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Methodist History
July 13, 1969

In a recent Circle meeting here at Aldersgate, I don't know how we got into the matter, but I asked how many were homegrown Methodists. How many were born and raised Methodist? There were fourteen  ladies there and with me there were fifteen of us. I think you'd be surprised how many were native—three, only three of the 15. One of the other ladies was a former EUB, Evangelical United Brethren. We are all United Methodists now so we can say four out of the fifteen are native Methodists, which demonstrates, I suppose, how ecumenical Aldersgate is and maybe how ecumenical all of the denominations are becoming today. It may be interesting to see this morning how many of you were born and raised Methodist? Well, not even half, less than half.

I am among those who didn't raise their hands. I'm not a home grown Methodist either nor is my wife. They say that converts are often more enthusiastic than the second and third generations. But Methodist history has also been very interesting to me as I try to understand what is this church of which I am now a part. What is our heritage in which we have become converts along with those of you who have always been Methodist, just what is it about our Methodist Church that makes it such a great church? Many of us need to learn the history of our church. We need to appreciate the heritage which is ours as we try to understand our place in history, as we try to appropriate all that has happened in the past that has made us what we are today. Also, we need to understand our heritage and our history, to gain a perspective from which we operate in the present day and age and actually go into the future.

The United Methodist Church has a very glorious and exciting history. Our spiritual forefathers had a tremendous spirit, a spirit we cannot afford to lose both as Aldersgate and as our denomination. As we take something with us into the whole Ecumenical Movement, our forefathers had a tremendous spirit which we cannot lose, which we need to recapture today and for the future. This is also an opportune time to claim the past. We've just completed a merger in Minnesota and across the country. We have become The United Methodist Church. The General Conference has adopted a slogan for the next four years—“A New Church for a New World.” It is an ideal that our church holds up before us as we become a new church for a new world.

But my sermon this morning pleads with us that as we seek to make a new church, let us regain the old spirit which brought us to this day. The United Methodist Church has never lived longingly in the past, it has always striven to go forward. It has always accepted and faced the crises of the day with a tremendous spirit. We have always been a forward moving church. The call is not to go backwards, but to look backwards for strength and for inspiration, which will help us to go forward. So today for the benefit of all newcomers and for the benefit of you old timers, let us look at the United Methodist Church to appreciate and aspire for the crises in this new world to which we must minister today. Let us continually make a new church but let us keep the old spirit.

Let's look at three challenges that our church had to face. The first major challenge that faced Methodism was in the early 1800s in the United States when a phenomenon called the revival movement hit this nation. Never before seen in the history of Christianity was there such a thing as the revival movement of the early 1800s. It swept across the frontier with a phenomenon of religion and extreme emotionalism. Throngs of people gathered in camp meetings, tent meetings. They came for weeks at a time. They would mutually exhort each other to such a such a pitch that they would shriek and scream. They would fall down and holler all night long crying for mercy.

There were many reasons for this excessive outburst. The reason the historians tell us is connected to the situation of that day, the frontier mind. The frontiersmen lived in fear, in constant fear out there all by themselves in the woods, fear that their crops would fail, fear that some disease would kill the family, fear of the wild animals, fear of the Indians. They were separated from companionship. When it came time for the camp meeting, they would come from miles around. They would gain emotional release and companionship with one another. The frontiersmen were uneducated and couldn't understand the deep truths of the Bible, but they did respond to emotionalism and they did get emotional wisdom from the preachers who were equally uneducated. There were two side effects of the revival movement which, in my opinion, harmed and hurt Protestantism.

The first side effect was schism. The denominations split over and over again. Self-appointed leaders, because they were able to work people up to emotional frenzies claimed they were called by God to start a new movement. Leaders disagreed over the value of the revivals as people followed self-appointed leaders. The Presbyterian Church lost strength at this time as they split into several denominations. The Congregational Church split. Those who strongly opposed revivalism withdrew, adopted an academic approach and became the Unitarian Church of today. The Baptist Church split over and over again, and even today, there are scores of denominations.

There was another side effect. The revival movement led to the uprising of many sect movements. Never before seen in Christianity, radical sects flourished. We think we have them today; they had them way back in the 1800s. These radical movements developed in the burnt over revival area where the people had been stirred with the outpouring of emotionalism but with little theological depth and understanding. So they followed some self-appointed quack, anyone that had the earmarks of a leader. Communal groups developed with wide extremes. On the one hand, there were those who practiced polygamy and free love. We think that's a new phenomenon. On the other hand, there were those who didn’t believe in practicing sex at all, They died out! Some of the groups stabilized over the years, subdued their radical beginning and have become respectable and great churches—Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons.

Into this situation, into this challenge came Methodism. Methodism only came to this country in 1767. It was just barely beginning to get organized as a church when this revival movement hit the country. How the leaders responded to the challenge helped make our church a very great church. Our early leaders were able to take the good points of the revival movement and control the evil points. They avoided schism. They avoided radical expression and came out a very strong church. These early Methodists had two firm beliefs which are still with us and are still very much part of our Methodist Church.

Number one, they believed strongly in the episcopal form of government. They believed in organizing people together into groups and putting a minister over them who was under a district superintendent who was likewise under a bishop. But it was democratic in that a Conference made up of all the ministers ruled the bishop. It was a strict form of discipline and control, which we still have, and kept the early frontiersmen on the straight and narrow path that kept them from falling into the pit.

