By Dr. Riley Case
The September 22 issue of Christian Century carries an article entitled “Study Process Aided ELCA Gay Breakthrough,” which basically analyzes why and how Lutherans came to the decision to approve practicing homosexuals as ministers. United Methodists are mentioned in the article, mostly to make the point that UMs lag behind Lutherans (this is not an unbiased article). The author notes that only 32% of UM pastors support ordination of practicing homosexuals compared to 54% of ELCA pastors. Then this explanation is given: UMs are not likely to adopt inclusive policies soon primarily because of geography, with an explanatory quote from Troy Plummer (Reconciling Ministries): “United Methodist U.S. membership is concentrated in the Bible Belt.”
Now the question: why is UM membership in America concentrated in the Bible Belt? Is it just an accident or is there reason to believe that if there is such a thing as a Bible Belt in America Methodists (plus United Brethren and Evangelicals) had a part in making it that?
Lutherans tend to be rather conservative theologically but it is not conservative theology that made the Bible Belt but rather revivalism (along with some other factors); Methodists (and Baptists) on the western frontier were the premier revivalists, and camp meetings the early setting. The camp meeting as an institution can trace its origin to Cane Ridge in Kentucky in 1800. It spread immediately across Methodism but especially, in the earliest years, to the Chesapeake Bay area (see Russell Richey, “The Formation of American Methodism: The Chesapeake Refraction of Wesleyanism” in Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture, Hatch and Wigger). Richey argues that the Methodism of that area influenced the western states through migration. Some in Indiana have contended that the “Hoosier” nickname (as in Indiana Hoosiers) was in fact derived from the early Indiana pioneers who were labeled “Hoosier” (in derision) because they were known as the converts of Methodism’s black evangelist, Harry Hosier.
Meanwhile, Indiana (according to Asbury’s journal) held 17 camp meetings in 1809 at a time when there was reportedly only one Methodist meetinghouse in the state. A. H. Redford, in Western Cavaliers (1876) reports on 93 revivals that took place in Kentucky in the years 1832-1844. When Christine Lieigh Heyrman did her study: Southern Cross The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (1997) she included Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois in her definition of “The South.” According to Heyrman, by 1835 48% of all Americans lived in her definition of the South, but 67% of all Baptists and Methodists.
According to the 1850 federal census, the highest number of churches per capita in the country was found in the following states: Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi. These are the states (with several more) that were the market for the Western Christian Advocate of Cincinnati, which had the largest circulation in the nation among religious papers and one of the largest circulations of all papers. One of its features was “Revival Intelligence.” It is worth noting that the geographic center of the states with the highest concentration of churches would be somewhere close to Cane Ridge, Kentucky.
The same 1850 census shows Indiana with 454 Methodist churches, and only 2 congregational churches. Clearly, the center of Christianity (and the beginnings of the Bible Belt) had moved west of the Allegany mountains. It is not so much that the Bible Belt started in the south and moved north, but rather that the revival that is associated with Kentucky and the Chesapeake Bay area moved both south and north. The Evangelical and United Brethren versions of the same frontier revival moved down the Ohio River valley.
What does all this have to do with Constitutional Amendment #1, the “inclusivity” amendment to the UM constitution? This is the amendment which would mandate that anyone who wants to, regardless of what they believe or what is their moral code, can be a United Methodist church member (better labeled the “no standards” amendment).
Perhaps no other issue before the church has so clearly revealed the theological and cultural divide in United Methodism as in this amendment. While the amendment was approved by the General Conference, supported by the bishops, and by various boards and agencies, and by all the liberal caucus groups, it has been overwhelmingly defeated by the annual conferences. But it is significant which annual conferences voted against the amendment. If a map of the conferences that failed to approve the amendment by even a simple majority (2/3 was needed to ratify) is overlaid on a map of where early Methodist revivalism flourished the greatest, and that overlaid with a map of what some consider today to be the “Bible Belt,” the maps would match.
Not a single conference in the southeastern jurisdiction gave the amendment a majority. In addition, 3 Texas conferences, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Peninsula-Delaware, West Virginia, Western PA, West Ohio, Indiana, and Great Rivers also did not give a majority vote to the amendment.
What is the significance of this?
1) We need a better appreciation for our own American United Methodist heritage and how it has helped to shape American culture and evangelicalism.
2) United Methodism is not nearly as liberal as portrayed by boards and agencies, and even by the council of bishops and the seminaries. At one time New York and Boston claimed to be the center of Methodism. That was a serious misreading of what Methodism really has been (and is).
3) When the University Senate de-lists schools from being approved to train UM pastors because the schools are evangelical and supposedly do not reflect “United Methodist ethos,” the senate needs a history lesson as to just what United Methodist “ethos” is. It has a lot to do with revivals and not much at all to do with modern expressions of “academic freedom.”
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