In the November 9 issue of CT, three articles considered the state of evangelicalism in the United Methodist Church. But what of the other Wesleyan denominations? Where did they arise, and how do evangelicals fare in them?
Two hundred years ago this month 60 American preachers who considered themselves followers of John Wesley, the British Methodist reformer, gathered in Baltimore. Their purpose: to form the first autonomous church in the new nation. Their resources: some 80 preachers, about 15,000 adherents, a great evangelistic passion, and a theological position distinctive in colonial America. Their impact on us today is much larger than most Americans know.
In 1784 the American Wesleyans were a shining example of unity. They had little choice. John Wesley ruled them doctrinally, and their new bishop, Francis Asbury, more or less dictated on practical matters. The intervening centuries, though, have seen the same story of schism that has afflicted the rest of Protestant America. In the end, Methodism in the U.S. was not a single group; it was dozens of independent denominations.
When reminded of Methodism, the typical American tends to think of the giant and troubled United Methodist Church. With its current membership of 9.4 million, it is the second-largest Protestant denomination in America. Yet the reality is that there are more direct lineal descendents of the 1784 founding band who are outside the United Methodist Church than there are members of all the Presbyterian churches in this country.
More surprising yet, some of these groups are among the more innovative and evangelistic churches in America. The newest figures show a combined membership of non-United Methodist churches with a strong Wesleyan heritage of more than 9.4 million—as many people as are in the United Methodist Church. Other groups that reflect Wesleyan influence, such as a number of churches in the Christian Holiness Association, would significantly enlarge that number.
What was it that fragmented those children of Wesley? Two issues seem to predominate. The first was racial; the second, theological.
Black Wesleyan Churches
White evangelicals may be surprised to learn that some of this country’s largest black denominations are Methodist in origin. The three major black Methodist bodies have more than four million members.
How did they come into being? From the beginning Wesley and Asbury were strongly opposed to slavery, and as a result, blacks came into the Methodist church in considerable numbers. But the idealism of Wesley and Asbury did not control all Methodist practices. Required separate seating in church and other evidences of prejudice were resented, especially by the free blacks in the North.
So in 1787 the first of two groups of northern black Methodists pulled out to form what turned into their own denominations. The larger of these, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, has 2,210,000 members. Its first bishop, Richard Allen, was ordained by Asbury himself. The second group, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, has 1,132,179 members.
A third black Methodist body was formed after the Civil War from segregated congregations attended by former slaves. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, originally called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, had the blessing and the financial support of white southern Methodists. It now has about 786,000 members.
These bodies developed somewhat differently from the largely white United Methodist Church. Because they served a poor and largely powerless people, they often became more important centers of political and cultural activities than their white counterparts.
Another distinctive that set black Methodists apart was their isolation, especially at the lay level, from American theological liberalism. Because they pulled out before the advent of higher criticism and religious liberalism, and because their pastors had less access to theological higher education, black Methodists were less affected by theological trends. Though this situation has changed in recent decades (especially among the educated leadership), rank and file members have had little use for nonevangelical Christianity. Probably more than most in other mainline denominations, typical members still see the Bible as “the Book.” However, with a better grasp of theology and of the Bible, they could release to American Christianity a massive creative energy that would enrich us all.
The Holiness Movement
A second influence that brought division within Methodism was theological. Just as American Methodist leadership backed away from Wesley’s commitment to abolition, it also ultimately shied away from his commitment to the doctrine of Christian perfection. Both departures left schism in their wake.
Sometimes both the social and the theological factors were at work. The Free Methodist church (80,000 members) and what became “The Wesleyan Church” (103,000 members) broke away from the northern Methodist church in the mid-nineteenth century. The Free Methodists, for example, declared they would be free of slavery, rented pews, elaborate lifestyles, abuses of ecclesiastical authority, and secret societies. What they were for, both then and now, is Christian perfection, the doctrine of entire sanctification.
Perhaps the most significant contribution of early Methodists was theological—the emphasis on the need for a deeper sanctification in the ordinary believer. Wesley had been convinced that the believer not only should but could come, through grace, to a position where conscious willful sin was not his practice. Such a life of victory was obtained when the believer entirely consecrated himself to God. Accompanying this would be faith that God would empower the heart so one could live a holy life. Wesley was careful to state that this experience of sanctification did not necessarily prevent the believer from sinning. He did teach that sanctification would remove the Christian’s in-born desire to sin.
This idea meshed well with the optimistic American spirit. If people could be made holy through God, then why not society as well? The gigantic Methodist movement quickly spread its ideas and style throughout the Protestant world. The price of such commitment with the cultural tensions it produced was high. In due time the emphasis on entire sanctification and social righteousness was played down and ultimately forsaken by many Methodists.
But after midcentury, a group arose who tried to correct this shift. The long series of revivals led by Dwight L. Moody found great acceptance among many Methodists. Moody’s emphasis on free will suited them, and their enthusiasm for the Holy Spirit agreed with Moody’s followers. For a while the two groups made common cause.
Yet these revival-centered Methodists soon found themselves less than welcome in their own church. Believers in sanctification from other traditions experienced the same discomfort.
