Wesleyan Wisdom: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

Methinks it time to let the words of Dr. George Santyana of Harvard go viral–in large script on the social networks of our time: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The voice of traditional Christianity in the public square has been neutered and almost silenced.  Since I began voting, both Eisenhower and Reagan felt it politically necessary to join a church before they launched their first political campaigns–Ike for president and Reagan for governor of California. Then came the first presidential campaign of the 21st century.   George W. Bush was repeatedly mocked and criticized because he said Jesus Christ changed his life to one of sobriety. When President Obama withdrew from the controversial United Church of Christ, he did not join another church and his church relationship became immediately a non-issue. In the public square, religious commitment has either become negative or neutered

In our local community and our private lives, going to church has moved from weekly priority to a family convenience.  Sunday School, beginning in the late 1950’s, has ceased to be the “norm” for rearing children in a culture of Biblical literacy.  Even the children who went often missed frequently and saw no continuum that developed a biblical mastery.   Bible stories and Bible characters cannot be used as references, even in sermons because the sacred scriptures of Judeo-Christian religion are no longer part of the curriculum parents feel necessary for their “terrific kids.”

Millenials, those born since 1984, are coming to adulthood in the young days of a new century.   They are the children of the Baby Boomers who were born from January 1, 1946 to the sexual revolution and other arenas of cultural upheaval in 1964.  Most of the Boomers had been taken to Sunday School by their Greatest Generation parents, and forced to sit in silence through church. Although it was not true of millions, the majority of Baby Boomer parents were influenced by a pediatrician named Dr. Spock.  He warned against “molding character” and called for “creative self expression.”  A part of this philosophy of child rearing was to “let them decide about religion for themselves.”  Many Boomers had been virtually taken to church, often against their will. So it was that millions of them decided not to rear their own children in this way.

The consequence of this major cultural shift was that Sunday School attendance took a nosedive in the so-called mainline denominational churches.  It dropped to a half, then a third, and now many formerly big churches that once had hundreds of children now have a dozen or so.  The Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist denominational bookstores have gone out of business.  Only the Baptist “Lifeway” bookstore remains and it had to be re-named and re-branded to survive.  No longer is there a “Baptist Book Store.”

Yet religion not only has survived; it is thriving–but in new forms and new places. Dean Inge of Canterbury was right: “Man {humanity) is incurably religious.”  Religion is more of a major factor in the geo-political world today than since the Thirty Years War in Europe (1618-48).  The difference is that while religion has less societal muscle in the west and north, it has more in the south and east.  But which religion, what theology, what structure?  In what we have called Western Civilization, Islam is growing more rapidly than Christianity, the most popular religious preference listed by college freshman is “no preference,” and a favorite comment now is “I am spiritual but not religious.”

To use the words of Charles Dickens from a Tale of Two Cities,  “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”  In a sense, the 21st century resonates with the experience of Dickens 18th century, a time that spawned the “Enlightenment,” and our American “Founding Fathers,” of which several of the most significant were Deists who denied the divinity of Christ or the inspiration of Holy Scriptures.

However, the control of religion by the Enlightenment was short lived. John Wesley was an anachronism–an evangelical in the culture that was either apologetic or critical of the Anglican Articles of Religion.   Seldom has any grass roots movement in history changed the personal and family moral fiber and the world-view underpinning of a society so much as did the Second Great Awakening that swept America and affected England in the 19th century.  By the last third of that century, evangelical Christianity had contributed significantly to the abolition of slavery, the organization of the Freedman’s Aid Society and similar helping hands for former slaves, the voting rights for women, the reduction of alcohol consumption, the end of child labor, the rise of labor unions, the sponsorship of thousands of colleges and orphanages, and the phenomenal growth of the Sunday School movement.  The log and frame churches of the 18th century became brick edifices with educational annexes. Even the Methodist Church received philanthropic money for building seminaries with theological libraries and faculties.  Historians like Nathan Hatch, a Presbyterian and incumbent president of a formerly Baptist university (Wake Forest) are increasingly calling the nineteenth century of American history, “the Methodist century.”  But let us be clear; the world of the 19th century is no more.  What “was” no longer “is.”

In the 20th century, according to historian Russell Richey, the giant Methodism that had dominated the previous generation with missions and evangelism, turned its energies to education and ecumenism. This meant that through two world wars and a great depression and into the build-up to the 1960’s cultural tsunami, Methodism worked out two massive mergers–one in 1939 that monopolized forty years and buried the democratic principles of Methodist Protestantism.   The other, celebrated in 1968, occupied much energy of the Methodist and EUB people for twenty years and resulted in the death of most of what had been dear to the culture and ethos of the Evangelical United Brethren.   One much needed result of that merger was the abolition of the racially oriented Central Jurisdiction.  Sadly, though, The United Methodist Church has gradually lost our African-American membership, both in percentage and numbers.  Like in the grand ballrooms of the Titanic, the band played on.

Today, like many declining movements in world history, United Methodists are turning on themselves like moral/ethical cannibals. Rather than plowing our much-heralded “catholic spirit” into 21st century cultural changes, we see liberals nullifying a conservative voice and conservatives using the Discipline as a weapon rather than a tool while both are beginning to throw out words like “schism” and “separation.  ”

Methodism has seen schism before. The causes at the time seemed just, but now we are embarrassed in the shrill invectives were hurled forth and the quiet wisdom was ignored.   We saw it in Britain, particularly in Wales, where Wesley’s revival had the greatest impact but separation resulted in the strong “Primitive Methodist” church. We saw it when Asbury insisted to his dear brother in Christ, Philip Otterbein, that Methodists worship God in English!   We saw it in the John Street ME Church in New York City in 1816 and old St. George’s ME Church in Philadelphia in 1820 when white Methodists refused equality and fraternity to black Methodists. We saw it in the 1820’s when Bishop Joshua Soule and others squashed the reform voices that resulted in the formation of the Methodist Protestant Church in 1828. We saw it in 1840 when the Methodist Episcopal Church denied a voice for abolitionism and Ohio Methodism spawned the Wesleyan Methodist Church three years later. We saw it in 1844 when regionalism prevailed over connectionalism  and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formed.  We saw it in New York when affluence prevailed over equality and rented pews caused the formation of the Free Methodist Church.

With the suppression of Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification in the 1860’s, the holiness elements of Methodism became ostracized and almost anti-intellectual. After a quarter century of fractures, the Episcopal Address of 1892 conference basically pushed out  the Nazarenes. By 1901, the Pentecostal movement had begun, many of the new members coming out of Methodism.  The Assemblies of God was organized in 1914 and now outnumbers the Episcopalians, United Churches of Christ, and American Baptists, respectively.

“If Your Heart Is As Mine….”

Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen calls ours an “argument culture.”  We see it paralyzing the political arena, and unfortunately we in the church are being copycats.  Tim Muehlhoff wrote recently in “Christianity Today” that we converse on either of two levels–the content of our conversation or the trust of our relationship. Statistical wars are unwinnable.  My seventh grade-educated father raised me on the truism, “Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.”  Facts are thrown like arrows, not extended like olive branches.  Muehlhoff quotes A.W. Tozer who identified two different kinds of communicators–the person who looks inside oneself, takes his temperature and heats up the debate; or the person who senses a potent force from another source. We call this the Holy Spirit.  This is a spiritual discipline we never see in the prelude of division and church schism, just as we never see it before ruptures in friendships and marriages.  It is a spirit of kindness, mercy, and mutual respect.

John Gottman, a marriage researcher, has found, “The way you start a conversation is how you are going to end a conversation.”  Muehlhoff believes that in debating theology or ethics if we begin with our points of disagreement we will end that way.  John Wesley often reminded people “The Devil quotes scripture and believes in orthodox doctrines.”  Ironically, in our interpretation of the Book of Discipline, until recent debate subjects, liberals wanted a high view of Pharisaical obedience while evangelicals often found it in their way.  Now evangelicals are interpreting the Discipline as verbally inspired, while liberals find it in their way!

John Wesley and George Whitefield were in the Holy Club as brothers in Christ.  Wesley remained an Arminian; Whitefield became a Calvinist.  But when Whitefield died, it was Wesley who eulogized him at his memorial service.  We have a copy of that sermon and need to read it again!   When I was courted by the holiness folks as a high school student and subsequently announced my call to preach, my soft-spoken little mother asked, “Will you be a Methodist preacher?”  I gave a non-committal answer to which she replied, “As far back as we know, our people have been Methodists.”  When my grandson told me he was called to preach, I passed that spiritual heritage on to him. He is a senior at Duke Divinity School now and seeking his first appointment.

These ruptures of Methodism in most of these sad instances could have been avoided if saner minds and more sober voices had prevailed. At the 1844 General Conference just before the final vote that would rupture the Methodist Episcopal Church, Dr. Stephen Olin from Connecticut, pled for patience.  He closed his speech by saying if they did not work out some compromise, the delegates to that General Conference would never meet together again.  He closed his elegant and moving address by saying, “I fear it; I fear it.”  He was right.

Almost weekly, I read something that reminds me of Dr. Olin’s speech in 1844. This week it is the headline of The United Methodist Reporter.   I fear division.  I fear it not only for what it will to do my grandson’s ministry and the churches I have served since 1954, but because it will be over changes on the seas of culture whose waves are crashing on the beach of the church. Church schism is like international wars — it is fed by jingoism.   I fear division because everyone will lose and no one will win.  I fear it because I will not feel at home in either camp. I am a Methodist born and a Methodist bred and when I die, I’ll be a Methodist dead.

In Chris Matthews’ recent book, Tip and the Gipper, he tells that Democrat Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil was the first non-family member allowed into the room when President Ronald Reagan was shot. He dropped to his knees and two of the most powerful men in the world joined in The 23rd Psalm.  Then Speaker O’Neil kissed President Reagan on the forehead and left.

Let that be the Spirit with which we address this present hour, as United Methodism needs to remain united.

“O God of hosts, be with us yet; lest we forget; lest we forget.”


Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.


  1. Wow….now that is one fine article. May God use it in a great and challenging way!

  2. Thank you, Dr. Haynes, for such a succinct and valuable overview of the Methodist Church and its schisms over the centuries. The perspective is much needed, and the lessons gleaned could point the way out of this latest Methodist mess.

    If only we all had your firm grasp on what Methodism truly offers as a scripture focused, Wesleyan rooted, clearly doctrinal but richly diverse Church! Perhaps there would be sufficient resolve to embrace these lessons from our past. Sadly, the only thing that seems to unite us today is our insistence upon crafting and clinging to designer versions of the Methodist Church. These customized Methodist churches are on different planes, and the growing distances between them is making it almost impossible to listen and imperative to shout. Trust is gone, the Connection is shattering and the love for one another commanded by our Lord and Savior is disappearing quickly.

    “Jesus replied, ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.'” We’re there, Dr. Haynes. The devoted children of Methodism, such as yourself, will suffer the most.

  3. Thank you for this great article.

    Here’s the problem. Lincoln wrote of the slave powers: “Evil has within itself its own self-aggrandizing inertia. The Slave Powers are not satisfied with being able to keep their slaves. They will only be satisfied when we stop calling slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right.”
    This is the case with the party of inclusion. They are not happy to remain in their sin; they will persist until we bless it. Those who refuse to bless are dismissed as ignorant bigots, which is the import of the word ‘homophobe.’

    We are already in schism. Perhaps quiet wisdom would find some way for an amicable divorce.

  4. MethodistPie says:

    Thank you for this warm-hearted truth-telling.

  5. I am so grateful for this article. This brief tour through Methodist history, and its potential to inform our future, is refreshing for those of us who feel like we are being held hostage by multiple interests. The violence already done to the denomination beyond enough.

  6. “The voice of traditional Christianity in the public square has been neutered and almost silenced” because it has spoken in hateful and hypocritical ways, used to deprive citizens of equal rights, and to promote hatred around the world. As a consequence, evangelical Christians have become stereotyped as intolerant, unscientific, and ignorant. Those stereotypes are based on a certain reality. Instead of attacking the messenger, one should make sure that the message is consistent with Christ’s great message of love.

    • Christ’s great message of love comes with the numerous warnings of those who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven because of sin. The Book of Matthew is sobering and, at times, frightening. The love of Christ, prevenient grace, comes with a significant price for many, and turning from one’s sin by being born again and becoming new in Christ, justifying grace, begins the journey of a life of sanctifying grace. Gosh, I wish Jesus would not have issued the warnings about sin and, instead, focused only on the love message.

  7. Billy Watson says:

    Thank you, Dr. Haynes, for your gracious words of wisdom. May we heed them before it is too late. “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Please forgive my prooftexting.)

  8. Wonderful article. Too bad that funding for most “Archives and History” commissions continue to be slashed. Oh…the bits and pieces from the conference tables.