Second, these early Methodists had a very firm belief in education. They believed in educating people in the Bible as well as educating them in reading and writing. The early Methodists were largely responsible for the Sunday School movement. Many Methodist churches began as a Sunday School in rural communities. This firm belief in education led to the forming of schools when there weren’t any. The church built  schools wherever there was a need. Just in the United States alone today eight universities came out of Methodism, and are still related to Methodism—American University, Boston, Duke, Emory, Northwestern, Southern Methodist, Syracuse, and Denver University—great institutions. Also we have 14 seminaries, 82 colleges, 21 junior colleges and 17 parochial high schools, most of which are mission schools in mountain areas—all in the United States. Our early leaders controlled the revivalist movement with their emphasis on discipline, organization and education, but at the same time, they were able to retain the enthusiasm. The camp meeting, tent meeting and revival services became a very important part of the Methodist Church. Warmth and the call to Christian discipleship have always been a part of our church, and this great spirit we need to reclaim.


A second challenge that faced our church, which almost ruined our church, was the slavery question and the Civil War. It wasn’t long in Methodist history before the northern Methodists were strongly opposed to slavery and the southern Methodists were strongly in favor of states’ rights. A slaveholding Methodist Bishop in the south was a strong voice at the time. Twenty years before the nation divided, the Methodist Church divided itself and became two separate denominations. This situation became very bad; they fought among themselves and even went to court to solve property questions. When the war came, each church strongly supported its government. President Abraham Lincoln said of the northern Methodist Church, “The Methodist Church sent more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the camps, and more prayers to heaven than any other church.” After the war, and after all wars, the church was severely hurt as well as the country. Wars are followed by immorality, loose living and a breakdown of life. This was certainly true at the end of the Civil War. The northern church lost 67,000 members. Spiritual life was hurt. To this challenge that faced our country and our church, our spiritual forefathers faced the challenge with a tremendous spirit.

When 1866 rolled around they planned an annual celebration. Each conference was encouraged to hold a series of services and each local church was encouraged to hold a series of revivals to deepen the spiritual life of members, to reach out and bring in new members, and of course, to have a special offering! The general church encouraged, hoped and held as an ideal that $2 million would be raised across the country. But so gracious was the moving of the Holy Spirit in that campaign, the people responded not with $2 million but with $9 million—a lot of money in those days! With that $9 million the church did three tremendous things.

First, they formed a Church Extension Society to found and build new churches. Minnesota Methodism grew out of this Extension Society. Spreading across the west, churches were built on almost every corner wherever there were people. Second, a Freeman’s Aid Society was established to help freed slaves with education and socialization. Third, they formed a Board of Education to help build many colleges. This tremendous outpouring of enthusiasm put the Methodists back on the road.

Then they set their efforts to reunite after the Civil War. They must have have had a lot of committee meetings because it didn't occur until 1939 when they finally reunited to form The Methodist Church. Another merger which has occurred just now brought the German speaking Methodist churches and the English speaking together to form The United Methodist Church.

A third challenge to face Methodism, and again demonstrating the tremendous spirit and the desire to move forward, was the challenge of “westward ho”. As the eastern population packed their belongings into covered wagons and started off to the west, the Methodist circuit rider accompanied and preceded them. The Methodists were among the first in all these communities, except for those of nationalist or religious origin. Wherever there were people, there was a Methodist preacher and a Sunday School. The frontier was helped much by early Methodists. They led the fight against the wild cowboys. They helped tame the town. They helped throw out liquor and gambling and so forth. They helped bring civilization to the wild, wild west.

The father of Minnesota Methodism—this is an interesting story for me—was Charles Hobart who became Presiding Elder (now called a district superintendent) of the Minnesota District of the Wisconsin Conference in 1849. He was a circuit rider here in Minnesota. In his autobiography he described, he gave a job analysis of a circuit rider, “I traveled in almost every way by stage, oxcart, buggy, walking, fording, swimming, steamboat, on a barge, on a raft, in a skiff, by canoe. In short, by any way in which I could reach my appointment and preach the word of life to people and build up the church. I journeyed and labored, preaching in our one church in St. Paul, in school houses, hotels, private homes, barns, groves, sawmills, and every place in which I could get a congregation together. I delivered the whole counsel of God.” This was the beginning of Methodism in Minnesota. The circuit rider had a 50/50 chance of living beyond the age of 30. Only one circuit rider in three worked longer than 12 years before he died. For this he was paid $100 a year and $200 if he were married.

This is the kind of spirit in which the United Methodist Church was established. I am proud to be a convert to this church and I accept this heritage as mine. Three challenges—revivalism, Civil War and the frontier—faced our early leaders but they didn't choose the status quo. They didn't choose to operate as they had in the past, as did some of the other denominations who ended up very weak. Methodists have never looked backward for anything but inspiration. With a tremendous spirit, they came on victorious. I believe America is a better nation because of what our church has been in the past, and I believe America can become an even better nation if we recapture this kind of spirit and minister again as did our forefathers. Our church faces a different world than the early Methodists faced. We are facing crises which mankind must solve—international relations, nuclear warfare, population explosion, poverty, revolution, human relations. It’s a tremendous challenge for us but we can move ahead. We can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, with God leading us, respond to these challenges and become a new church if we could capture this old spirit. It can be done as it has been done in the past.

Let us pray and dedicate ourselves to making it happen. Father, we thank you for the heritage which is ours as United Methodists. May we be true to the spirit of our forefathers who depended and relied entirely upon you, who prayed for your spirit, who looked not backward but ahead, who accepted the challenges and went forth in all power. Dear God, bless our Aldersgate Church. Bless our United Methodist Church across this country and across the world. Make us great for the sake of Jesus Christ.

© 1969 Douglas I. Norris