For the past four days, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been reexamining its doctrines on human sexuality. From Christianity Today’s report from yesterday:

The United Methodist Church (UMC) voted Tuesday to maintain its traditional stance against same-sex marriage and non-celibate gay clergy, bolstered by a growing conservative contingent from Africa.

The denomination’s “Traditional Plan” passed, with 438 votes in favor and 384 against (53% to 47%), in the final hours of a special UMC conference held this week in St. Louis to address the issue of human sexuality.

While this decision will likely have broad global consequences, it is also one that has been heavily impacted by the denomination’s large international presence. The UMC has about 7 million lay members in the US and 5.5 million overseas, and they operate in more than 130 countries.

But the denomination's broad reach isn’t anything new.

“It’s inherently a global movement,” said J. Steven O’Malley, a professor of Methodist Holiness history at Asbury Theological Seminary, who recently spent the year working on a project called “The Origin of the Wesleyan Theological Vision for Christian Globalization and the Pursuit of Pentecost in Early Pietist Revivalism.”

O’Malley joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss what was at stake at the most recent UMC meeting, how the denomination came together 50 years ago, and how it ended up around the world.

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Show Transcript

February 27 transcription

Mark Galli: Well, with whom in particular is J. Steven O'Malley. He is the John T. Seamands Professor of Methodist Holiness History at Asbury Theological Seminary. And among of his many works--the one that plays the most part in our talk today--in the Spring and Summer of 2018, he completed, he just finished the manuscript, a sabbatical project on The Origin of the Wesleyan Theological Vision for Christian Globalization and The Pursuit of Pentecost In Early Pietists Revivalism. And this is something we want to just get a sense on, it's not only the movement, the Wesleyan and Methodist movement in the US, but maybe even worldwide, because I don't think people recognize its global nature. So welcome, Dr. O'Malley.

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Dr. O'Malley: Good morning--good afternoon, I should say.

Morgan Lee: So this name of this project that you completed is almost 20 words, I want to say. Did you come up with the title?

Dr. O'Malley: Oh, yes. I did.

Morgan Lee: Very cool. As Mark suggested, it's very likely that we will be asking you quite a bit of questions based on that recent research, so I'm glad that you were able to join us today and bring that level of expertise.

I think most of our listeners at this point should know kind of a little bit about what we're talking about, but in case they have not been paying attention, for the past four days the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been in a special session to receive and act on a report from The Commission of The Way Forward, which re-examines paragraphs in the Methodist rule book, called The Book of Discipline, concerning human sexuality.

Currently The Book of Discipline bars gays and lesbian members from ordination and marriage, which has caused increasing divide in the church. So the commission included three different plans for moving forward. There was a plan called the One Church Plan, which would allow individual churches and regional annual conferences to decide to ordain and marry LGBTQ members. There's the Traditional Plan, which would strengthen enforcement of current language regarding LGBTQ people in the denomination's rule book. And there is the Connectional Conference Plan, which reorganizes United Methodist churches by conferences based on their LGBTQ policy rather than by geography. The decision of the special session, which is likely happening as we record this episode, could change the faith of Methodism and may have broad global consequences. The UMC has about 7 million lay members in the US and 5.5 million overseas, and they operate in more than a hundred and thirty countries. It traces its beginnings back to the Great Awakening preachers John and Charles Wesley. So this week on Quick To Listen, we want to explore the history of this tradition in denomination and learn what makes it unique today.

All right, Mark time for a gut check. I don't know if Church meetings or something that provoke an emotional reaction from you. But tell us if they do.

Mark Galli: They do. I've been involved in mainline Christianity. I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, mainline Presbyterian Church, spent a number of years in the Episcopal church. And this is like a déjà vu, as they say, déjà vu all over again because when I was part of each of those denominations, they were wrestling over this same issue, you know some decades earlier. So part of me goes, I understand the tension and the anxiety that's produced in the churches by this topic and having meetings like this, and it just brings back those tense feelings.

