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By Bob Elliott
Beginning a Series On Methodist History
The history of the United Methodist Church begins, as much of the world’s
history does, with an elderly desert tent-dweller called Abram, and his wife
Sarai. The well-known story in Genesis (12:1) begins: “God told Abram:
"Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will
show you”.” After God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, he became the
spiritual father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and thus of the majority of
the world’s believers.
You have all heard the stories of the Jews throughout the Old Testament and
of the beginning of Christianity in the New Testament. I’ll skim over a couple
of millennia of history, during which small groups of Christians hiding in the
catacombs gradually converted the people around the Mediterranean Sea,
then exploded after the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine. I’ll slide
right past the Crusades and the Inquisitions and numerous Saints and Popes
to the later part of the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism to an
Anglican Vicar named John Wesley.
John Wesley was born June 28, 1703 and died March 2, 1791. We will devote
one or two columns to John and Charles Wesley and their lives and times.
Then we will spend a brief time on the theology of John Wesley, primarily on
the major ways Wesleyanism differs from Calvinism. Indeed, John Wesley is
credited with being the first to use the phrase ‘agree to disagree’ in a printed
sermon in memory of the Calvinist George Whitefield.
I plan to look at the ways Methodism grew in America. From Methodist
societies with lay preachers who weren’t allowed to perform sacraments (the
people had to visit the nearest Anglican parish for Baptism and Communion),
to ordination beginning with Coke and Asbury, to circuit riders and tent
meetings across the wild frontier moving westward, and down to the
denomination of today.
Wesleyanism inspired religious movements that include the United Methodist
Church, the Charismatic and Neo-charismatic Churches and the Pentecostal
Churches. I also want to explore the great social themes of American history
and our Methodist role in them: Slavery and abolition; African-American
churches; labor and child protection; temperance and Prohibition; missions
and missionaries; women’s rights and women in the clergy.
The history of Methodism in the United States is intertwined with the history of
the country, from the Wesley brothers’ arrival in the colony of Georgia through
our country’s wars, depressions and social upheavals. We will see how the
American people shaped the church and the church shaped the country.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church begins with a Historical
Statement. We’ll use that statement as a framework for our exploration. The
Historical Statement can be read on the UMC website, as well as in the book.
If you’re interested and are reading this online, you can copy this link into your
B5CB/History_Our_Story.htm or you can go to www.umc.org and enter
“history” in the search box.
I’d like to close this beginning column with a quote from my late father-in-law,
Reverend Heywood L. Martin. This is from a sermon titled “The Endless Line
of Splendor”, given at the dedication of a new church building. “The
congregations of the past…the congregations of the present…the
congregations yet to be — may have all the imperfections of (the) human
beings who compose them. Yet it is this very human element that gives
greatness to God’s community.” The lines quoted are originally from the book
by Halford E. Luccock, “Endless Line of Splendor”.
church and state….Separation of church
and state means no organic union of the
two, but it does permit beliefs beliefs
should it should it (includin
(includinrequire prayer or worship in the
public schools, but it should leave
students free to practice their own
religious convictions. We believe that the
state should not attempt to control the
church, nor should the church seek to
dominate the state. The rightful and vital
separation of church and state, which
has served the cause of religious liberty,
should not be misconstrued as the
abolition of all religious expression
from public life.” UM Discipline