(Part Two of a four-part series on early American Methodism. To read Part One click here)
There was quite a stir on social media last year when Gallup published an article titled, “US Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time”.
Prior to the turn of the 21st century, membership in local houses of worship was remarkably steady.
In 1939, the first year of collecting data, 73% of Americans were members of a local church, synagogue, or mosque. By the year 2000, that percentage was virtually unchanged.
However, at the turn of the century, membership began to fall and has continued plummeting ever since.
It currently stands at 47%.
There are a number of factors for this drop in membership, and I’ve hypothesized a few causes in an article here. While these statistics are alarming, the situation facing Francis Asbury and the early Methodist missionaries was significantly worse.
A Changing World
Rodney Stark in his book The Churching of America: 1776-1990 discovered that in 1776 only 17% of the country was a member in a local church.This is thirty percentage points less than in 2022!
“It's safe to say that while most people walking around had some nebulous notion of God, many had never been in a church or were just vaguely Christian.”
This decline in church membership didn’t happen overnight.
The old world was ordered by deference, hierarchy, and patronage but with the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, it all began to crumble creating a divide between two very different worlds and an enormous challenge for Methodists in America.
Gordon S. Wood called the era that emerged after the end of the war in 1783, “the time of greatest religious chaos and originality in American history.”
Warfare had disrupted local congregations, dealt a harsh blow to the Episcopal church, and attacked the ties between the state and church in the colonies.
Interest in old world denominations and churches was at an all-time low. Many scholars believe that after the war church membership was even lower than 17%!
On the social front, scores of families began migrating to the frontier and borrowed heavily to finance new land purchases. This resulted in unparalleled debt and a growing increase in alcoholism, violence, and crime.
In addition, slavery remained a glaring evil contradicting the values of democracy.
In the late 18th century, established churches were dying, populations were more mobile, authority was suspect, division was rampant, addiction was high, and the gap between the rich and poor was widening.
There is much to learn from this season of American history.
The first characteristic of early American Methodism was Maverick Leadership. The second was a Missionary Spirit.
Missionaries must have the unique ability to exegete their culture and understand the broader beliefs, values, and dreams of a given society or group of people.
Like Wesley, Asbury had a deep passion to “spread Scriptural holiness over the land” but he also understood the contextual challenges of the new republic.
He answered these challenges with four key moves.
FIRST he pressed to separate American Methodism from British Methodism.
The Methodists remained a subset of the Church of England and were considered a threat to the patriot cause. John Wesley added fuel to the fire when he penned A Calm Address to Our American Colonies in 1775 tapping into an increasingly unsympathetic British sentiment toward the colonies.
The early leaders of the movement were also mischaracterized as interfering with the Continental Army by turning potential recruits into pacifist noncombatants.
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris and with Wesley’s blessing, Asbury formed the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, allowing the new movement to be freed from its parent organization across the Atlantic.
This was an important move as it helped curb the anti-British sentiment that plagued Methodism and provided Asbury the opportunity to develop something uniquely American.
SECOND he intentionally focused his efforts towards the frontier and the edges of society.
When he first arrived in the colonies in 1771, Asbury recognized the dominant approach and strategy of the early missionaries was to stay centralized in the settled cities, consolidating the movement into a few larger churches.
Asbury saw the need to move out into the countryside to those who lived on farms or small villages scattered across the vast landscape. This missionary mindset was summarized in the 1790 Conference where Asbury explained,
“Our grand plan, in all its parts, leads to an itinerant ministry. Our bishops are traveling bishops. All the different orders which compose our conferences are employed in the traveling line and our local preachers are, in some degree, traveling preachers. Everything is kept moving as far as possible…”
Asbury pushed his mavericks to abandon the settled cities in order to seek lost people in the dangerous “Wild West” of the frontier.
THIRD, he rapidly mobilized everyday evangelists and recruited traveling preachers from among the people.
Workers were trained in the field.
The average traveling preacher (maverick leader) wasn’t a Yale or Harvard graduate but from among the people they were trying to reach. Although they lacked the formal education of ministers from other denominations, they possessed better “field smarts” and a quicker wit.
Their language, humor, biting sarcasm, and commonsense reasoning appealed to the uneducated and average person. They seemed immune to hungering and thirsting for fashionable and refined Christianity.
Wesley is often quoted as promoting “plain truth for plain people” and this was certainly the case in America. Asbury was leading a cultural transformation from below, not a political or ecclesiastical program imposed on the masses from above.
This idea resonated well with the uprising of the Revolution, a war that ultimately threw off the authoritarian shackles of England.
FOURTH, he emphasized a Wesleyan-Arminian theology that stood in stark contrast to other denominations.
Methodist theology stood in contrast to the religious establishment and dominant Calvinism of its day by stressing individual responsibility. This message resonated with ordinary Americans trying to seize control of their social, economic, and spiritual destinies.
The rejection of Calvinist theology was a sweeping critique of long-dominant social structures and cultural conventions. To the leaders of populist religious movements like the Methodists, “Nothing represented ecclesiastical tyranny more than the Calvinist clergy with their zeal for theological systems, doctrinal correctness, organizational control, and cultural influence.”
The Methodists of old possessed a missionary spirit that contextualized the gospel and passionately sought to reach the lost. In doing so, they created something new.
Congregational, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches on the other hand dug in their heels in an effort to stem the changes in culture and steadily lost favor.
In 1776, the Congregationalists and Presbyterians claimed almost half of all religious adherents, but by 1850 that number had dwindled to 7.5%.
Without the rise of the Methodists, Baptists, and other new expressions of the faith, Christianity in America would have continued its decline throughout the 19th century.
In 2022 we face similar challenges.
Membership is declining, many established denominations are struggling, the culture is changing, and a new missionary spirit is needed.
What might the history of the greatest church-planting movement in America teach us today?
Perhaps we need to do a better job of organizing local, indigenous structures that create new wineskins for the gospel.
Perhaps we need to spend greater time prioritizing ministry to “the edges” of society by raising up more pioneers for the “new frontier”.
Perhaps we need to reconsider how we train emerging ministers and the role of the Academy.
Perhaps we need to revisit and reiterate where our optimistic, grace-filled theology intersects with the current cultural moment.
One thing is certain.
The static institutions of the old-world churches were no match for the Missionary Spirit of the early American Methodists. Not only did their Maverick Leaders pioneer through great sacrifice, but they were also able to contextualize the gospel for a post-war culture, and create something truly unique in American history.
Next week we will explore the Miraculous Signs of Methodism and after that, the Methodist System and well-disciplined army that became a hallmark of this movement.
Stark, R & Finke, R. (2005). The Churching of America 1776-2005: The Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Hatch, N. (1989). Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.3.
Wood, G. (1974) The Democratization of Mind in the American Revolution. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press, p.64.
Wigger, J. (1998). Taking heaven by storm: Methodism and the rise of popular Christianity in America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, p.33.
Hatch, N. (1989). Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.170.
Hempton, D. (2005). Methodism: Empire of the Spirit. New Haven, CT: Yale Press. p. 109.
+1 onto Dr Hallett’s comment, Jon; truly eye-opening stuff.
Jon, thanks for this excellent historical background!