Chapter 7: More Movements Born of the Church of England
In the early eighteenth century, Puritanism was thriving in the American colonies. But it was a spent force in the mother country, and the Church of England had once again lapsed into that state of sterile complacency that is the peculiar pitfall of established churches. It was time for a new prophet to arise.
He was born in 1703, the fifteenth of nineteen children sired by the busy Anglican rector of Epworth, England. His name was John Wesley, and he deserves a place on any list of the great religious leaders of history. Had he been born a couple of centuries sooner, he doubtless would have ranked with Luther and Calvin as a Father of the Reformation. A century earlier, he would have been a Puritan. In his own time, he became the founder of Methodism.
It is ironic that the term "Methodist," now universally associated with the movement initiated by Wesley, actually stemmed from an early experiment in religious life that Wesley tried and found wanting.
While he was at Oxford University, preparing for the Anglican ministry, Wesley became the leader of a little band of students who sought spiritual renewal through methodical diligence in study and worship. They arranged a strict daily schedule of duties, with fixed hours for visiting the sick, conducting schools among the poor, and preaching to those in prison. They prayed aloud three times a day and stopped for silent prayer every hour on the hour.
Other Oxford students made fun of them, and expressed their contempt in a variety of derisive nicknames for the group, including "The Bible Moths," "The Holy Club," and "The Methodists."
The latter label stuck, and continued to follow Wesley long after he had concluded that man does not achieve peace with God through rules and stringent efforts at self-perfection.
The Aldersgate Experience
The turning point in Wesley’s life came on the evening of May 24, 1738. He attended a prayer meeting at a little chapel on Aldersgate Street in London. As he sat in meditation, listening to someone read aloud from Luther’s writings, Wesley suddenly knew what Luther meant when he insisted that men are saved through faith in Christ alone, and not by any good works of their own.
"I felt my heart strangely warmed," Wesley wrote later. "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine. . ."
From that moment on, Wesley was a different man. Before the "heart-warming experience," he had been an ascetic, scholarly Anglican priest — to put it baldly, a self-righteous prig. Afterwards he became a generous, outgoing man, fired by a passionate desire to share with others his great discovery that salvation is God’s free gift.
For the next fifty years, John Wesley preached this good news throughout England. When churches were closed to him — as they often were — he held his meetings in open fields. His sermons often drew as many as 30,000 persons. It has been calculated that Wesley traveled 250,000 miles on his evangelistic missions, and that he delivered 42,000 sermons — an average of two each weekday and four every Sunday for half a century.
Although the Wesleyan revival brought badly needed new life into the Church of England, the leaders of that incredibly durable but often obtuse institution predictably turned up their noses at the whole thing. They refused ordination to the corps of young lay preachers whom Wesley had recruited to help him. Had they been less stubborn on this point, it is entirely possible that the Methodist movement would have remained inside the Anglican Communion as Wesley himself did to his dying day.
The ordination conflict came to a head when Wesley’s "Methodist societies" spread to the American colonies. By the end of the Revolution, there were fifteen thousand Methodists in America, and they had no ordained clergy-men to care for them. Wesley made a final appeal to the bishops of the Church of England to ordain some priests for missionary service among American Methodists. When it was refused, he took the fateful step of ordaining two men, on his own initiative, to "preside over the flock in America."
Since the Church of England never recognized the validity of these and subsequent Methodist ordinations, the Wesleyan movement from that time forward was a separate denomination.
This practical fact, which Wesley chose to ignore, was recognized by the American Methodists, who held a conference at Baltimore in 1784 and formally organized The Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Circuit Riders
Wesley’s evangelistic zeal was faithfully reflected by the "circuit-riding" preachers of American Methodism. While the Congregationalists and Episcopalians snuggled close to the Eastern seaboard, the Methodists set out to preach the gospel to the raw communities of the burgeoning frontier. The first Methodist bishop in the United States, Dr. Francis Asbury, set an example by traveling some 275,000 miles on horseback to pass out Bibles, conduct revival meetings, and perform baptisms and marriages.