Morgan Lee: That's a super personal connection.

Mark Galli: Yeah it just reminds me of just have a lot of the pain that a lot of us have experienced having to debate this issue other times. It seems to be my cross to bear that I was involved in each denominations as it was wrestling about these things. So, there you go.

Morgan Lee: In other words, you should be feeling happy that you didn't join the Methodist Church after you left the Episcopal one.

Mark Galli: Well, I'm also interested, I think the Methodist, as we'll get into, have a unique polity hear that bears on this conversation in a way that's different than other American denominations. So I'll be anxious to have as talk about that.

Morgan Lee: You know, you mentioned different denominations which have split over this particular issue in recent years, and I guess I was a little bit surprised at the Methodist hadn't yet? So, I don't know if that's really a good check, but I was a little bit confused about where this denomination stood on this issue, what had been happening. It's not a denomination that I follow closely nor have very many, I guess, Christian friends who are part of the Methodist Church. And so I was actually excited to do this podcast today to fill in a lot of the holes that I have in my own knowledge about this and maybe I will have a more emotional reaction after learning all this information.

All right, Dr. O'Malley, time to hit you with some questions. Let's begin by talking about how old the particular denomination the United Methodist Church is and maybe you can tell us a little bit about its origins.

Dr. O'Malley: Our church has its 50th Anniversary in 1968 to 2018. So we've just passed the 50 year mark as a United Methodist Church.

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We originated with the Methodist Episcopal Church. It was organized in 1784 in Baltimore, Maryland under the leadership of Francis Asbury, who became its first ordained pastor and then Bishop. It also became joined with various branches over the years in union to create the Methodist Church as came to be known by 1968. The union of former South and North groups, Methodist, Protestant groups. But then we had an addition to that in 1968, the union with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. I was a ordained minister of that denomination at that time. Had been ordained just a year prior to the union in 1968. And we represented, in itself, a coming together of two different streams of German American Revival Christianity that had its roots the German pietism and among immigrants to this country in the colonial period and into the 19th century. The two branches of that tradition represented first the United Brethren in Christ, which dated back to about 1767, which was even before the First Methodist preaching occurred in this country, under the leadership of two men: Philip William Otterbein, who came as a German reformed missionary to the colonial colony of Maryland and in 1752 serving in Baltimore the church there; it's still honored by his name, he's buried by that church in the harbor of Baltimore near where the War of 1812 conflict occurred and so it has some historic locations. And he served with a Mennonite, a layman and lay bishop as they have it, by the name of Mark Bain, who together joined hands and a fellowship by that name in that early year as a result of a Pentecost-based revival that occurred in a barn meeting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Mark Galli: Pentecost before Pentecost, huh?

Dr. O'Malley: Yes, it was on a Pentecost Sunday. What was called a Big Meeting, at grocer for someone help was held, which was a forerunner to the camp meetings that came in the 19th century in the places like Cane Ridge and the middle of the country. This was in the Northeast among the German immigrants, and they were holding these kinds of meetings quite early as a result of informal meetings that came as a spin-off of the Awakening that originated among the English-speaking colonists, through George Whitefield and others, and the colonies. They were meeting on this occasion. A man by the name of Bain, who was giving his account of his new birth, when Otterbein happened to be in the audience and exclaimed publicly and embracing him that Wir sind Brüder, We are Brethren. And this was a remarkable moment of reconciliation between two long streams of European Protestantism had gone unreconciled now for probably over, by that time over two centuries. Because since the 16th century the forerunners of the Mennonites, who had been Anabaptist had been persecuted have been persecuted for their mode of baptism primarily and their separation from State Church Authority by all other forms of organized Christianity, official Christianity. And so here you have a representative of the official State Church Christianity in the form of Otterbein, a German reformed missionary, embracing and affirming the witness of an Anabaptist descent, a Mennonite. And what was important in that moment to them was not their denominational affiliations, which had long been antagonistic to one another, but it was their common affirmation of the new birth in Christ is a moment of the spirits visitation at baptism upon them.

