ON HOPE FOR METHODISM -
A TESTIMONY (PART 1)
By Dr. Riley B. Case
A week or two after I was born, I was carried into a Methodist Church and that is where I have been all of my life. Most of my growing up years were spent in LaGrange, Indiana (pop. 1,892) in a county-seat Methodist Church. That meant, for those not acquainted with the Midwest, that our church was the prestigious church in the county. Doctors and lawyers attended there; poor people, not so much. We followed the Methodist way: official hymnal, official Sunday school material, good choir, and pastors who were graduates of Boston (though an Asbury grad sneaked in once). We observed Race Relations Sunday and Rural Life Sunday and delivered Christmas baskets to those less fortunate. Our pastors were recognized on Main Street and respected in the community.
I was quite happy there and was a most loyal Methodist. I never missed Sunday School and/or church even once for the first twenty years of my life. I garnered all of the Cokesbury perfect attendance Sunday school pins that were available. I remember the church’s Every Member Canvass when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade. My father had set me up in the chicken raising business, so I had my own income. I knew what a tithe was, 10%, but the preacher or someone had explained the tithe was what was expected; a true offering was “beyond that.” I figured carefully. I wanted to go “beyond that.” I filled out the card: 25 cents a week, $3.25 a quarter, $13 a year, all on the red side on the envelope for Church World Service which I believed to be missions. After I filled out my card my father looked at it a long time, then said: “That’s a lot, son. You don’t need to do that.” I don’t remember the exact response, but it was to the effect that I did need to do that because it was for God and the church.
Mine was an idyllic childhood. In those days we were not distracted by television or social media. My friends and I explored the whole town and the surrounding area; we fought and won World War II in the pasture; we formed clubs and built huts. When I was a little older, I had a paper route. My area was on the other side of the tracks, meaning that the people on my route were not Methodists. Can a small town be guilty of classism? Of course. I sensed it after spending quite a bit of time with one of my poorest customers. Maude was old and crippled. She shared with me she lived on $18 a month which was what welfare gave her. I knew she needed God. She needed to be in church. Then the horrible truth hit me: it wouldn’t work. People like Maude would not come to the Methodist Church.
I had religious influences other than Methodist in those days. My mother’s name was on the Methodist membership roll but in her heart, she was Mennonite. Not just Mennonite but fundamentalist Mennonite. Not just fundamentalist Mennonite but dispensational fundamentalist Mennonite. In our home, we listened to Moody radio and read magazines like Christian Life and Moody Monthly, and The King’s Business. We attended the Winona Lake Bible Conference in the summer.
Mother was not pleased with the Methodist Sunday school material. There was a lot about being kind to one another but not much about King Saul slewing the Amalekites. She, I am sure, had not read Ethel Smither’s The Use of the Bible with Children (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1937), approved and official for the M.E. Church, but she well knew what the book was about. The “official” teaching of the Board of Education was that in the modern-day, life experiences were to be emphasized and not the rote memorizing of Bible verses. Old Testament and many Bible stories should not be told because the children would take them literally and they would have to be unlearned later.
Partly for that reason at age four, my parents shipped me and my sisters off for five weeks to stay with my aunt so we could attend Berne, Indiana (Mother’s hometown--pop. 2,075) community Bible school. There, along with 700 other kids, we violated every principle of the M.E. official educational philosophy. For five weeks each summer until the 10th grade, we memorized not just verses but whole passages in the King James version of the Bible. We took courses like the “Journeys of Paul” and sang about the blood of Jesus. Evidently, no one had bothered to tell people in Berne that the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was over, and the Fundamentalists had lost.
I attended Taylor University, a Methodist holiness background college with a rather unusual relationship with our North Indiana Conference. According to one report during one period of time, fully one-third of the ministers in our conference had at one time or another attended Taylor. Taylor was not officially approved by the Methodist University Senate (it being conservative) but was nevertheless given financial support from the conference (until the 1968 merger). In those years about ten to twenty students at any one time were serving student appointments in Methodist churches. At Taylor, we debated modernism, holiness, Calvinism, and the advantages and disadvantages of urban versus rural living. I met my future wife, Ruth, and was called to Methodist ministry there.