From the start, Methodists attached great importance to what they called "a felt experience of salvation." They believed that every man should be able, like John Wesley, to recall the very hour and moment when he knew himself to be saved through faith in Christ. This emphasis on conversion as a dramatic experience naturally led to a highly emotional atmosphere at Methodist revival meetings. And Methodist preachers contributed to it by including plenty of fire-and-brimstone in their sermons.
The simple, uneducated people of the frontier found this approach to religion highly congenial. They flocked into the Methodist Church in such great numbers that by the time of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln spoke of it as the largest and "most important" denomination in America.
To a greater degree than any other Protestant denomination, Methodism is the "lengthened shadow" of the remarkable man who founded it. Virtually every distinctive trait of the Methodist movement can be traced back to John Wesley himself. We have already noted how this is true in the case of Methodist emphasis on "felt salvation" and in the tradition of evangelistic vigor. But it is equally true of other Methodist characteristics.
The Efficient Organizers
For example, Wesley was a great organizer. The historian Macaulay once compared his organizing genius to that of Richelieu. And the Methodist Church remains perhaps the most efficiently organized of all Protestant bodies.
Methodist congregations are organized into districts, with a superintendent in charge of each district. Districts are formed into annual conferences, often along state lines.
Two or more annual conferences comprise an episcopal area, under the direction of a bishop. Annual conferences are grouped into jurisdictions.1
Above the jurisdictions is the General Conference, the top legislative body of American Methodism. Composed of equal numbers of lay and clerical delegates, it meets every four years, and provides Methodists with the same kind of representative voice in the Church’s government that an American citizen has in Congress.
The key man in the Methodist set-up is the bishop. A Methodist bishop has far more administrative power than an Episcopal bishop. It might even be argued that he wields greater power than a Roman Catholic bishop, since he does not have the Roman Curia looking over his shoulder and meddling in his most routine decisions. The Methodist bishop’s vast authority stems in large part from his power to determine which minister shall serve which congregation. All ministerial appointments are subject to change annually, which means that every Methodist minister is at the mercy of his bishop, either in remaining at a church he likes, or in being transferred to a more desirable assignment. There is no danger of a congregation seceding from the denomination if it doesn’t like the bishop’s decision: the title to all church property is vested in the central organization rather than the local congregation.
This system of organization is, as stated above, unquestionably efficient. And many Methodist bishops use their power carefully and conscientiously for the good of the whole church. But wherever there is great power, there are temptations for its abuse. Some Methodist bishops use their power over ministerial appointments in an arbitrary and even ruthless way.
Prohibition and Abstinence
Another distinctive Methodist trait — which goes right back to John Wesley — is concern about social problems. Wesley devoted great energy to relieving the plight of the poor. He founded an unemployment bureau, organized a loan fund for small businessmen, conducted a charity school, and founded homes for orphans, widows, and the aged. He bitterly denounced greedy industrialists for exploiting workers, and organized boycotts to help break up the slave trade. He was particularly opposed to liquor and gambling, because he saw at first hand how much suffering they caused among poor families.
Methodists have continued to fight these battles into our own day. A denomination of doers, they have furnished the leadership for many civic drives, including those that resulted in regulating child labor and granting suffrage to women.
Of all the causes to which Methodists have rallied over the years, none has a greater emotional voltage than prohibition. The W.C.T.U. and the Anti-Saloon League were formed under Methodist leadership. That hatchet-swinging wrecker of barrooms Carry Nation was a good Methodist. The Eighteenth Amendment could never have been written into the Constitution without the fervent backing of thousands of Methodist ministers.
Since the repeal of national prohibition, the Methodist Board of Temperance has concentrated on trying to dry up one city or county at a time through local-option elections. The Methodist Church remains officially committed to total abstinence as the only Christian attitude toward alcohol.