So this launched a long-term relationship between these two traditions through these leaders. In fact by 1800, they organize their movement as unpartisan, which meant that they didn't want to become a narrowly exclusive denomination, but a broad one that would embrace all those who sought to have unity in the Lordship of Jesus Christ through the experience the new birth through the Holy Spirit. And it would be envisioned as a way of overcoming the hostilities of divisions within the various sects and church groups that then were prominent in the Middle Colonies, the German-speaking areas, which were quite numerous with that language and use--in Pennsylvania and Maryland, Western New York State and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, and all that area represented tens of thousands of German speakers.

So it filled a void that needed to be filled probably because the English-speaking colonies have been experiencing renewal through the work of Edwards and Awakening among the New Englanders, and then later with Wesley in the Methodist. So this enables them to be involved in this larger movement of Awakening that have been moving across the globe from Europe to America in the early 18th century.

Mark Galli: So it sounds like a lot of Methodist history is about not only revivals and that sort of thing, but also bringing Christians of various denominations together in these events.

Dr. O'Malley: Right, and the other part of that the union, was with the United Brethren had been joined themselves with the Evangelical Association later--the Evangelical Church, it was called, of North America--which had its origins also in that early period around 1800 under the leadership of a Lutheran layman with the name of Jacob Albright, who had been a Revolutionary War soldier veteran and converted afterwards through a profound experience of spiritual crisis in his own family life. And he came spontaneously to own this new gift of salvation and to share it with his neighbors and he began to travel and continue that work spontaneously, but no formal backing for many Church tradition. And out of that, and he dies rather soon in the course of the early years of that ministry and you would think that would have been the end of it, but those who were converted under his leadership organized themselves after his death into a movement that continued to bear witness. Their particular distinctive had to do with bringing some of the Methodist forms of policy and emphasis upon Christian perfection in the fullness of the Spirit in the life of the Christian into expression among the German Americans. And their movement in the 19th century led to a return to their German fatherland and the establishment of a strong work in Europe, which is continued to this day. So those two groups joined as the EUV in 1946, and they had a 21-year history before the union with Methodist in 1968. So we're a broad family today that includes background not only in the Anglican heritage of John Wesley, but the Lutheran heritage of Jacob Albright, the Evangelical Church, and the German Reformed and Mennonite branches, which represent the extremes of the radical and the magisterial reformation the process, coming together through the United Brethren Christ. So that's a broad base.

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Mark Galli: Just quickly, for our listeners, where did the word 'Methodist' come from?

Dr. O'Malley: John Wesley was called a Methodist going back to his pre-conversion theory as of term of criticism by early observers of the movement for establishing a Holy Club among his friends and associates. A very disciplined lifestyle of personal devotion based upon what they call their general rules that came to be identified in the course of Methodist history. The emphasis was upon those who were seeking to be saved from their sins and flee the wrath to come would join together and covenant to do all things good for God and for their fellow brothers and sisters, avoid all evil, and attend the ordinances of God, which would have been the Anglican service is worship. So those three rules basically defined, were the method of, this initial group of followers of Wesley. Looking from a distance as being Methodistic, being a strict and a kind of a Protestant form of monasticism, if you will. But that later took on a different flavor after the conversion that Wesley experienced it Aldersgate where he began to have a deep sense of love and forgiveness for his enemies and a desire to share the gospel with all. So it was not a revival movement until after that occurred, and that occurred in the context of him making connection with Continental renewal and Pietist groups such as the Moravians, who had been manifestors of that Awakening on the continent to him in the course of his early travels, particularly his trip from England to Georgia where he first encountered signs of that Awakening through the Moravians there on board the ship.

Morgan Lee: Well, I can definitely say I'm having a gut reaction now. My gut check is wow, that is an extremely fascinating Christian family tree that goes into Methodism. I'm so glad that you laid it out. But I definitely will say that I have probably more questions that I had earlier. We won't get into all of them, don't worry everybody, but that was a lot. Also it just made me think that the United Methodist Church today, I guess feels very American. This whole idea of, you know, on our like motto, it's like eplurbius has e pluribus...

