United Methodist Church

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Two streams of American Protestantism, the Methodist Church and the evangelical united brethren church, merged on April 23, 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. Both of the former denominations emerged from or had strong ties with the Wesleyan movement which began in the American colonies of Maryland and New York through the preaching of Robert Strawbridge (probably 1764) and Philip Embury (1766). In 1769 John Wesley sent two of the English preachers to assist in the establishment of Methodist societies in the colonies. Two years later Francis Asbury was sent also by Wesley, and on Dec. 24, 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized, with Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as joint superintendents. While not rigidly doctrinaire, the Methodist Episcopal Church took as its doctrinal standards the Twenty-five Articles of Religion, which Wesley had abbreviated from the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles, the Standard Sermons of Wesley, and Wesley's notes on the New Testament. The early Methodist movement was characterized by the emphases of its preachers on the universally available grace of God and the standards of moral holiness which the gospel of grace presents to persons who respond in repentance and faith.

The Methodist Episcopal Church experienced a division which in 1830 produced the Methodist Protestant Church. The controversy was not doctrinal but concerned polity, with the Methodist Reformers (Methodist Protestants) advocating less episcopal authority and wider lay participation in the church. The next serious breach occurred in 1845 when the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was formed. Again the controversy was not doctrinal but centered on the issue of slavery. In 1939 these three Methodist bodies were reunited in the Methodist Church. The polity of the Methodist Church included bishops elected by six regional and one racial jurisdictions. Legislative and promotional work was effected through smaller regional conferences which met annually and a quadrennial general conference. The annual conference and the general conference sessions were to be composed of equal representation of clergy and laity.

The Evangelical United Brethren Church was formed in 1946 through a merger of the Evangelical Church and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. These bodies originated in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, principally in the Middle Atlantic states of Maryland and Pennsylvania as chiefly German-speaking congregations. Their original leaders came from Reformed, Lutheran, and Mennonite backgrounds. The dominant influence, however, was Wesleyan theology, piety, and polity mediated through Francis Asbury and other early Methodist leaders.

Through the leadership of Philip William Otterbein, an ordained clergyman of the German Reformed Church, and Martin Boehm, Mennonite in background, evangelical work among the German-speaking population of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia spread until in 1800 an annual meeting of ministers under their direction was organized. Their influence spread into the Ohio Valley, and the name United Brethren in Christ designated their efforts.

The Evangelical Church arose through the efforts of Jacob Albright, whose conversion occurred in 1791. Albright's witnessing among the German-speaking people of Pennsylvania eventuated in a council called in 1803. In 1816 the name, the Evangelical Association, was adopted. A division within this group occurred in 1891 with the larger body taking the name, the United Evangelical Church. In 1922 the Evangelical Church was created as a result of the Evangelical Association and the United Evangelical Church coming together.

The Asbury group and the Otterbein-Boehm-Albright group had much in common. Their emphasis upon personal religious experience or personal salvation and their evangelical passion led them in similar directions, and frequently they were found working in close cooperation. Otterbein participated in the ordination of Asbury. When the book of Discipline for Asbury's Methodists was translated into German, it became the basis for the book of Discipline for the Evangelische Gemeinschaft of Albright. In some regions the Asbury group was called the "English Methodists" and the Otterbein-Boehm-Albright group was designated the "German Methodists" or the "Dutch Methodists." Conversations concerning union began as early as 1803. In 1871 the Evangelical Association by a narrow vote agreed to join the Methodists, but the union never occurred. The significant union of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church in 1946 paved the way for the union of 1968 which resulted in the United Methodist Church.

The United Methodists are still characterized by their evangelical concerns, demonstrated by their extensive mission outreach in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Their concern for social as well as personal morality is expressed in the Statement of Social Principles. The polity of the United Methodist Church remains essentially the same with episcopal leadership elected by jurisdictional conferences. Membership in annual conferences and the general conference is balanced between clergy and laity.

Bibliography: e. buck, ed., History of American Methodism (Nashville 1964). p. eller, These Evangelical United Brethren (Dayton, Ohio 1957). j. lee, A Short History of Methodism in the U.S.A. (Baltimore 1810). w. w. sweet, Methodism in American History (Nashville 1963). f.s. mead, s.s. hill and c.d. atwood, eds., Handbook of Denominations in the United States, 11th ed (Nashville 2001).

[j. c. logan]

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United Methodist Church