Merry Christmas from Wesley Bros Comics! Now let’s learn some Methodist history!
Methodism was originally a preaching and small groups revival movement within the Church of England. The goal was to promote social holiness throughout the land, where people no longer just had a form of religion, but a passion for God that changed the way they lived together. John Wesley took some of the best ideas of the time to create a brilliant organization for small groups and preaching ministry that stamped his style on everything.
Methodism really took off in the American colonies, especially as a missionary movement, with Methodist preachers pressing into the wilderness where no one else would go. The problem was that these were not ordained Anglican priests who could administer the sacraments, but laity trained to preach John Wesley-style and establish Wesley-style small groups. The problem became even MORE of an issue when the American Revolution essentially kicked the Church of England out of America, so American Methodism needed a new paradigm. Most of the Church of England clergy in America remained loyal to England, so they weren’t very popular among the newly freed patriots. The Episcopal Church was “born,” so to speak, as the American version of the Anglican Church in light of the Revolution. Read an awesome article on Anglicans/Episcopalians by my colleague Jordan Hylden here.
Charles Wesley had always adamantly insisted that Methodism must never separate from the Church of England…it was only meant to be a revival movement within the existing structure of Anglicanism. But John saw that the movement had really transformed and taken off in unexpected ways in America. John tried to get the London Bishop to ordain a Bishop for America, but after all the politics of the Revolution, it just wasn’t gonna happen. John was not willing to let the Methodist movement spiral out of his control, so he took action. Without any authority to do so, he ordained two of his most trusted lay preachers and sent them to America. Thomas Coke, a five-foot-tall Anglican priest, had been groomed to succeed Wesley as leader of the Methodist movement. As his most trusted leader, Wesley (without any authority to do so) ordained Coke to be the Methodist bishop of America, and commissioned him to do the same to Francis Asbury when he got to America.
Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury gathered up the American Methodist preachers at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore, MD (conveniently located a block from Camden Yards). They met for 10 days at the end of 1784, known as The Christmas Conference, where Coke fast-tracked Asbury’s ordination with the voted approval of the assembly (deacon one day, elder the next, bishop the next). Coke then ordained 12 other preachers, and the assembly voted to reduce the 39 Articles of the Church of England to John Wesley’s version (eliminating the nasty Calvinist bits), and adding one more article about civic duties to the newly founded America. God and country! The spirit of democracy and republican government continued as they approved all of Wesley’s how-to-be-a-Methodist stuff and made it into the first Book of Discipline. This meeting set a precedent for how the American Methodist church would now operate, and the General Conference met every four years since.
Joking about conflating American and Christian values together was fun for me. Especially Santa Jesus riding on an eagle blessing John Wesley. But I’ve been thinking a lot about political polarization in America. You know, how being Republican or Democrat now means only the most extreme versions of those parties. There’s no room for bipartisanship in the government anymore, there’s no room for working together, because that’s seen as a sign of weakening your extreme values. Extreme partisanship has become an American value, but it is not a Wesleyan value. This Pragmatic Four series has tried to challenge the polarity in our churches and the infuriating majority vote fast-tracking of decisions at the expense of theological conversation. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
‘Murica Rismus, and a Happy New Year!