Looking Forward, Looking Back

By Donald Haynes –

Jorge Santyana wrote in the 1930s, “If we do not know history, we are condemned to repeat it.” History is not a boring recitation of dates and personalities; history is revelatory of events and ideas that were wrong and have proved costly. Church history is no exception.

Methodism was already the largest denomination in America before they had a single theological seminary. As late as 1856, we had no post-graduate theological school, only an “institute” in Massachusetts! Did we need an educated clergy? Of course. Most Methodist preachers had bragged about being graduates of “brush college,” meaning none. The Course of Study was designed by the Council of Bishops and was the only educational requirement for Full Connection and Elders Orders. As late as the 1856 General Conference westerner Peter Cartwright called seminary graduates comparable to “lettuce growing under the shade of a peach tree or like young goslings with the straddles from wading in the dew.”

However, “the times they were a’changing.” By 1853, James Strong, famous for his Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, wrote that the people were “hungering for a higher style of sermonizing, and they will have it or leave the communion.” He accurately pointed out that in three growing metropolises so dear to early Methodism — New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore — Wesley’s theological legacy was declining in membership and influence. Immediately after the Civil War, all branches of Methodism fostered the formation of theological seminaries.

By the 1870s the Methodist Episcopal Church had established Drew, our first postgraduate seminary, and “converted” Boston and Garrett from “biblical institutes” to theological seminaries. The United Brethren had established United at Dayton; the Evangelical Alliance had organized Evangelical at Naperville, the Methodist Episcopal South had established Vanderbilt at Nashville, and in 1884 the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church formed Zion Institute (now Hood Theological Seminary) in North Carolina and the Methodist Protestant Church had founded Westminster (now Wesley) on the campus of Western Maryland College. Official UM seminaries such as Candler, Perkins, Duke, Iliff, Claremont, St. Paul, Gammon, and Methodist of Ohio came later.

With all the good effects of the formation of seminaries, one persistent trend proved costly. We gradually saw an erosion of the earlier passion and influence of Wesley’s theology. To receive the necessary credentials of academia to teach, bright doctoral graduate students went to Germany for their theological and biblical studies and returned to teach in the seminaries of Wesley’s legacy. English Methodism had no doctoral programs. Yet, the faculty of biblical and theological studies in the great universities of Europe had their roots in Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli — not Wesley.

The founder of Methodism was little more than a footnote in the curriculum of continental theology. They had neither knowledge nor regard for John Wesley. Therefore, the grace theology that is now our defining paradigm was almost muted until the work of Albert Outler once he came to the faculty of Perkins School of Theology in the 1960s.

Robert Cushman’s John Wesley’s Experimental Divinity was not published until after his death in 1989. The most influential voices who preserved Wesley in the first two thirds of the 20th century were those who spoke for and mostly within the holiness elements of Methodism, especially Asbury Theological Seminary. (Asbury was Wesleyan and Arminian but not Methodist per se.) The sad result of a century of seminary faculties’ neglect of John Wesley was a serious loss of doctrinal clarity among preachers and, consequently, laity.

Wesley’s theology was centered on soteriology. Salvation is the theme of John’s sermons and Charles’ hymns. At the founding “Christmas Conference” of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, this quotation from Wesley was used by both Coke and Asbury and considered mandatory for every preacher: “It is not your business to preach so many times and take care of this of that society; but to save as many souls as you can.” This was hallmark of early Methodism. The inevitable corollary of the loss of Wesleyan theology in the late 19th century was that the message of seminary graduates focused less and less on evangelism. Undeniably, this passion was largely spent by the dawn of the 20th century. Many would question its relevance for today, but as late as the 1988 Book of Discipline, this statement was printed: “The United Methodist Church believes today, as Methodism has from the first, that the only infallible proof of the true church of Christ is its ability to seek and to save the lost.”

In the 20th century, Warren Sweet, early 20th century pre-eminent Methodist historian and his successor, Sidney Mead, revisioned the Methodist growth era. They emphasized rather that Methodism was a gentrified church belonging to the growing middle class. Reflecting on the paradigm shift from colonial America to the Second Great Awakening, Mead mourned “the end of what had been noble about American religion” and insisted that such movements as the camp meetings “effectively scuttled much of the intellectual structure of Protestantism.” Author Nathan Hatch in his important volume, Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture, “accused” Warren and Mead of “sanitizing” Methodist beginnings.

