Historical Perspectives

The history of Methodism has reflected the concerns of the age of the historians. Much of the early histories focused on John Wesley; these functioned as historical accounts, as apologies (in the sense that they were defenses of Methodist belief and practice), and as tools in the efforts to spread Methodism. Because John Wesley was attacked by other Protestants as an Arminian, many early histories function also as a defense of this belief system. An Arminian is one who agrees with Lutherans and Reformed Christians that salvation comes solely through the gift of faith. But where this leads other Protestants, particularly Calvinists, to a doctrine of predestination (those given the gift by God have been chosen by God for salvation, those not given the gift have been chosen for damnation), Arminians argue that God grants individuals the ability to choose freely whether or not to accept the gift of forgiveness. This places the responsibility for damnation on those who reject the gift, rather than on God. This was not a charge Wesley denied (in fact, for a while he edited a magazine called "The Arminian"). It was the theological bone of contention that lay behind many early defenses of Wesley.

The traditions of Methodist history have varied slightly in England and in the United States. English historiography was spearheaded by the Wesley Historical Society of English Methodism, which began publishing a journal entitled "Proceedings" in 1893. In the United States there has been no central journal; rather, individual annual conferences have sponsored historical societies. The work of these societies has tended to focus on regional histories, rather than on the Wesley heritage in general.

The famous historian Frederick A. Norwood identifies the 1930s as a new era of historiography in American Methodism, marked by the publication in 1933 of William Warren Sweet's Methodism in American History. The decades of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s saw increased interest by American historians on the history of Methodism in general, and the influences of early Methodism in developments in the United States. These decades also saw increased interest in placing Methodism in larger historical contexts. Noteworthy here is Wellman Warner's 1930 The Wesleyan Movement in the Industrial Revolution and Frederick C. Gill's The Romantic Movement and Methodism (1937).

The middle of the 20th century also saw more attention paid to significant figures in Methodism other than John Wesley. Several studies of Charles Wesley and of George Whitefield appeared during these years. Also worthy of mention here is the work of the theologian Albert C. Outer, who is often credited as being the first theologian of the United Methodist Church. In addition to being charged with Arminianism by other Protestants, the second most critical theological accusation was that Wesley's theology was simply incoherent, wanting to have it both ways (the Protestant emphasis on grace and salvation by faith alone, the Catholic emphasis on free will and sanctification). Outler produced an elegant and coherent account of Methodist theology, popularizing what has become the standard account of Methodist sources of authority: scripture, reason, experience, and tradition (the Methodist "quadrilateral").

In recent decades important trends in Methodist historiography involve moving beyond important figures or more narrow denomination or regional histories. In particular there are more studies that show the relationship of Methodism to other "holiness" movements in the United States (movements from which Methodists had often tried to distance themselves), and placing Methodism in the context of social movements that receive more attention in the academy these days. In the first category, particularly noteworthy is the work of Vincent Synan in such works as his 1997 Holiness/Pentecostal Tradition and 2001 The Century of the Holy Spirit. In the second category are works on race and Methodism, and on the history of African American Methodists, such as Harry V. Richardson's Dark Salvation: The Story of Methodism as It Developed Among Blacks in America (1976). Because of the structure of Methodism, women historically have been able to play larger leadership roles than they have in other denominations until quite recently. Also important, therefore, in this second category has been the pioneering work of Jean Miller Schmidt on the history of women in Methodism (especially Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism (1999).

Study Questions:
     1.     What is meant by the term Arminian? Why was Wesley accused of this?
     2.     How was Methodism interpreted in the 20th century? What other founders were brought into light?
     3.     How is Methodism meshed into a greater social context? What historiographies display this?

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