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Methodism: How We Went Wrong

Oct 5 2020 Donald W. Haynes

Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Throughout the twentieth century, The United Methodist Church and its parent denominations lost membership and attendance inside the institutional church, as well as muscle and influence at the “table of the public square.” In reality one must look back to the nineteenth century to find an era when the major branches of Methodism grew more rapidly than the United States population. Indeed one must look at the 1840’s to find any semblance of growth in America like we see in African Methodism today. Evangelism and numerical church growth have not been a priority for Methodist leadership since the era when “gradualism” replaced “conversion.” 

Rise and Fall of Sunday school

By the 1880’s, the change from conversion to “gradualism” was espoused candidly by the editors of Sunday school literature in both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. John Vincent was the MEC Sunday school editor from 1868-88. His Sunday school Journal had a circulation of 2,500,000! According to his biography written by his own son, “he was known to oppose the old-fashioned emotional revival.” Indeed his book published in 1882 was entitled The Revival After the Revival in which he asserted his rejection of “the morbid, self-centered religion of my childhood.” He believed that “sin was only a habit that could with enough time, be bleached out of a person by right associations.” After he was elected bishop in 1890, he was a major voice in “pushing out” the Methodists who believed in the holiness movement’s view of sanctification as a ‘second work of grace.” Concurrently with Vincent in the north was the same theological shift by editor Atticus Haygood in the South. 

Wesley’s emphasis on his definition of the “Scriptural Way of Salvation” faded and the Boards of Education editors “wrote the script” followed in most local churches. As the fires of local church revivals flickered and finally died, seven of eight youth who became members were products of the Sunday school. The theology of Sunday school literature that eroded the underpinnings of Wesleyan orthodoxy included:

  • Enlightenment philosophy that taught the innate goodness of humankind rather than original sin

  • The immanence of God rather than God’s transcendence

  • Horace Bushnell’s doctrine of gradualism rather than conversion

  • Stories of Jesus that depicted him as a wise and kind teacher without mentioning his being the Son of God, atonement on the cross, or the cost of discipleship

By the turn of the twentieth century, George A Coe, a Methodist, became the “theologian” of religious education. He was a disciple of John Dewey, the father of philosophical progressivism and the “godfather” of public school education from its inception to this very day. While studying at Columbia University, Coe decided that Methodist educational curricula should reflect Dewey! Dr. Coe was vehemently opposed to the concept of sudden conversion, the gateway to discipleship that had characterized the Second Great Awakening and the phenomenal growth of the Wesleyan churches.

Coe “sharply dissented from traditional theologies of sin and evil.” With his widely read and espoused book, The Religion of A Mature Mind, published in 1902, Coe successfully influenced editors of church school literature to delete any references to the doctrine of original sin, any references to the atonement, or to Pentecost, or other basic premises of historic Christian thought. Church school literature portrayed the Son of God as “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Biblical characters were “sanitized” so that no doctrine of sin could be seen in their portrayal. 

Reflecting on the words of Coe, “We are making religion Jesus made it,” Dr. Shelton Smith responded in 1943, “In this view, the value of the Bible lies chiefly in its power to stimulate a religious quest that will result in the creation of spiritual norms that transcend those embodied in the Bible.” He continued, “There is little hope that liberal nurture in its present form can keep religion prophetically alive in our culture.” As Shailer Matthews put it, “a faith on the defensive is confessedly senile.” Again to quote Smith: “Liberal nurture is feeble because it is rooted in a sub-Christian gospel. Educational evangelism has no adequate evangel,” influenced all students majoring in religious education for well over half a century. Methodism became “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Don’t forget; Smith wrote those words in 1943! 

The twentieth was the century when evangelism was minimized in mainstream Methodism, but little notice was paid to the demise. In spite of the absence of evangelism, conversion, or the cross in Sunday school literature, American culture was a friend of Sunday school as a paradigm of nurture. Biological growth, small group fellowship and rural community socialization hid theological weakness for several decades. Many rural churches were on circuits where Sunday school was often the only congregation-wide ministry every Sunday. The Sunday school superintendent was the de facto leader of thousands of small membership churches. Baby Boomers after World War II gave Sunday school a cultural boost when young parents in nuclear families with three or four children brought them to Sunday school every Lord’s Day. Sunday school attendance often was larger than worship attendance.

