and moral purity Simpson said:

“…its success has not been owing to any lowering of the moral standard, or catering to the tastes or prejudices of society. The voice of the Church has been clearly heard in the denunciation of vice in every form….It sacrificed in many instances the favor of wealth and influence rather than to forbear its testimony.”

What has happened? 

How did we get from there, from the Methodism of Bishop Simpson, to where we are today? Instead of 12 percent of the American population, United Methodism today counts 3 percent of Americans as United Methodist (and this after the EUB merger). In 1890, Methodism claimed 7.1 million members, almost as many as today, when the population was only a fifth of what it is today.

Methodism’s “piety and zeal,” especially for the saving of souls, has waned, and the moral witness hardly exists. This is no better illustrated than by the accusation that the church’s stance on sexuality in the Discipline is “immoral and unjust and no longer deserving of our loyalty and obedience” (Bishop Melvin Talbert). The immoral and unjust stance Talbert objects to is the church’s traditional stand of faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness. Simpson’s term for this compromise is “catering to the tastes or prejudices of society.”

In church government, the Call to Action recommendations, with modest proposals for reform and revitalization, after several years of study, $500,000 spent on expenses, and untold hours of discussion, failed spectacularly at General Conference, due, among other things, to the inability of United Methodists to think and work together.

The straight answer to what has happened is that Methodism has for a long time been compromising its core beliefs and values. This is not something that has just happened recently but has been going on for over one hundred years.  This has not been like a tire blow out, but like a long, slow leak.

Modernism’s denials 

Even during Simpson’s time, the attacks on the core beliefs of Christian faith were being launched. Those who did not want the Methodism of Bishop Simpson, who believed that to be credible in a modern world, the beliefs of the church would have to change, were called modernists. Modernists started with a denial of Original Sin. John Wesley had stated that the whole Christian Gospel rested on the assumption that all are born in sin and that the person who denied Original Sin was not a Christian.

No matter. Horace Bushnell, a Congregational minister, was teaching even before the Civil War that children did not have to be taught they were sinners before they could become Christians. A child could grow up and never imagine anything but that he or she had always been a Christian. This theory, when taken to its logical conclusion, cut the heart out of Wesleyan doctrine. If persons can always have been Christians there is no need for the Atonement, Repentance, or the New Birth.

Modernists could not change the stated doctrine of the Church, which was protected by constitutional law, but where they could make changes, they did. The section, “Depravity,” always a part of Methodist hymnals, was deleted in the 1905 hymnal. In 1910, the M.E. Church South omitted words in the baptismal ritual that said “For as much as all men are conceived and born in sin, and that our Savior Christ saith, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God,” and replaced these words in the ritual: “Forasmuch as God in his great mercy hath entered into covenant relations with man, wherein he hath included children as partakers of its gracious benefits….” This was further diluted so that by 1932 the ritual said: “Forasmuch as all children are members of the kingdom of God….”

This is significant. The Church went from believing all have been born in sin to believing that we are all members of the Kingdom. No wonder we today have the ideology of “Inclusivism,” the approach that since all are already members of the Kingdom there is little interest in talking about Original Sin, Atonement, Repentance, Redemption, Salvation. Under this ideology, beliefs, practices, and standards do not matter. Neither pastors nor church boards nor the Discipline can make a judgment on a person’s readiness for church membership, or a person’s salvation, if one can even talk about salvation.

The Holy Scriptures

By 1920, new members were no longer required to respond to the question, “Do you believe in the doctrines of Holy Scriptures as set forth in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Episcopal Church?”

In 1935, E.B. Chappell, editor of church school materials in the M.E. Church South, asserted in the book Recent Developments of Religious Education in the Methodist Episcopal Church that earlier leaders “lacking in scholarly equipment” were well-intentioned but did not realize the “larger meanings” of theology and taught an “inherited Calvinism” leading to “erroneous opinions that became a serious hindrance to the development of effective religious education.” Chappell identified the erroneous opinions as total depravity, emphasis on blood atonement, and the necessity for radical conversion. Chappell admitted the task before the leaders with scholarly equipment was great, since almost all Methodists still clung to the old ways of thinking, but these Methodists would have to change.

