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The Methodist Episcopal Church, sometimes referred to as the M.E. Church, was a development of the first expression of Methodism in the United States. It officially began at the Baltimore Christmas Conference in 1784, with Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as the first bishops. Through a series of divisions and mergers, the M.E. Church became the major component of the present United Methodist Church.
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was an Anglican. Prior to the American Revolution, some people had concerns about Methodist evangelism in the colonies that took no heed of established Anglican parishes. For example, the Rev. Devereux Jarratt (1733–1801) was and remained an Anglican clergyman who founded Methodist societies in Virginia and North Carolina. However, after the 1784 establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church, he expressed shock that the Methodists "had rejected their old mother." It is possible that Jarratt and others considered the Methodist movement to be some sort of 18th-Century parachurch organization. However, as more and more migrants from England who saw themselves as Methodist, not Anglican, arrived in America, the establishment of a distinctly Methodist denomination was inevitable.
The earliest forms of Methodism were not originally referred to as a "connexion" because members were expected to seek the sacraments in the Church of England or Anglican Church. By the 1770s, however, they had their own chapels. In addition to salaried circuit riders (who were paid just over one-quarter what salaried Congregationalist ministers earned at the time), there were also unsalaried local ministers who held full-time jobs outside the church; class leaders who conducted weekly small groups where members were mutually accountable for their practice of Christian piety; and stewards who often undertook administrative duties.
Circuit riders, many of whom were laymen, traveled by horseback to preach the gospel and establish churches until there was scarcely any crossroad community in the United States without a Methodist presence.
The earliest Episcopal Methodists in North America were often drawn from the middle-class trades. Women were more numerous among members than men, and adherents outnumbered official members by as many as five-to-one. Adherents, unlike members, were not publicly accountable for their Christian life and therefore did not usually attend weekly class meetings. Meetings and services were often characterized by extremely emotional and demonstrative styles of worship that were often condemned by contemporary Congregationalists and Presbyterians. It was also very common for exhortations — testimonials and personal conversion narratives distinguishable from sermons because exhorters did not "take a text" from the Bible — to be publicly delivered by both women and slaves. Some of the earliest class leaders were also women.
The following list represents some major organizational developments in the United States. There have also been divisions and merges in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
1767: Philip William Otterbein and Martin Boehm started Methodist evangelism among German speaking immigrants to form the United Brethren in Christ. This development had to do only with language. Methodist Episcopal Bishop Francis Asbury preached at Otterbein's funeral. In the 20th Century, the United Brethren and Evangelical Association merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church, and then with the Methodist Church to form the United Methodist Church.
1793: The first recognized split from the Methodist Episcopal Church was led by a preacher named James O'Kelly who wanted clergy to be free to refuse to serve where the bishop appointed them. He organized the "Republican Methodists," later called simply the Christian Church or Christian Connection, that through its successors eventually became part of the United Church of Christ.
1816: The African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, who had been born a slave and bought his freedom. Francis Asbury had ordained him in 1799. It was also sometimes called the "African Bethel Church."
1828: The Canadians formed their own Methodist Church.
1828: The Methodist Protestant Church was organized by Nicholas Snethen, who had earlier argued against the O'Kelly split, along with Asa Shinn. The issue was the role of laity in governance of the church. In 1939, the Methodist Protestant Church merged with the Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal South to form the Methodist Church.
1844: The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was organized because of the slavery controversy. In 1939, the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant denominations merged to form the Methodist Church.
1870: The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church was organized from the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to serve African-American Methodists.
1897: Pentecostal Holiness Church of North Carolina. Merged with the Fire Baptized Holiness Church in 1911 and formed what is now known as the International Pentecostal Holiness Church.
1939: The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church merged to form the Methodist Church.
A related development was the establishment of The Salvation Army in Great Britain in 1865. Although this was not a split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, it later became a significant branch of the Wesleyan movement in the United States.
The church split over the question of slavery in 1844 with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South being formed in southern states. Former slave Henry Bibb was particularly strident in his confrontations of churchmen who served as slave masters through letters he sent to Methodist Episcopal church members. Bibb called on them to confront their pasts and account for their dual roles as slave owner and religious persons.
In the late 1840s, separate Conferences were formed for German-speaking members of the Methodist Episcopal Church who were not members of the Evangelical Association or the United Brethren in Christ (later merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB)). Among these was the St. Louis German Conference, which in 1925 was assimilated into the surrounding English-speaking conferences, including the Illinois Conference.
Many Northerners had only recently become religious (thanks to the Second Great Awakening) and religion was a powerful force in their lives. No denomination was more active in supporting the Union than the Methodist Episcopal Church. Carwardine argues that for many Methodists, the victory of Lincoln in 1860 heralded the arrival of the kingdom of God in America. They were moved into action by a vision of freedom for slaves, freedom from the terror unleashed on godly abolitionists, release from the Slave Power's evil grip on the state, and a new direction for the Union. Methodists formed a major element of the popular support for the Radical Republicans with their hard line toward the white South. Dissident Methodists left the church. During Reconstruction the Methodists took the lead in helping form Methodist churches for Freedmen, and moving into Southern cities even to the point of taking control, with Army help, of buildings that had belonged to the southern branch of the church.
The Methodist family magazine Ladies' Repository promoted Christian family activism. Its articles provided moral uplift to women and children. It portrayed the War as a great moral crusade against a decadent Southern civilization corrupted by slavery. It recommended activities that family members could perform in order to aid the Union cause.
In 1895, during the 19th century Holiness movement, Methodist Episcopal minister Phineas F. Bresee founded the Church of the Nazarene in Los Angeles with the help of Joseph Pomeroy Widney. The Church of the Nazarene separated over a perceived need to minister further to the urban poor, the origins of its Nazarene name. Several other churches, roughly 15 holiness denominations that had also split from the Methodist Episcopal Church, joined the Church of the Nazarene in 1907 and 1908, and it became international soon thereafter. The new Church of the Nazarene retained the Methodist Episcopal tradition of education and now operates 56 educational institutions around the world, including eight liberal arts colleges in the United States, each tied to an "educational region". Ironically, around the time of the first General Assembly, the Nazarene Church would claim to be Congregational, similar to the Methodist Protestant Church, but has retained much of its Episcopal character to this day.
There are many offshoots of the original Methodist Episcopal Church in the US. For more detail see: Methodism.