These days, when outsiders consider Methodism, they tend to quickly assume that it is just withering away on its deathbed. But before checking for a pulse, observers ought to call to mind its history, particularly its vigorous beginnings. John Wesley preached to thousands from his father’s grave after being muzzled by the Anglican Church, and when the movement he spearheaded crossed the Atlantic, American Methodism spread on horseback as its dedicated circuit-riders expanded their territory along with the young nation. According to Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, in 1776, Methodists made up only a sliver of the religious pie, just some 2.5 percent of worshipers. By 1850, however, Methodism was by far the largest expression of Christianity in the United States, claiming over a third of all the nation’s religious adherents.
The faith, despite the splinters of the Civil War, would carry on with major place in American life for the next hundred years. But Prohibition would be Methodism’s last unified public triumphand a short-lived one at thatbefore internal disputes would begin to muddy its evangelistic and social witness. In 2007, Religion and American Politics rightly called the now ironically named United Methodist denomination “the church of the large standard deviation.”
And indeed, we need not look very hard to affirm Marvin Olasky’s characterization of UM leadership as “the caboose of liberalism” today. But a mid-September gathering of orthodox believers near Nashville also serves as a reminder that plenty of evangelical blood still pumps through the weakened Wesleyan frame. The inaugural New Room Conference brought together around 250 pastors, most with ties to Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, the de facto hub of conservative or “confessing” Methodism.
Leading Methodist minds addressed the crowd, including Southern Methodist University’s resident Irishman, Dr. William “Billy” Abraham, who accurately laid out challenges facing the United Methodist church in First Things years ago. Instead of focusing on the possibility of schism, Abraham advocated for Wesleyanism getting beyond its “inferiority complex” and embracing its role as the historic incubator for the vibrant Pentecostalism that is sweeping the globe. The early Methodists, Abraham argued, “bet the store on the Holy Spirit” and belong in the “mystic” tradition of which Irenaeus spoke when he said, “Where the Holy Spirit is, there is the church.” While acknowledging with a sigh that, given its current form, no United Methodist could dare be triumphalist, Abraham called on Methodists to “own our own identity as a full industrial strength church,” the result of a powerful moving of the Spirit and a tradition with “top league status” alongside Roman Catholicism and magisterial Protestantism.
Abraham’s address was accompanied by sessions on the global church, local church planting, the importance of reading the Bible, and a repeated emphasis on re-engaging the long neglected Wesleyan discipleship structures that coincided with the historical period of greatest growth.
While the fraying fabric of the UM tent was on the minds of many, organizers declared the meeting space an “angst free zone” and, indeed, the focus from the stage was not on how to save or slice up denominational pies, but on how to advance the broader Kingdom of God. An enthused Bryan Collier, pastor of a large multi-site church in Tupelo, Mississippi, expressed his hope that one day the UM annual conferences (today marked by social issue squabbles) would again have the sort of programming here on display.
After the conference, an exhausted yet encouraged J. D. Waltthe former seminary chaplain who now heads “Seedbed,” an Asbury-backed publishing venture that helped to sponsor the conferencetold me he was pleased with this first effort to “gather the tribe” from across a Wesleyan world that in addition to United Methodistsstill the third largest denomination in the United States behind only Roman Catholics and Southern Baptistsincludes the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church, Free Methodists, and others. Inspired by a neo-Reformed movement that, in his words, decided to “go for it,” Walt sees Methodism as bringing to the broader Church an emphasis on sanctification that compliments, rather than competes with, the Reformed emphasis on salvation through grace alone. Traditionalist Wesleyans have no quibble with that doctrine, but see it as a doorway to much more, what Walt calls “the second half of the Gospel”a move from “receiving the love of God” to “becoming the love of God.” As Walt likes to put it, “The rest of the Gospel is the best of the Gospel.”
The rest of the story has yet to be written for the Wesleyan movement in America. The skies are still dark, but after a visit to this New Room, where I found so many energized conservatives swinging for the fences, it seems the sun may be rising rather than setting. In a tradition that dates to back centuries, major Methodist gatherings often begin with the Charles Wesley hymn, And Are We Yet Alive? Perhaps, in the near future, the answer will again be a resounding Yes!
John Murdock was confirmed at the First United Methodist Church of Queen City, Texas. After a decade in D.C., he now writes from his native Lone Star State and exists online at johnmurdock.org.