The Method to the Madness
written by Dominic J.S. Mejia
Churches flank the main streets of countless towns throughout the United States. Their names, plastered on wooden signs and flashing on marquees, hint at complex histories and legacies that undergird their ongoing ministry. The Lutherans trace their lineage directly to Martin Luther, a key figure of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation who focused on the centrality of faith, as opposed to works, in Christian theology. Presbyterians are organized in regional administrative bodies known as presbyteries. Unitarians reject Trinitarianism, or the belief that God is three persons, one God. Roman Catholics are born of the historic catholic (catholic meaning universal) church that found its seat of power in Rome in the ancient world. Baptists believe that people should be baptized only when they become professing Christians and that this baptism should occur through fully submerging the person in water. In other words, baptism of babies and the act of sprinkling water for baptism doesn’t fly with them. Non-denominational churches reject the idea of denominations outright, although they tend to hold similar theologies to or trace their roots back to a larger church body.
Yes, the Christian family tree has a stupid amount of branches. Thousands of them formed by schism and unification, splintering and melding. Each denomination embodies the commitments, hopes, beliefs, ideals, and imagination of the people who constitute the branch. Whether an imitation of the broader society around a particular group or an expression of opposition to the ever-changing social fabric in which they are engulfed, churches are constantly responding to the world. Walking with any denomination through history is a practice in watching society dance around itself across time. These stories point to the present moment and come embedded with the wounds and triumphs of the events that have constructed our historical narratives. Church histories read like rings of trees that recount the harsh winters and fertile summers of the plant’s life.
Though the history of the United Methodist Church, one of the largest Protestant denominations, highlights this dynamic within the context of the United States, the name betrays some of the facts of its story. It’s united, the result of a coalescence of movements and streams of thought. It’s Methodist, meaning it is born of a particular tradition that began in the 18th century. And it’s a church, meaning that it is a self-defining, self-governing institution constructed and motivated for the purpose of worshipping God. But what that means in theory and practice is up for debate.
Historically, the Methodist movement has held a mirror to the broader society, highlighting the tensions, contradictions, triumphs, controversies, failures, moods, motivations, and circumstances of the rest of American culture. This was a tradition galvanized in the fires of the American Revolution, rent in two by the Civil War, and reunited in the midst of the civil rights movements of the 1950’s and 60’s. It has defended the rights of workers during industrialization, is the church of Jeff Sessions, Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Elizabeth Warren, and Beyoncé, and declares “all persons are individuals of sacred worth” in its official church document, The Book of Discipline, just two sentences before claiming that being LGBTQ+ is incompatible with Christian teaching. The purpose of highlighting these tensions is not to make the pseudo-edgy claim that perhaps churches are sometimes hypocritical. That accusation is boring. Instead, the purpose is to show the way this particular denomination, this unique expression of church, this collection of fallible people who are earnestly trying to be the body of Jesus in the world, embody and reflect the rifts and movements of our complicated societal evolution. In fact, the history of the denomination shows that the Methodist tradition functions as a thermometer for the society around it. If this is indeed the case, the United States in its global context is running a fever of 102.
Foundations and Revolution
John Wesley was a reformer of the Church of England who started a network of small groups, that he called “the Connexion,” which took root in the early- to mid- 18th century. Participants in the Connexion followed strict and organized forms of study, accountability, and structure. Their methodical approach drew the ire of critics who dubbed them “Methodists” in an attempt to make them look and feel like huge nerds. The Methodists decided they liked the name and rolled with it.
These young but mighty small groups focused on the centrality of God’s grace and dual commitments of personal piety and social holiness that respond to this grace. In other words, Methodism claimed that God offers a call to all people as a gift and invites people to respond to this call. This response is an act of faith that necessitates working to make the world around a person better. Novel idea, right? Methodism was open to all people regardless of class and emphasized a faith that cared for the practical, physical needs of all people. As such, it was particularly popular with those who were poor and largely ignored by the Church of England.
Methodism spread to the American colonies. Initially loyal to John Wesley, Methodists in the Americas remained connected to the Church of England by taking the Lord’s Supper (otherwise known as communion or the Eucharist) at local Anglican (Church of England) churches. The early Methodists in the colonies, who worshipped as racially integrated communities, did not ordain clergy of their own. Crucially, the early Methodists were part of a movement, an organized effort to reform the Church of England from within, and not their own church. Church structure, offices, administration, etc. did not come into play for another few decades.
