Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
Editor's Note: We are pleased to present the third in our occasional series of essays entitled "Ecumenical Partners." In this series, the Reformed Tradition is explored from the point of view of theologians outside the tradition.
Opinions about the Reformed tradition among American Methodists have been strongly felt, sometimes vehemently expressed but actually complex, changing, and evolving. Over the 200-plus years of their co-existence here, Methodist relations with the Reformed, particularly the Presbyterians, evolved from heated competition, through grudging emulation, to cooperative mission, and to eventual mutuality and near communion. This essay looks at Methodist views of Presbyterians and the Reformed more generally, focusing upon the early decades of interaction.
As the above citations from Methodist preachers’ letters and journal indicateand such sentiments recurWesleyanism had pronounced judgments about Calvinism and Presbyterianism. For good reason. Methodism emerged as a movement in revolutionary America in the 1760s and 1770s during the height of the “Calvinist Controversy” that pitted John and Charles Wesley, their chief apologist John Fletcher, and the Methodist Conference against prominent Anglican Calvinist critics, including August M. Toplady (author of “Rock of Ages”) and the followers of George Whitefield who constituted the Calvinist Methodist “Connection” around Selina Lady Huntingdon.5 In response to Calvinists generally and to the Whitefield wing of the Methodist movement particularly, the Wesleyans embraced and boasted their identity as Arminians. So they defined themselves within a Reformed theological framework. So also did their central doctrines of universal atonement, free grace, regeneration, holiness, and free will. So Methodism oriented itself theologically and contextually within the theological exchanges that went back through Westminster to Calvin and occurred frequently over the Calvinist shibboleths of Dort.
Hence Methodism transmitted itself to the colonies with an anti-Calvinist message given expression in John Wesley’s writings,6 in Fletcher’s Checks to Antinomianism, in “The Large Minutes,” that provided quasi-constitution, in Charles’s hymns, and from 1777 onward in the Arminian Magazine.7 American Methodists needed such resources. They penetrated areas where Puritan, Dutch Reformed, or Presbyterian sentiments prevailed, enjoying initial successes in the middle states and upper south. American Wesleyan preachers wereeven more than John, whose sentiments they preached, and Charles, whose hymns they sungmissionaries and evangelists not systematic theologians. However, they could indeed preach and sing their convictions whether on the stump, under a spreading oak, in a small cabin, on the square, or in some denomination’s church building. In such public settings they routinely faced and addressed convinced and “consistent” Calvinists.
To be sure, Whitefield’s death in 1770 relieved preachers sent by or influenced by John Wesley from having to counter face-to-face his (Whitefield’s) eloquent evangelical Calvinism as an alternative Methodism. Nevertheless, Wesley’s preachers in revolutionary America had to contend with colonial perceptions of “Methodism” imaged by Whitefield’s repeated, highly successful revivalistic and eloquently Calvinist itinerations.8 And, of course, they arrived as the several Reformed trajectories of the first Awakening, particularly that of Jonathan Edwards, were mutating into agendas for revolution, societal regeneration and nation building.
Conflict with the reinvigorating Calvinism that would be typified by Timothy Dwight and Lyman Beecher and transmitted through Yale, Princeton, and Andover was inevitable. The Methodist practice of the Whitefield/Wesley style of leadershipitinerant preachingsent them through the countryside gathering any who would listen and begging for buildings in which to preach. Their mobility meant that they interacted constantly with individuals from various religious communities, as page after page of preachers’ journals show. Not all of their interactions yielded the bombast, disdain and dismissiveness of the above. In places and at times, Presbyterians and Methodists would join in common endeavor, as we note momentarily. However, Methodism’s circuit rider method predisposed it to invade and interlope and its evangelistic Arminian message predisposed it to critique and convert. Not surprisingly established congregations and leaderswhether Presbyterian, Anglican, Quaker or Baptistoften responded with like denunciation. And such denominational and doctrinal skirmishes continued well into the nineteenth century, particularly as the churches moved west and struggled for place in settlement after settlement.9 Even so, the only story was not one of conflict.