This is what Methodists say officially through the pronouncements adopted at the General Conference — and there is no prospect of an early change. But it has been increasingly evident in recent years that a large number of Methodist laymen no longer believe in, or practice, total abstinence from liquor. Surveys conducted by the Church itself in various cities indicate that at least one third, and perhaps more than half, of the nation’s Methodists see no harm in moderate drinking.
Another thing for which Methodists — and indeed all Protestants — are deeply indebted to John Wesley is the tradition of congregational singing. Wesley loved hymns and he thought they should be sung lustily by all worshipers, not by the choir only. Finding a dearth of hymns suitable for untrained voices, he asked his younger brother Charles to write a few. Charles Wesley obliged with more than six thousand hymns, many of which are still treasured by Protestants of every denomination.
"Think and Let Think"
Along with many good things, John Wesley bequeathed to his followers an indifferent attitude toward theology. "In opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we Methodists think and let think," he said. Methodism has followed Wesley’s lead by displaying great tolerance in matters of doctrine. In fact, the Methodist Church tolerates today, in many of its ministers, viewpoints that even the open-minded Wesley might consider to "strike at the root of Christianity." Surveys among Methodist clergy regularly turn up a fairly substantial percentage who regard Jesus simply as a great human teacher, and who deny the Incarnation, the Resurrection, and other central doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed.
In fairness, it should be added that the Methodist Church has also produced men like Dr. Ralph Sockman and Dr. Edward W. Baumann, who are among the most articulate exponents of classic Christianity in the modern world.
With no clear doctrinal standards and no tradition of serious theological inquiry, Methodism has been peculiarly vulnerable to a danger that besets all churches in our day: the danger of substituting a sort of American folk religion for authentic Christianity. The components of this folk religion include a spirit of national loyalty to the "American way of life," and a belief that God stands ready, as a sort of cosmic errand boy, to provide peace of mind, success in business, health, and welfare for good churchgoing Americans who condescend to address Him in prayer. One subvariety of folk religion, which is quite popular among the Methodist laity, holds that it doesn’t matter what a man believes so long as he "lives right" — the latter being defined in terms of whatever the particular speaker happens to regard as of particular importance, whether it be fighting for racial equality, abstaining from alcohol, or being nice to one’s mother.
A Middle-class Denomination
For more than a century after it was formally established as a separate denomination (in 1784), American Methodism remained the "poor man’s church," appealing primarily to the uneducated and underprivileged. But two long-term trends were changing Methodism. One was the disappearance of the frontier, which had done so much to shape early Methodist ways. The other was the steady rise in the educational level of the American people — a rise to which the Methodists themselves made an enormous contribution through the establishment of more than one hundred colleges and universities.2
These long-term trends, coupled with the increasing urbanization of American life and the general rise in living standards, gradually turned the Methodist Church into a middle-class denomination. Today it has more business and professional men than farmers and laborers. Other groups, such as the Pentecostal sects, which we’ll consider in the next chapter, have taken over Methodism’s historic role as the church of the poor.
As it has become wealthier and more respectable, the Methodist Church has lost much of its one-time zeal for evangelism. At the 1964 Methodist General Conference, the Board of Evangelism warned bluntly that the denomination’s growth rate has been declining steadily for twelve years, and is now down to less than 1 per cent a year. Since the U.S. population is growing at a rate of 1.6 per cent a year, that means that each year the Methodist Church is composed of a slightly smaller proportion of the American people. Several years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention edged the Methodist Church out of the place it had long and proudly occupied as the nation’s largest Protestant body.
Even as the second biggest Protestant denomination, however, the Methodist Church remains quite an impressive institution, with 40,000 local congregations, and upwards of 10.3 million members.
