By Donald W. Haynes
When the Declaration of Independence was signed, the Congregational Church was the largest denomination in the colonies. In the southern colonies, the largest denomination was the Church of England. Only 2 percent of colonial Americans were Methodists, with a much smaller fraction being converts under the ministries of churches antecedent to the “Evangelical United Brethren.”
However by 1850 Methodists numbered 34 percent of the U.S. population, having spread into every state or territory, every ethic and racial group, and every socio-economic stratum of society. Episcopalians had dropped from 27 percent to 4 percent since 1776.
John Wigger, in his 1998 book Taking Heaven by Storm, comments on these census data: “The growth stunned the older denominations; American Methodism was half again as large as any other Protestant body and now ten times larger than the Congregationalists!”
Two realities emerge from these statistics. First, what happened to the Congregationalists and Anglicans in colonial America can happen to United Methodism in the 21st-century United States.
Secondly, the driving dynamic of Methodism in that era was bringing new people to experiential faith in Jesus Christ as Savior from their sins. They were discipled in the ordering of their lives by following Jesus as Lord.
There were some shortcomings—like the accommodation of slavery—but these didn’t prevent the phenomenal growth, influence and cultural muscle that developed in little more than one generation.
An old order ended with the American Revolution. Dr. Wigger is correct: “Ordinary people grew increasingly unwilling to consider themselves inherently inferior!” Old social constructs gave way to new ideas about equality, though it would take more than another century to include women and racial minorities in that equality.
So our 21st century is not the first “deep shift” in American culture, after all. Post-Revolution America saw the overwhelming majority of people facing large-scale change.
Methodism became the new religious cornerstone of what sociologists called “the American middle.” And what was the defining element in this phenomenal growth of both numbers and influence among the “people called Methodists”?
Both the German and English preachers of Wesleyan identity reached pre-Christians. Ministry in our first half-century was with the “not-yets, has-beens and left-overs.”
When Methodists built meetinghouses, they retained the communion rail of the Church of England, but often renamed it “the mourners’ bench” or “the mercy seat.” Most commonly, they simply called it “the altar.”
To this sacred rail, people across a broad spectrum of society were called to “pray through” to an experience of saving grace. Then as now, the words of John Newton seemed most descriptive: “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
Then came Newton’s special dash of Wesleyan theology: “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Tis grace [prevenient] that brought me safe thus far, and grace [perfecting] will lead me home.”
Another Methodist “talking point” was “salvation for all.” Methodist, Evangelical and United Brethren preachers spoke to early America with the authority that “whosoever will may come.” Contrary to the older Calvinists, Wesley’s spokespersons were confident that Jesus died for all, not just the elect.
Equally insistent, they preached that God’s grace can be resisted, or accepted and then abandoned. This latter spiritual journey we called “backsliding.” The Calvinists preached “once saved, always saved” or “eternal security”; Wesleyans insisted that whoever thirsted could “come to the waters,” but that without the means of sustaining grace, the old lifestyle would recur.
Today, we are seeing what emerging church leaders like Brian McLaren call a “deep shift” in almost everything—morality, corporate solvency, family structure, political landscapes, personal jobs and personal faith. Some pundits predict that United Methodism will be slowly and quietly sidelined to a place of dignity and memory, predominantly a membership of older white women.
Bishop Larry Goodpaster did not write a “gloom and doom” book with his 2008 There’s Power in the Connection, but he does record the sobering statistic that if present rates of membership loss are projected on a straight-line graph, United Methodism will close our last church in 2090, just six years after our tricentennial. Surely that possibility will eject us from decades of denial.
Mine is no nostalgic call to go back to the language of the frontier or the fabric of the revival meeting. However, it is to follow the wisdom of Isaac, to “redig the wells of our fathers” to taste anew those waters of our heritage.
The second dimensional essence of Wesley’s grace theology is that sin’s wages need not be our permanent payday. Sin is real, but we can be saved in our sin, from our sins. Our condition remains a precarious tightrope of temptation, spiced with some harmful hormones and psychological garbage.
In these perilous times, our souls are on trial along with our jobs and savings. Life has never been salted with more land mines. Even in economic downturn, our lifestyle is still sprinkled with the toys of affluence, but these have not been the elixir of happiness that we were promised.
Education did not obliterate original sin, economics did not eliminate emotional distress, sexual liberation did not eliminate heartache and better houses did not bring family bliss. The context has changed; the text has not! We still need the experience of saving grace.
Let me be personal and share my own story:
My father never went to church. On Sundays he would take Mama and me to church, then walk his fields to determine if it were “too wet to plow” or which hay field needed mowing. At home he was generous and kind but we never had table grace and there was no family devotion time. Mama read her Upper Room and threadbare Bible, and said her prayers in solitude.
But the spring when I turned 10, Daddy said, “I heard that Hamp Price is preaching the revival. He’s made and sold more liquor than any man in Rockingham County. If he’s got religion, I want to hear what he has to say.”
That night Daddy put on his only suit and his Nunn-Bush shoes, and I had a new experience—sitting between my parents in that little one room Methodist church. The next night we went back and when the “altar call” was given, Daddy, with his face as red as a beet, went forward. The next morning he asked the blessing at breakfast!
On Sundays he went to church. On Wednesdays we traveled up to 20 miles to cottage prayer meetings. Daddy, then 47, was robust and healthy. But 16 months later he became sick, and in less than three years he was dead.
I know the world of my father and that little church is no more. But last Sunday I stood at his and Mama’s tombstone. I thanked him for responding to the “grace that is greater than all our sin.”
We cannot and do not wish to resurrect the ethos of old, but if we are to reach this generation, we must resurrect the reality of God’s saving grace. My experience of that grace is not the same as my father’s, and my children’s is not the same as mine. Experiential grace is more relational than prepositional. Every generation a
nd every culture receives grace through different filters.
“Cookie-cutter” faith is not what we call for. We call for flames from old coals to burn on new altars!
Dr. Haynes is a retired clergy member of the Western North Carolina Conference. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.