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BOOK REVIEW: Tracking the rise and fall of Methodism in America Thomas S. Kidd, Mar 20, 2012
By Thomas S. Kidd Special Contributor
Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century Mark Tooley Bristol House, 2012 Hardcover, 406 pages
The Methodist Church’s rise and recent decline is perhaps the most statistically striking story in American religious history.
At the time of the American Revolution, the denomination was tiny. English Methodist founder John Wesley was hostile toward American independence, which badly hampered the church’s growth in America. After the Revolution, the American church began to operate independently from English Methodists. The legendary Methodist “circuit riders” began reaching the American backcountry, riding on horseback to reach every nook and cranny of the Appalachian frontier and Mississippi River Valley. In 1770, there were about 20 Methodist churches in America. By 1860 that number had grown to more than 19,000.
Methodist growth in America continued into the post-World War II era, reaching a high point of 11 million members in the 1960s. But in the past 40 years, as with all of America’s “mainline” denominations, Methodist membership numbers went into free-fall, to a current membership total of 7.6 million. Even as the total number of Americans skyrocketed, the number of Methodists plummeted.
The complex story of Methodism’s decline is explained partly by the denomination’s official political positions that have closely aligned with those of the American left. This century-long story is told in Mark Tooley’s closely researched new book, Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century.
Mr. Tooley is the president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy, which seeks to promote renewal in mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church.
Reading Mr. Tooley’s history, one is struck by the desultory quality of the Methodist Church’s political choices over the past century. Bishops reacted to one world crisis after another with lagging responses that often appeared designed to please political allies. Even occasional dalliances with communism (both Soviet and Chinese) were, at the time, regarded as prophetic and forward thinking. Now they seem shockingly shortsighted.
Mr. Tooley demonstrates the perils of a church trying to maintain its prophetic edge through political advocacy. The church’s primary business, of course, should never be contemporary politics. Confessing that Jesus is Lord has always had political ramifications, but aligning that confession too closely with specific powers of this world often leads to the church being exploited as a political tool and ultimately abandoned when the tool is no longer necessary.
Mr. Tooley shows that the Methodists’ high point of political power came in enacting what became the great failed policy of Prohibition. For the better part of the past century, some in the Methodist hierarchy have been scrambling to recover that lost political influence.
Being accepted by political authorities is always a tantalizing prospect, but it often comes with a price of distraction from the church’s main business. Methodists, Mr. Tooley shows, sometimes cautioned themselves about this tension. The 1972 General Conference of the United Methodists warned that churches were often devoting entire Sundays to organizing political demonstrations, discussing “the next election, or the most recent word from the high priests of ecology,” with nary a mention “of divine pardon, or of holiness of life, or of the world to come.” Yet the American Methodist slide only accelerated after 1972.
Many individual congregations did not adopt an overtly political emphasis, and many local Methodists have felt alienated from the national denomination’s priorities. And of course there are individual Methodist congregations in America that are thriving. Among the common features of these churches are gospel preaching of a sort that John Wesley would recognize, and robust strategies of outreach that would please the old circuit riders.
An overemphasis on politics is certainly not the exclusive cause of shrinking numbers in Methodist churches. Other contributing factors might include theological (not just political) liberalism, the marginalization of intentional Christian commitment at flagship Methodist universities, and various other struggles common to churches across the theological spectrum, such as aging membership and competition from non-denominational megachurches.
The overall situation of the Methodist Church looks quite different in global perspective, however. United Methodists are growing in other parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. On any given Sunday, there are probably more people in Methodist churches of the Congo than in America.
The surging strength of African churches, which are overwhelmingly conservative in theology, has begun to change the character of United Methodist General Conference meetings—the quadrennial global assemblies of the denomination’s leaders (the next one is slated for April in Tampa). The growing number of African delegates is one of the main reasons that Methodists have not yet endorsed ordaining homosexual pastors or blessing homosexual unions. And those regions of the U.S. that have seen the strongest support for normalizing homosexuality within the church have also lost members the fastest.
The American Methodists’ experience of decline is a cautionary tale for all churches, including conservative ones. Evangelical church membership in America today is only holding steady, at best, and we may well look back in a generation and see a story of American evangelical decline similar to that which the mainline churches have experienced in the last 40 years.
Especially those evangelical churches that position themselves effectively as a wing of the Republican Party might expect the same descent as the mainline. Obviously, there are politically-relevant doctrines concerning the biblical view of life, marriage and sexuality that remain essential for evangelical Christian teaching. But seeking to fulfill the church’s mission primarily through political advocacy appears to be a key historic ingredient in denominational decline.
Dr. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University and is Senior Fellow at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. This review first appeared on Patheos.com.