Nothing symbolized the complexity of Methodist attitudes towards and relations with the Reformed than the latter’s ritual involvement in the ordination of Francis Asbury in 1784 at the organizing “Christmas” conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Remaining with the small scattered Methodist converts when his Wesley-appointed compatriots fled home during the Revolution, Asbury had emerged as the de facto head of the American movement. Wesley selected Asbury to be co-superintendent for America with Dr. Thomas Coke (whom Wesley, only an Anglican presbyter, ordained to that office). Asbury cannily demanded the convening of a conference of preachers and their election of superintendents. A famous picture depicts Asbury’s ordination, showing him being consecrated with the laying on of Reformed as well as Anglican hands. In a valedictory, Asbury depicted the occasion as well:
Relations with Otterbein, then emerging as the leader of a Methodist-like, pietist-revivalist movement among the German Reformed, remained particularly close. That early cooperation with his United Brethren as also with Evangelical Association continued through the years, leading eventually to the union establishing the United Methodist Church in 1968.11
Asbury had, however, rather continuous, cordial, even cooperative and friendly interaction with English-speaking Reformed as well throughout the several decades of his ministry and episcopal leadership. He interacted with Presbyterian ministers, heard them preach, and preached himself in their meeting houses. Like his compatriots, Asbury could epitomize the Methodist doctrine of free grace and free will employing negations. So he preached at a quarterly meeting on “superstition, idolatry, unconditional election, and reprobation, Antinomianism, Universalism, and Deism.”12 And he guided American Methodists in their apologetical efforts, including a short-lived magazine, The Arminian Magazine, which borrowed the title of Wesley’s and continued the debate with those who shared George Whitefield’s views: “the doctrines of unconditional election and reprobation and their consequences.”13 Still, the tone of Asbury’s relations with the Reformedthroughout his journals and lettersis positive and collaborative. The high water mark of cooperation came in the union camp meetings spawned by Cane Ridge. In letter after letter, Asbury celebrated, encouraged, and indeed, demanded the convening of camp meetings.14 Asbury continued to celebrate the cooperative spirit that these union revivalistic occasions produced even as they became more denominational affairs. Towards the end of his life, in 1811, he wrote from Charleston, South Carolina to colleague Bishop Thomas Coke, “Our prospects in this city exceed all former calculation. I still entertain a good opinion of the Presbyterians. An elder among them said, some time ago, that were it not for system and salary, they and we might unite.”15
Methodists and Presbyterians played distinctive roles in the pan-Protestant endeavor to build a Christian republic. The common endeavor symbolized by joint participation in the Cane Ridge period camp meetings proved brief. Methodistsalready committed to populist, energetic, y’all come revivalistic missionadopted the camp meeting as a national strategy. So Asbury instructed Jacob Gruber, presiding elder in 1811 in the Baltimore Conference:
The next day he wrote his episcopal compatriot, Coke:
The Methodist role in building a religious nation, then, focused on converting, disciplining, and civilizing a citizenry and therefore on moving ever westward, bringing communities into being under Christian order. This robust popular, democratizing, and energetic stylecrossing racial and linguistic linesMethodists shared with Baptists, Christians, and various evangelical movements. They worked towards a Christian nation from the bottom up.17
The Reformed participated in building a Christian America in different fashion, more from the top down. They (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and other Reformed) provided its theological framework in sermons and treatises. They envisioned the voluntary associations (Bible, tract, missionary, Sunday school, reform societies) that would tie religion to the socio-political order. They funded such operations. They established norms for a Christian magistrate. And they built and headed the educational institutions that would yield the leaders needed for a church and state so joined. The class, style, culture, program differences in the two roles, though pronounced, in places competitive, and at times conflictual, worked towards a common end.
Tensions in Convergence
Neither the Reformed nor Methodists could afford to stick strictly to script. Presbyterians and Congregationalists embraced enough of the ‘arminian,’ Finney-esque new measures to be competitive in the denominational free-for-all (and to produce theological controversy within). And Methodists found constituents among the more politically connected and well to do or watched their own folk ascend the social ladder. Concerning himself with and strategizing for this new constituency was Nathan Bangs, who after Asbury died in 1816, emerged as Methodism’s preeminent spokesperson, editor, booster, and institution-creator. Also the church’s first great historian, Bangs expressed great appreciation for Asbury and Asbury’s achievements but dared to note that even “the sun has its spots.” He ventured “with great deference” errors in the bishop’s administration,18 arenas in which Asbury failed to encourage Methodist development or insure its prosperity. Bangs wanted for Methodism what were Reformed hallmarks: a learned ministry; education; the church’s place in and place for culture, science, knowledge, and literature; and adequate support for ministry and ministerial families.
Mindful that Methodism had faltered in its nurturing role, Bangs insisted that without educational institutions and without an adequately trained ministry Methodism was losing its best and brightest to other denominations. The 1820 report of “The committee appointed to take into consideration the propriety of recommending to the annual conferences the establishment of seminaries of learning,” in which Bangs had a voice, spoke with paranoic urgency in detailing the state of higher education:19
Approving the report, the first point of which was verifiable, General Conference recommended that all the annual conferences “establish, as soon as practicable, literary institutions under their control.”20
Hysteria worked well in rousing Methodists to put resources into founding, patronizing, and supporting colleges. Without our own schools, warned presidents, founders and benefactors, our own college-bound youth would receive education and find a home in another denomination. So Stephen Olin, president of Wesleyan, previously president of Randolph-Macon and faculty member at the University of Georgia, asserted in 1844:
Olin complained that of the Methodists who had attended others’ colleges, three-quarters had been “lost”:
With a sense of urgency, Methodism began the institution-creationcolleges first, then universities, seminaries, hospitals, orphanagesthat would gradually pull it fully into what would later be termed “mainstream” Protestantism.
Complexity and Evolution
By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Methodism began to look, behave, and feel more like its Reformed and other mainstream denominational compatriots. Symbolizing and accommodating that spirit, Methodism moved out of its side-street house chapels into main-street brick and stone cathedrals. The pews and organs affronted some Methodists who clung to earlier populist, evangelistic, holiness missional visions, self-understandings, and commitments, particularly to the poor and marginal. Out of those tensions and attendant critique, Methodism suffered therefore a series of schisms, yielding the several holiness denominations. Other fractures had occurred earlier over race (AME and AMEZ) and would again (CME); and over polity (MP); and over slavery. The latter, the division of episcopal Methodism north and south, Presbyterians and Baptists suffered in their own distinctive ways, the Civil War then reinforcing those fractures. It took a century for Presbyterians and Methodists to get over slavery. Baptists have yet to do so.
In the denominational projects of the late nineteenth and of the twentieth century, Methodists and Presbyterians found themselves working on parallel and increasingly converging tracks: healing denominational divisions, restructuring the church organizationally for mission and efficiency, finding a “social gospel” for urban ministry and societal problems, building world denominational families, dealing with the theological challenges posed by modernity and science, warring for temperance and guiding Christians through war, and finding ways towards Christian unity. Both denominations provided leadership over the last century for local, regional, national, and world council of churches endeavor. Both participate actively in life and work as well as faith and order endeavor (relief, advocacy, reform).
Methodists responded to the Presbyterian overture that created the Consultation on Church Union. Both communions engaged seriously in that pan-Protestant quest (now Churches United in Christ). In such processes, in global confessional dialogues, and through participation in the elaboration of and response to Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Presbyterians and Methodists found common grounds but also surfaced other critical dividing points, in addition to those creedal and doctrinal. Different conceptions, structures, and practices of ministry, worship, order, and ecclesiology came more to the fore, e.g.: how the church should exercise episkope and order ministry.
Despite the differences, the churches struggled towards fuller unity on various fronts, including that within their respective confessional/denominational families. In the Methodist case, denominational unity brought the church closer to the Reformed. The union of 1968, bringing together Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches made the Reformed tradition a constitutive part of United Methodism. Our doctrinal standards now include the EUB “Confession of Faith,” our theological heritage embraces the Reformed witness of Otterbein and the United Brethren, and through the EUB story United Methodists acquired Calvinist roots. Whitefield again looks increasingly like a full member of the family.
The enlargement of the denominational root system also went on as the two churches participated in the liturgical/ecumenical renewals that brought to the fore the rich ancient practices and understandings of the early church. Of course, of late both communions find themselves traumatized by cultural, worship, and theological wars. And as conservatives align themselves across denominational lines and progressives do as well, new ideological/programmatic forms of unity surface.
A Personal Journey
My own career as a theological educator has been influenced by the converging denominational trends. Raised as a Methodist preacher’s kid, I opted to attend the still discernibly “Reformed” Union Theological Seminary (NYC) in the mid 60s. Challenged by Union’s witness to the city, I interned at the East Harlem Protestant Parish and in the Presbyterian portion thereof, then headed by Letty Russell. The following summer I accepted a Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) assignment in Rocky Mount in my home state of North Carolina in the church pastored by the late James Costen. The following year I headed SIM, a Union-student-led effort, overseen by Presbyterians at 475 Riverside Drive. That same year I studied Calvin with Wilhelm Pauck. After seminary came doctoral work at Princeton University, constant use of the seminary library, regular attendance at university chapel or Nassau Presbyterian, and a dissertation on English Presbyterianism in its evolution towards Unitarianism. My first course as a green seminary faculty member was on Jonathan Edwards and his Reformed successors. That and a course on Puritanism remained my favorites. Later as a theological administrator at United Methodist schools, I fostered the work of Presbyterian (and also Baptist and Episcopal) studies committees. When two colleagues and I launched a multi-year, Lilly-supported, large-scale study of United Methodism, we did so guided by the leaders of and template for the similar Presbyterian Louisville-based effort. And throughout my life as a theological educator, I have participated in ecumenical endeavors that frequently found Presbyterian and Methodist together prominently at table. Fuller table fellowship is a personal as well as denominational aspiration.
