Methodist Episcopal Church
|Methodist Episcopal Church|
December 1784 |
Baltimore, Maryland, United States
|Separated from||Church of England|
Republican Methodist Church (1792)|
African Methodist Episcopal Church (1816)
African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1821)
Methodist Episcopal Church of Canada (1828)
|Merged into||Methodist Church (USA) (1939)|
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The Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was the first Methodist denomination founded in the United States. In the early 19th century, it was the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. The Methodist Episcopal Church existed from 1784 until 1939, when it merged with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church to form the Methodist Church. In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church to form the present-day United Methodist Church.
The Methodist Episcopal Church originated from the spread of Methodism outside of England to the Thirteen Colonies in the 1760s. Methodism grew out of the ministry of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England (also known as the Anglican Church) who preached an evangelical message centered on justification by faith, repentance, the possibility of having assurance of salvation, and the doctrine of Christian perfection.
Wesley was loyal to the Anglican Church, and he organized his followers into parachurch societies and classes with the goal of promoting spiritual revival within the Church of England. While Wesley recruited lay preachers for itinerant ministry, members of Methodist societies were expected to attend and receive Holy Communion in their local parish church.
Around fifteen or twenty societies formed a circuit. Anywhere from two to four itinerant or traveling preachers would be assigned to a circuit on a yearly basis to preach and supervise the societies within their circuit. One itinerant preacher in each circuit would be made the "assistant" (because he was an assistant to Wesley), and he would direct the activities of the other itinerant preachers in the circuit, who were called "helpers". Wesley gave out preaching assignments at an annual conference.
In 1769, Wesley sent itinerants Robert Williams, Richard Boardman, and Joseph Pilmore to oversee Methodists in America after learning that societies had already been organized there as early as 1766 by Philip Embury, Robert Strawbridge, and Thomas Webb. In 1773, Wesley appointed Thomas Rankin general assistant, placing him in charge of all the Methodist preachers and societies in America. On July 4, 1773, Rankin presided over the first annual conference on American soil at Philadelphia. At that time there were 1,160 Methodists in America led by ten lay preachers. Itinerant Methodist preachers would become known as circuit riders.
Methodist societies in America also operated within the Church of England. There were several Anglican priests who supported the work of the Methodists, attending Methodist meetings and administering the sacraments to Methodists. These included Charles Pettigrew of North Carolina, Samuel Magaw of Dover and then Philadelphia, and Uzel Ogden of New Jersey. Anglican clergyman Devereux Jarratt (1733–1801) was a particularly active supporter, founding Methodist societies in Virginia and North Carolina.
The American Revolution severed ties to England and left America's Anglican Church in disarray. Due to the scarcity of Anglican ministers, Methodists in the United States were unable to receive the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion. On September 1, 1784, Wesley responded to this situation by personally ordaining two Methodists as elders for America, with the right to administer the sacraments, and also ordained Thomas Coke (who was already an Anglican priest) as a superintendent with authority to ordain other Methodist clergy.
Because Wesley was not a bishop, his ordination of Coke and the others was not recognized by the Church of England, and, consequently, this marked American Methodism's separation from the Anglican Church. Wesley's actions were based in his belief that the order of bishop and priest were one and the same, so that both possess the power to ordain others.
The founding conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, known commonly as the Christmas Conference, was held in December 1784 at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, Maryland. At this conference, Coke ordained Francis Asbury as co-superintendent according to Wesley's wishes. Asbury had been serving as general assistant since Rankin returned to England. The German-born Philip W. Otterbein, who later helped found the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, participated in Asbury's ordination.
The conference adopted Articles of Religion prepared by Wesley (and adapted from the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles) as a doctrinal statement for the new church, and it also received an abridged version of the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer provided by Wesley, titled The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. American Methodists, however, preferred non-liturgical worship and The Sunday Service was largely ignored.