Mark Galli: E pluribusunum.

Morgan Lee: Thank you.

Dr. O'Malley: Many into one.

Morgan Lee: Right! Yeah, I get that sense when you're talking about all the different things that fed into this, and you know, how that is all kind of what we see in modern-day Methodism. Is that okay? Is that a fair assessment?

Dr. O'Malley: Well, we have been a originally we were called on one side of our union, a unpartisan group which meant that we were to be together in Christ in the midst of our individual differences, but that we would share all things through Him in common. And from the Methodist side that meant also that we were men and women of one book, The Bible, and we were to be those who are formed by the witness of the word of God as Jesus Christ is lifted as Savior and Lord.

Mark Galli: It seems like a motivating factor in a lot of these early groups that eventually became united with Methodist was a very experiential, spiritual conversion or moment as a key part of understanding what's Christian Life.

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Dr. O'Malley: Well there was a great emphasis too on the spreading scriptural holiness, which was the theme, the outcome of the Christian Life, that was the manifestation of the new age of God's Spirit on Earth through the preaching of the Gospel was coming.

Mark Galli: So it's a combination of experience but then also deep commitment to scripture and the teachings of holiness in scripture. Kind of that combination.

Dr. O'Malley: Right.

Morgan Lee: Maybe you can walk us a little bit through the series of events that happened in the 1950s and 60s that led to the UMC's formation.

Dr. O'Malley: Union occurred in '68 began in about, discussions for it began about six or eight years earlier at least. Boards from the two denominations. And I was a witness to that that time, is I was preparing for my own ordination.

Mark Galli: That is an interesting period in American church history because the Southern Presbyterian, what was formerly called the Southern Presbyterian Church and the Northern Presbyterian Church, united in '79, I believe it was. It might have been '78. I know that because I was the first, I just finished seminary and was being ordained in the Presbyterian system, and I was the first person ordained after that union took place. I had that distinction of the new United Presbyterian Church. So that happens in '78, you united southern and northern Methodism in '68. So there's that. In the '60s and '70s, the churches that had split formally over the issues of especially slavery, states' rights, were coming together.

Dr. O'Malley: For Methodist that union came about '39 was when the northern and southern Methodists and Protestants came together. So their history was divided back in 1844, 1845, when the north-south split occurred in Methodism in the pre-civil war period over the issue of possessing slaves on the part of Bishop Andrew and Georgia and so on, which led to eventually rupture there. But eventually the three-way union that occur included the Methodist-Protestants as well, which come out of the Methodist Episcopal Church earlier due to their disagreement with Francis Asbury over the office of Bishop as the proper title of a Protestant denomination. They wanted presidents of the church comparable to presidents of the United States. So that led to a third branch of the Methodist movement in the 19th century and early 20th century.

So in '39, you finally had a three-way meeting in Kansas City as those three groups North-South and the Methodist-Protestant, who accepted the title of Bishops and the basic polity that Methodist had, to be there as well. So they had a history from '39 to '68 as simply the Methodist Church as a result of that three-way union, and we had our history in the EUV from '46 with the two-way union of the United Brethren and the Evangelicals until '68, and then the union with Methodist occurred. And the United side of that reflects the Evangelical-United Brethren half of that union.

Mark Galli: Now contemporary Methodism, from what I understand, you're connected globally. You're not just a church of the United States, you are a worldwide church. Is that a correct understanding?

Dr. O'Malley: Exactly. Operating on all continents throughout the world.

It was mostly in the 19th century from the American side that the mission board was formed that went around the world with its work. Sometimes it was result of spontaneous initiatives, others through planned structure from conferences and for mission boards. Largely, the latter is what prevailed.

