Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we look at the history of Methodism in America.

It is the 23rd of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Today, we remember a momentous merger in the history of American Christianity- it was on this, the 23rd of April in 1968, that the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church came together at a general conference in Dallas and became the United Methodist Church, one of the largest denominations in America.

It was for many years the second largest Protestant denomination in America, behind the Southern Baptist Church, but since 2022, it has been the third, with both historic denominations taking a backseat, for the first time in American history, to the “Non’s” or Non-Denominational Protestant Christians. The United Methodist Church is, however, the most geographically diverse in terms of its representation in counties across America. It has, however, taken a hit with recent schisms. Let’s look at the history of the movement and then briefly note the controversies in the church today.

The Methodist Church is tied to the life and legacy of John and Charles Wesley. In the late 1720s, they founded the “Holy Club” at Oxford with George Whitfield; these were Anglicans in search of devotion and what we might call “small groups” in conjunction with their Anglican parish. In 1736, the Wesleys came to Georgia, where John served as a vicar. He was eventually pushed out on account of what he called his own legalism. As he and his brother returned to England, John recalled a conversation he had on the ship coming to America- he met German Moravians who spoke of Martin Luther and his insistence on salvation by grace alone. Back home in 1738, John was at a meeting in Aldersgate, London, with the Moravians when he heard someone read Luther’s preface to his commentary on the book of Romans. John recounted, "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, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” His new church, the Methodists, would spread across England and Ireland and spread back to the colonies with immigration.

At the same time, in America, a German Reformed pastor and a Mennonite (Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm formed a society between these called the United Brethren in Christ in 1800.

Both groups would suffer schisms. The Methodist Episcopal Church in America would see the African Methodist Episcopal Church break off as an African American denomination. Those Methodists opposed to Bishops formed the Methodist Protestant Church, and in the lead-up to the Civil War, the church was divided into Southern and Northern factions, although they reunited in 1939 as “the Methodist Church.”

The divisions of the Brethren just took up an entire whiteboard to diagram. Suffice it to say that the Evangelical Association would eventually merge with the United Brethren in Christ (New Constitution) to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946. And then, this body and the Methodist Church came together on this day in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. It is characterized as a “mainline” church and thus has elements of theological liberalism, but there is no one “platonic ideal” of a Methodist. You can search our archives for the weekend edition “Meet A Real Live Methodist with Jason Micheli” to hear a United Methodist and friend of 1517 explain how he sees the denomination.

Historically, the church has leaned Arminian, which emphasizes free will in coming to salvation as opposed to predestination. They claim justification by faith alone, which is accompanied by a sanctifying grace. And when it comes to authority, they have the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” which emphasizes the authority of Scripture along with tradition, reason, and experience in their right place. 

In recent years, the church body, as with many mainline Protestant bodies (the Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church), has been beset with division regarding doctrines pertaining to issues regarding marriage and ordination. The UMC has been hit particularly hard with controversy being held at bay with the lack of a General Conference. As of last year, over 7,000 churches have left the UMC- considering earlier splits amongst Presbyterians and Baptists resulted in the loss of a few hundred churches; this is the largest church schism in American church history. Many of the churches have joined the Global Methodist Church- the body does have churches outside of America but is called “Global” as a reference to John Wesley’s claim that “the whole world is his parish,” a call to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.

The earlier schisms that would have been the “largest in American history” were a result of the Civil War, and many of those bodies eventually reconciled. We can pray for a biblical reconciliation of the bodies that once made one of the largest American denominations—the United Methodist Church, which came into existence on the 23rd of April in 1968.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary and the book of Revelation, but don’t worry- it doesn’t get weird.

13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”

14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;

and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.

‘Never again will they hunger;

    never again will they thirst.

The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;

‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’

    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 23rd of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, who has his own “Gillespie Quadrilateral”: coffee, Audio Production, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, and beard oil.

The show is written and read by a man who feels sorry for his friends and colleagues Grant and Doug- the Mavericks just don’t have it in them… I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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