IS THERE A METHODIST MORALITY?
By Riley Case
In 1891 H.H. Moore had a book published entitled
The Republic to Methodism, Dr.
Moore makes some rather extravagant claims about the greatness of Methodism as a major contributor to America’s greatness. He quotes Adam Clarke who late in life reportedly wrote to Methodist friends in America, “As I believe your Nation to be destined to be the weightiest and happiest Nation on the globe, so I believe that your Church is likely to become the most extensive and pure in the universe.” For Moore the key to America’s greatness was not in its political system or its economic system but in its moral system. In his chapter on the Methodist moral vision Moore comments:
The keynote of its preaching being repentance, a complete and absolute reformation of life, attended by a spiritual regeneration of the heart, to be followed by holy living, no agency could have been devised which was better adapted to promote the morals of the Nation than Methodism.
Religion was not faring well in America following the Revolutionary War and before Methodism came on the scene. Only one in ten Americans was a church member. A growing deism was replacing orthodox Christianity in the 10% who were church members. The “West,” the land beyond the Appalachians, was known as lawless territory. When the Methodists organized in 1784 they were instructed they had nothing to do but to save souls. They were also charged to reform the nation. And so they did, not from any position of privilege but as people on the fringe, the underclass. In the West they did not react to any prevailing religious culture because there was no prevailing religious culture, except what the Methodists themselves preached and lived. What they preached were the Wesleyan essentials: original sin, the blood atonement, salvation by grace and sanctification. What they lived was from a moral vision based on Wesley’s General Rules. They were to do no harm, which was detailed as not taking God’s name in vain, not profaning the day of the Lord, no involvement with spirituous liquors, no slaveholding, fighting, or unlawful interest, no unprofitable conversation, no putting on gold and costly apparel, no singing songs not to the glory of God, no laying up treasure on earth. It went without saying that they upheld the sanctity of the home.
Methodists during the 19
century were urged to live separate from the world. They were counter-cultural. In the early part of the century Methodists were instructed to seek out the poor and the people others overlooked. Methodists were the first to reach African-Americans for Christ. By 1820 20% of Methodists were African-American. Methodists were encouraged to avoid extravagance in their church buildings. In the 1850 census the property value of their churches (per church) ranked lowest of all the denominations.
In the M.E.
of Moore’s time, Methodist members could be tried for behavior such as immoral conduct, alcohol or cooperating in any way with persons or businesses who used alcohol, dancing, playing at games of chance, attending theaters, horse races, circuses, dancing parties or patronizing dancing schools, or taking of any other amusements that are obviously of questionable moral tendency. The sexual standards of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage were so much assumed they are not even mentioned in the accounting of Methodism’s moral vision. Moore has a whole chapter on the Temperance Movement (for Methodists “temperance” at that time meant abstinence) and Methodism’s major role in the crusade against alcohol.
By United Methodist standards of today, Methodists of that era were hardly accepting of all points of view and behaviors. In early years Methodists needed tickets for their love feasts and at times not all persons qualified. Members were removed from membership for moral lapses. Methodists were often criticized for their strictness. But it might be noted, Methodists in the North at that time represented 18% of all religious adherents in America, twice as many as Baptists. That is approximately four times the percentage of United Methodist adherents today.
Things changed rapidly for Methodists in the 1900s despite the fact that Methodism carried its moral vision for a long time. In my earliest churches in the 1950s I had members who did not believe anyone who used alcohol would go to heaven. They dressed simply and a few disdained make-up. They resisted dancing and movies. That would change, of course, but until 1968 when the new United Methodist Church took out prohibitions against smoking and drinking for clergy, we still had our youth signing total abstinence pledges. I remember the year when I was helping with our senior high youth camp that a seminary student, hired for the summer, questioned me about our “Commitment Night.” What was it about? It was the time during the week when youth were given opportunity to make “commitments,” to receive Christ, to respond to a call to ministry, to live totally for God. He commented that modern-day youth no longer responded to ideas like “commitment.” It was “restraining” and in conflict with “freedom.” What if one later in life chose not to be a Christian, or not to abstain from alcohol? At the time our conference was enrolling 3,000 senior high youth each summer.
A question worth asking is what United Methodism’s moral vision is for today. One view is that of Bishop John Schol. After the General Conference of 2019 Schol spoke to his New Jersey Conference on the importance of “mission,” which he defined in part as…”fighting discrimination in all forms.” He went on to comment that concern for the LGBTQ community should not lessen “our commitment to change hearts and minds so that we end prejudices, oppression, sexism, racism and privilege.”
Do we in the church today define our mission and our purpose and our moral vision without reference to winning persons to Jesus Christ, with no mention of living holy and Spirit-filled lives? Is our moral vision only that of sociological and political and economic goals? If so why do we even need Jesus Christ?
Book of Resolutions
illustrates our problem. In 873 pages the
Book of Resolutions
elaborates positions (visions?) on numbers of significant (and not so significant) issues of our day. It should be mentioned that these “positions” are for the most part not the bottom-up convictions of ordinary Methodists, as they were 200 years ago, but are top-down declarations penned by social activist professionals offering assured answers to complex social, economic and political problems. What is noticeably absent are concerns of our Methodist forbearers. So there are next to no statements on personal Holiness or Family Worship or Prayer or keeping the Sabbath Day or being Spirit-filled or simple living. One has to search to find a supporting statement on behalf of total abstinence. There are, however, 19 resolutions on racism, 19 resolutions on Native Americans and 9 on “rights,” which cover just about all in our midst except for unborn children.
The secular trends of today reject outside moral authorities, whether church or society authorities. The trend is toward personal autonomy; the “self” as the measure of all things. Thus “experience” and “reason” (defined much differently from the way Wesley defined them) inform us of changing truth. There is no better example of this then in the present discussions over human sexuality. Progressives in our midst argue that they are responding to a higher power than the Bible or tradition or even the
Book of Discipline
in regard to new definitions of marriage and even matters of gender identification. Bishop Minerva Carcaño has stated that it is “time for the church to catch up with society, our sister mainline churches, and with God.”
The idea of the Self as the moral authority for today is no better illustrated than the bishops’ and progressives’ failed One Church Plan idea, where there was some assumed moral Way Forward which would be advanced by deleting all negative language in regard to the practice of homosexuality in the
so that individuals and churches could decide for themselves right and wrong. Persons could define for themselves what gender they wished to be, their own definitions for things like marriage and the rights society owes to them, and how and with whom and under what circumstances they wish to express their sexuality.
Meanwhile pollsters report that the overwhelming majority of Americans today believe America is in moral decline and that millennials believe that their children will be worse off than they are today. The trends are not promising. While 34% of American women’s first sexual union was outside of marriage in 1995 today the figure is 48%. 40% of children are born outside of marriage. 25 million porn sites operate globally. 71% of low-income families are headed by single parents. Sexual brokenness is everywhere about us. While Methodism once set the moral standards for the nation it now appears that the nation’s secular culture sets the moral standards for the church.
We have two or perhaps more than two different moral visions operating within United Methodism today. The differences are so great that it would seem best that we find ways to give each other space. In other words, it is time for some form of amicable separation. Either way, short of a great revival it will probably not be possible for United Methodism to set the moral tone for the nation as it once did. Our best witness will be that as a counter-cultural minority voice. But even then we believe God can bless that witness.