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In 1893 the World’s Parliament of Religions was held in conjunction with the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago. While attending the parliament, “representatives of religious traditions around the globe were given a platform to present their beliefs and, in the case of newer religions, introduce themselves to an American audience.”1 According to Black and Drury, the event signaled a new theological trend –– liberalism.2 It was a trend that would be embraced by mainline Christian doctrines, referred to by many as “interfaith dialogue.” Wesleyan Methodists remained skeptical, with people such as A.T. Jennings decrying the move towards liberalism as “a compromise of Christianity.”3
How would Wesleyan Methodists respond to liberalism?
The newfound focus on personal holiness4 ushered in a new musical era for Wesleyan Methodists. Albeit, Wesleyan Methodists weren’t alone in this respect. Across the board, American Christianity was moving in the direction of a more personal (individual?) expression of faith. The trend can be seen in the move from hymns, which often employed plural pronouns and focused on God as the object of worship, to the gospel song, which offered “a more personal witness of what God had done in the individuals singing his praises.”5 Wesleyan Methodists, in many respects, led the charge, with notable and well-beloved gospel songs being penned by Wesleyan Methodist preachers and evangelists.
Clearly, one of the ways that Wesleyan Methodists combated liberalism was by offering “music, preaching, and witness… [that] was doctrinally sound.”6
If the Wesleyan Methodist message of personal holiness was to advance, it was clear that structural change was needed. The loosely connected network of churches would need to be retooled and restructured. In 1874, Adam Crooks would purchase a building in Syracuse, New York, that would prove to be the first of many crucial steps in the restructuring of the denomination. The building that he purchased would become the site of denomination’s publishing house. In 1891, further restructuring measures would be undertaken by the general conference to strengthen the denomination. Black and Drury describe the general conference’s actions as follows:
…a third full-time general official [was added] to the ranks of denominational leadership. A general missionary “secretary” or director joined the editor and publisher in the new building on East Onondaga Street in Syracuse with responsibilities for both home and foreign missions. [...] In the same year, the Book Committee, created for the oversight of the publishing interests of the denomination (as the name implied), became more of a board of administration for the connection as a whole.7
In the same year, papers to incorporate were also filed with the state of New York. A small, significant, and new term was for the first time applied to the denomination –– church. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection of local churches had, with the stroke of a pen, become The Wesleyan Methodist Connection [or Church] of America.8
Gospel songs and denominational restructuring weren’t the only things that Wesleyan Methodists were up to during this time. As the authors note, “Still missing from this new-look church… was an academically strong and financially viable educational institution that was not only Wesleyan today, but could also be counted on to be Wesleyan tomorrow.”9 None of the four schools that the general conferences of 1883 heard reports from would fill that void. It would be Houghton College (my alma mater), founded by Willard J. Houghton in 1884, that “would prove to be the institution with staying power that Wesleyan Methodism needed so desperately.”10
In 1889, Wesleyan Methodists took steps to expand their work beyond the borders of North America. The Johnson family and Dr. Alice Harris were the first to go. Their destination would be the continent of Africa, where they would begin what would become “the prototype for Wesleyan missions,”11 in the country of Sierra Leone. These would be the first of many missionaries to Sierra Leone. But more importantly, they paved the way for future Wesleyan Methodists to engage in missionary work around the globe.
While all of this was transpiring, another small (and seemingly insignificant) shift began to take place. Wesleyan Methodists were a people who “had inherited a conviction that the Holy Spirit would lead the church to evangelize the world and transform society before the return of Christ”12 –– a view known as postmillennialism.13 It was an eschatological framework that squared rather well with the Wesleyan Methodist’s (earlier) beliefs regarding social holiness.
Wesleyan Methodists would, however, get caught up in the doctrine of premillenialism that was making inroads amongst conservative Christians. The relatively new premillenialist view suggests “the world will not become more and more Christian, but less and less. By this view, Christ would return not to a world ready to acclaim him King, but to an unbelieving one that was continually growing worse. Only his second coming would impose God’s righteous order on a sinful society and bring in the millennium.”14
By embracing a premillenial eschatological framework, Wesleyan Methodists exchanged a hopeful and optimistic theology –– a theology that beckoned the church to participate in the transforming of society to make it more just, loving, holy, etc. –– for a theology that called for a personal/individual relationship with Jesus and was concerned primarily with surviving this life on the way to the next.
It would be a shift that would have major implications in the decades ahead.
- Nomenclature matters. The subtle change in name from Wesleyan Methodist Connection to Wesleyan Methodist Connection [or Church] of America mattered greatly. It altered the denomination’s self-understanding and in so doing necessitated a new and (slightly) different direction and structure.
- The Wesleyan Methodist emphasis on gospel songs, education, and missions in the years surrounding the World’s Parliament of Religion and the rise of theological liberalism makes sense. Gospel songs provided an ideal means by which to communicate orthodox theology, in a simple, easy-to-communicate and easy-to-remember format. Educating clergy and laity, at denominational (liberal arts) schools, was a way for the church to ensure that her students were being taught good, orthodox theology. And missions was a way for that orthodoxy to spread beyond North American borders to all the world.
- The rationale for the Wesleyan Methodist’s acceptance of premillenialism is slightly more confounding. While it appears to be a reaction to the theological liberalism and the social gospel that it would eventually give rise to, and while it fit rather well with the denomination’s newfound bent toward personal holiness as opposed to its earlier emphasis on social holiness –– the decision to embrace premillenialism, at least at a popular level, was a form of capitulation to the newest fads of popular (conservative) Christian culture.
- My guess is that the Wesleyan Methodist’s decision to side with conservative Christians, as opposed to mainline, theologically liberal Christians, will pave the way for compromises that will help Wesleyan Methodists fit just a bit better with other conservative Christians (e.g. American Evangelicalism and the church growth movement). After all, it is better (at least in the eyes of constituents/members) to be labeled too conservative than to possibly be associated with those who bear the term liberal, right?!
- Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of the Wesleyan Church (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012), 83. ↩
- The authors define “liberalism” as “an approach to theology characterized by a desire to accommodate the faith to contemporary culture (83).” Others, however, credit nineteenth century German Enlightenment, and thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schleiermacher, with sowing the seeds of what would later be termed “theological liberalism.” Those influenced by the German Enlightenment would tend to espouse a higher critical approach to Scripture and would attempt to assimilate Christian beliefs with modern thinking and scientific discoveries. (See, for example, J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and Reg Burrow’s Theological Liberalism.) ↩
- Black and Drury, 84. ↩
- For more information about the shift from social to personal holiness, see: THE STORY OF THE WESLEYAN CHURCH: (Part 1, Chapter 6) “Surviving Success (1865-1877).” ↩
- Black and Drury, 84. It can also be argued that the gospel song tended to focus much more on the subject undertaking worship than on the object of worship. ↩
- Ibid., 85. ↩
- Ibid., 87. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid., 88. ↩
- Ibid., 89. ↩
- Ibid., 92. ↩
- Ibid., 94. ↩
- According to Black and Drury, postmillennialists believe the church will “establish a righteous order on earth for a thousand-year period, the millennium. After the millennium, Christ would return to rule over a world already largely Christianized (94).” ↩
- Ibid., 94. ↩