Faith in History
The Rise and Fall of American Methodism
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 forty 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. Tooley is the President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which seeks to promote renewal in mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church.
Reading 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 short-sighted.
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. 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, 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.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.