The conference adopted an organization consisting of superintendents, elders, deacons, traveling preachers, and local preachers. Preachers were licensed to preach but were not ordained and could not administer sacraments. Traveling preachers worked full-time in itinerant ministry and were supported financially by the societies they served. Local preachers pursued secular employment but preached on Sundays in their local communities. Deacons were preachers authorized by a superintendent to officiate weddings, bury the dead, baptize, and assist the elders in administering the Lord's Supper. Only ordained elders could administer the Lord's Supper, and they were also placed in charge of circuits. In the year of its founding, the church claimed 14,986 members and 83 preachers.
Early Methodists were drawn from the ranks of slaves, poor whites, and "middling people"—artisans, shopkeepers, petty merchants and small planters. These social classes were attracted to Methodism's condemnation of the worldliness of the gentry. Slaves and free blacks were especially attracted to the Methodist Episcopal Church's condemnation of slavery. Prominent Methodists such as Coke, Asbury, and Freeborn Garrettson preached an antislavery message, and the Christmas Conference mandated that all Methodist laity and preachers emancipate their slaves. While African Americans were not yet ordained and classes were segregated by race, important African-American leaders did emerge, such as Harry Hosier who was an associate of Asbury and Coke.
Because of Methodism's conscious repudiation of upper class values and lifestyles, elite women who converted took on a revolutionary character. While women were not granted formal leadership roles (though some were class leaders occasionally), they played important roles in evangelization through class relations, family networks, correspondence, and in the home. It was common for both women and slaves to publicly deliver exhortations—testimonials and personal conversion narratives distinguishable from sermons because exhorters did not "take a text" from the Bible.
Meetings and services were often characterized by extremely emotional and demonstrative styles of worship. As part of the conversion experience, people often trembled, groaned, screamed, or fell motionless to the ground as if dead. These bodily experiences as well as Methodist ascetic practices and claims of receiving direct communication from the Holy Spirit inspired its opponents to accuse Methodism of being a form of religious enthusiasm that caused insanity. Because of its Arminian doctrines, the evangelistic work of the Methodist Episcopal Church was often opposed by Calvinists.
Growth, the first General Conference and the O'Kelly Schism (1785–1792)
Coke had returned to Britain in 1785 but arrived back in the United States in 1787 with written instructions from Wesley. Wesley ordered the holding of a conference and that Richard Whatcoat be appointed a superintendent. At the conference, James O'Kelly and Jesse Lee led opposition to Coke and to Wesley’s authority. Many preachers were offended that Coke and Wesley seemed to be taking decision making out of the hands of the American church. They also feared that Whatcoat's appointment would lead to the recall of Asbury, and this led the conference to reject Whatcoat's appointment (Whatcoat would later be elected bishop in 1800). In 1788, the title of superintendent was changed to bishop.
Coke's reputation among American Methodists furthered suffered when his secret negotiations for a union with the Episcopal Church (as American Anglicans now styled themselves) were discovered. Coke had written and met with William White, the first Episcopal presiding bishop, discussing the possible lowering of Episcopal ministerial standards, the reordination of Methodist preachers, and the reconsecration of Coke and Asbury as Episcopal bishops. When Asbury learned of the negotiations, he blocked the merger plan from being considered.
Despite controversies over authority, the Methodist Episcopal Church continued to enjoy growth. By 1788, there were 37,354 members, of which 6,545 were African American. The number of circuits had grown to 85 and the number of annual conferences had grown to six. A year later, the number of annual conferences had increased to eleven. The church's reach also began to significantly expand beyond the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountain ranges. In 1791, a circuit was established in Upper Canada by William Losee. It was during this time that the first Methodist college in America was established, the short-lived Cokesbury College in Maryland.
This growth revealed problems with the church's decision-making process. Each annual conference had to agree on legislation before it was enacted, but this became unwieldy when the number of conferences grew to eleven. The need for a centralized policy-making body led to the creation of a council of bishops and presiding elders (who supervised multi-circuit districts) in 1789, but this body was soon abolished after meeting only twice.