However, storm clouds were gathering. In 1957, LOOK magazine’s cover was emblazoned with huge white letters: “Sunday School—the Most Wasted Hour of the Week?” They called it “the only school in the world that was not a school.” Surveying hundreds of persons who had been to Sunday school all their lives, LOOK found that most were still biblically illiterate. At that time, seven of eight new members in The Methodist Church came through the Sunday school. A decline began then that became obvious with the end of the Baby Boom in 1964, precipitous in 1968, and has never been reversed. The cultural revolution of the 1960’s resulted in many young adults who had been reared in Sunday school deciding not to take their children. No mainline church suffered in Sunday school loss as much as did the newly merged United Methodist Church. Churches that had built elaborate and spacious “Educational Buildings” in the 1950’s saw classrooms converted to parlors. With the decline of the Sunday school, the local church lost its small group ministries. 

Prevailing Theological Trends in Seminaries

From the inception of seminaries in Methodism, most faculty who earned doctorates went to Germany for their theological education. No university in Germany had any regard for John Wesley as a theologian. By the turn of the century in 1900, Borden Parker Bowne and Edgar Brightman at Boston were blanketing seminary and college faculties with their “personalism” as the theological flagship for all Methodism. Personalism was a liberal philosophy of religion, not biblical theology. At Garrett, Harris Franklin Rall taught Methodist Studies, not from Wesley’s sermons and tracts, but through the lens of Schleiermacher whose emphasis on religious experience was psychologically based, not biblically. Iliff, Candler, and Perkins schools of theology came on line early in the twentieth century to complement Boston, Drew, and Vanderbilt. Duke opened in 1927. With unification in 1939, Wesley Theological Seminary was added. In 1956, St. Paul School of Theology and Methodist Theological Seminary of Ohio were opened by action of the General Conference. With the 1968 Methodist/EUB merger, United came on board as well. None of these Methodist seminaries taught Wesleyan studies in depth; all were devotees of the rising tide of biblical higher criticism.

Seminary homiletics prior to 1968 taught topical preaching rather than biblical sermons. So much of their content was what Dr. William Abraham has called “doctrinal pablum or moralistic platitudes.” He also coined the term “doctrinal amnesia” to describe our great denomination as being “a mile wide and an inch deep.” Rich Wesleyan doctrine oozed toward a “vanilla” brand. Methodist seminaries did not emphasize John Wesley in the entire twentieth century until he was ‘recovered” by Albert Outler at SMU in the 1960’s.

Most seminary faculty either had no parish experience or their pastoral ministry exposed the gap between their “19th century liberalism” and the benign biblical literalism of the laity. Therefore, they considered “old Methodism” as an intellectual back eddy. Graduates basically either had to depart from their seminary education or have considerable conflict with the laity in their early parishes. Again, there was virtually no reflection on Wesley and no emphasis on evangelical theology. Sunday school, biological growth, and denominational loyalty were the “engines” that drove the entire denomination for nearly a century. The norm for pastoral tenure was four years; so Methodist pastors did not have the community influence that Presbyterians and Baptists had.

Decline of the Rural Churches

A major dimension of Francis Asbury’s genius was to “take Methodism to the circumference” as the American frontier moved westward. Circuit riders were appointed to “territories” and expected to plant churches in every “cove and creek settlement.” Rural churches became the center of communities. People named their roads, post offices, and often their one-room schoolhouses after churches! Methodism by 1840, according to research by Dr. Nathan Hatch, had become the “largest organization in America except the government.” Many camp meeting altar calls had strong men, women, and youth rise from their knees in the sawdust, empowered to become good farmers, shop owners, carpenters, shoemakers, postmistresses, wheelwrights, or in the case of youth, to gain control of their tempers, their hormones, their addictions, and to learn “letters and numbers” at school. Diligence and hard work were moral imperatives. Methodism made a vast difference in the morals and ethics of rural America. It was marked by social justice energy, devotion to task, willingness to sacrifice, fidelity in marriage, and passion in the love of the Lord. The pox on Methodism’s house was the marriage of the South to the institution of slavery, and then of segregation. 

By the late 1930’s, Methodism realized that its rural base was eroding rapidly as people moved to the cities and pastors served rural circuits only as “stepping stones” to village or urban “stations.” The Town and Country Movement developed enough influence to have every seminary devote one faculty position to the rural parish, but the professor’s training was in rural sociology with no emphasis on evangelism. Men like Rockwell Smith at Garrett, Marvin Judy at Perkins, and Earl D. C. Brewer at Emory developed the paradigm of “Group Ministries,” “Larger Parishes,” “Extended Parishes,” etc. Not only did this trend peter out because of the lack of evangelical theology; it also suffered from the fact that the average tenure of pastors serving in rural communities was 2.3 years. With the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968, most of the rural parish faculty had retired and were not replaced.

