|Title||A church in crisis? Paradoxes in the rise of American Methodism, 1777–1835|
The story of American Methodism from 1777 to 1835 presents a puzzle. During those years the Methodist Episcopal Church grew into the largest denomination in the United States while fashioning the most hierarchical organization in American Protestantism. In other words, the Methodist Episcopal Church leaders steadily denied the laity any role in the ecclesiastical government over the same period that most Americans embraced a political order based on republicanism and democracy. Over time the government grew more complex, the bishops more autocratic, and the number of people excluded from participation greater and greater. Solving this puzzle sheds new light not only on the Methodist Episcopal Church, but on the competitive evangelical marketplace churches found themselves in after the American Revolution, and on the relationship between Americans secular ideals and their religious expectations. This dissertation explores the role of two schismatic movements in shaping the development of the church and explaining its remarkable success. The James OKelly schism took place in 1792, when OKelly stormed out of the General Conference, frustrated by yet another failure to limit the growing hierarchy and the power of the bishops. He took with him one-fifth of the churchs members and formed the Republican Methodist Church—a remarkably egalitarian denomination. The church leaders foundered for years, failing to respond as OKelly attacked them in spirited, popular published works. Eventually they issued a rejoinder and the membership rolls again began to grow. In 1820, the Methodist Episcopal Church came under a sustained attack by reformers demanding lay representation in the church government. This time, the churchs leaders responded differently, learning from the mistakes of the past and from their critics. They acted immediately, expelling those who advocated for reform, and offering mercy to those who repented of their sins and returned to the fold. Finding their petitions ignored, their people expelled, and their names tarnished, the reformers left to form the Methodist Protestant Church in 1830, one that drew away only a trivial number of people from the Methodist Episcopal Church. The key to understanding the contradiction between the Methodist Episcopal Churchs success as the most hierarchical Protestant church, in Americas increasingly democratic political culture, lies in its image as a folksy church that appealed to every day Americans, hiding its fundamentally undemocratic nature. The Methodist itinerants—uneducated, poor men of little social standing—met the people where they were, and literally met them in their homes where they graciously accepted whatever hospitality the laity could offer them. Later, the editors of the nations most widely read evangelical magazines met them in print—running short, readable stories of an entertaining nature. The populist campaign worked—Americans flocked to a church that looked like it represented them, even as its leaders expelled them for daring to call for change and looked down on them as spiritual inferiors. And today, the image of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a democratic institution still triumphs over the reality.
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