Name: The United Methodist Church
Founders: Although the United Methodist Church is actually the current result of several schisms and mergers within and among different churches, the United Methodist Church considers its founder to be John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. 1
Date of Birth: John Wesley was born in 1703 in England. He died in 1791. 2
Date/Place Founded: Wesley founded The Methodist Church in London in 1739. 3 However, the church that we know today as the United Methodist Church was not founded until April 23, 1968 in Dallas, Texas as a result of the unification of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church. 4
Sacred or Revered Texts: The Bible
Other Important Texts: The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (first edition, 1972), 5 as well as Wesley's Sermons , his Notes on the New Testament , the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, and the Minutes in Conference . 6
Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect"page, where you will find additional links to related issues. 7
Size of The United Methodist Church: The Church's latest reported numbers (from 1998) claim a total of approximately 9,752,303 members worldwide. Of these, 8,411,503 are members residing inside the United States. These figures represent both clergy and lay members, with lay members accounting for 9,705,250 of the total number. 8
The United Methodist Church was founded on April 23, 1968, in Dallas, Texas. This new Protestant denomination was created when Lloyd C. Wicke, bishop of The Methodist Church, and Reuben H. Mueller, bishop of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, met at the constituting General Conference (sometimes referred to as the Uniting Conference of the United Methodist Church), 9 and effectively combined their churches into one. 10
The Early Years
The United Methodist Church's history can be traced back through the orgins of Methodism, a denomination founded by John Wesley in the middle of the eighteenth century. Wesley was born in 1703 to Samuel and Susana Wesley. 11 He later attended Oxford University and was ordained a minister of the Church of England. He and several other students at Oxford created a group devoted not only to scholarly goals, but also to prayer and to aiding the less fortunate. The members of this group were often referred to as "Methodists" by their classmates as a result of the methodical way they went about their religious business. 12
After graduation, Wesley traveled to America, where he unsuccessfully tried to convert the Native Americans in Georgia. It was at this time that Wesley was introduced to and became quite taken with the pious Moravian religion. [See Moravian Profile Page on this site] Then, on May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced a religious conversion after attending a prayer meeting held on Aldersgate Street, London. This experience led him to found Methodism in England in 1739. Wesley did not set out to create a new church, but instead began several small faith-restoration groups within the Anglican church called the "United Societies." 13 Soon however, Methodism spread and eventually became its own separate religion, based on the General Rules, when the first conference was held in 1744. 14
Early American Methodism began when Methodist immigrants traveled to the North American colonies and took the initiative to organize the religion in their new homeland in the 1760's. Among these pioneers were Robert Strawbridge, Philip Embury, and Captain Thomas Webb. Once Methodism got on its feet in the New World, Wesley aided the colonists by dispatching four preachers (Richard Wright, Francis Asbury, Richard Boardman, and Joseph Pilmore) across the Atlantic. A few years later, in 1773, Francis Asbury led the Methodists and held their first conference during which they established groundwork for future church organization and agreed to continue to abide by John Wesley's teachings. 15 Soon, Methodist churches calling themselves the "Methodist Epicopal Church" began to be officially established, first in Leesburg, Virginia, and later in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. 16
Schisms in Methodism (Spin-off Denominations Originating in Wesleyan Tradition)
After the American Revolution, Wesley appointed Dr. Thomas Coke as head of Methodism in America. Because of the United States' new political independence from Great Britian, Wesley felt it necessary to allow the Americans religious independence as well, and Coke's mission was to oversee the American Methodist movement seperately from the English Methodist movement.
From the time of the Revolution until the beginning of the Civil War, the Methodist movement was the most rapidly growing movement of its kind. 17 Then, in 1828, a division occurred resulting in the formation of the "Methodist Protestant Church." 18 Sixteen years later another split occurred between the northern Methodist Episcopal Churches and the southern Methodist Episcopal Churches due to unresolved disagreements on racial issues. 19 This schism led to the southern churches renaming themselves the "Methodist Episcopal Church, South". Around the same time, other such schisms occurred. One of these happened when former slave Richard Allen separated and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. In 1821, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was started. And in 1830, yet another group broke away and started the Methodist Protestant Church.
Soon, several schisms occurred as German-speaking members began to feel the need to establish their own groups. The first of these, the United Brethren in Christ, was founded by Philip William Otterbein, not as a new church, but as a way to renew the faith of German-speaking Methodist settlers in America. However, after the first official meeting in 1789, Otterbein's United Brethren did eventually become its own church with its own book of discipline (introduced in 1815) and constitution (written in 1841 and later amended in 1889). 20 A small group originally belonging to the United Brethren split again, and formed the Republican United Brethren Church. This split was short-lived and the deviant group soon merged into the Christian Union. 21
The Evangelical Church, on the other hand, was founded by Jacob Albright. The first meetings were held in 1803, and a book of discipline was introduced six years later. In 1816, the church took on the name "The Evangelical Association". Then in 1891, some members of the Evangelical Association left to form the "United Evangelical Church". Thirty-one years later the two groups reunited and renamed themselves "The Evangelical Church".
After the Civil War, the dwindling population of African Americans in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South caused the remaining black members to defect to a new denomination, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (then called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church). 22
Other schisms in the Methodist church involved disagreements over episcopal/non-episcopal issues. The first to leave over these issues was a group led by James O'Kelley; they became known as the Republican Methodists. Later, the Republican Methodists united with the modern-day United Church of Christ. In the 1880's, the Congregational Methodists emerged out of discord with mainstream Methodist Episcopal policies, as did the Methodist Protestant Church in the 1920's, as well as the Bible Protestant Church (or Fellowship of Fundamental Bible Churches), the Southern Methodists, and the Evangelical Methodists. 23
Modern American Methodism
In the early twentieth century, American Methodism was again on the rise. By 1913, the Methodist Episcopal Church alone claimed four million members. Additionally, denominations that had previously experienced traumatic schisms began to reunite. In 1922 the Evangelical Association merged with another Evangelical denomination to form the Evangelical Association. 24 Similarly, "The Evangelical United Brethren Church" resulted from a union consummated in 1946 of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church. 25
On May 10, 1939, the three branches of American Methodism (the Methodist Protestant Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South) reached an agreement to reunite under the name "The Methodist Church". This newly reunited 7.7 million member church prospered on its own for the next twenty-nine years, as did the then-newly reunited Evangelical United Brethren Church. Then, in 1968, bishops of the two churches consulted in the Uniting Conference, and took the necessary steps to combine their churches into what has become the second largest Protestant denomination in America -- The United Methodist Church. 26
When John Wesley began the Methodist tradition, devout Godliness was both his prime motivation, and his ultimate goal. As outlined in the General Rules, his three basic precepts were:
shun evil and avoid partaking in wicked deeds at all costs, perform kind acts as much as possible, and abide by the edicts of God the Almighty Father. This God is believed to be all-knowing, to possess infinite love and goodness, to be all-powerful, and to be the creator of all things. He has always existed and will always continue to exist, and He is said to consist of three persons in one, the Father, the Son (the Lord Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit. 27 It was not until late in the eighteenth century that Wesley published further doctrinal standards, including his Sermons , Notes on the New Testament , and Large Minutes of the Conference (which had been preceded by Minutes of the Conference). 28
Later, the Twenty-five Articles of Religion (an amended form of a similar document in the Anglican Church) were added. These articles affirmed the Methodists' belief in many universally Christian ideas, as well as denied some ideas affiliated with certain specific Christian denominations.
Among the beliefs Methodists uphold with other Christian groups is the previously mentioned belief in a triune God. This God is the master of all creation and humans are meant to live in a holy covenant with him. However, they also teach that humans have broken this covenant by their sins, and can only be forgiven if they truly have faith in the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Christians (including Methodists) believe that Jesus was God on Earth (the product of a virgin conception) in the form of a man who was crucified for the sins of all people, and who was physically resurrected to bring them the hope of eternal life.
Other beliefs that the United Methodist Church shares with other Christian churches include: that the grace of God is perceived by people through the work of the Holy Spirit on their lives and in their world, that close adherance to the teachings of Scripture (found in The Holy Bible) is essential to the faith because Scripture is the Word of God, and that they are part of a universal church and must work with all Christians to spread the love of God. 29 .
Additionally, the Church encourages its members' participation in two sacraments to symbolize and strengthen their dedication to God. The first of these is Baptism. Baptism, a sacrament shared with many Christian churches, is a ceremony in which a person is annointed with water to symbolize being brought into the community of faith. The second sacrament, also shared by many other Christian denominations, is Communion. In this sacrament, participants eat bread and drink juice to show that they continue to take part in Christ's redeeming resurrection by symbolically taking part in His body (the bread) and blood (the juice). Wesley taught his followers that Baptism and Communion are not only sacraments, but also sacrifices to God. 30
Though United Methodists have many things in common with other Christian religions, there are some aspects of the religion that are distinctively Methodist . The most fundamental of these is the Methodist teaching that people must use logic and reason in all matters of faith. Also important is the acknowledgement of "pervenient," "justifying," and "sanctifying" graces. It is taught that people are blessed with these graces at different times through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pervenient grace is present before they are saved from the error of their ways. Justifying grace is given at the time of their contrition and forgiveness by God. And sanctifying grace is received when they have finally been saved from their sins and the sins of the world. Methodism teaches that people can only be saved through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any other acts of redemption such as good deeds.
