I told you in my last blog post that in this post we would move on to the response of John Wesley in England to the American Methodists’ plea for spiritual leadership for their fledgling movement. I’m anxiously awaiting the opportunity to introduce you to Joseph Pilmore, Richard Boardman, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke and the other leaders sent from England by John Wesley.
But it occurred to me today that to truly make this a learning experience, I must make sure you can see some strands of modern Methodist life that became part of our Methodist DNA during this formative stage before those leaders arrived.
So far, we’ve seen that through what became the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) which merged with The Methodist Church in 1967 to form the United Methodist Church, we have theological streams that are Mennonite (Martin Boehm), Reformed (Philip William Otterbein), and even Lutheran (Jacob Albright). And, of course, the Wesley brothers, and all the leaders they sent, were rooted in Anglicanism. It is often said today that “You can be a Methodist and believe anything!” While that is decidedly NOT true, it IS true that Methodism provides a big theological tent. The “catholic spirit” (as in universal, not Roman Catholic) as Wesley would later call it is in our DNA.
We recall that when Barbara Heck implored her cousin Philip Embury to “preach to us,” he did and he started a class meeting. In that class meeting was an African American woman named Betty. We recall that as Captain Thomas Webb traveled around preaching (“itinerated”), he formed those that responded to his preaching into classes, just as Wesley had done. A large number of these were African Americans. After the Methodist Episcopal church was formed at the Christmas Conference held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore in 1784 (a part of our story that still lies ahead), the first books of “Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church” condemned slavery. In fact, the earliest ones forbid a slave holding person from becoming a clergy person in full connection. Being open to people of all races and ethnicities in in our DNA.
Unfortunately, the story swerves off this course. The Methodist Episcopal Church grew rapidly in the early 1800s. It went from something like 2% of the population to over 33% by mid-century. As it grew, especially as it grew in the south, the ways of the prevailing culture soon drifted into the church. Eventually, it was not only permissible for a Methodist clergy person to own another human being, even a bishop did. I think there’s a lesson for us modern Methodists to learn here. We must be constantly asking ourselves: What beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors from our culture, that are foreign to biblical Christian faith, are we letting drift into our church and letting them be seen as “normal?”
As the Methodist movement is getting kicked off by lay people through their insistence on the use of the class meeting as a disciple-making tool, we notice that not only are white and African American MEN involved, but WOMEN played a key role. Without women like Barbara Heck and Elizabeth Strawbridge – not to mention Susanna Wesley back in England — we wouldn’t be where we are. John Wesley authorized a woman to preach in 1761 when he granted a License to Preach to Sarah Crosby. Later, he also licensed other women as preachers, including Grace Murray, Sarah Taft, Hannah Ball and Elizabeth Ritchie. One of the youngest preaching women, Mary Fletcher, began preaching at age 16. At age 21 she was thrown out of her parent’s home because of her faith. Wesley’s appreciation for the importance of women in the church, it is often said, traces to the influence of his mother Susanna Wesley. Taking advantage of the gifts of women in ministry is in our DNA.
Unfortunately again, the story veers off course. During the decades following Wesley’s death in 1791, the Methodist Episcopal Church in America reversed many of his practices, and publicly emphasized the domestic role of women, refusing to acknowledge their more public role as church leaders and preachers. In 1880, despite support from the Alumni of the Theological School of Boston University, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to ordain many of the female graduates. Anna Oliver, an 1876 graduate of the Theological School and successful pastor of two churches, was refused ordination. Her petition to remove gender bias from the Book of Discipline was not only voted down, her license to preach was revoked along with that of all women pastors who held them.
Finally, on May 4, 1956, — nearly 200 years after Barbara Heck and Elizabeth Strawbridge helped begin the first Methodist class meetings in New York and Maryland — the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved full clergy rights for women. Maud Jensen was the first woman to be granted full clergy rights after this decision, in what is now the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference. I find it interesting that as I write this, the first woman ever to run for President of the United States just announced her second attempt.
Despite the fact that clergy don’t enter into the story of American Methodism until roughly 50 years into the story, the history of the Methodist and EUB churches that lays ahead of us is often the story of a battle for influence within the church between laity and clergy. The first annual conferences and General Conferences were all clergy. The Methodist Protestants, a group that split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1830 over the role of laity, had granted the laity conference representation from the time they organized. The clergy in The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Evangelical Association, and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (the latter being the two churches that constituted the EUB church, now part of the United Methodist Church) were much slower in permitting the laity an official voice in their affairs. All finally granted lay people voting privileges in their General and annual conferences with the exception of The Methodist Episcopal Church, which did not grant this right in annual conference decisions before the 1939 union. Even now, as we anticipate the 2016 session of General Conference, there is a movement afoot to restrict the vote to clergy only due to a concern that the majority of laity are not sufficiently equipped with theological training.
And finally, I can’t leave this topic without bemoaning the demise of the Methodist class meeting, the undisputed engine of growth of Methodism both in England and America. We have noted in the blog posts on the class meeting why this happened. Small groups haven’t died in the Methodist church, but the class meeting-type of small group just about has. There are three types of small groups: 1) affinity groups, in which we gather to share a common interest (heart groups), 2) information groups, in which we usually study a curriculum and learn information (head groups), and 3) accountability groups, in which we seek to learn new behavior (hands groups). We have, in the words of Kevin Duncan, become “addicted to curriculum,” that is, we love sharing information, but we are uncomfortable sharing life at its deepest levels in small group and being challenged to change our behaviors and attitudes. Is it time for a change?
OK, I promise now. NEXT time, here they come! We’ll see how Mr. Wesley responded to the plea for spiritual leadership for the fledgling American Methodist movement.