1 “The Letters Written to Daniel Hitt, Methodist Preacher, 1788 to 1806.” Given by the Stevenson Family to Ohio Wesleyan University. Transcript made by Miss Annie Winstead, Upper Room. Footnotes and Intro by Raymond Martin Bell, 1967. Copy in the Drew University Library. From The Rev. B. Brown on Glouster Circuit, January 6, 1791.
2 “The Letters Written to Daniel Hitt,” from the Rev. George Wells, December 22, 1791, 74.
3 A Journal of the Travels of William Colbert, Methodist Preacher: thro’ parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and Virginia in 1790 to 1833, 10 vols. typescript. TMs, 1790-1822 (microfilm); AMS, 1822-1833, Colbert Collection, The United Library of Garrett-Evangelical and Seabury-Western Theological Seminaries, Evanston, IL, July 4, 1792 on the Northumberland Circuit, I, 75.
4 “The Letters Written to Daniel Hitt,” from I. Robbins, December 1802 or January 1803, 297.
5 See Kenneth J. Collins, John Wesley: A Theological Journey (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), esp. 216-29; Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 199-270.
6 Wesley’s writing and collections thereof guided the preaching of his American followers. His Sermons and Notes on the New Testament were and would remain definitive. His Works went through multiple editions in Britain and in America. The latest, a critical edition is The Works of John Wesley; begun as “The Oxford Edition of The Works of John Wesley” (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975B1983); continued as “The Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley” (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984C); 15 of 35 vols. published to date.
7 For guidance on Methodist doctrine and the standards that define it, see Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002) and Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999).
8 See Dee E. Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 24-31.
9 For an entertaining, tall-tale version of denominational competition, see the Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, with introduction, bibliography and index by Charles L. Wallis (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984?), first published in 1856.
10 Vasey and Whatcoat had been ordained as ministers by Wesley and the latter would eventually also be a Methodist bishop. See The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, ed. Elmer T. Clark, 3 vols. (London: Epworth, and Nashville: Abingdon, 1958), III, 478-79, from “A Valedictory Address to William McKendree, Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America. By Francis Asbury,” 475-92. August 5, 1813. The Asbury volumes are abbreviated hereinafter JLFA.
11 J. Bruce Behney & Paul H. Eller, The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, ed. Kenneth W. Krueger (Nashville: Abingdon, 1979).
12 JLFA, I, 646 for July 24, 1790.
13 “To the Subscribers for The Arminian Magazine,” April 10, 1789, JLFA, III, 67-69, signed by Bishops Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury.
14 For a first-hand appreciation of their importance for Methodists, see Jesse Lee, A Short History of the Methodists (Baltimore, 1810; Rutland, VT: Academy Books, 1974).
15 JLFA, III, 445, for February 22, 1811.
16 JLFA, III, 452-53, September 1, 1811; III, 455.
17 See the succession of re-estimations of American Methodism, beginning perhaps with William H. Williams, The Garden of American Methodism: The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820 (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc. for the Peninsula Conference of The United Methodist Church, 1984); my Early American Methodism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991); A. Gregory Schneider, The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington and lndianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993); Nathan O. Hatch, “The Puzzle of American Methodism,” Church History 63 (June 1994), 175-89 and his The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989); Christine Leigh Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997); John H. Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Cynthia Lynn Lyerly, Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998); Donald G. Mathews, “United Methodism and American Culture: Testimony, Voice, and the Public Sphere,” The People(s) Called Methodist, United Methodism and American Culture, II, ed. William B. Lawrence, Dennis M. Campbell and Russell E. Richey (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 279-304; Dee E. Andrews, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000); and David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005).
18 Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 12th ed., 4 vols. (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1860), II, 390-418. Bangs covers the errors, pp. 413-17.
19 Nathan Bangs, A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 12th ed., 4 vols. (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1860), III, 105-7.
20 On Methodist efforts in higher education and the distribution, purposes, curricula, finances and prospects of the early colleges and academies, in addition to Moats and a contemporary statement in Christian Advocate, II, June 13, 1828, 162-63, see Robert H. Conn with Michael Nickerson, United Methodists and Their Colleges, foreword by F. Thomas Trotter (Nashville: United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 1989); A. W. Cummings, The Early Schools of Methodism (New York: Phillips & Hunt, 1886); Merrimon Cuninggim, Uneasy Partners: The College and the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
21 “Christian Education,” The Works of Stephen Olin, D. D., LL.D., Late President of the Wesleyan University (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1852), II, 240-53. Citations from 249 and 251.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, FALL 2006, VOL. 6, #2.
The Institute for Reformed Theology is an Associated Program of
Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia
All materials on this site are © The Institute for Reformed Theology, unless otherwise noted.