Additionally, the Methodist Church puts a great emphasis on missionary work and other forms of spreading the Word of God and His love to others. 31 Finally, Methodism isolates itself from religious beliefs in purgatory, predestination, and sacraments other than Communion and Baptism. 32
Over the years, and particularly during the second half of the twentieth century, the United Methodist Church has strayed from the strict pious teachings of original Wesleyan tradition. Both seminary professors and clergy have found the original doctrines, rules, and laws to be open to broad interpretation, and have taken it upon themselves to do so. Evidence of this can be seen in many ways but one of the clearest manifestations is the growing willingness on the part of clergy to interpret Methodist doctrine as justifying, even mandating, liberal social action strategies. (For further discussion, see the segment below on Current Controversies .
Despite much recent liberal influence in the United Methodist Church, not all of its members feel that liberal social doctrine and political advocacy is a good thing. This has resulted in the emergence of conservative groups within the UMC. The most notable group is called "Good News." It stands in opposition to liberalism within the Methodist Church and advocates "renewal" of John Wesley's vision of a devout, pious community whose mission is to strictly follow the Word of God without subjecting it to broad and unconventional interpretations.
The organizational structure of the United Methodist Church has been set up in the all- important Book of Discipline much as the American government was outlined in the Constitution. Both are made up of three branches: executive, legislature, and judicial. The United Methodist Church's version of these three are the Council of Bishops, the General Conference, and the Judicial Council.
The church is also organized in a heirarchical system. Beginning from the bottom, the smallest units in the UMC are its lay and pastoral members. 34 The pastoral members are divided into two levels. The lower consists of ministers and pastors assigned to one church whose job it is to preach. The higher rank of clergy is made up of bishops, who are not assigned to a specific local church, but to a group of churches, and have the responsibility of ordaining clergy. 35
These clergy and lay people divide themselves into relatively small local churches. In the United States alone there are almost 37,000 local churches. Each of these churches has an annual "local church charge conference" to elect representatives and take care of other administrative business.
Churches are then grouped together along geographic boundaries to form districts of which there are 526 in America. The districts hold conferences, at which the main purpose is to pass on information from the higher conferences to the local churches.
Districts are then assigned to one of sixty-eight annual conferences. At the annual conferences, an assigned bishop hands out ministerial assignments for the year. Votes are cast regarding amendments to church law and regarding delegates to be sent to the jurisdictional conference. All annual conference attendees have voting rights on these issues, but only ministers have voting rights on minister-specific matters. 37
The annual conferences are grouped into jurisdictions of which there are five in the United States. Then, at the top of this hierarchical chain is the General Conference. The General Conference meets once every four years, and is made up of lay people and clergy voted upon during annual conferences. 38 Its main purpose is to vote on church law. If enacted by the General Conference, the proposed laws are published in The Book of Discipline .
Current Controversies Within the United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church currently faces several major internal controversies, mostly grounded in the differing liberal-conservative beliefs within the church. Perhaps not surprisingly, these controveries are also some of the major topics of debate in American politics today. At the present moment, probably most heated of these concerns is the issue of gay and lesbian rights, specifically homosexual unions. Others include whether or not to aid convicted sex offenders, whether or not to publicly support the newest method of abortion, and whether or not to support gun-control laws in the United States. To conservative Methodists it seems that there is almost no public issue, however inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, that escapes the attention of the liberal-minded wing of the Methodist Church. Witness, for example, the debate concerning six-year-old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. After examining several of these contemporary issues we will conclude with some reflections on the broader implications of this conservative-liberal struggle in the United Methodist Church.