After the failure of the council, a General Conference was held in November 1792 at Baltimore. This first General Conference gave itself legislative power over the church, determined to meet every four years, and decided membership for general and annual conferences would include all elders, deacons, and traveling preachers. Local preachers and other lay members were denied voting rights.
At the General Conference, a dispute emerged over the power of bishops to assign preachers to circuits. O'Kelly and his supporters wanted the right to appeal assignments to the conference, but this proposal was defeated. In response, they left to form the Republican Methodist Church, initiating the first schism in American Methodism. As reflected in their name, Republican Methodists desired a more egalitarian church and objected to the centralized governance and episcopal polity of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Methodist Episcopal Church lost one-fifth of its members and would not begin to experience growth again until 1800. In 1801, the Republican Methodists rejected the Methodist label and later merged with other groups to become the Christian Connection. This group was a predecessor body to the United Church of Christ.
Organizational development, camp meetings and African-American Methodists (1793–1816)
Development of a constitution
The second General Conference was held at Baltimore in October 1796. It reduced the number of annual conferences to six and, for the first time, gave them geographical boundaries. With the drawing of definite borders, it would become understood that preachers belonged to a specific annual conference. The General Conference also required that local church property be held in trust for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Local preachers were made eligible for ordination as deacons after four years of service.
Another bishop was found necessary to aid Asbury due to Coke's frequent trips to Britain; Coke was regarded as a leading figure in Britain's Wesleyan Methodist Church, which itself split from the Anglican Church after Wesley's death in 1791. At the third General Conference held in May 1800, Richard Whatcoat was finally elected and consecrated the third bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Since the annual conferences were given geographical boundaries in 1796, they increasingly acted like states, demanding proportional representation in General Conference. Because General Conference met frequently in Baltimore, it was often dominated by the conferences closest to that city, the Philadelphia and Baltimore conferences. At the 1804 General Conference, these two conferences together had 70 preachers present, while the other five conferences combined had only 42 preachers present. To solve this problem, delegated representation for General Conference was introduced in 1808. Each annual conference was entitled to send one representative for every five conference members. The Restrictive Regulations were also adopted at this time. These rules, which were regarded as the church's constitution, prohibited the General Conference from modifying the church's doctrinal standards and episcopal government. William McKendree was elected the fourth bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the first American-born bishop to replace the deceased Whatcoat.
The 1812 General Conference was the first to convene under the new rules adopted in 1808. This conference, meeting in New York City, made local deacons eligible for ordination as elders. The Ohio and Tennessee Conferences were created to replace the Western Conference. This made nine in all, the others being the New York, New England, Genesee (including circuits in Upper and Lower Canada), South Carolina, Virginia, Baltimore and Philadelphia conferences.
General Conference of 1816
The year 1816 marked the end of an era for the MEC. Asbury and Jesse Lee died that year, and Coke had died in 1815 while conducting missionary work for the British Conference. All of these men had championed the itinerant model of ministry. Following the death of Asbury, the 1816 General Conference elected Enoch George and Robert Richford Roberts to serve as bishops along with McKendree. The General Conference disapproved of pew rental as a means of raising funds (but this was largely ignored as more and more Methodist churches began charging pew rent). It also expressed concerns over perceived laxity in Methodist standards of discipline, doctrine, dress and sacramental practice.
There was also concern over the appearance in some places of false doctrines, such as Arianism, Socinianism and Pelagianism. In order to provide adequate preparation to candidates for the ministry, the bishops were directed to create a Course of Study featuring a prescribed reading list, the first effort to introduce a formal process for ministry preparation. The Course of Study reflected American Methodism's continued reliance on British theologians. The reading list included Wesley's Sermons and Notes, John Fletcher's four-volume Checks to Antinomianism, Joseph Benson's Sermons on Various Occasions and Coke’s six-volume Commentary on the Holy Bible. These works would guide American Methodist belief for the next century.