Chappell was followed by Ethel L. Smither in a 1937 book entitled The Use of the Bible with Children, which stated clearly that what was being presented was not just one person’s idea, but was “official” and “approved” by the Board of Education of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Smither started with a discussion of “universal reconstruction” – old ways were not adequate; new ways must prevail. The new ways were that the learning of facts, doctrine, and Bible stories was no longer acceptable. What was acceptable was having “vital experiences.” The purpose of Christian education was not to impart knowledge about God or the Bible or salvation, but character growth and personality development. The end result was that most Bible material, including stories from Bible story books, and especially the Old Testament, was not suitable for children, since they would present a picture of God that was distorted by contact with pre-Christian ideas.

Harold Paul Sloan, representing a small and unsuccessful evangelical effort to counteract the modernist juggernaut, in the 1916 book The Child and the Church argued that the most important crisis in the Church was over what would be taught to children. To deny the doctrine of Original Sin was also to deny the cross, the Atonement, and the doctrine of Christ the redeemer.

In 1929, George Betts published a study The Beliefs of 700 Ministers. The affirmation: “Man was originally in a state of complete moral perfection which he lost by his disobedience and fall,” was affirmed by only 61 percent of the 700 ministers studied. While 71 percent of the Evangelical Association pastors affirmed the statement, only 40 percent of the Methodists could do so. Among seminary students, only 18 percent affirmed the statement. After Congregationalists, Methodists were the most liberal group of the denominations surveyed.

Modernism as an approach to theology and Christian education was discredited by the 1950s. It was a spiritually bankrupt theology. Many ideologies have been, however, advocated in its place: idealism, process theology, existentialism, feminism, womanist theology, liberation theology – all of which have failed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary people, who still read their Bibles, and in countless churches across the nation, still preach a Christ crucified.

Those who worry about United Methodism should know that, thanks in part to Good News and other evangelical renewal movements, United Methodists have greatly modified their views since Betts’ study in 1929. Except for American Baptists, United Methodists are now more conservative in their doctrinal and moral views than any of the other mainline denominations. Groups like the United Church of Christ, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans (once the most conservative theologically of all mainline groups), the Disciples, and the Presbyterians are imploding and in statistical free-fall. It can be argued there is a direct relationship between how theologically liberal a denomination is and how great is the disintegration.

Disintegrating relevance 

The disintegration is not just in statistical numbers, but in influence and relevance. Without a central core of essential truth, churches and denominations meander into meaninglessness. This is the major issue facing United Methodism today. It may be fine to present Plans of Action with important restructuring. It may be fine to talk about Vital Congregations which are welcoming and diverse and friendly. It may be fine to be involved in works or mercy in the community. It may be fine to seek social justice and to work for the end of poverty and racism. It may be fine to have highly educated ministers trained in philosophy and the social sciences. But without the preaching of the pure Word of God, the people perish. Would that we might hear that word from our bishops and our church leaders.

For many years, progressives ruled in the seminaries and the boards and agencies and even at the General Conferences in The United Methodist Church. Under their leadership, the church has suffered. At the moment there is no hint that these people have the slightest clue as to the connection between what they have been advocating and the destruction of the church.

But maybe, just maybe, the tide is beginning to turn. When Bishop Melvin Talbert went into a rant following the General Conference and called what is in the Discipline “immoral and unjust and no longer deserving of our loyalty and obedience,” he may have been doing the church a favor. Some other bishops stood with Talbert. He was supported by some jurisdictions and conferences and special interest groups. Let us understand this for what it is: an outburst of desperation because the church is no longer willing to march to the progressive drum beat.

Many of us wish still to uphold the doctrines and discipline of The United Methodist Church. We are not willing to jettison that which made us vital and strong. For this we pray and work.

Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference, assistant executive director of the Confessing Movement, and a member of the Good News Board of Directors. He is also the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon)