I am an old man with far less tolerance for the arguments about social justice issues that might divide the church . . . a church I love and to which I have devoted sixty years of my professional life. Not only am I old and retired, I come from a family heritage that has been steeped in Methodist loyalty since the 1840’s. When I was courted by another Wesleyan denomination in my teen years, my timid, soft spoken little mother asked me if I was considering leaving the Methodist Church. To my teenage grunt, she responded with clarity: “As far back as we know, our people have been Methodists.” Indeed, she had reared me on references to her mother’s riding on horseback behind Alfred Walker as he went to Lowe’s Methodist Episcopal Church, South to build the fires in winter and open the windows in summer. After helping him with his work, she rode back with him and took her place in the family carriage dressed in her “church clothes”. Of course, the church was on a circuit, so the only event every Sunday was Sunday School–all led by laity. Her pride and joy was that two of her brothers were Methodist circuit riders.
Our home was quite modest and our bookshelf quite slim, but a current copy of the “Discipline” stood beside the Holy Bible, and Hurlburt’s Stories of the Bible. Mama knew major passages of each by heart. The Articles of Religion and the General Rules were taught to me as much as the Twenty-third psalm and the beatitudes! Her admonitions were sprinkled with quotes from John Wesley, and I know not where she had learned them! They took their place in her “discipline” of me alongside the Book of Proverbs and Benjamin Franklin’s, Poor Richard’s Almanac.” In her late eighties when blinded by cataracts, she could entertain her loneliness by quoting long passages of scripture, the General Rules, or John Wesley!
So it is that much of the polemical language coming to my emails these days is deeply troubling. In June I will be teaching a seminary course on Wesley’s sermons, and this morning, I read Sermon #20, titled “The Lord Our Righteousness.”
The sermon reflects Wesley’s longstanding debate with the Calvinists about predestination. Indeed, the followers of his dear friend, George Whitefield, had bolted down in Wales and formed a “Methodist Calvinist” movement that thrived long after both Whitefield and Wesley were dead. So Wesley knew the pain of divisiveness–both its rhetoric and his effects.
With that context in mind, take note of the opening paragraph of this sermon, which was first published in 1771:
“How dreadful and how innumerable are the contests which have arisen about religion! And not only among the children of this world, among those who knew not what true religion was; but even among the children of God, those who had experienced ‘the kingdom of God within them’, who had tasted of ‘righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’ How many of these in all ages, instead of joining together against the common enemy, have turned their weapons against each other, and so not only wasted their precious time but hurt one another’s spirits, weakened each other’s hands, and so hindered the great work of their common Master! How many of the weak have hereby been offended! How many of the ‘lame turn out of the way’! How many sinners confirmed in their disregard of all religion, and their contempt of those that profess it! And how many of the ‘excellent ones upon earth’ have been constrained to ‘weep in secret places.’!”
Wesley then cites Jeremiah 13:17–a verse we need to memorize as we observe and weep in our own time. As Jerusalem was falling to Babylon and his congregation was shrinking, Jeremiah wrote, “If you are too proud to listen, I will go off alone and cry my eyes out. I will weep uncontrollably because the Lord’s flock will be dragged off into exile.”
Wesley continues to ask how we can “remove the contention from the children of God.” He wonders how we can “restore or preserve peace among them.” He laments, “What but a good conscience would anyone think too dear to part with in order to promote this valuable end?” He fears that not one can “make these wars to cease” but challenges everyone to “let each do what he can, let him contribute, if it be but two mites, toward it. Happy are they who are able, in any degree, to promote ‘peace and good-will among men.'”
Today we must do a reality check. The rhetoric is harsh and delegates are being recruited for a historic vote at General Conference in 2016. However, this is nothing new. The language and the potential of rupture is reminiscent of the conflict about “sanctification and holiness” in the late 19th century. The Holiness Association had been formed in Chicago in 1867. In 1870 a Methodist preacher had bought “a tract of rare beauty” on the New Jersey shore for the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For the next decades volunteer work and money set about to built a “holiness city.” The advocates of sanctification as “a second work of grace” effecting Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection evangelized from New England to the Western frontiers. The North Georgia conference adopted the unique policy of the cabinet’s appointing all the “holiness preachers” to the Gainesville District in an effort to “localize the contagion” in the editorial words of the Georgia Wesleyan Advocate. That same editor used the power of his pen to caricature the Methodists of holiness persuasion: “They preach a different doctrine… sing different songs…circulate a different literature, and have adopted radically different words of worship…” Really! This commentary would be appropriate for more than one group in our present state of diversity!
Two philosophies of separation arose in the build up to the 1894 General Conference–“Come-outism” and “push-outism.” In the southern church, the break came that year. Atticus Greene Haygood, bishop and former editor of MEChurch, South Sunday School literature, lambasted the holiness evangelists as “tramps.” Raillery and accusations filled mailboxes and was screamed from pulpits. John P. Brooks of Illinois urged Methodists of the holiness persuasion to “come out of the compromised denomination as an act of faith.” His book, Banner of Holiness became what historian Timothy Smith calls “the textbook of come-outism.”
The holiness tradition had adopted a counter-cultural “holiness code” of Victorian moralism that was more piousity than true piety. The code forbade dancing, card playing, hand holding for teenagers, alcohol, tobacco, profanity, and Sunday recreation. For women and girls it forbade makeup, jewelry, flesh-colored hose, shoes with toes out, and beauty salon hair styling. When movies came out later, they were forbidden as well. These things were defined as “worldliness” and they insisted if Jesus came back and found us doing any of the taboo things, we would be left behind. The “comer-outers” pressed a hard bargain for acceptance.
Meanwhile there was a party of “push-outers” who were saying, “Good riddance; let them go.” As delegates prepared for the 1894 General Conference in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, they received a letter from Bishop Haygood:
“There has sprung up among us a party with holiness as a watchword…The effect is to disparage the new birth, and all stages of spiritual growth from the blade to the full corn in the ear…we do not question the sincerity or zeal of these brethren; …but we deplore their teaching and methods….”
When the General Conference heard in the Episcopal Address a virtual invitation for the “holiness brethren” to leave; the conference adopted a resolution that made that invitation official position of the ME Church, South. Likewise, a similar theological stance existed in The Methodist Episcopal Church. Ironically, one of the holiness practices that the mainstream opposed was the use of women as evangelists in the holiness camp meetings and local church revivals. The results were numerically and spiritually devastating.
The Nazarene Church of America was founded in 1895 when Phineas Bresee, a native of New York, who entered the Methodist ministry in Iowa and served some of its larger churches before transferring to southern California. In Los Angeles he became pastor of what is now First UMC of that city, then moved to Pasadena before being appointed as a district superintendent. He was a delegate to General Conference in 1872 from Iowa and again in 1892 from California and was a trustee at the University of Southern California. In short, Bresee’s credentials were impeccable until he became convinced that Wesley preached two works of grace–justification and sanctification. He then founded the Peniel Mission, an independent ministry to the homeless of Los Angeles. He was subsequently removed from his appointment as a district superintendent. In spite of his distinguished career, he felt he was almost a man without a church. Following the church’s position on sanctification in 1894 and the refusal of the conference to appoint him to Peniel Mission, Bresee and a leading Los Angeles physician, founded the “Church of the Nazarene.” Its mission was to reach for Christ “the toiling masses of common people for whom Jesus lived and died.”
The last seven years of the 19th century, following the 1894 General Conference fracture, saw twenty-three holiness or pentecostal denominations come on-line. Methodism, north and south, lost about 100,000 members, but continued to grow, mostly through biological growth and the Sunday School. As for the holiness controversy, a strange silence shrouded the subject. Methodist leaders north and south muted their voices and shrouded their memories of the holiness controversy and Methodism’s only split over doctrine. Most of our history books have nothing or little to describe the acrimony of that era. Mainstream Methodism turned its attention to merger of the two episcopal branches and the Methodist Protestant Church, a process that absorbed much energy until it was celebrated in 1939.
We have been blessed by the willingness of various “losers” and “winners” to adopt our Wesleyan “catholic spirit” in debates and actions about mergers, polity, social principles, ordination of women, abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction and other issues. Many of these have brought secular cultural or political debates into the Church. Some have addressed institutional organization and strategy. Few have been biblical, per se. Currently we are caught up in what could be a “perfect storm” prelude to action that only small minorities want but might evolve into a “come outer” or “push outer” posture.
This is the time for sobering leadership voices to speak up. If in 2016 we cannot tap our “catholic spirit” heritage, General Conference could deteriorate into a shouting match and become a replay of 1844 or 1894.