(The following story is being told here in print for the first time. Originally prepared as a chapter in my book, Evangelical and Methodist A Popular History, Abingdon, 2004, it was not used in the interests of brevity.)
In the Fall of 1972 Charles Keysor, editor of Good News magazine, Phil Hinerman, who was chair of the Good News board at the time, and I gathered in Elkhart, Indiana, to meet with Mr. Ernest Sims. A wealthy layman from Trinity Church, Elkhart, Sims was a former president of Circuit Riders, a conservative activist group that had been organized in 1951, “to oppose all efforts to propagate Socialism and Communism and all other anti-American teachings in the Methodist Church.”
Circuit Riders was the main force behind a resolution at the 1952 General Conference condemning the Methodist Federation for Social Action and for legislation which added to the Social Creed a statement which acknowledged “the principle of the acquisition of property by Christian processes, and in the right of private ownership thereof.” Though it seems strange in retrospect, Methodist social policy to that time had been so closely aligned with socialist ideology that the statement affirming the right of private property seemed a major breakthrough for economic conservatives.
Circuit Riders was just one of a number of groups in the 1950s and 1960s that organized around support for “Americanism” and opposition to the church’s tendency toward socialism. These groups found socialist influences in the National Conference of Methodist Youth, in the Women’s Society of Christian Service, in the seminaries, and in the Board of Social and Economic Relations.
The official church press, in faithfulness to the institution, mostly blacked out or at least ignored news about the activities and influences of groups such as Circuit Riders and the issues they addressed, but secular media and right-wing political journals kept Methodists and the general public alerted to the issues. Much of the Circuit Riders activity had followed an article in Reader’s Digest in1950 entitled, “Is There a Pink Fringe in the Methodist Church”?
By 1972 the church was caught up in the Methodist-Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) merger and the restructuring that took place at the 1972 General Conference, and Circuit Riders influence had faded into the background. The Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) had been duly chastised, the socialist themes had been muted, and the church was facing other issues.
Still, Sims was greatly concerned. A few years before he had written a book, Which Way, The Protestant Church? A Layman’s View, a well-researched study of official Methodism’s fascination with socialist systems and of groups which had arisen in reaction. He had followed the rise of Good News and was wondering whether it was a worthy successor to groups like Circuit Riders. Though still in infancy, Good News was issuing the Good News magazine which was receiving high reviews. Its 1970 national convocation had registered 1,800 persons. At the 1972 General Conference, it had generated 16,000 petitions, most of which were summarily dismissed. But Sims saw possibilities in Good News. So, even though elderly, in his late 80s, Sims had communicated that he wished to make a substantial gift to Good News.
None of the three of us—Hinerman, Keysor, nor I—had had any previous personal connections with Circuit Riders or with Sims. I had known that Sims was a community leader, well-thought of, and generous with his money. What I realized later (after I read his book and did some more research) was that Sims was very well known on the denominational national level. He had been active in the very prestigious Trinity Church all his life, had been a delegate to annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences, and had attended General Conferences. He had been a trustee at DePauw University for 21 years, had served on a number of conference and area committees. Locally, he had given a golf course to the city of Elkhart.
My knowledge of Circuit Riders had come from reading conservative journals and from snide remarks by my seminary professors, who characterized groups like Circuit Riders as “racist Dixiecrats” and “N.A.M. influenced reactionaries.” Still, and this is a confession, we were unprepared for our meeting with Sims. What we did know was that Good News needed money. The operation was going to move to Wilmore, Kentucky, struggled with a part-time editor, and was cash strapped. Financial support was broad-based but consisted mostly of $10 to $20 gifts.
Our lunch, held at the Elkhart Country Club, was a disaster. It got off on a wrong start when Phil Hinerman asked Sims to share his testimony of faith in Jesus Christ. It soon became apparent that we were not traveling down the same road. Sims was not really a part of the evangelical subculture. He had little or no interest in faith talk, evangelical renewal, doctrine, Sunday school material or missions philosophy. What he had interest in was United Methodism’s social stands. We agreed that the stands were liberal, or better yet, “left-wing radical,” but shared that our Good News interest was not primarily focused on the church’s economic, political, or social positions, but on theological, evangelistic, and spiritual issues.
We were particularly uneasy with innuendoes about race. Hinerman was serving at the moment at what was perhaps the most successfully integrated church in the denomination, Park Avenue Church in Minneapolis. He had risked the future of the church and his own ministry in opposing his church’s “white flight” relocation some years earlier, to minister in the midst of a transitional neighborhood. About 40 percent of his 1,000 Sunday morning worship attendance was now Black. Whenever national news carried stories or demonstrations or an assassination (like Martin Luther King) or Black Power or right-wing racist groups, Hinerman dealt with crises of faith and trust in his own congregation. Our conversation turned cautious.
Sims never ceased being a gentleman. We parted amicably but I am sure we were a great disappointment to him. Keysor reported to the Good News board later that Good News had received a gift of $5,000 in stock from Sims, the largest single gift to that time in the history of the organization. The board rejoiced but several who knew the situation were disappointed. The $5,000 had been a token. It was only a pittance of what might have been. Sims did not ask leaders of groups he was interested in to make flights to Elkhart, Indiana, to give only $5,000. The gift could easily have been 10 or 100 times that.
This experience with Ernie Sims was a learning experience, at least for me if not for the others, that careful distinctions needed to be made between what it meant to be “evangelical” and what it meant to be “conservative.” People associated with Good News were conservative in many ways, but Good News did not really represent United Methodism’s Republican, establishment, tall-steeple, country-club, politically conservative constituency. Good News’ primary appeal was rather to the anti-institutional populist wing of the church that was in the direct lineage of Holiness and revivalist Methodism. That heritage, at least until the Civil War, was post-millennial, reformist, anti-slavery, pro-women, and anti-war. This understanding was (and is) lost on many observers who tended to interpret the rise of Good News either as a continuation of right-wing politics or as a reaction to liberal victories at the 1968 General Conference (see Charles Brewster, “The Evangelical Comeback—a Hope and a Danger,” New World Outlook, March, 1971). This interpretation would intensify in months and years to come.
It may have been an action of God that limited the size of Sims’ gift. Had it been a substantial gift, Good News, and other evangelical groups, would have had an even harder time convincing critics that evangelical renewal groups were not primarily a front for right-wing interests.
Even without any direct links to right-wing interests, by 1978 the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) issued an eight-page exposé entitled “Apostles of Reaction” which accused Good News not only of “rigid, traditional” and literalistic” fundamentalism, but also, and especially, of a political agenda of the “New Far Right,” a reactionary movement to neutralize the church’s commitment to social justice and to entrench principalities and powers of privilege.
In 1979 a new caucus, The Coalition for the Whole Gospel, was formed by George McClain of MFSA, Gilbert Caldwell of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), and other well-placed liberal activists, many of which were staff members of church agencies such as Board of Global Ministries, Church and Society and the National Council of Churches The purpose of the group was to combat conservative and reactionary influences in the denomination.
If there is something to be learned from all of this, it is that evangelicals, whether in the United Methodist Church, or in the Global Methodist Church, or elsewhere, would do well to keep emphasizing that our major concern is not to reform the nation by politics, whether conservative or liberal, but with the faithful proclaiming and living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as that Gospel has been communicated to us through the Scriptures and through our Methodist heritage. This heritage emphasized the writings of John Wesley, our doctrinal heritage as expressed in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, and our General Rules.
Unfortunately, some United Methodist leaders, including some bishops, conferences, seminaries, and board and agency staff persons, have introduced interpretations of our Methodist heritage which claim that modern culture has rendered some of our teachings as needing to be changed and superseded. They seem confident that the General Conference of 2024 will support their new interpretations. They have also argued, interestingly, that their new version of United Methodism, dominated by progressives, will operate as a big tent, in which all points of view, including that of evangelicals, will be affirmed. Different beliefs will be respected, including, presumably, the historic Christian view that marriage is between a man and a woman, that a Biblical sexual ethic affirms the principle of celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage, and that God assigns gender at birth.
Many of us are fearful that this will not work. However, we do believe in the mighty acts of God. Perhaps God will work a miracle.