Strange days lead to strange purchases. These strange days in the UMC drove me buy a copy of Ancel H. Bassett’s A Concise History of the Methodist Protestant Church from Its Origins published in 1877—and from the looks of it that was the last time it was published.
The Methodist Protestants are part of our heritage, being one of the three branches that merged back into the fold to form The Methodist Church in 1938. They were the smallest of the three and often overlooked in the story of mainline American Methodism. And yet, their story and heritage has become a touchstone for my thinking about our current crisis. The parallels are interesting, and their practices are instructive.
First, the parallels.
1. Conflict Over the Relationship Between Church and Society—Originally known as the Reformers, they advocated for greater democracy in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1820s. They believed that presiding elders (the forerunner of today’s district superintendent) should be nominated by the conference, the right of elders to appeal their appointments, and lay leaders to be delegates to annual conference. It was the direct and explicit application of Jacksonian democracy to Methodist connectionalism. The “Old Side brethren” opposed these democratic innovations and claimed that the church must not compromise its unique polity by conforming to society. The Methodist Protestants saw something positive in society and wanted to adapt to the times, but the Methodist Episcopals believed the church must remain distinct from society.
2. Disagreements Over the Interpretation of Scripture to Justify a Position—Nicholas Snethen, a leading Methodist Protestant, justified their reforms by appealing to scripture. Elaborate arguments were made based on their interpretations of the book of Acts. In turn, Bishop Soule and others defended the hierarchy with appeals to scripture. Churning beneath these different interpretations were different assumptions about the relationship between God, the church and society.
3. Attempts to Control the Problem with Authoritarian Leadership and Trials— The Reformers organized circuits of “union societies” that put into practice their democratic principles. The bishops and presiding elders dismissed reformers and put them on trial for publishing their ideas. Church trials abounded, starting in Baltimore and then more in Ohio. Reformers described the trials as rigged against them and they were expelled from the denomination.
4. Separations, Divisions and Reunification—The Reformers began having separate “general conventions” beginning in 1826 and created “articles of association.” The 1828 General Conference rejected their reform legislation and the appeals of expelled preachers William Pool and Dennis Dorsey. At its conclusion, Asa Shinn who defended them “sunk into despondency and went into a spell of insanity which continued for about half a year.”
Two years later, the Methodist Protestants held their first General Conference. In time they consolidated with other earlier break away groups such as the Methodist Reformed Church (founded in Vermont 1814) and W.M. Stillwell’s society in New York as well as picking up some Methodists who had left in the 1790s with James O’Kelly.
By the 1850s they were divided over the issue of slavery and tried in vain to resolve their disagreements by either not talking about it or letting it be an issue decided by each annual conference. None of it worked, and the western and northern annual conferences organized a separate “convention.” In time, they tried to merge with the Wesleyan Church and even took on a new name for the merger: The Methodist Church. But at the last minute, the Wesleyans backed out.
By 1873, the Methodist Episcopal Church began admitting laymen as members of general conference and began courting southern Methodist Protestants to rejoin them.
Instead, the southern branch of Methodist Protestants reunited with the western and northern branch in 1877. The two denominations held simultaneous conventions in Baltimore to approve the plan for reunification. Then on Wednesday afternoon, May 16, the delegates “marched along Lombard Street, one from the East, the other from the West, to the intersection of Fremont Street, where they met, single file,” joined arm in arm and then marched down to the Starr Methodist Protestant Church on Poppleton Street to their general conference.
It would be another 61 years before they would reunite with the Methodist Episcopals—long after the original reason for the division had been resolved.
“History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.” These days, United Methodists should listen closely to the tune of our ancestors.
For more, order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops