UMC 2022 — Tireless Exertions and Passionate Concern
What the Current Schism in the United Methodist Church Says About and Means for Christianity
Part 2a — A Focus on Race
The History of the United Methodist Church, Its Record on Issues of Social Justice, and Its Relevance Today
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
The current schism within the United Methodist Church, which I outlined in my previous post, is by no means unprecedented. While the current divide centers on LGBT issues, there have been countless inflection points throughout the church’s history that were characterized by contention and dissent.
In order to more fully grasp what is at stake in the present, we must look backwards to the past. Our historical roots can either be a source of comfort and direction through their settled precedence, or they can provide a cautionary example to avoid moving forward. Like most history, the UMC’s contains both.
John Wesley and Methodism
The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 with a merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB). Both denominations had an episcopal organizational structure (meaning they were governed by bishops) and were based on Wesleyan theology.
John Wesley was ordained a priest in the Church of England in 1728. The religious study group he formed with his brother, the Holy Club, was mocked by others who called them “Methodists” for their “emphasis on methodical study and devotion.”
According to Britannica:
From 1730 on, the group added social services to their activities, visiting Oxford prisoners, teaching them to read, paying their debts, and attempting to find employment for them. The Methodists also extended their activities to workhouses (which provided employment for the poor) and poor people themselves, distributing food, clothes, medicine, and books and also running a school.
In 1743, in response to Wesley’s ministry growing and expanding into other areas, he published “The Nature, Design, and General Rules, of the United Societies: In London, Bristol, Kingswood, and Newcastle Upon Tyne” to avoid scandal and establish a regulatory system for all Methodist societies. This provided the foundation for the “General Rules” still used in the United Methodist Church today.
Although Wesley never intended to split from the Church of England, they were uncomfortable with his “enthusiasm” and “spiritual vigor.” They also saw the itinerant lay preachers Wesley ordained as “dangerous.”
From its earliest days as a movement within the Church of England, Methodism has always pushed for progressive social action in the face of the unjust status quo. It is a tension that can be traced to as far back as John Wesley’s struggle with the Church of England over the issue of ordaining lay preachers. In June of 1754, a Methodist preacher was excommunicated for preaching without a license.
— Rev. Michael Anthony Howard
In response, Wesley wrote in a letter to his brother Charles in 1755, “It is probable the point will now speedily be determined concerning the Church: for if we must either dissent or be silent, Actum est [it is all over].”
“This letter indicated the seriousness with which Wesley felt compelled to
mitigate the legal structures of the Church in order to promote his evangelical message,” says Ryan Danker in his Boston University thesis “Constrained to Deviate: John Wesley and the Evangelical Anglicans.”
With the subsequent Revolutionary War in America, the Anglican priests Wesley had sent there returned to England, and Methodists in the colonies could no longer receive sacraments as a result.
In 1784, when the bishop of London refused to ordain some of Wesley’s preachers to serve in the United States, Wesley took it upon himself to do so — causing controversy and his eventual split from the Church. He established the Methodist Episcopal Church that same year.
In 1785, at the inaugural Christmas Conference, the church’s first Book of Discipline was adopted. Entitled “Minutes of Several Conversations Between The Rev. Thomas Coke, The Rev. Francis Asbury and Others … Composing a Form of Discipline for the Ministers, Preachers and other Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America,” it was based on and included Wesley’s original “General Rules” along with 81 questions and answers and served as the governing document for the new church.
Wesley’s theology was heavily influenced by the pietist movement, which “emphasized personal faith against the main Lutheran church’s perceived stress on doctrine and theology over Christian living.” According to the Wesley Center, Wesleyan churches “are very similar to Anglicanism, yet have added a strong emphasis on personal faith and personal experience.”
A History of Dissent
Splits and Unions on Racial Lines
John Wesley’s reluctant dissent characterized much of the history of the Methodist Church that followed.
Although Wesley himself was vehemently against slavery, his congregants in the American colonies relied on and embraced it in spite of his appeals to them to abolish the institution, “invoking everything from God’s wrathful judgment at injustice to sympathy for the Africans’ plight.”
The slaves themselves were drawn to Wesley’s theology of God’s grace, and the Methodist Episcopal Church counted some free Black men as preachers. In 1816, though, a group of Black members who had grown tired of being discriminated against and prevented from receiving the Lord’s Supper left the church to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first of the country’s historically Black churches.
In 1844, the racial tensions of the Civil War led to another split within the Methodist Church after a bishop refused to give up his slaves. The resulting Northern and Southern branches remained until nearly 100 years later.
According to G. Clinton Prim in “Southern Methodism in the Confederacy”:
The northern Methodists generally broadened their concept of Christian
responsibility from evangelism to the belief that Christians must do battle
for what was right.
One northern conference resolved, “In our patriotic efforts … to sustain the government … we are not justly liable to the charges of political teaching, and in the inculcation of loyal principles and sentiments we recognize the pulpit and the press as legitimate instrumentalities.”
Southern Methodists held to what they regarded as the “strictly Scriptural mission for the church.” Southern editors urged their churches to “preach repentance and faith and holiness” and “allow the people who are competent to attend to the affairs of the Nation and the State.”
Bishop Hubbard H. Kavanaugh, who also served as chaplain in the Sixth Kentucky Regiment, stated that he deemed his duty as a minister of the Gospel, “not only to abstain from participating in political affairs, but on the contrary to mitigate as far as practicable the asperity of feeling which prevails so widely.”
Perhaps the best indicator of the Southern Christian discontent that characterized that time is a prayer offered by Baptist chaplain and historian J. William Jones to students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill forty years after the end of the Civil War:
“Lord we acknowledge Thee as the all-wise author of every good and perfect gift. We recognize Thy presence and wisdom in the healing shower. We acknowledge Thou had a divine plan when Thou made the rattle-snake, as well as the song bird, and this was without help from Charles Darwin. But we believe Thou will admit the grave mistake in giving the decision to the wrong side in eighteen hundred and sixty-five.”
The Northern and Southern branches of the Methodist Church reunited into a single body in 1939. However, this merger was conditioned on the creation of a separate, segregated jurisdiction (the Central Jurisdiction) under which all Black clergy and churches were assigned.
In 1968, when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren joined to form the United Methodist Church, the EUB (which had an abolitionist history) insisted that the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction was prerequisite for their participation in the merger.
According to the Indiana United Methodist Conference Commission on Archives and History’s document “Remembering the Merger: 50 Years of the United Methodist Church, 1968–2018”:
Within Methodism, Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) had organized, as had another group, Methodists for Church Renewal. The latter group organized demonstrations at the General Conference of 1968 in which persons seized the conference floor, marched, sang, demonstrated and sent a strong message: the church had not dealt with its own sexism and racism and outdated ways of doing things.
This was the day of Freedom and that meant freedom from institutional restraints. In a climate of freedom how could the church demand that clergy pledge themselves not to use tobacco or alcohol? Youth demanded a new philosophy of youth ministry in which they not be given answers but “tools” so they could find answers for themselves.
The conference reflected the changing times by supporting the controversial Project Equality, setting up a 200 million dollar Fund for Reconciliation, establishing a new social concerns magazine, later called Engage, and passing a resolution proclaiming the “right of non-violent civil disobedience in extreme cases.” With all of this came also the emergence of identity group caucuses.
While there was a lot of anger and frustration expressed at the 1968 General Conference, there was also a lot of hope. That hope was related to the Methodist-EUB merger. The merger would serve as an opportunity to start over, to make right the injustices of the past, and give the church new vision.
This would start with restructure, that is, how the church would be organized. Every structure would need to ensure a place at the table for previously marginalized groups.
As an example of the problem it was pointed out that during an earlier quadrennium, the Board of Education was composed of 39 members, of which 37 were white male liberals. Only seven were pastors; thirteen were associated with universities or seminaries; most of the rest were bishops or bureaucrats from other agencies.
It was out of situations such as this that the new structure sought to reflect diversity and inclusiveness.
To be certain, while the broader body of the newly-formed United Methodist Church welcomed this desegregation, it was met by outrage from members of its former Southern branch.
“A few dozen congregations exercised their option to leave the new denomination because of it, joining the more theologically conservative Wesleyan Church or even the Southern Methodist Church, which advocated racial separation as part of its doctrine.”
Echoes of these Confederate and segregationist ghosts can still be heard today as some Southern Methodists still cling to the idea that racial equality is a political issue that the church should have no part in — or for a small (but vocal) minority, that the Bible supports white supremacy.
While the late ’60s and early ’70s were marked by conscious efforts to seek racial equality both within and outside of the walls of the church, the Black Lives Matter movement and the emergence of protests across the United States during the summer of 2020 brought forth a previously-repressed undercurrent of animosity towards those who pursue racial justice.
Even though the vast majority of these protests were nonviolent and did not involve property damage (96.3%), injuries to police (99%), or injuries among participants or bystanders (97.7%), the attention given to the small minority of protests that did turn violent and destructive by right-wing media sources fueled a certain “civil” antipathy or outright contempt by conservatives, including those within the Christian church.
(Also of note is the fact that much of the disorder was later found to be perpetrated by politically and ideologically unaffiliated opportunists or agitators on the opposition, like the member of the far-right group the “Boogaloo Bois” who killed a police officer during a protest against police brutality in San Francisco — or another member of that group, which is aimed at inciting a second civil war by encouraging civil unrest and overthrowing the government, who yelled “Justice for Floyd!” as he set fire to a Minneapolis police precinct and fired 13 rounds into the building after driving 1,200 miles from Boerne, Texas.)
I will cover the entanglement of right-wing politics and further right extremism with the Christian church in a future installment of this series, but these events have made clear that the goal of and pursuit towards racial equality that prevailed fifty years ago still remains an unrealized ideal today.
This is, in great part, a result of the active or indifferent opposition by Christians who either adhere to extremist racial ideology, abide by what they consider “harmless” racial microaggressions, or are simply too comfortable with the status quo and their station in society to risk involvement with such a movement — particularly when it has become so associated with progressive Christianity and political liberalism.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often spoke about remaining silent on matters of injustice.
In 1963, he said:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
Unfortunately, the universality of injustice is more often recognized by those who have borne its burden than by the ones who have remained blissfully out of reach of its grasp. As humans, we are an inherently egocentric bunch. Accordingly, empathy and compassion are conscious and deliberate efforts to look beyond oneself and consider the plights of those who are different from us, whose trials are foreign to us and others like us.
“The ultimate measure of a man,” Dr. King once said, “is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
To pursue justice and equality for all is to step outside of the confines of self-interest and ease to work toward change that may never impact us or our families. More often, though, the kinds of progress that better others’ lives have far-reaching positive effects for everyone.
Dr. King recognized that in pursuing racial justice and civil rights for Black Americans, he was fighting for of all of humanity.
Accordingly, he was quoted as saying, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”
Silence over oppression and cruelty by good people is the ultimate tragedy. Not the oppression and cruelty itself, but the conscious decision of good people to remain silent on matters of humanity.
The Methodist Church has, in its history, alternately participated in and acted against discrimination and its more severe counterparts, slavery and segregation. It is important to note, though, that this variation is less reflective of the denomination as a whole, but of the regional, political, and ideological differences within its branches at varying points.
Through that lens, it is clear that the politically and ideologically conservative South has perpetrated the majority of the injustices sanctioned within and by the church over the last 200+ years. That is not to say that Methodists in particular or Christians more generally in the Northern states were exempt from these evils, but the staunchest opposition to racial equality and progress has always come from their Southern counterparts.
Due to the lengthy history that needs to be explored in order to provide the most comprehensive picture of the UMC’s record on social justice issues, I have broken this discussion down into two sub-parts for clarity. The second will be on issues of gender and sexuality.