John Wesley remained ardently loyal to the King and wrote against the Revolutionary cause. Understandably, this caused suspicion of Methodists in the colonies. Despite this, Methodists ran the political gamut during the American Revolution. Some, like Thomas Webb, functioned as British spies. Others, like Francis Asbury, were radical centrists who refused to take a side. Others, such Thomas Ware, volunteered on the Revolutionary side. A tale of two Thomases and a Francis. Methodism was a reflection of the complexity and tensions of the movement.
Towards the end of the war, a powerful segment of the Methodists in the U.S. voted to condemn the institution of slavery and required all of its preachers to set those who they held enslaved free. If a preacher refused they would be excluded from the movement. Furthermore, preachers were commissioned to preach against slavery. However, the same gathering that condemned slavery decided that all gatherings of black Methodists be overseen by a white leaders and structured the organization such that people of African descent could not ascend the ranks. The people called Methodists embodied the tensions that were found in the young nation. Thomas Jefferson, the person who drafted the Declaration of Independence, claiming that “all people were created equal,” kept people in captivity his entire life. At the same time, Benjamin Rush, a lesser-known founder, stated, “the unhappy sons of Africa, in spite of the degrading influence of slavery, are in no wise inferior to the more fortunate inhabitants of Europe and America.”
Clearly, among the landed, white, male, new aristocracy of the States, there was no consensus regarding to what extent enslaved people were made in the image of God (The answer is entirely. Entirely made in the image and likeness of God. Especially the God understood as taking on flesh as a poor, 1st century Palestinian Jew in an occupied place on the margins of a powerful empire). The Methodists, who claimed that God desired liberation of enslaved people, maintained the intellectual and structural frameworks necessary to keep black people in other forms of subjugation. The Methodists were not capable of transcending the dialogue and narratives in which they were immersed, arguing for the abolition of the inhumane and inhuman institution of slavery while taking part in the hegemony that propped it up.
In 1784, three years before the signing of the American Constitution, American Methodists established the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), marking an official break from Anglicanism. Over the next fifty years, the church continue to grow in size and wealth. An outgrowth of this success was increased internal division over racial politics of the church. Already in the 1787, black Methodists broke off from the MEC to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church in response to the racism of white Methodists. In 1796, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion also separated from the MEC. Slaveholding Methodists pushed against the earlier condemnations of slavery. The dual values of personal piety and social holiness became increasingly subjective as Methodists came to represent ever more comfortable and influential people.
In the late 18th century settlers began to inch westward. Accompanying them, horseback riding Methodist preachers pushed along the frontiers of the young nation. Through leading revivals, holding camp meetings, and establishing frontier congregations, these young, single men, half of whom died before celebrating their thirtieth birthday, called those on the edges of Western society to holiness. The frontier Methodists took seriously Wesley’s understanding of the Methodist mission, expressed at a conference in 1780, “to spread scriptural holiness to all lands.” Yet, this drive to evangelize the continent neglected to consider Indigenous Persons upon whose territory settlers were encroaching.
In 1790, seeking to address the movement of settlers into Indigenous territories, George Washington signed the Treaty of New York with Alexander McGillivray, a leader in the Creek Nation of what is now Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Alabama. The treaty established Creek government of those territories and constructed a paradigm of engagement between the U.S. government and the Creek as a matter of nation dialoguing with nation. This placed the responsibility of preventing European settlement in Native territory upon the federal government of the U.S. As historian Joseph J. Ellis writes of this moment in his book American Dialogue, “In the tortured and tragic history of Indian[sic]-white relations in the United States, this was probably the most hopeful moment.”
Yet, the U.S. government was not able to actualize the promises made in the treaty. Perhaps treaties shouldn’t be made that can’t be kept. Perhaps, the treaty was not meant to be kept, though the efforts of President Washington and his secretary of war, Henry Knox, seem to suggest they desired it would be. Individual settlers and the government of the State of Georgia rejected the mandates of the treaty and colonized the lands of Native Persons. And as is usually the case with expansionists, religious doctrines were used to provide cover to their questionably moral policies. In fact, the frontier ministries of Methodists provided a spiritual infrastructure to the process of Westward expansion itself. This expansion was a colonial project built on the blood of indigenous persons who were displaced, disenfranchised, and murdered. In the end, ministries born of self-sacrifice and a desire to do good were complicit in genocide.