The successor to revivalism as the means of being discipled was the Sunday school. Under the leadership of John Vincent in the ME Church and Atticus Haygood in the ME Church, South, the curriculum of Sunday school material for children and youth substituted “gradualism” for “conversion” from the latter decades of the 19th century. Haygood, a Georgian, spoke often of his “unconversion” as he, echoing Vincent in the North, embraced the progressive education theory of John Dewey, and embedded that philosophy of learning into the children’s Sunday school material. All mention of the atonement, the former “age of accountability” which prompted the need for conversion, was muted. For the first half of the century, certified educators used the term “Director of Religious Education,” an intentional omission of the word “Christian.”

During the century long heyday of the Sunday school, church growth depended on the nursery and denominational loyalty! By the 1950s seven of every eight new Methodist members were coming through the Sunday school. Large families reflected large children’s classes and denominational loyalty meant that when rural people moved to the cities or southerners went north or easterners went west, Methodists remained Methodist. As Sunday school declined, the 1960s saw the advent of confirmation classes as the normative route to church membership. Confirmation was mostly cognitive; the word “conversion” was muted. Experiential grace was not, nor is, a part of confirmation!

Another effect of the seminary was the cultural shock of going from the theological cloisters of the theological school to rural circuits. By 1940 the Town and Country movement began to pressure seminaries to have a “Professor of Town and Country Ministry” on every faculty. Unfortunately most of these fine men, like Earl D.C. Brewer at Candler and Marvin Judy at Perkins and Rockwell Smith at Garrett had their doctorate in rural sociology and taught from that perspective. They had a profound impact on my own ministry, but most seminary graduates saw a rural church appointment as a “stepping stone.” Few put down roots in rural communities or even identified with the changing culture of rural America.

Pastors in rural areas and mill villages were far too often “not yets, rejects, and has beens.” Effective pastors usually were fast tracked to larger churches. Consequently, our rural churches began to decline long, long before denominational leadership noticed or really cared. The local church of small membership, both in rural and blue collar sub cultures, had literally no voice to inspire or to lead them local societal influence. Small membership churches came to be tolerated more than celebrated. That trend continues today, to our shame.

As a result of these trends and more, Methodism lost influence, muscle, and membership in the 20th century. Facts are facts. We do not review the past to mope or scream or weep, but we did not get just “yesterday” where we are today.

While still at Yale in 1950, young Methodist scholar Albert Outler gave a lecture we have only in mimeographed form but wisely quoted in The History of American Methodism, edited in 1964 by Emory Stevens Bucke. Long before Outler became the man who would restore Wesley to the status of theologian, or ensconce grace theology as the essential doctrine of United Methodism, he wrote:

“Methodists should come again to the firm grip and the constant interpretation in living the great motifs of God and God in Christ, and God’s grace, and man’s response, and man’s blessedness. This seems to me one of the most profound prospects of contemporary theology — that a way be found that is true to the deep historic springs of the Christian tradition, and yet does not fall into what seems to me to be the increasingly restrictive confines of the Calvinist revival. This way is open to Methodists if they will seek it and walk in it.”

In Dr. Robert Cushman’s posthumously published book using Wesley’s term for his doctrine as “experimental divinity,” the Duke Dean insisted that early Methodism had a “consensus fidelium.” Then Cushman wrote this: “If the ‘canon of doctrines and discipline’ embodies the ‘sufficient reason’ for a church’s being, the dimming or decline or erosion of that rationale (that consensus fidelium) is a negative prognosis for the survival of that church, particularly in modern secular society.” He continued, “It is then to be pondered whether in the absence of a consensus fidelium, a Christian community can attain to or retain a manifest identity and self-understanding, or convey a recognizable or enduring message, or, indeed, survive at all.”

Hearing those words passively does us little good; they are only recitations of our heritage. Are we ready to hear those words and not be “hearers only of the Word but doers also”?

Do we have a consensus fidelium as we face tough issues at the 2016 General Conference? I fear not. Who will lead us to this recovery of both our identity and our mission? Will our bishops? Will our seminary faculties? Surely we will not tolerate the closing of churches, the dissolution of districts, the sale of camps, the loss of membership and societal influence, the shortage of funding for missional ministries, the signs of delayed building maintenance, and other ominous signs of decline. Let us, “Rise up, ye saints of God, have done with lesser things! Give heart and mind and soul and strength to serve the King of Kings.”

Donald W. Haynes is a retired United Methodist clergyperson, former writer of “Wesleyan Wisdom,” author of On The Threshold of Grace — Methodist Fundamentals, and adjunct faculty in Wesleyan studies at Hood Theological Seminary.


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