New Stage for Unique Methodist Collection

By Sam Hodges (United Methodist News)

Out of sight for more than two years, a leading Methodist historical collection is back on display in a new home: Bridwell Library at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas.

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, remains the star of the show, as he was during the collection’s many years at the now-closed World Methodist Museum in Lake Junaluska, North Carolina.

At Bridwell Library, Wesley is represented by portraits, his traveling pulpit, a lock of his hair, a copy of his death mask and various ceramic busts and statuettes. But portraits and photos of women Methodist leaders also are featured, as are those of leaders of color who faithfully spread Wesleyan theology and practice across the world.

“I’m quite impressed by the diversity of the people depicted,” said James Stanley, who toured the exhibition one day recently during a break from his studies in Perkins’ doctor of pastoral music program. “That makes me happy.”

Such a reaction hits the sweet spot for Anthony Elia, director of Bridwell Library. He relishes having the collection but saw its reemergence as a chance to shake things up. “You’ll see a range of backgrounds and ethnic groups that you might not generally see in the traditional Methodist narratives,” he said.

The World Methodist Museum opened at Lake Junaluska – the picturesque Blue Ridge retreat and meeting center – in 1956 as a ministry of the World Methodist Council. The council’s top leaders then included the Rev. Elmer T. Clark. He was a renaissance man of mission and ministry, and he donated his collection of artifacts and portraits from early Methodism to get the museum started.

For decades, many Methodists and others who visited Lake Junaluska would stop by the World Methodist Museum. Its holdings gradually swelled with acquisitions and donations –  far more than could be on display. But in early 2020, the pandemic forced the museum to shut its doors. By February 2021, the World Methodist Council decided on permanent closure, citing the costs of staffing, utilities and upkeep. Two former top executives of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, the Revs. Robert J. Williams and Alfred T. Day III, were part of a committee the World Methodist Council formed to recommend what to do with the museum’s collection.

The committee insisted it should remain intact – not be scattered among institutions. Bridwell’s pitch to be the collection’s new home prevailed with the committee and the council’s leadership. The decision happened quickly. By April 2021, Elia was at Lake Junaluska to help pack hundreds of boxes.

“I was there for a couple of weeks,” he said. A specialty moving firm used a tractor-trailer truck to bring the collection to Atlanta, where it was in storage for a while. Then it was on to Bridwell, which, with Perkins, is on the campus of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University.

The library’s staff began a long period of sorting and evaluating what had arrived. Elia hoped to have a display up by spring 2023. But Bridwell got the chance to be part of a five-stop tour of the Codex Sassoon, an 1,100-year-old Hebrew Bible. This was a coup for Bridwell – and drew crowds – but delayed work on the World Methodist Museum materials. A big push by Elia and his staff came last summer, and the exhibition opened on October 2 in three gallery rooms at Bridwell, under the name World Methodist Museum Collections.

Among those getting an early look was David Worthington. He’s director of global relationships at John Wesley’s New Room, an important Methodist historical site in Bristol, England. Worthington gave a talk at Bridwell titled “Methodism Comes to America: the Bristol Connection” — and also gave his blessing to the exhibition.

“I think Anthony’s done a fantastic job in curating the collection and I hope many visitors will now get to learn of this story of the early Methodist movement and its development across the world,” Worthington told UM News by email.

Those who enter the exhibition space encounter Wesley’s traveling pulpit, a large, plain wooden object he used for preaching out of doors.

“It’s heavy as lead,” said the Rev. Ted Campbell, Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins. “They would have had to have carried it by horse- or mule-drawn cart.”

Elia believes the pulpit is destined to be the exhibition’s most popular spot for selfie photos.

Portraits of John Wesley, his brother Charles (the great hymn writer and co-founder of Methodism) and their mother, Susanna, done retrospectively by 20th century artist Frank O. Salisbury, grace one wall. Nearby is Henry Perlee Parker’s painting showing the rescue of the young John Wesley from the Epworth Rectory Fire.

Other key figures of early Methodism, such as Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, are represented with portraits. Philip Otterbein, who founded a denomination that would eventually merge with the Methodist Church, is depicted in a painting by John Wesley Jarvis – great, great nephew of John Wesley.

John Wesley artifacts, including the lock of hair, the death mask, one of his letters and sundry statuettes, are on display in glass exhibition cabinets. So is Asbury’s battered travel trunk. Many more artifacts are in storage, and the variety and number of them speak to how the early Methodist leaders, especially Wesley, captured the imagination of so many.

“The way we tell our identity as Methodists is to talk about that story of John Wesley,” Campbell said. But at Bridwell, visitors will be reminded that Methodism has had remarkable leaders across the world and through the generations. The first portrait visitors to the Bridwell exhibition are likely to see is not of John Wesley but of the Rev. Helenor Alter Davisson, the first woman ordained in American Methodism.

As prominently displayed as the portraits of the Wesley family members are those of Richard Allen, James Varick, and William H. Miles. They were key early figures in, respectively, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church.

Elia and his staff found photos of 28 leaders of Methodism from scattered countries and, for a wall display, grouped them around an enlarged image of John Wesley’s signature. Nearby are placards with summary bios of those men and women, as well as another display that focuses on women who made an outsize contribution in early Wesleyan Christianity.

So along with the Wesleys, Coke and Asbury, a visitor can learn about, say, Escriváo Aglaze Zunguze, first African bishop in the Methodist Church, Wenyan Chen, bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in China (once called “China’s No. 1 Protestant” by Time magazine), and Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, an 18th- and early 19th-century female Methodist evangelist in England.

Campbell said that the exhibition is “giving a more accurate and full expression of Methodism throughout the world.” The exhibition’s title – World Methodist Museum Collections – pays tribute to the Lake Junaluska era, as does a portrait of Clark and signage sharing the museum’s history.

Plans call for creating an online guide to the collection and for a publicity push to let more people know about the exhibition, which offers free admission and already has attracted church and student groups. 

For Worthington, it’s cheering that so much Methodist history has been preserved and in one place. He addressed the World Methodist Council in Lake Junaluska in 2013 and took the opportunity to visit the World Methodist Museum. He recalls that the portraits and artifacts testified to how Methodism was born in 18th-century England and soon came to North America, where it spread with the United States’ expansion.

Said Worthington: “It seems somewhat fitting that the World Methodist Council’s museum collection has taken the same direction of travel as it has moved west from Lake Junaluska to Dallas.”

Sam Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News ( We are grateful for his story and photos.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join Our Mailing List!

Click here to sign up to our email lists:

•Perspective Newsletter (weekly)
• Transforming Congregations Newsletter (monthly)
• Renew Newsletter (monthly)

Make a Gift

Global Methodist Church

Is God Calling You For More?


Latest Articles: