April 4, 2017

Whence Methodist Liberalism?

When did United Methodism become theologically liberal? Many assume only recently, in their own lifetimes, believing the church of their youth was different from today. Others are vaguely aware of the 1920s battles in Presbyterianism and among northern Baptists between modernists and traditionalists, which the later lost, but they are unaware of Methodist history.

The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism by James Heidinger, finally tells the story, dating Methodist liberal ascendancy to early in the 20th century, if not before. Yet Methodism, although the largest Mainline Protestant tradition, did not replicate the high profile battles of other denominations. Its transition away from orthodoxy in its upper reaches occurred mostly quietly, despite numerous public challenges across a century.

According to one historian, the “last fifteen years of the nineteenth century saw the theological leadership of American Methodism change hands almost completely.” Orthodoxy and creedalism became passé and even John Wesley became infrequently cited, often more for criticism than instruction.

Methodism’s last and perhaps only formal heresy trial was in 1904, by which time theological traditionalists had arguably already lost much of the church. Borden Parker Bowne, who had studied in France and Germany, began teaching at Methodism’s Boston University in 1876, eventually heading the graduate school of theology and shaping a generation of Methodist leaders for the 20th century across 34 years of teaching and through his 17 books.

Like other German-trained 19th century revisionist Protestant theologians, Bowne demythologized the Bible, denied the supernatural, reinterpreted Christianity into an ethical system, and proposed God’s Kingdom as a realizable political goal. As the famed philosopher William James observed: “See how the ancient spirit of Methodism evaporates under those wonderfully able rationalistic booklets . . . of a philosopher like Professor Bowne.”

Bowne was cited for denying the Trinity and biblical miracles, contravening Methodism’s ostensibly binding Articles of Religion, for which he was tried before fifteen members of his own New York East Conference, who unanimously acquitted him. Under similar charges, Bowne’s colleague at Boston University, Hinckley G. Mitchell, was censured in 1905 by his Central New York Conference and disapproved by the Board of Bishops. But the 1908 General Conference overturned his censure, by which time he was teaching at a Unitarian Universalist seminary.

In 1910 a writer in the Methodist Review articulated the new heterodox orthodoxy embodied by Mitchell and Bowne:

Creeds have had their day. They are no longer effective. Without doubt, they were well intended. Possibly they have done some good—they certainly have done much harm. The church has been loyal to her creeds, and has spent much good blood and splendid brains in the defense of them. All this was considered the very essence of Christianity. It was child’s play, as we now see it, and in some instances paganism. The revolt against creeds began in the lifetime of many now active in the work. The creeds are retired to the museums and labeled “Obsolete.”

Affirming Methodism’s Articles of Religion was no longer required for membership in 1916, and the Apostles Creed was dropped in 1932. But from the start, there were challenges to ascending Methodist liberalism, however ineffectual politically. A 1904 book called Methodist Theology vs. Methodist Theologians summarized the problem:

Sin is being treated as “un-evolved animalism.” Repentance is a mere change of one’s thinking. Regeneration is displaced by “evolution.” The witness of the Spirit is called “misguided emotion,” inspired by a legal and not a moral idea. . . . Everything distinctively Methodistic is being questioned and the system of theology which cleared the moral sky of thousands of Christians in other folds, is being declared not self-consistent by its own teachers. A spiritual dearth has come over us which can not be removed by liberal giving, nor explained away by the theory that this is a “transitional age,” or that we are “cleaning up the Church records,” or that the “trend of the times is towards ethics and sociology.”

Echoing this critique of Methodist liberalism was John Alfred Faulkner, who began teaching at Methodism’s School of Theology at Drew University in 1897. He wrote Modernism and the Christian Faith in 1921, which warned that German philosopher Albrecht Ritschl for many years had been replacing the influence of Methodism’s own founder:

Now, as a thorough carrying out of Ritschl’s principles would emasculate evangelical Christianity, especially the Methodist branch of it, it is not without reason that I have asked the question, Shall we leave Wesley for Ritschl?

Faulkner further complained:

In the Methodist sense there is no such thing as salvation in Ritschl; neither the word nor thing hardly occurs in his writings. Forgiveness occurs, and it means bringing home to a man the fact that God loves him, so that unburdened of any feeling of guilt he may mount up to an independent position in the kingdom of God.

New Jersey pastor Harold Paul Sloan, a Drew graduate, agreed with Faulkner, and organized clergy across Methodism to protest liberalism, especially in the Course of Study that trained most pastors before seminary was required. He logically deduced that if a “majority of the preachers of Methodism are taught contrary to the established standards of their church and Historic Christianity . . . it will be a matter but of a few years before the Church’s standards will be completely undermined.”

In 1925 Sloan founded the Methodist League for Faith and Life to “meet this Modernist current and drive which is threatening Methodism as the Unitarian drive did Congregationalism a hundred years ago.” At the 1928 General Conference he presented a petition with 10,000 signatures imploring a church investigation, but his pleas were drowned out by disapproving delegates. There was never to be a great Methodist legislative debate over modernism versus orthodoxy.

Methodist theologian Edwin Lewis, also of Drew, and formerly liberal, returned to orthodoxy and in the 1930s critiqued firmly ensconced modernism, through which the “Bible became nothing but ‘a great literature’; Jesus was looked upon as ‘the choicest blossom on the human stock’; man carried within himself the power of his own emancipation, and a properly controlled heredity, environment, and education would guarantee a perfect result.”

In his Christian Manifesto of 1934, Lewis observed:

For certainly as respects the repudiation of the supernatural, the denial of such great truths as revelation, incarnation, atonement, regeneration, and the like and the rejection of the right of Jesus Christ to universal homage, it is no longer possible to say that the church stands on this side and the world on that.

A leader of Methodist publishing responded to Lewis: “If I had to admit that man’s nature was essentially sinful, I could certainly not accept any redemption that might be offered.” And: “I could not bring myself to trust a Creator who had made me essentially wicked and then found it necessary to redeem me from that wickedness before he could count me worthy of his grace.

Theological liberalism’s rejection of orthodoxy’s stress on sin and salvation accompanied and fostered the rise of the Social Gospel, which confidently expected God’s Kingdom could be achieved through human progress. Methodism adopted its Social Creed in 1908, thanks to the Methodist Federation for Social Service, headed by Harry Ward, who later enthused in 1920: “It is doubtful if any period of human history, unless it was that immediately preceding the birth of Jesus, has known such a universal expectancy of the dawn of a new day.”

Ward was echoed in 1924 by eventual bishop Harris Franklin Rall: “We are coming to see more clearly each day that the kingdom of God means not simply new individuals but a new world, a new social order. It is this to which the prophets looked forward.” Earlier, in 1910, Ward’s fellow activist with the Methodist Federation for Social Service, Frank Mason North, had sweepingly opined:

For the conviction is becoming central in the Christian consciousness that Christ died not only for each man nor for all men, but for the race; that humanity is in a sense an organism, and that the rule of God means, not the rescue of a few from the mass, but the permeation of all human life with the spirit of Christ, the application of the principles of heaven to the affairs of earth, the actual demonstration of the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount in terms of the present life of men.

Theological modernism and the Social Gospel had swept the Methodist field by the 1930s, though Heidinger points out that both were movements of church elites, not most local church laity. The Good News movement for evangelical renewal within United Methodism, which Heidinger would later lead for nearly a quarter century, emerged in the 1960s to speak for the church’s “silent minority,” at least among clergy.

Methodist liberalism’s peak was in 1972, when the General Conference endorsed “theological pluralism” and began the open debate about homosexuality. Liberalism’s beginning of decline perhaps began in 1988, when the General Conference deleted “pluralism” for new theological standards based on the “primacy of Scripture.”

By the 1980s United Methodism was experiencing the growing influence of evangelical Asbury Seminary, which had been founded in 1923 by Henry Clay Morrison, a leader of Methodist holiness causes who had collaborated with Harold Paul Sloan. In 1920 Morrison declared:

We have many pastors today who have practically given up the orthodox faith; they do not hesitate to deny the inspiration of a very large portion of the Holy Scripture. They deny . . . the fall of man, the existence of original sin, the depravity of the race, the need of regeneration, [and] the future punishment of the wicked.

Morrison’s Asbury Seminary, committed to orthodox faith, now graduates more United Methodist ordinands than any official United Methodist seminary. The United Methodist seminary graduating the fewest is once mighty Boston School of Theology, which first introduced theological modernism into American Methodism in the late 19th century.

Heidinger conjectures that Methodism never convened a great debate over modernism versus orthodoxy, as other Mainline denominations did, because church elites were recovering from the divisions of the 1890s and early 1900s, when holiness and Pentecostal movements broke from Methodism. Bishops and General Conferences prioritized superficial institutional unity over open debate.

It’s not clear that open debate would have caused a very different result. Other liberalized Mainline denominations that debated have suffered similar declines in America. Ironically, Methodism is the most robust of all Mainline denominations, mostly thanks to growing overseas churches, but also due to Methodist evangelicals, once deemed irrelevant, but whose subculture persevered and revived.

Heidinger’s analysis and history of Methodist theological struggles, much of which he lived and shaped, is fascinating and instructive for all who love Methodism, or who simply strive to understand the dramas of American religion.


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12 Responses to Whence Methodist Liberalism?

  1. Dan says:

    An excellent article! I would like to posit that the seeds of Methodist liberalism were actually planted by Wesley himself through his concept of entire sanctification. Although he appeared to agree with the position of salvation by faith alone, I believe that Wesley could not come to terms with the thought that nothing we do or works we perform can make us more holy in the eyes of God. Among others, Wesley removed the article of religion from the Church of England on works before justification as not pleasing to God and the article on predestination and election when he created his own articles of religion for Methodists.

    I think this speaks to the Methodist need to become “more” justified before God by adhering to a social gospel and striving to live a sinless life as if this somehow makes you better before God. This thread in Methodism was picked and woven into an entire theology by the social liberals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and used as the justification (pun intended) to coerce the general population into good behavior through civil laws such as Prohibition.

    I propose that a return to the acceptance of total depravity would be a better path that puts us all on the same level before God, rather than having a privileged elite that deems themselves superior because they are forcing the right behavior on humankind, as if this will somehow perfect our kind. This kind of thinking always ends badly, as the example of scientific socialism shows via “every day, in every way, getting better and better.”

    Better to realize that people, in general, are not good. They are, in general, and in particular, bad. Once you get over this you can realize that there is nothing to be done but throw yourself on the mercy of God, receive, by grace, his redemption, and depend on Him, and Him alone.

    • DW says:

      Agree that the downward trend started w/ Wesley and his rejection of important aspects of sound Protestant theology, the solas of the Reformation and their implications, etc. Broadly speaking, the major 1st and 2nd generation reformers nailed things pretty well via excellent biblical scholarship.

      Putting the burden on human works (vs. Christ’s divine / human work) to stay in the faith or to attain greater ‘spirituality’ or ‘sinless perfection’ always turns out badly for Christians / the church, causing confusion, lack of assurance, spiritual enervation, a distortion of God and His great salvation, and eventually full-blown apostasy and enmity to Christ and His gospel, etc.

    • Joan Watson says:

      Except Wesley did believe in the total depravity of humanity and his understanding of Christian perfection was not a sinless one:

      “Perhaps the general prejudice against Christian perfection may chiefly arise from a misapprehension of the nature of it. We willingly allow, and continually declare, there is no perfection in this life as implies either a dispensation from doing good, and attending all the ordinances of God or a freedom from ignorance, mistake, temptation, and a thousand infirmities necessarily connected with flesh and blood”–John Wesley, “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection”.

    • Frederick Collins says:

      And except that there is another passage of the Bible that places at least partial responsibility for fighting sin on man himself. So man is not seen as totally incompetent to deliver himself. That passage is the advice not of a theologian, but of God Himself to Cain: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” So we have to look to higher authority than Wesley for not accepting the view that “nothing we do or works we perform can make us more holy in the eyes of God.” Just did a random sample of 4 other translations (NRSV, KJV, NIV, and CJB). The meaning is essentially the same. Whether the result is making us more holy (with all the loaded connotations of that word) or simply advancing our state in fighting sin the passage is clear. Wesley was not wrong. Even if we wish to reduce our responsibility for the essential of accepting Jesus Christ in these days, we have to take that first step and thereafter “Faith without works is dead, dead, dead” (Okay. The last two words are my amended version. LOL

      • Dan says:

        You have well stated why I am no longer a UMC member and have joined the Lutheran Church (LCMS). We do not accept Jesus; we cannot accept Jesus on our own because we will always choose sin. Only through the grace of God that bestows on us sufficient faith can we receive the sacrifice of Christ that blots our our sin and justifies us before God. St. Paul is quite specific about works providing no justification to God. Our works are the outward sign of a joyful heart for God after we have received his grace and mercy, and our desire to see Him made know to others through preaching the Gospel and doing acts of mercy.

        As I understand it, Wesley was of a much more reformed mind early on and as he aged became much more Arminian in his outlook. His later criticism of Luther and hostile exchanges with Augustus Toplady display his antipathy towards presdestination and election even though both are plainly in the Bible.

        • Frederick Collins says:

          Fascinating! Certainly explains why TULIP exists and why Wesley and Whitfield had to agree to disagree. But any further contribution is a distraction from the main thread.

  2. David Koyzis says:

    The family of my mother’s best childhood friend left their Methodist congregation in southeastern Michigan when it “went modern,” affiliating thereafter with a revivalist independent Baptist congregation. This was likely in the 1930s. Thanks for this history. I now know something about developments in the denomination at the time that led to their decision.

  3. Namyriah says:

    Nice little capsule survey there. I am one of the millions of ex-UMs in America, also a former employee of their Board of Discipleship. Everything rotten starts in the seminaries. Still plenty of faithful laymen out there, but it’s high time the denomination did the right thing and split into Christian and post-Christians. It’s already happened, just not official yet.

  4. Charles Roberts says:

    Another very important influence on the theological direction of the UMC has been Schubert Ogden, who taught at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology for over a decade, popularizing Process Theology among many clergy.

  5. Bill Lang says:

    In the same light two studies predate this book, Theological Transition in American Methodism by Robert Childes and Christian Perfection in American Methodism by John Peters. Both studies point to the embracing of theological liberalism by the leadership, then the theologians and then the clergy.

  6. bob says:

    At last an author who includes the role of evolutionism as a factor in promoting liberal theology. Thanks for the review, Mark. 🙂

  7. Frederick Collins says:

    Great article! Always wondered how the zeal of Wesley and Francis Astbury evaporated from our denomination.

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