On the eve of the Civil War the Methodist movement again embodied the tensions, fears, and commitments of the rest of the country. Long removed from its original anti-slavery stances, now powerful Methodist Episcopal leaders urged their followers to avoid engaging in abolitionist activities and patronizing abolitionist publications. Yet abolitionists in the church continued to agitate and protest. As historians Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt write in American Methodism: A Compact History, “Much of the church [MEC]. . . found itself torn between the two poles, fighting both explicit pro-slavery sentiment and abolitionism.” The church somehow landed on being anti-abolition and anti-slavery. Supposedly, they recognized that there was “blame on both sides” for the church crisis caused by the institutional and personal sin of slavery. But that would be an idiotic thing to say when it comes to clear cut moral matters that culminate in racist violence.
The tear culminated in 1845, with Methodists from slaveholding states separating from the northern Methodist Episcopal Church and forming the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After the war, a Methodist Episcopal bishop provided the eulogy for Abraham Lincoln even as the members of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South sought to maintain a narrative separation between the reunification of the States and God’s divine plan. These two Methodist denominations were not unified until 1939 and this unification came at a cost; African American Methodists were separated from the central governing structures of the church and given less representation in church matters. The newly formed Methodist Church was little more than a product of its own racist past and an embodiment of the legal and de facto segregation found throughout the country.
In the late 19th and early 20th century the United States transitioned from an agrarian society into a burgeoning industrial economy. As is typical, the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable bore the brunt of the dark aspects of this transition. Child labor, long hours, poor wages, and dangerous working conditions ran rampant. In 1907, an explosion rocked the No. 6 and No. 8 mines of Monongah, West Virginia, officially killing around 360 men. These men, however, would often bring their children and other family members to the mine in order to help. One can be fairly certain that this accident, which is the largest industrial disaster in U.S. history, took the lives of children. Monongah was not an isolated incident but was the latest in an ever-increasing series of disasters. Labor unions grew in power and public opinion turned toward increased regulation of industry. With the rise of industrialization in the urban centers and rural outposts of the United States emerged a series of moral and theological issues. The Methodist Episcopal Church responded in 1908 with its first Social Creed. It read as follows (as stated on umcjustice.org),
“The Methodist Episcopal Church stands …
For equal rights and complete justice for all [people] in all stations of life.
For the principle of conciliation and arbitration in industrial dissensions.
For the protection of the worker from dangerous machinery, occupational diseases, injuries and mortality.
For the abolition of child labor.
For such regulation of the conditions of labor for women as shall safe guard the physical and moral health of the community.
For the suppression of the ‘sweating system.’ [the ‘sweating system’ was the network of factories that poorly paid workers for long hours in dangerous conditions. Otherwise known as sweatshops.]
For the gradual and reasonable reduction of hours of labor to the lowest practical point, with work for all; and for that degree of leisure for all which is the condition of the highest human life.
For a release from employment one day in seven.
For a living wage in every industry.
For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.
…For the recognition of the Golden Rule and the mind of Christ as the supreme law of society and the sure remedy for all social ills.”
Adopted several years before the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster of 1911 forced legislation on increased safety standards in manufacturing, Methodists had again connected with the interest of working class folks in a pattern that reflected their origin. With its focus on a living wage, placing employee wages before profits, and an eye to the experiences of working women, the Social Creed could be seen as progressive even in the 21st century. Yet, it is clearly aspirational. At that time, the Methodist Episcopal Church did not ordain women and it sold out African American congregants for the sake of unity with its white southern brethren. “Equal rights and complete justice for all (people). . .” was not manifest within the church, let alone the entire society. Like Bill Buckner, who let an easy ground ball slip between his legs in the 1986 World Series, perhaps costing the Red Sox the series, the Methodist Episcopal Church was facing in the right direction, in the right position, at the right time, with good intentions, yet they still missed the ball. Maybe not. Similes are hard.
United and Untied
The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 out of several streams of Wesleyan tradition the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated and Richard Nixon was elected to the presidency. The guiding principles of this new united denomination were once again a sign of the times in American society and embodied all of the history and tensions of the Methodist movement.. The Vietnam War raged on as church leaders gathered in Dallas. The new united Church ordained women to be pastors, which was already the practice in some of the now unified churches but not others and created an infrastructure for ordering an international church with member churches in North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. However, the complicated sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s led the UMC to state explicitly what had been up until then only implied. By 1972, the church officially adopted discriminatory language against LGBTQ+ persons in its social principles and once again the UMC was situated within the confusing and complicated culture wars and the movements that stood to counter them. It is worth noting that it was in the 1970s that the American religious right grew in prominence and political power. A rather poignant example of this was the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by fundamentalists through political maneuvering in 1979. The United Methodist Church is not immune to similar cultural streams.