The General Conference placed Joshua Soule and Thomas Mason in charge of the Methodist Book Concern, the church's publishing house. The conference also ordered the publication of a monthly periodical, The Methodist Magazine. This magazine soon acquired a circulation of 10,000 at a time when popular secular periodicals had circulations between 4,000 and 5,000. The Methodist Magazine, later renamed the Methodist Quarterly Review, was published continually from 1818 until 1932 and had a longer life than any other religious publication.
The church continued to grow during this period. Sometime around 1800, Methodism expanded into the region around Cincinnati, Ohio, and by 1807, the first Methodist church had been built in the city. In 1808, Matthew P. Sturdevant established a new circuit along the banks of the Tombigbee River in Alabama. In 1809, William Case was sent as a missionary to Detroit in the Michigan Territory and was followed a year later by William Mitchell, who organized what is today Central United Methodist Church and the oldest Protestant congregation in Michigan. In the years 1809 and 1810, John Crane established new circuits in Upper Louisiana in what is today the state of Missouri.
The Presbyterian-led Cane Ridge Revival of 1801 birthed the first definitive camp meeting in American history, and this multi-day revivalistic event would be enthusiastically adopted by the Methodist Episcopal Church. For Methodists, these meetings were important evangelistic tools, but they were often criticized for the emotionalism and enthusiasm displayed, such as crying, shouting, jerking and falling. Methodist leaders such as Asbury expected order to be maintained, but they were not opposed to the emotional effects often seen in these meetings. Other Methodists, such as John Fanning Watson, disagreed. In his book Methodist Error; or, Friendly, Christian Advice: To Those Methodists Who Indulge in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises, published anonymously in 1814, Watson argued that such emotional displays were not appropriate on the part of converted Christians in public worship but should be restricted to the time of conversion or, for those already converted, to private devotion at home.
While historians have emphasized the importance of camp meetings on the American frontier, camp meetings were vibrant parts of Methodist community life in the more settled areas along the East Coast as well. For example, some of the most significant meetings at the start of the 19th century occurred on the Delmarva Peninsula, a place that became known as the "Garden of Methodism". Camp meetings were often held simultaneously with Methodist quarterly meetings (circuit business meetings held four times each year). In America, quarterly meetings had already evolved into two-day religious festivals, so it became standard practice for quarterly conferences to make one of their warm-weather sessions a camp meeting. By 1811, Methodists held 400 to 500 camp meetings annually, and historian Nathan Hatch estimates that these events drew in over one million people annually.
The Methodist Episcopal Church had committed itself to the antislavery cause, but it became difficult to maintain this stance as Methodism spread to slaveholding areas. To avoid alienating southerners, the 1808 General Conference allowed annual conferences to form their own policies related to buying and selling slaves. In 1816, it amended the Discipline's prohibition on officeholders owning slaves to apply only in states where emancipation was legal.
Another problem was that the MEC failed to give African-American members full equality and inclusion in the church. This failure led to the development of segregated church institutions under white supervision. In 1800, the General Conference authorized bishops to ordain African-American men as local deacons. Richard Allen of Philadelphia was the first to be ordained under this rule. Earlier in 1794, Allen had led other African-American members to withdraw from St. George's Church in response to racial discrimination by white church members. Under Allen's leadership and with Asbury's blessing, they founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Under the leadership of Allen and Daniel Coker, Bethel Church and other African-American congregations left the MEC to establish the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1816. According to Nathan Bangs, the MEC might have lost nearly 900 African-American members to the AME Church in its first year alone. Sometime later, a group of African-American members in New York City would leave and form the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Nevertheless, the majority of African-American Methodists remained within the MEC.
Quest for respectability (1817–1840)
During this period, a new generation of leaders, upwardly mobile preachers and laity, would lead the Methodist Episcopal Church toward social respectability and inclusion within America's Protestant establishment. In the process, the MEC would experience what some contemporaries and later interpreters considered a "softening of discipline, embrace of the world, compromise of fundamental Wesleyan practices and precepts, abandonment of the evangelistic mission to society’s marginalized, and loss of Methodism’s prophetic nerve."
This included the transformation of the itinerant system into a more settled ministry. A second generation of Methodist preachers were unable to realize Wesley's original vision of a "celibate, self-sacrificing, and ascetic brotherhood". Increasingly, preachers were appointed for two-year terms to single-congregation charges called "stations". This allowed stationed pastors to live in the same community every day rather than making short visits every two, four or six weeks as in earlier years. Stationing was facilitated by the construction of parsonages. By 1858, the northern MEC had built 2,174 parsonages for the use of over 5,000 traveling preachers.
Stationed preachers and their wives posed problems for the system of class meetings on which Methodist societies were based, and Methodists were noting the decline of the classes by the 1820s. The functions that class meetings and class leaders traditionally provided—discipline and spiritual formation—were taken over by the preacher and his wife. Alternative small group settings were provided by the Sunday school and the local missionary and tract societies. The meetings of these organizations featured prayer, hymns, testimony and exhortation. To accommodate these educational and missional efforts, Methodists began building larger and more impressive facilities, often on main streets, in the 1830s and 1840s.
By the 1830s, loud voices had emerged against the transformation of the denomination. These voices were nostalgic and disappointed over the end of the Asbury era, which was characterized as one of greater religious enthusiasm, revivals and camp meetings. These voices were dismissed as "croakers" because it seemed they never missed an opportunity to complain, whether in the pulpit, through conference sermons or on the pages of Methodist periodicals.
Nathan Bangs is credited with leading the campaign for respectability. As the denomination's book agent and editor of both The Methodist Magazine and the weekly Christian Advocate, Bangs was the MEC's most visible and influential leader up until the 1860s. Under his watch, the Christian Advocate became the most widely circulated periodical in the world, and the Book Concern was transformed from merely a distributor of British reprints into a full-fledged publishing house providing literature for adults, children, and Sunday schools, as well as producing tracts for the Methodist Tract Society organized in 1817.
By the 1820s, Methodists were ready to build institutions of higher education. Citing the lack of non-Calvinist colleges and seminaries, the 1820 General Conference encouraged annual conferences to establish ones under Methodist control. Around two hundred were founded by the Civil War. These included Augusta College (1822), McKendree University (1828), Wesleyan University (1831), Emory University (1836), Emory and Henry College (1836), and DePauw University (originally Indiana Asbury University in 1837). In addition, the Methodists became affiliated with already existing Dickinson College and Allegheny College in 1833.
North and South split
The church split over the question of slavery in 1844 with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South being formed in southern states.
In the late 1840s, separate Conferences were formed for German-speaking members of the Methodist Episcopal Church who were not members of the Evangelical Association or the United Brethren in Christ (later merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB)). Among these was the St. Louis German Conference, which in 1925 was assimilated into the surrounding English-speaking conferences, including the Illinois Conference.
Civil War and Reconstruction
Many Northerners had only recently become religious (thanks to the Second Great Awakening) and religion was a powerful force in their lives. No denomination was more active in supporting the Union than the Methodist Episcopal Church. Carwardine argues that for many Methodists, the victory of Lincoln in 1860 heralded the arrival of the kingdom of God in America. They were moved into action by a vision of freedom for slaves, freedom from the terror unleashed on godly abolitionists, release from the Slave Power's evil grip on the state, and a new direction for the Union. Methodists formed a major element of the popular support for the Radical Republicans with their hard line toward the white South. Dissident Methodists left the church.
The denominations all sent missionaries, teachers and activists to the South to help the Freedmen. Only the Methodists made many converts, however. Activists sponsored by Northern Methodist Church played a major role in the Freedmen's Bureau, notably in such key educational roles as the Bureau's state superintendent or assistant superintendent of education for Virginia, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina.
