The United Methodist Church is one of the largest American mainline denominations, with nearly 12 million members in 42,000 congregations worldwide. It is a participating member of the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches and is one of the leading proponents of ecumenism today. The church was formed in 1968 with a merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, but its roots go back to England in the 1730s.
John and Charles Wesley were missionaries in the Church of England and had returned home after an unsuccessful mission in the colony of Georgia. They were disillusioned and discouraged with their own faith and began attending prayer meetings on Aldersgate Street in London, searching for answers. In 1738, they both had revival experiences, which John described as being “strangely warmed” in the heart. With this newfound excitement and energy in spiritual matters, they and their Aldersgate companions began to develop guidelines, or methods, in seeking spiritual renewal. This led to a national renewal movement within the Church of England, which was then brought to America by colonists. The early Methodist movement in America was mostly led by laypeople in the 1760s, and was still within the communion of the Anglican Church. In 1769 and 1771, John Wesley sent preachers, including Francis Asbury, to the colonies to help strengthen and guide the Methodist efforts. During the Revolutionary War the Methodists were an unpopular lot due to John Wesley’s Tory stance, as well as the unwillingness of many Methodist preachers to take up arms in support of the colonies. Following the Revolution, Wesley saw the need to develop a distinctly American church communion, and the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was formed in Baltimore in 1784.
From the very start, the Methodists were concerned with personal holiness and emphasized the need for an experience of salvation. To that end, they were involved in the earliest Sunday Schools, and the first church publishing house in America was formed by them in 1789. The Methodists were an integral part of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) and made great use of revival meetings and camp meetings to call people to conversion. The concept of circuit-riding preachers was developed by the Methodists and was greatly used in the frontier areas of the new country. A preacher would be responsible to travel from settlement to settlement, preaching and serving the people there until there was a large enough body to call a full-time pastor.
The Methodist Episcopal Church had its share of rifts, even in the early years. In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed by Richard Allen, an emancipated slave who had been mistreated in the established church. Again in 1821, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was formed by former slaves for similar reasons. In 1830, the Methodist Protestant Church was formed because the church would not grant representation of the laity or permit the election of presiding elders (this rift was reconciled with a merger in 1939). Today, the main threats faced within the church are regarding the place of homosexuals within the church. Historically, the church has always condemned homosexual practice as sin, and that is still the official position of the church. There is a strong and growing movement to grant full communion to practicing homosexuals and even to allow them into the clergy. Many people believe this will result in a major split of the denomination.
Regarding doctrine, the Methodist Church follows general Wesleyan theology. Belief in the sinfulness of man, the holiness of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the literal death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation of man are held in common with other Christian churches. Belief in the inerrancy is very low among Methodists, even though they affirm the authority of the Bible (2 Timothy 3:16). Sadly, this is indicative of many inconsistencies between the doctrine and practice of the Methodist Church.
Though there are individual members and congregations who practice the “old-time religion,” a growing majority have given in to pragmatism or political correctness in an effort to be all things to all people. One of the hallmark statements of the church is, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” As time goes by, Methodists find more and more areas of doctrine and practice to be “non-essential,” resulting in a very watered-down version of the old Methodist Church.