During the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s in the plains states, the loss of members in rural communities became a hemorrhage. In 1900 in what Berea College identified as ‘Southern Appalachia,” there were twice as many Methodists as Baptists. According to research done by Earl Brewer at Candler, by 1950 there were twice as many Baptists as Methodists in the same counties. Losses were also becoming severe in former Methodist strongholds like Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa. By the 21st century, there were very few numerically strong United Methodist Churches in rural communities. The members who remained became limited to older adults.

The Price of Ecumenism

With the dawn of the 20th century, denominationalism morphed from being a source of pride to being an embarrassment. Russell Richey, American Methodism’s preeminent historian, has written that the magnificent obsession of Methodism in the late nineteenth century ceased to be evangelism and became missions and education at the local level, but the obsession at the general church level was ecumenism. This was expressed in the formation of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in 1907. Its first president was a Methodist bishop. 

Among the three predominantly white Methodist denominations, the mood was “unification or bust”! In 1900 they adopted a mutual hymnal. We even neglected our social justice obligation in the Great Depressions because most Methodist passion and energy in the General Conferences of 1932 and 1936 was for unifying the largest three branches of Methodism. This “unification” happened in 1939 to form The Methodist Church as the largest Protestant denomination in America. 

After World War II, Methodist growth became limited to the affluent, white suburbs. In about 1957, Gibson Winters of Garrett Biblical Institute wrote an important book that suffered benign neglect—The Suburban Captivity of the Church. Not only did we lose our influence in the “country,” but also in the blue collar mill and coal mine villages, and in the inner cities near the behemoth industries like automobiles and steel. With every passing decade, our presence and witness dwindled in rural and blue collar urban socio-economic groups. Our pastors did not stay long enough to effect social justice systemic change or changed lives.

In the 1950’s and especially in the turbulent 1960’s, the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church did not foresee the social revolution coming in United States society. Their passion for merger convinced their leadership that their individual identity was an ecclesiastical sin. The merger was accomplished in 1968 with the formation of The United Methodist Church. 

William Abraham in his book, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia, documented that the Methodist delegation was embarrassed when doctrine was on the agenda in the negotiations for the EUB-Methodist merger We had long ignored Wesley’s sermons and the consensus fidelium of early Methodism. Even the word “Sanctification” was salvaged only by the EUB Confession of Faith in 1968. The EUB people lost most of their historic “brand” identity. Hundreds of their former churches are closed.

In the theological statement for the 1972 Book of Discipline in the new United Methodist Church, Albert Outler invented the word “quadrilateral” that was a process, not a doctrinal statement. Yet it became the shibboleth used in Boards of Ordained Ministry and sermons! In 1988 the present theological statement was written primarily by Dr. Thomas Langford. The word “quadrilateral” was retained but with an insistence on the primacy of Scripture. Honestly, though, it was adopted with little inquiry and created minimal study among most local congregations. Consequently, by the twentieth-first century, almost no United Methodist family or pastor was inculcating in children what they believed as Wesleyans. Therefore history will record that the price of ecumenism was high—the loss of doctrinal identity. 

The Path to Less Influence and Affluence

In 1968, the new United Methodist Church set sail on its highly touted adventure with the same blindness to reality as the Titanic. The UMC, like the Titanic, has ignored the icebergs as the bands played on. We have annually lost membership and attendance. The die is now cast for division of The United Methodist Church. To use a phrase of the late Lyle Schaller, “The ice cube is melting.” Its identity is being sacrificed on the altar of social justice, political correctness, and loss of Wesleyan heritage. Every local United Methodist Church and every UMC clergyperson will decide which path to take as a new future is created. 

Many pastors who will find themselves theologically uncomfortable in the “post UMC” church will remain there because loyalty and “catholic spirit” are ingrained in our ecclesiastical DNA. Many though will leave. Many churches will ask to retain their real and liquid property and join a new and more conservative Wesleyan denomination. The “new Methodist Church” will probably provide more opportunity for local pastors. Almost all colleges, seminaries, camps, and retirement homes and the real estate of General Boards and Agencies will likely remain at least officially related to the “post UMC” church, but financial support will atrophy substantially. 

The age called “Christendom” is faded, both in cultural belief and religious “muscle.” Denominational lawn signs are disappearing. The once popular comic strip, “Pogo” had a line whose wisdom could not, and cannot, be ignored: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” 

Donald W. Haynes is a retired UMC minister in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. He is the author of A Digest of Methodist Grace Theology and a two-volume set of Methodist history, The Methodist Story—1703-1791 & 1760’s-2019.


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