During Reconstruction the Methodists moved into a dozen Southern cities to seize control, with Army help, of churches and other buildings that had belonged to the southern branch of the church. In a highly controversial move, the Northern Methodists used the Army to seize control of Methodist churches in large cities, over the vehement protests of the Southern Methodists. Historian Ralph Morrow reports:
- A War Department order of November, 1863, applicable to the Southwestern states of the Confederacy, authorized the Northern Methodists to occupy "all houses of worship belonging to the Methodist Episcopal Church South in which a loyal minister, appointed by a loyal bishop of said church, does not officiate."
Across the North the Methodists were strong supporters of Radical policies. The Methodist family magazine Ladies' Repository promoted Christian family activism. Its articles provided moral uplift to women and children. It portrayed the War as a great moral crusade against a decadent Southern civilization corrupted by slavery. It recommended activities that family members could perform in order to aid the Union cause. The focus on social problems paved the way for the Social Gospel movement a few years later. Matthew Simpson, a famous Bishop, played a leading role in mobilizing the Northern Methodists for the cause. His biographer calls him the "High Priest of the Radical Republicans." The Methodist Ministers Association of Boston, meeting two weeks after Lincoln's assassination, called for a hard line against the Confederate leadership:
- Resolved, That no terms should be made with traitors, no compromise with rebels.... That we hold the National authority bound by the most solemn obligation to God and man to bring all the civil and military leaders of the rebellion to trial by due course of law, and when they are clearly convicted, to execute them.
In 1895, during the 19th century Holiness movement, Methodist Episcopal minister Phineas F. Bresee founded the Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles with the help of Joseph Pomeroy Widney. The Church of the Nazarene separated over a perceived need to minister further to the urban poor, the origins of its Nazarene name. Several other churches, roughly 15 holiness denominations that had also split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, joined the Church of the Nazarene in 1907 and 1908, and it became international soon thereafter. The new Church of the Nazarene retained the Methodist Episcopal tradition of education and now operates 56 educational institutions around the world, including eight liberal arts colleges in the United States, each tied to an "educational region".
Divisions and mergers
1767: The Rev. Philip William Otterbein, (1726-1813) of Baltimore and Martin Boehm started Methodist evangelism among German-speaking immigrants to form the United Brethren in Christ. This development had to do only with language. Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury later preached at Otterbein's 1813 funeral. In 1968 it merged to form the United Methodist Church.
1784: Historic "Christmas Conference" held at Lovely Lane Chapel in waterfront Baltimore (at Lovely Lane, off German (now Redwood) Street between South Calvert Street and South Street)and convened to organize the future Methodist Episcopal Church and also several ministers ordain Francis Asbury as bishop.
1793: The first recognized split from the Methodist Episcopal Church was led by a preacher named James O'Kelly who wanted clergy to be free to refuse to serve where the bishop appointed them. He organized the "Republican Methodists," later called simply the Christian Church or Christian Connection, that through its successors and mergers eventually became part of the future United Church of Christ in 1957.
1813: The Reformed Methodist Church was organized under the leadership of Methodist preachers Pliny Brett and Elijah Bailey. This group was concentrated in Massachusetts and Vermont. It merged into the Churches of Christ in Christian Union in 1952.
1820: The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was organized in New York.
1828: The Canadians formed their own Methodist Church.
1828: The Methodist Protestant Church split off under Nicholas Snethen, who had earlier argued against the O'Kelly split, along with Asa Shinn. The issue was the role of laity in governance of the church. In 1939, it merged.
1844: The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, split off because of the slavery controversy. Briefly, during the American Civil War, 1861-1865, it adopted the title of "The Methodist Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America". In 1939, it merged into The Methodist Church, (which endures until 1968 and a subsequent merger with the Evangelical United Brethren Church forming the current U.M.C.).
1870: The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church was organized from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to serve African-American Methodists. Later changed its name to Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
1897: Pentecostal Holiness Church of North Carolina. Merged with the Fire Baptized Holiness Church in 1911 and formed what is now known as the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
1897: The Pilgrim Holiness Church was organized.
1939: The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged to form The Methodist Church.
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