Eventually such people began forming some unusual and vibrant denominations.
Church Of The Nazarene
Today, one of the more impressive of these is the Church of the Nazarene. Little known by most American Protestants, it is a success story that promises greater impact in the days ahead. October 16, 1983, marked the church’s seventy-fifth anniversary. On that day it received into membership on profession of faith 22,000 new members. That is a number larger than the membership of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America combined. Today the church’s membership stands at over a half million, and its Sunday school constituency at over a million.
Perhaps its greatest strength, though, is to be seen in its educational thrust. In addition to a Bible college and seminary (450 students each), there are eight fully accredited liberal arts colleges that this year have enrolled more than 10,000 students. The potential is obvious when this number is compared with the total of 13,000 students enrolled in all colleges of the Christian College Consortium.
The Salvation Army
Surely first prize among all Christian denominations for the most original approach to evangelism goes to the Salvation Army. In 1865 a Methodist preacher in Britain, William Booth, tried to get Methodists there to support his evangelistic efforts in the inner city. They had no vision, and he could not contain his, so he left. Booth had been heavily influenced by a personal visit from Phoebe and Walter Palmer of New York, who were leaders of the new holiness movement. Along with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification came a typical by-product—a social conscience. This explains Booth’s dual emphases of saving men’s souls and being deeply concerned with their social welfare. He saw his work as a crusade. And for a credible crusade he needed an army. So he built one.
Today the U.S. Salvation Army has 419,000 members organized in more than 1,000 corps (that is, local churches). Although the Army’s vast programs of social work tend to obscure the fact that it is an actual church, one visit to a corps on Sunday morning will convince the visitor that it is one of the most evangelical churches anywhere.
The Army succeeds most plainly where other denominations usually flunk—in evangelizing the poor. Most of their corps are planted right in the worst neighborhoods of America’s cities. Their ministers—they call them officers—spend a considerable amount of time and money seeing to the material needs of their neighborhoods. This strategy tends to open the ears of the poor to the telling of the gospel.
Church Of God, Anderson, Indiana
Another group formed when the holiness adherents came out of the Methodist mainstream was the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana (U.S. membership—183,000). This is an unusual group for at least three reasons: (1) Their membership refuse to call themselves a denomination. As far as they are concerned, they are merely individual churches, even though they have several colleges, a publishing house, and other denomination-like agencies. (2) They are one of the few bodies left in the U.S. who hold a strict postmillennialism. (3) They have had remarkable success in attracting ethnic minorities into their churches. Twenty percent of the group’s American membership is black.
Wesleyan Pentecostal Churches
Most of the groups in the holiness movement are extremely uncomfortable with the practice of speaking in tongues. While they do not deny the possibility of the gift being given by the Holy Spirit, in practice they try to prevent the occurrence.
So it is more than a little ironic that a major part of the modern Pentecostal movement is an outgrowth of the holiness movement with its emphasis on the Holy Spirit and sanctification.
The holiness Wesleyans taught the need for a “second work of grace,” sanctification. In 1901 Charles Parham declared that there was a third work of grace to be added to sanctification: baptism in the Holy Spirit. This baptism would be like that of Pentecost, thus the term Pentecostal and the emphasis on speaking in tongues.
This new variation on Wesleyan theology quickly spread into two holiness churches founded just a few years earlier. One, the Pentecostal Holiness Church, has experienced modest growth in recent years, with a U.S. membership today of 110,000. The church is doing much better in South America, where its Pentecostal Methodists are experiencing explosive growth.
The other denomination, the Church of God in Christ, is a little-known but huge black church of 3.7 million members. The body was begun by black minister C. H. Mason of Mississippi. In 1907 Mason traveled to see the booming Azusa Street revival in Los Angeles, where W. J. Seymour was preaching Parham’s third work of grace. Mason spoke in tongues, and returned to adjust the theology of his church.
Today the Church of God in Christ plays a unique and constructive role in America’s inner-city neighborhoods. The church describes itself as “fervently fundamental, earnestly evangelical, and purely pentecostal.” Wesleyan in organization and most of its doctrine, the denomination continues to grow rapidly.
The denominations we have considered are just the larger examples of Wesley’s other children. A number of smaller Wesleyan bodies in this country are geographically or numerically limited, but play significant roles in American church life. Most of these bodies are members of the Christian Holiness Association, which serves as an ecumenical organ for them.
One such small group is the Brethren in Christ, an indigenous denomination that has given evangelicalism Messiah College. A tiny Anabaptist and Wesleyan group of 11,000 in 1973, it has seen an annual rate of growth of 3.4 percent; it now has more than 17,000 members. The Missionary Church, which maintains Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana, and Fort Wayne Bible College, is another of the smaller Wesleyan groups.
To gauge the significance of biblical Christianity, it is plain in this bicentennial year of organized Methodism in America that due regard must be given groups with a decided link to the Wesleyan movement. In addition to over two million evangelicals in the United Methodist Church, denominations with a combined membership of over nine million send a clear signal that God is raising up an invigorated Wesleyan evangelicalism as we approach the close of the twentieth century.
Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).
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