THE METHOD TO THE MADNESS
Churches flank the main streets of countless towns throughout the United States. From the Scientologists to the Church of Christ Scientists, the seemingly endless variety of descriptive 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, Presbyterians are organized in regional administrative bodies known as presbyteries. Unitarians reject Trinitarianism, or the belief that God is three persons, (you know, the father, son, and that holiest of ghosts), 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 Non-denominational churches reject the idea of denominations outright, though 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.
According to Dominic J.S. Mejia, a Master of Divinity student at the Boston University School of Theology and candidate for ordained ministry in the UMC, “Although 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 just as with its parallel secular American institutional history, 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.” READ MORE HERE
Founded in the early 18th century U.K. by John Wesley as an offshoot of the Church of England, as Mejia recounts, “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.” Once it spread to the colonies, it shape shifted as fast as American society itself in its first centuries of existence. “In the late 18th Century settlers began to inch westward. Accompanying them, horseback riding Methodist preachers pushed along the frontiers of the young nation. These 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.” 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.”
And “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. The church somehow landed on being anti-abolition and anti-slavery. 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 that 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.”
With the eventual 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. “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. Amidst the cultural upheavals of post war American society, in 1968, the United Methodist Church was formed 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, however, the sexual revolution of the 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. READ MORE HERE
“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. Just as the narratives of the UMC [or any other church for that matter] are no longer sufficient to bind people 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 the crumbling of narratives of Divine mission have been connected to broader national crises. Perhaps it is self-evident these 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. If the UMC is a sign of the times, as it has been historically, then we are headed towards a cataclysm.” But hope is what we all still have to hold onto, no matter how anyone personally believes in expressing it. After all of this illusion, maybe we can face the future regardless of one’s God, one’s guru. Maybe, to quote John Wesley himself, we can all just agree to disagree.
When you think of the son of a preacher man, you rarely think of outlaws, the Wild Wild West, or the Wildest of 'Em All. But alas, the infamous John Wesley Hardin--you know, the most outlawed and wanted man of his time-- was not only the son a Methodist preacher, but also named after the founder of the Methodist movement. And like most tales of the outlaw West, Hardin’s true history is heavily debated. This might be what pushed him to write his own autobiography, aptly titled The Life of John Wesley Hardin As Written by Himself. Which, obviously, is a bit biased.
But nonetheless, here’s what we know: John Wesley Hardin was named after the Methodist founder, John Wesley. But this John Wesley grew up restless and violent. As early as age ten, he viscously stabbed a schoolmate. In 1868, when he was only 15 he killed a former slave, and then fled the scene and became a fugitive. To avoid jail, he proceeded to attack and kill the three soldiers who were trying to arrest him. After that, killing came easy for John Wesley Hardin. He killed Sheriff Jack Helm, then Ben Bradley, over a card game. He killed the husband of a woman who he was having an affair with. It is rumored that he killed from 30 to 40 people--one time because a man was snoring too loudly and it annoyed him. Which, you know, we’ve all been there.
According to The El Paso Times, Hardin was "... very quarrelsome and threatening." He was also apparently a very sore loser because on more than one occasion, Hardin killed or threatened anyone that beat him at any sort of game. Oddly enough, between killing and wreaking havoc across the West, Hardin would take some time off to reflect in the oddest of ways-- teaching Sunday school classes. Clearly, he was a man of multitudes. And he would go on to inspire another unlikely man of multitudes--Bob Dylan. Dylan’s 1967 album John Wesley Harding was named after John Wesley Hardin, but he misspelled it. Some argue on purpose, others say by accident. Another Dylan mystery.
But back to the Wild West. In 1871, Hardin went on another killing spree, murdering a man near the now infamous and open kitchen design crazed town of Waco. Shortly after, while still traveling, he killed a few more men while they were sleeping (it would seem Hardin didn’t care too much about a fair fight, apparently). By then, he was so wanted that he decided to leave Texas and head to Kansas. On the way, enraged as usual, he killed five Mexicans and two Native Americans.
John Wesley Hardin eventually met his match in Constable Selman, another outlaw of the West. Selman shot Hardin dead, suitably, in a Saloon - allegedly because Hardin hated his son. Wesley Hardin didn’t exactly live up to his Christian name, but he cemented it in history nonetheless.