In September, 1997, United Methodist Church Reverend Jimmy Creech performed a ceremony uniting two lesbian women even after receiving specific warnings from his bishop not to do so. In conducting `the ceremony, Creech, a pastor with a long record of pro- homosexual activism, knowingly and willfully disobeyed the church's decision (enacted at the 1996 General Conference) banning pastors from being involved in same-sex unions. 40 However, in the spring of 1998, Creech was acquitted of any wrong-doing by a United Methodist Church court. And although he was later forced out of his church by his bishop, Creech's acquittal was seen as a victory and provided encouragement for other United Methodist pastors performing same-sex union ceremonies. Among these pastors are the Reverend Karen Oliveto and the Reverend Cecil Williams, both pastors in the San Francisco area where the debate over gay rights has already caused 22 pastors to threaten to split from the church. 41 In Atlanta, at least one congregation has already made good on similar threats. 42
However, same-sex union supporters in the UMC are not the only ones facing persecution within the church. Conservative pastor Luiz Lemos was ordered by his more liberal bishop, Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, to transfer to a church in a different conference. This transfer order came after Lemos voiced his oppostion to the recent participation of sixty-seven pastors (all from Talbert's conference) in a union involving two women. Instead of following Talbert's wishes and transferring, Lemos resigned his pastorship, as had seven other pastors in similar predicaments. 43
Similarly, in June of 1999 the Reverend Charles Sineath, another critic of church sanctioned homosexual marriages, left his position as pastor of the local United Methodist Church and started a new group, the "Wesleyan Fellowship". This split occurred after Sineath learned that his alma-mater, Emory University (a Methodist foundation), decided it permissable for certain homosexual union ceremonies to be performed on its campus. This ruling went against the 1996 ruling of the General Conference disallowing same-sex ceremonies on any Methodist grounds. 44
Despite opposition from approximately one-third of the church's members, the General Conference of 2000 upheld the ban on gay and lesbian marriages. 45 However, they also decided not to entertain proposals to make it mandatory for every Methodist pastor to put his or her signature on an anti-gay/lesbian statement. 46 This decision was probably based on two points: the fact that several hundred United Methodist churches nationwide have already announced that they support gay rights including unions, and the fact that many Methodist pastors continue to perform same-sex unions regardless of church policy. 47
Church Aid for Sex Offenders
In another controversial matter, the United Methodist Church in England has announced its intention to give aid to convicted sex offenders in that country through programs such as emotional counseling and faith ministry. The decision comes with much disconcertment as many British are simultaneously demanding harsher laws against and punishment for known sex criminals. 48
While many of its members argue that the church does not have the necessary expertise or resources to handle such criminals, the Methodist church argues that helping these people (in cooperation with local law enforcement) is part of their moral responsibility. 49
The United Methodist Church, along with several other major Protestant denominations, is a long-standing member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. As its name implies, the RCRC is an interfaith organization devoted to promoting a woman's right to choose to have an abortion, among other related women's health issues.
Following the recent FDA release of mifepristone (an abortion-inducing drug), the president of the RCRC issued a statement praising the drug, and calling its approval "a victory for women as moral decision-makers and for supporters of women as moral agents," and later added that "it does not change the necessity for vigilance against anti-choice tactics and harassment." 50
Though the United Methodist Church is a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, not all of the members of the Methodist faith believe abortion to be morally right, and the issue has caused some argument among UMC members.
Another issue discussed at the 2000 General Conference was the issue of gun violence and the stance that the United Methodist Church should take on gun-control in the United States. Roughly 71% of the representative board voted to approve a resolution agreeing to support laws that would ban some firearms (including handguns and assault weapons). As expected, supporters of the resolution pointed to needless violence and death caused by such weapons, while those opposed argued hunting and self-defense purposes. 51
In early 2000 the American mass media whipped the nation into an uproar over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old Cuban boy involved in an international custody case. People on both sides of the issue claimed their position was grounded in morals, ethics, and the law. The United Methodist Church openly supported the case of Elian's father, Miguel Gonzalez, and set up a monetary fund through which Mr. Gonzalez could hire legal counsel. 52 On April 19, 2000, the National Council of Churches (of which the UMC is a member) took control of the fund, which eventually led Gonzalez to hire lawyer Gregory Craig. 53 After a long legal struggle, Elian was returned to his father in Cuba. The National Council of Churches as well as the United Methodist Church have "expressed relief that Elian...has finally been reunited with his father." 54
History of the UMC's struggle over political issues
Since its official beginnings in 1968, The United Methodist Church has been gradually moving from Methodism's original basis of strict Wesleyan piety toward a more tolerant liberal approach. This movement is not to the liking of all church members and as the years have gone on, the struggle between the conservative evangelicals and the liberals has grown increasingly heated.
In 1967 Reverend Charles W. Keysor began the church's first major conservative efforts with the publication of a magazine entitled Good News . Good News was received with mixed reactions. The conservative-minded United Methodists found it to be a step in the right direction. The church's liberal constituents, however, hated it, some going so far as to call it "junk." Still, the magazine grew in popularity and is a major influence even today. 55
The encouraging response from right-wing Methodists led to the establishment of a 12- member Good News board. In turn this board inspired the establishment of similar renewal groups throughout the nation. In fact, Good News reports that such groups are present in 60 percent of the church's annual conferences. The main focus of the renewal groups has been their attempts to influence church leadership towards more conservative ideals. Specific complaints of groups such as Good News include: the liberal slant taught in seminarial education, the weak and unsubstantial content of school literature, the church's policy of theological pluralism, "the unending push to change the church's stand on the issue of human sexuality including the support for gay and lesbian unions, UM pastors publicly denying basic tenets of the Christian faith and not being disciplined for it, [and] UM program boards continuing their participation in and support of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice." 56
Just three short years after the installation of Good News, its leaders organized a summer convention which was attended by 1600 of the church's members. The convocation was such an enormous success that it has since become an annual event, and will probably continue as such until the stuggle between liberal and conservative influences on the United Methodist Church is settled once and for all, something that is not likely to happen in the forseeable future. 57