In addition to the major denomination, whose official title is The Methodist Church, there are twenty other Methodist bodies in the United States. Three of them are Negro denominations: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. Together they have about 2.5 million members. They have no important differences, and have been engaged since early 1964 in talks that may lead to a merger. The other Methodist bodies are small, ranging in size from the Free Methodist Church with 55,000 members to the Cumberland Methodist Church, which has fewer than 100 still in its fold. Most of these smaller bodies are Fundamentalist in doctrine.
SOCIETY OF FRIENDS
In an era when churches count their membership in millions, the Society of Friends, popularly known as Quakers, is a constant reminder that great size and great influence do not necessarily go hand in hand.
With fewer than 130,000 members in the United States, and about 60,000 in other countries, it is one of the world’s smallest denominations. But it has left an indelible imprint on history, and it continues to enjoy a degree of public respect that many larger bodies envy.
Like the Congregationalists, Baptists, and Methodists, the Quakers are descended from that prolific mother communion, the Church of England.
George Fox’s Inner Light
The founder of the Society of Friends was George Fox, who was born in 1624, the son of a weaver in Leicestershire, England. He was apprenticed to a cobbler to learn the shoemaker’s trade, but Fox was more interested in souls than in soles. At the age of nineteen, he left home on an aimless pilgrimage, and spent the next four years wandering around England in search of a faith he could live by. He had a great distaste for the rituals and sacraments of the Established Church, which he regarded as empty formalism. One day, after much agonized seeking, Fox found himself "illuminated" by a great conviction that he did not need to search for God, because God was already present within him, "as close as breathing, as near as one’s own limbs."
Out of this conviction, Fox developed the doctrine of the Inner Light which lies at the heart of the Quaker faith. It holds that God is ever present within every human being, and that He can be approached and experienced directly by anyone who sincerely seeks Him. This is, of course, a form of mysticism — but it is a simple and practical kind of mysticism, as suitable for ordinary people as for cloistered saints.
There is no official Quaker creed, and once you get past the doctrine of the Inner Light it is difficult to make any blanket statements about what Quakers believe. Most of them see in Jesus Christ the supreme revelation of God’s nearness to and love for all men. But no Friend is required to accept any particular theological definition of Christ’s person or mission. As the famed Quaker writer Rufus Jones has put it, "Friends are not much interested in abstract theories and statements about God. They prefer to begin with personal experience of Him."
Quakers have drawn several corollaries from the doctrine of the Inner Light. One man’s opinion — on a religious question or any other topic — is as good as another’s. Every human being, however poor and lowly, possesses vast dignity and importance, because he bears within him the divine spark. No outward ritual or sacrament is necessary for men to draw nigh to God. Baptism is not a rite using water, but an inner baptism of the spirit. Holy Communion is not to be celebrated with consecrated bread and wine, but in silent spiritual union with God.
The Persecuted Friends
These doctrines were considered extremely radical when they were first put forward by Fox, who took up a career as an itinerant preacher in order to expound them. The small bands of "Friends" who gathered around him were subjected to harsh persecution by church and civil authorities. Their troubles mounted when Fox decided that it was wrong to show obeisance to anyone but God — and forbade his followers to doff their hats to the King. At one point, in the middle of the seventeenth century, there were four thousand Quakers in England’s jails. At least four hundred died as martyrs to their convictions.
The name "Quaker" resulted from one of Fox’s frequent trips before trial magistrates (he was sentenced to prison six times). Instead of pleading for the court’s mercy, Fox sternly adjured the judge to "tremble with fear of the Lord." The judge turned the advice back on Fox, and called him a "Quaker."
Quakers began emigrating to America soon after the Puritan colony was established in Massachusetts. But they encountered as harsh treatment on this side of the Atlantic as on the other. On the State House lawn in Boston you can see the statue of Mary Dyer, a woman whom the Puritans put to death for refusing to recant her Quaker beliefs. There were many like her, to whom no statues have been raised. The Quakers endured, and by 1672, when George Fox paid a visit to America, there were small Quaker settlements all along the coast, with particularly sizable concentrations in Maryland and Rhode Island — the only two colonies that granted religious freedom to Quakers.
One of the English Quakers, William Penn, was the son of a wealthy nobleman. Through his father’s influence at court, he obtained the King’s consent for establishment of a Quaker colony in America. Penn arrived in 1682 and founded the "City of Brotherly Love," Philadelphia, and the colony of Pennsylvania.
The colonial Quakers, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, were hard-working, thrifty, rigorously honest people. Their settlements invariably prospered. But the Quakers never grew greatly in number. Following Fox’s lead, they strove for simplicity of life, and carried this quest to the extreme of using "plain" language ("thee" and "thou") and wearing "plain" clothing (the simple black garb familiar to anyone who has seen it pictured on the Quaker Oats package). They also forbade drinking, dancing, and other "worldly amusements." Inevitably, they became identified as a "peculiar people" — a reputation which at once discouraged converts and led to defections among their own young people.
Turning the Other Cheek
The tendency of the American Friends to develop a ghetto mentality was heightened during the Revolution. Fox taught that war was the very antithesis of the Christian spirit, and strictly forbade his followers to bear arms under any circumstances. Indeed, the Friends took literally Christ’s teaching that one should turn the other cheek when struck. Refusing to return violence, or even to resist it, they were sitting pigeons for the mobs of bullies who ranged through Philadelphia and other Quaker communities during the Revolution, seeking "nonpatriots" who had failed to support the war.
Pacifism has continued to be a distinctive Quaker "witness." But many Quakers today feel that pacifism is an ideal that cannot practically be attained in a world where Communists and other aggressors are ever ready to pounce on the defenseless. Thousands of Quaker youth have served in uniform during and since World War II, and it is by no means uncommon to encounter today a Quaker, like former Vice President Richard M. Nixon, who is an outspoken advocate of powerful national defenses.
Quaker concern for humanity has been expressed in many ways besides pacifism. A century ago, Quakers were working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery; today they are working with equal fervor to eliminate the remaining vestiges of racial discrimination. Through their American Friends Service Committee, Quakers are at work in a score of countries around the world, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sheltering the orphans, treating the sick.
Despite their avoidance of formal creeds, Quakers have not been immune to the divisive effects of doctrinal disputes that have plagued other Christian bodies. Because of a difference of opinion that dates back to 1827, American Quakers today are split into two major groups. The largest, with about 70,000 members, is the Five Years Meeting of Friends. The Religious Society of Friends General Conference has about 30,000 members. There are several smaller groups not affiliated with either of the national organizations.
Some Quaker congregations employ salaried pastors and conduct "programmed" worship services that are similar to those of other Protestant churches. Many of these so-called "pastoral" groups are in the Five Years Meeting.
The original Quaker practice, still maintained in a majority of the General Conference congregations, calls for no pastor, and no formal program of worship. The congregation assembles on "First day" (Sunday) in its severely unadorned, altarless meetinghouse "on the basis of silence." Out of their silent waiting may come a Bible quotation, vocal prayer, a brief testimony or message — from any member who feels "called" to participate.
After about an hour of worship, the meeting ends with each Friend shaking hands with his neighbor.
It is easy to confuse Mennonites and Quakers, as people demonstrate almost daily to the great distress of members of both these venerable religious bodies. They have a number of points of similarity, including a commitment to pacifism, an insistence on simplicity of life — and a strong tendency to live in Pennsylvania.
But the Mennonites emphatically are not an offshoot of the Friends movement. Actually, they deserve to be listed as one of the original Reformation churches — along with the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans. For they are the direct spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist movement, which was founded in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1535 by the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, and quickly spread to the Netherlands and Germany.
The Anabaptists have been called "the left wing of the Reformation" because they went much further than Luther or Calvin in repudiating the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church and in trying to return to the "original Christianity" that they found in the New Testament.
Among other things, the Anabaptists rejected the whole idea of infant baptism, and insisted that only an adult believer could be validly baptized. The name Anabaptist means "rebaptizer," reflecting their practice of administering baptism anew to adults who had been baptized as infants.
No religious body has ever been subjected to a more relentless and bloody persecution than the Anabaptists. They were persecuted by Catholics, by Lutherans, and by Calvinists with equal zeal. They were hanged, burned at the stake, and drowned — a form of death which Swiss Calvinists considered very appropriate for persons who held "heretical" views about baptism. Within a period of ten years, more than five thousand Anabaptists were martyred in Europe.
Some of the survivors fled to North Germany, under the leadership of a former Roman Catholic priest named Menno Simons; hence, they became known as "Mennonites." They ultimately moved from Germany into Central Europe, where they settled on wastelands that no one else wanted, and brought them into fruitful cultivation through their great skill as farmers.
In 1683 a group of Mennonites from Central Europe found a haven of tolerance in Quaker Pennsylvania. Others soon followed. Within a few years there was a steady flow of Mennonite immigrants to free America. Today, nearly half of the world’s 500,000 Mennonites live in the United States. Pennsylvania remains their main center of strength, but there also are large groups in Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Michigan, and the Dakotas, and smaller bodies in nearly every other state.
Although all Mennonites share the same basic heritage, they differ on details. There are about twenty distinct groupings within the Mennonite family.
The Amish and the Hutterian Brethren
One of the most colorful and widely publicized is the Old Order Amish Colony of Pennsylvania, whose 18,000 members refuse to ride in automobiles, wear hooks and eyes instead of buttons on their coats, and in other ways seek to perpetuate ancient folkways.
Another relatively small branch which attracts a lot of public attention because of its "peculiar" ways is the Huttenian Brethren, about 12,000 of whom live in isolated agricultural colonies in the Midwest, where they practice common ownership of property.
The largest number of Mennonites — about 80,000 — belong to a denomination known as The Mennonite Church. Next largest is The General Conference Mennonite Church, with about 32,000 members.
In both these bodies, the men are clean-shaven and wear ordinary business suits. The women dress modestly, without make-up or jewelry, but rarely are seen in "quaint" costumes.
Mennonite worship is simple and austere, built around the exposition of texts from the Bible, which is interpreted literally as the "inspired, inerrant, authoritative" Word of God. Church membership is never a mere social convention, but is taken very seriously as a pledge of commitment to Christian discipleship. Those who willfully disobey Christ’s teachings, as the Mennonites understand them, are liable to expulsion from the fellowship.
Mennonites disapprove of drinking, smoking, dancing, card-playing and movies. But these prohibitions are regarded as incidental bulwarks of a holy life. The main Mennonite emphasis is not to be found in any "shalt not" but in one mighty "shalt" — "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart . . . and thy neighbor as thyself."
Mennonites contend that Christ meant exactly what he said when he told his disciples to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, to offer no resistance to those who would do them evil. They believe that any use of force — and particularly the waging of war — is totally incompatible with this commandment. So they are uncompromising pacifists, refusing not only to bear arms, but also to hold office as magistrates or policemen.
If you tell a Mennonite that this is unrealistic, and that it opens the way for the strong to exploit the weak, and for the wicked to enslave the good, he will not try to argue with you. He will simply tell you that Mennonites are determined to take the Lord’s words at their face value, regardless of what it may cost. And he will remind you that Jesus told his disciples they should expect to suffer for his sake.
1. There are six Methodist jurisdictions in the United States. Five are purely regional, but the so-called "Central Jurisdiction" is a segregated racial unit, set up to include annual conferences of Negro Methodists in all parts of the country. The Central Jurisdiction has become a great embarrassment to Methodists in recent years, and the Church is moving toward its elimination by incorporating Negro congregations and conferences into the regular regional jurisdictions as rapidly as this can be accomplished.
2. I record this Methodist contribution to American society with a sense of personal gratitude, since I was graduated from a great Methodist institution, Duke University.