For years, LGBTQ+ folks and their allies have fought for the full inclusion of queer individuals in the life of the church. Currently, those who identify as “self-avowed and practicing homosexuals (the language of the Book of Discipline)” cannot be ordained and United Methodist pastors cannot perform same-sex weddings without facing discipline. In 2004, after another failed attempt to remove the discriminatory language and policy from the heart of the United Methodist Church, Rev. James Preston took a communion cup that had served as part of the liturgical center of the gathering and shattered it upon the ground in protest of the continued exclusion. At a February 2019 conference that made national headlines, the highest United Methodist governing body, democratically elected from around the world, voted 53%-47% to maintain and strengthen the discriminatory policies. As the United Methodist Church continues to grow internationally, where Methodists are more likely to be conservative regarding human sexuality, full inclusion of people of all gender identities and sexual orientations grows ever more unlikely. At the same time, Methodists of the Western World must continue to wrestle with their legacies of colonialism. As Rev. Jerry Kulah of Liberia stated at the February 2019 gathering, “We are not children in need of Western enlightenment when it comes to our sexual ethics.” It would seem that two commitments for justice are positioned against one another; dismantling colonial systems and working for liberation of LGBTQ+ people.
The untied UMC stands on legacies of oppression and resistance, colonialism and liberation, religious traditionalism and religious innovation. The structures and institutions of Methodist faith have embodied the deepest tensions, fears, sins, hopes, triumphs, and divisions of the broader society throughout history. In the present moment, as the denomination is pulled from the seams, secular observers should take notice. The complexity of the historic moment for the broader United States finds clear manifestation in the crumbling of the Methodist Church. The UMC is a political and cultural canary singing in a coal mine.
Fundamentally, faith is an expression of a particular narrative. A narrative of God’s action in history. A narrative of grace and redemption. A narrative of the meaning for existence. These narratives bind people to one another in community, but community that does not always make sense. When United Methodists are baptized they are brought into the narrative of the UMC. They promise to support its ministries, resist evil and oppression, and follow the call of Jesus in their lives. The crumbling of the United Methodist Church reflects a failure of this narrative to hold people together in sacred trust across difference of opinion.
But perhaps this is simply a peeling back of the illusion that the narratives of the UMC are sufficient to empower people to personal and social holiness. More than a mere difference of opinion, the division in the United Methodist Church around human sexuality is about the church’s capacity to name marginalized people as holy. This has to do with human worth, not personal opinion. These are matters of dignity, not merely topics of conversation. The toppling structures of the church are a symptom of a church that is fundamentally sick and reflects a society that is fundamentally sick. The marginalized and vulnerable have not been cared for and calls for unity are based on the peace of the graveyard, not the peace of justice. It is not love to call people into relationship at the expense of their voices.
The narratives of the UMC are no longer sufficient to bind people made in the image of God to those who harm them. The narratives of the United States; patriotism, American exceptionalism, the American dream, are being exposed as nothing more than illusions as well. In studying the history of the Methodist movement we see that collapses of the denomination, the crumbling of narratives of Divine mission and holy community, have been connected to broader national crises. Perhaps it is self-evident theses United States are in crises. Yet, as the most powerful tethers of community across difference are snapped by the reality of the emptiness of the promises they represent there is little hope that things will “get better” without significant change. The Methodist church has been fractured and united again only after major upheavals and years of healing. If the United Methodist Church is a sign of the times, as it has been historically, then we are headed towards a cataclysm.
But lastly, a word of hope. Even in moments of deep crisis, Methodism has shown the breadth of human capacity for love, courage, and justice. Abolitionists disregarded the urgings of their leaders in order to speak prophetically against slavery. Activists agitated until the Methodist Episcopal Church spoke out clearly for workers’ rights. LGBTQ+ Methodists and their allies continue to work for a fully inclusive church. The institutional church reflects the failings of an institution, but the people called Methodist continue to embody hope over and against and within the denomination. They are an expression of church, that community seeking to manifest God’s love for all creation. This is indeed good news, living water in a desert, a glimpse of a shining city on a long journey through thick night. Many of us who remain in our broken and beautiful denomination do so simply because we love it. This love is born of the same hope that gave rise to the Methodist movement – we imagine a better world and seek to realize this world. If Methodism is a mirror to the broader society then people will continue to make things better. In cataclysm, division, turmoil, and injustice people will always seek to embody their incredible hope that things don’t have to be as they are. Whatever emerges, in our country and in the United Methodist denomination, people will always seek to live out their deepest commitments that inform their decision to bring what is and what could be ever closer together. For some, the only proper response to this work is to say, “Thanks be to God.” …Or whatever one refers to as Divine.