Mark Galli: And I think this is one of the things that's led to some struggles in the church because the church overseas tends to be more conservative than the church the United States. Is that a fair thing to say?

Dr. O'Malley: That is particularly the position of the churches in Africa are much more committed to a biblical, a higher view of biblical authority, as guides their church that has been influential in their church life. And I think they brought that, and it's been a high position in our church historically too in the Northern Hemisphere as it is in the global North as well in our earlier history. But they have held the torch for that, I would say, in recent years.

Morgan Lee: So I want to kind of jump back to this particular conference that's happening right now. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about this conference. I guess it's every four years. But what type of things are usually determined when it’s being held?

Dr. O'Malley: It meets every four years as a General Conference of the United Methodist Church. There are five jurisdictional conferences in the United States, which are secondary to them, and they are for the purpose of electing Bishops who serve the church and the various jurisdictions of the church. This has been a special General Conference called for a special purpose in particular dealing with the issues that have been brought before it. So it is not a regularly scheduled one that will be coming in another year.

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Mark Galli: One of the things I was wondering... you know, one of the things that's been interesting about Methodist history is it's, you did mention the grounding in scripture, but it does seem that it has an initial powerful experience of some sort of spiritual experience. Is that something that's maybe getting the Methodist, making some confusion in Methodism right now? Because I do know a lot of the personal testimonies coming out of the LGBT community are grounded in the people's personal experience of how they experience themselves, how they experience their gender, how they experience God. Is it fair to say that this is some of the confusion in Methodism now? Where they are ultimate Authority lies?

Dr. O'Malley: But I would that the United Methodist have been committed to officially a position of the scriptures as the foundation of our Authority, and it is also understood often in terms of the secondary witness of tradition, experience, and reason. But experience is not the origin of our Authority, but rather it confirms our engagement with the word of God as revealed scripture, and by the inspiration of the Spirit becomes not just that we believe that Christ died for us, but that he lives in and through us through the filling of the Holy Spirit. And that has its experiential dimensions. It means that's the basis for our ability to have personal fellowship with Christ through the Spirit, and with our fellow believers. That has always been an important emphasis, but within that order of priority to put experience before the first part, from scriptures is the witness to Christ, is the word of God, and to the authority the Spirit to bear witness to him for our life of holiness and for our service to the world, is to depart from what we consider the core of our mission.

Mark Galli: Yeah, so I think that's referred to often as a three-legged stool of authority in Methodism, where you have scripture, experience, and reason all working together...

Dr. O'Malley: I would say that we stand as part of a Christian community that has its origins in Apostolic Christianity and it's been the witness of the church fathers, the apostles, the traditions of the witness to that faith that continue down through history. Especially as being formed in the great ecumenical creeds of the early Church.

Mark Galli: Okay, so it's a four-legged stool.

Dr. O'Malley: Those are ways of giving confirmation to the authority of revelation we have in the scripture, that the church has acknowledged.

Mark Galli: Okay, so I correct myself because yeah, you're reminding me of that. It's a four-legged stool that all work together. But in your view, it's scripture that's the really strong leg or the foundational leg of that.

Dr. O'Malley: Well, John Wesley once said "I am a man of One Book. Homo unius libri." And by that he meant the Bible. And that was the authority that we relied upon in the Evangelical United Brethren tradition as well. And our confession of faith is one of the two standards of United Methodist doctrine today alongside the Articles of Religion that John Wesley prepared for the early Methodist.

Morgan Lee: Talking about various Christian traditions, and these are words that I personally have not always understood exactly what is meant when they're said, but can you talk a little bit about what Wesleyanism is?

Dr. O'Malley: Yeah, is there a difference between Wesleyanism and Methodism? Because are those terms just synonymous?

Dr. O'Malley: Wesleyanism as an adjective, it refers to or could be referring to one who follows the theology of John Wesley as he lived it out in his ministry. There is Wesleyan Theology, which is that the theology that has been formulated based upon his life and ministry, and that has to do with his emphasis upon salvation through faith as declared in the scriptural revelation of Christ as appropriated through justification and sanctification, and even unto the Fulfillment of the gift of the Spirit and the sanctifying life, which he called Christian Perfection.

