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.

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