The Politicization of the Methodist Church

by Mimi Hall
John Wesley professed his belief in the importance of community involvement.

John Wesley professed his belief in the importance of community involvement.

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The Methodist Church has a long history of involvement in politics. According to the 2008 "Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church," the church has "been known as a denomination involved with people’s lives, with political and social struggles, having local to international mission implications."

John Wesley and Human Perfectionism

John Wesley (1703-1791) founded what became the Methodist Church. He did not preach from one place but established the role of circuit riders in America who traveled throughout the new country. He believed that Christian perfectionism was possible in this lifetime, and that people had the responsibility to engage with and better their society. Methodists who believe in personal morality, such as following the Ten Commandments, tend toward conservative political views. Those followers who feel strongly about assisting people living on the margins of society tend more toward liberalism. While their political alliances may be diverse, Methodist followers are united in their strong activism on contemporary issues.

Growth and Decline of Methodism in America

Churches following John Wesley numbered 20 in 1770. By 1860, there were around 19,000 churches, according to Thomas S. Kidd, a senior fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. Initially, some Methodist contingents were against the American Revolution, and over the years, the Methodist Church allied itself with social movements such as anti-slavery, pacifism during World War I and Prohibition. The church reached a membership apex in the late 1960s with 11 million members but has been in decline over the past 40 years with a current membership estimate of 7.6 million member churches. According to Kidd, "seeking to fulfill the church's mission primarily through political advocacy appears to be a key historic ingredient in denominational decline."

Global Growth in the Methodist Church

In contrast to the decline of Methodist churches in America, the global perspective is robust, particularly in Africa. It is estimated that Methodist churchgoers in the Congo outnumber those in America. There are 1.5 million members in the Korean Methodist Church alone. Generally, Methodist churches outside Europe and the United States have more conservative social values.

Future Ramifications

The Methodist Church in the United States faces the challenge of reconciling the growing rift between conservative and progressive political activism among its members. As a result, the church is becoming more cautious about taking controversial political stances on issues such as the support of homosexual ministers. Although the church is seeking to revise its political role in the United States, it has not shied away from Wesley's original goal: to strive to build a more perfect society. According to Ted Vial, an associate professor of theology at Iliff School of Theology, both the liberal and conservative camps of Methodists have remained socially active. He states: "Wesley's doctrine that Christian perfection was possible in this life, that Christians should strive for it, and that any lack of effort in performing good works (including what he classed "works of mercy") would put your salvation at risk, has provided great incentive to all Methodists to work hard at helping their neighbors."

About the Author

Mimi Hall has written cultural articles since 2009. Her work has appeared in "Island Voices," "Edible Orlando" and "The Daytona Beach News-Journal." She holds a Master of Arts from Stetson University, a Master of Library Science from University of Maryland and a Bachelor of Arts from Flagler College.

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