Morgan Lee: If you are a Methodist, does it necessarily follow that you follow Wesleyan theology?

Dr. O'Malley: Well that refers to the theological tradition to which we adhere, but it also refers to a living faith that needs to be more than simply what is assented to by a written statement of belief or confession, but also what we are living out. And that we need to say this I think, that Methodism began or the Wesleyan movement if we refer to that, as a larger movement of his thought in the context of revival. Of bringing new life to existing church structures, namely first within the Church of England, Anglicanism, and then impacting also other traditions such as Albright with the Lutheran tradition, and Otterbein and Bain with the Reformed and Anabaptist traditions. All those traditions were being touched and influenced by a movement which had its roots really in Germany before Methodism called Pietism. That was an attempt to, or movement that brought about renewal within the churches of the Reformation after a long period of their decline and breaking down into inner divisions that occurred after the Reformation. Renewal of the original vision reformers that occurred in the late 1600s, 17th Century, just predating Methodism.

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So when that began in Lutheranism, and then the Reformed churches of the European continent, it was just a generation or so before Methodism began in England and Wesley was touched by those earlier movements of renewal that occurred on the continent within Christendom, as it was called the model of Christianity in that day, that would bring a new personal understanding of Christianity to the lives of people who lived outside the confines of that older State Church form of Christianity. So it was inherently a global movement. That gets into the area of interest for mine that I have from the research I've just completed on the early history of the globalizing movement of Methodism.

Morgan Lee: Do you want to talk briefly about kind of the scope of what your research looked at?

Dr. O'Malley: The global aspect, it really is rooted there. It's all along been acknowledged that John Wesley was touched by the Moravians in his initial movement toward faith, after he had been educated at Oxford and he had received his ordination. He'd been reading spiritual writers and then he encountered the living witness of these German Christians who were from the Pietists renewal, I mentioned, in Europe that began with the Moravians, an encounter that took place among the Moravians. And he meets the leaders of this Moravian renewal movement that were leading this refugee group and learns of their teaching of the personal belief in personal faith in Christ, resulting in the new birth experience of regeneration, new life In Christ through the witness of the Spirit. A message of the new birth, which was not taught in the Anglican Church. It was not known to Wesley in his Oxford training. It'd come through the witness of the Reformation, but also into the Pious Renewal on the continent of Europe.

Thousands of children in that country called Silesia, that had been devastated by the struggles between the warring religious parties, were surviving in the difficulties of a wilderness without their families, without their churches, that have been removed and destroyed, and they began praying and believing that God would bring about a new future for them and for their families. This was utterly astounding to the elders who observed them, because no one else had any hope because the churches were gone. That is those that have been a part of the Reformation Heritage. Then there was this huge church of refugees established pastored by a man by the name of Johann Steinmetz, and he had 70,000 people in his emergency parish of refugees that he preached.

Preachers came and helped him who were knowledgeable in all the languages that surround the area because the refugees were Polish, they were German-speaking, they were Hungarian, there were Czech, and so it was like a Pentecost environment. And I found it fascinating that that was the beginning in many ways of the revival that later found its way into Methodism and England through Wesley.

Mark Galli: So Methodism, in that regard, has a deeply International beginning.

Dr. O'Malley: Exactly. And he and the fact that he hears this not from his own Anglican people primarily at that time, but from an Awakening that was occurring in Eastern Europe among a people of a different language, and that it had originated not among theologians, but from the message that was revealed through children. To be a completed Christian means to be as a child.

Mark Galli: Well what a cool thing to get to spend a couple of years really diving into and pulling together, because it sounds like it's a history that not everyone knows and not everyone has been able to have the chance to do a deep dive in. So thank you so much for sharing about what you've been working on with your sabbatical project.

Dr. O'Malley: Oh, you're welcome.