  9. I pray we all heed your words, “lest we forget.”

  10. Dr. Haynes mentioned that he would not feel at home in either camp. I assume he is referencing two churches, one an Orthodox Methodist Church, and the other a Progressive Methodist Church. Unfortunately for us all, one camp or the other would have to be chosen if one is to remain in his/her present church since undecided would no longer be an option. It would have to come down to a congregation by congregation vote. That is the day that I dread. Dr. Haynes is right, no one wins. There are too many ugly consequences of such to even imagine. However, note: General Conference has voted, and voted, and voted since 1972. There are many Methodists relying on the General Conference vote margins to continue to grow. Obviously, General Conference 2016 is looking to be one of the most significant UM church assemblies in this storied history oF Methodism.

  11. The last several paragraphs of your article touch me most, Dr. Haynes. I had wanted my son to go to Asbury–after he finally answered God’s call on his life. That seminary offered no student pastorates–so he went to Duke–so he could “preach” while he attended seminary. That seminary became–ultimately–a source of “heresy” for him–he even kept a file. (I pray your grandson has a better experience.) My son shared with me that if one even “winked” at conservative theology that person was counted as unfit to lead a umc. Your story about Regan and O’Neil touches me greatly.

    All of this to say: Conservatives have been in disgrace in the umc for a very long time. A “living and changing” gospel is what progressive espouse. The Holy Writ is claimed or disclaimed–depending on how those who believe God changes interpret Scripture. Tolerance is one sided–“you must agree with me–otherwise we have nothing in common” seems to be the mantra of the left–do what I want or I will discount you as a person of any worth. Do not misunderstand–Father/Son/Holy Spirit DOES NOT change. His human creation wants Him to change–so that what ever feels good seems to be in accordance with His Gospel–that is where the change comes about.

    In this old heart, I believe that God is the same yesterday today and forever, no matter what progressives do to change this. His truths are eternal and the Church will be judged on His Eternal Truth.

    Enough of my thoughts. Suffice it to say, folks on either side of this issue would be better off if the umc divides.

    Thank you for your commentary, Dr. Haynes……………………..

  12. I agree with most of the first half of your article with the exception that strangely you have left out the impact of the slow creep of modernism (unbelief in the essentials of the Christian faith) from the 1860’s on. Any serious analysis of our decline and current situation cannot leave this out — this was the “axe to the roots” leaving us with tradition at the expense of true redemption, transformation, and holiness. After a few generations without the meat of the Gospel, what good is holding to empty tradition? This is the real historical lesson of the UMC: Works without Faith is dead — Christianity without Christ is dead.

    Also, I cringe whenever I see references to Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit” sermon using the “if your heart is as my heart, give me your hand” quote. As is usually the case with this sermon, I respectfully suggest that you read it closely, rather than simply quoting the tagline — it does not say what you imply it says.

    What Wesley says in this sermon is that if you are a true Christian who is truly redeemed, holds to the essentials of the Christian faith, is pursuing holiness, and exhibits the fruits of the Spirit, I will recognize you as such even if we disagree on many non-essentials. (Read the sermon, section I, para. 12-18 which spells this out with crystal clarity.) Wesley is saying that he might not allow you to preach in his church, but he will treat you and work with you as a brother in Christ for the furtherance of the Gospel. Both Wesley and Whitefield were true Christians — their disagreements were doctrinal but neither was outside orthodoxy; this is an example of what Wesley meant. On the other hand, our current situation is quite different; many in our current dispute do not agree with the essentials of the Christian faith (including the deity of Christ!) or a shared understanding of holiness. Wesley in no way was advocating that unbelievers and those that deny the essentials of the faith were fellow Christians. Wesley’s response would be: Your heart is not as my heart; I do not give you my hand.

  13. I fear for the church is there is a schism. Because, you see, I consider myself neither conservative nor liberal, neither orthodox, nor otherwise. If John Wesley’s religion was a religion of the heart, then I question why we vex our minds with all this proof-texting and debating, and trying to one-up one another. I believe in the principles of our faith. But the first of these is love. If there is no love, what have we to offer the world? I have found such wisdom in the part of our discipline that describes the general rules, do no harm, do all the good you can, love God and your neighbor. Is anything else needed? Maybe if we focus ourselves on heart ministries we will finally be able to work side by side in the vineyard of the Lord.

    • Linda, you have a very sweet view of love and I’m sure that sharing that love does help people feel a little better and meets some needs. I believe we need to share that love all the time. Love often draws a person to Jesus. Close your eyes and picture your self at the communion table and you hear clearly why Jesus came when you take the cup and it represents the blood which was given for the remission of SIN, When we confess our sins and allow Jesus to be the Lord of our life we are ” a new creation in Christ.” Then we share that love because it is a natural response to our relationship to Jesus.

Speak Your Mind

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)


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