After Taylor came Garrett Seminary. My first week at Garrett I also took my first appointment, a three-point charge in Adams County, Indiana (on the Ohio line). At that time, in the 1950s, Taylor supplied more students for Garrett than any other college (it would range in the 30s as I remember). That meant a number of my Taylor friends were also serving churches. That translated into carpools where we solved problems of Methodism and the world. That first year may have been the most exciting year of my ministry. I got married. Soon, my wife, Ruth was teaching school in Ohio, I was attending seminary in Illinois and serving a full-time appointment of three churches in Indiana. My churches were in the Methodist holiness tradition. That meant church life consisted of revivals, prayer meetings, pound showers (bring a pound of something for the parsonage family), Bible studies, and pastoral visits (I made 300 calls my first year).
The Board of Ordained Ministry in my first interview showed some concern lest I should be in some kind of trouble because, they well knew, my circuit world and the seminary world were basically two different universes. I was bemused by one remark, “They’re not really Methodist churches, you know.” I might have argued (though I did not) that my churches were much more Methodist than the seminary. In the seminary we never discussed some old Methodist issues like Sin in Believers and Imparted versus Imputed Righteousness. In seminary, we did not take seriously the General Rules. People in my churches did: some not only opposed alcohol and tobacco and dancing, but they also still disdained jewelry.
If the churches were “not really Methodist” it was because they did not use Methodist Sunday school material or the Methodist hymnal. Two of the churches used the Lillenas (Nazarene) hymnal. That was, from an institutional point of view, a no-no. Years later I analyzed the hymnal and compared it with the 1935 official Methodist hymnal. The Methodist hymnal was fine. I grew up with it. But it had more Anglican hymn writers than Methodist; it had more Unitarian hymn-writers than Methodist. In the Nazarene hymnal, there were four times more American Methodist hymn-writers than in the official Methodist hymnal. A few songs not in the Methodist hymnal: “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Victory in Jesus,” “The Cleansing Wave” (by Phoebe Palmer, the advocate for women in ministry), “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” “Lord, Send the Old-time Power,” “I’m pressing on the Upward Way,” “There’s Within My Heart a Melody” Years later, when I was a consultant on the Hymnal Revision Committee of 1988, I would make the argument that there was no reason why the official hymnal should leave out the hymns that ordinary United Methodists are actually singing, especially since most of those were composed by Methodists.
Seminary was stimulating and my experience there was positive, but there were some disappointments. The seminary prided itself for being broadminded (“diverse” would be the word today), but theologically and politically it was restrictive and narrow. In one straw poll, 88% of the faculty identified as Democrats. There was no conservative or fundamentalist or Pentecostal or evangelical presence on campus. When Billy Graham was in Chicago and some of us asked if the seminary might invite him to speak, the president made it clear why we would not (“We do not intend to identify with that kind of Christianity”).
Despite all of this the professors and students were supportive and encouraging. The other clergy in our conference, liberals and conservatives, pastors from large churches or small, were supportive and encouraging. Our district and conference programs, mission saturation, camping, youth, were widely supported. Annual conference sessions were a blessing. I served eight different churches (three circuits) in my first twelve years of ministry. All grew in attendance and membership. Those were “super days.” It is sad to realize that many clergy of today have never experienced Methodist conferences that are alive and growing.
There is more to my personal testimony but this is enough, for now, to contrast that time with the present. We are no longer living in “super days.” We have suffered fifty straight years of membership decline. Despite all the sermons preached by bishops and other leaders on the theme of unity, our unity has disintegrated. We are hopelessly divided these days to the point of ugliness and lack of civility. We can discuss and debate why this is so, but it is probably more helpful to consider the next steps. For a great many the most hopeful next step is a plan called the Protocol, worked out by persons from different points of view. This plan calls, on the one hand, for a new expression of Methodism which will be known as the Global Methodist Church. It would continue traditional and historic Methodist doctrine and standards. On the other hand there would be a post-division version of the present United Methodist Church which, it can be assumed, would be free to adjust doctrines and moral standards more in accord with the secular culture and the modern-day.
The next article will discuss Methodism of the 1970s.