[Ed. – This is the first part of a paper that Pam recently wrote for her class, Wesleyan Church History and Discipline. The first part will discuss five surprising features of The Wesleyan Church. The second part (which will publish tomorrow) will discuss the five most reassuring things about The Wesleyan Church.
The purpose of this paper is to discuss both the five most surprising features of our denomination and then the five most reassuring things of our denomination. One of the reasons that this class is good for me is that I grew up in a sister Methodist-based denomination (Evangelical Congregational Church.) I have been married now 21 years to a man who grew up in The Wesleyan Church and has been recently ordained by The Wesleyan Church. Still there are surprising features in our denomination.
“As late as 1849 Luther Lee advised Wesleyan Methodists against appointing women class leaders except for classes made up solely of women.’ (Reformers and Revivalists, Lee Haines, pg. 562.) “The Wesleyan Methodist General Conference voted in 1879 to license women as preachers but not to ordain them. Subsequently in 1891, the law against their ordination was repealed.” (An Outline History of The Wesleyan Church, Lee Haines and Paul William Thomas Pg 82.) This is surprising because Luther Lee ordained the first woman in America, even though she was not Wesleyan. It seemed like a long time before Wesleyan Methodist women would get the right to be ordained.
Through its history, The Pilgrim Holiness Church absorbed (merged) with smaller holiness denominations than themselves. When they were the big denomination taking over the smaller ones, it seemed to be fine. But when it came to the merger in 1968, some Pilgrim Holiness people were not happy about being absorbed. Even forty years later my husband and I still hear comments about how we should have never merged with The Wesleyan Methodists.
One of the main reasons that we left the Episcopal Methodist Church was because of slavery. The early Wesleyan Methodists were willing to give up their lives to end slavery. By 1903 there was decline in concern of racial prejudice. In the 1960’s during the civil rights movement, The Wesleyan Methodists and Pilgrim Holiness Churches were strangely silent on the issue. Instead of taking a stand, there was a wait and see stance on the civil rights movement. It is surprising that a denomination founded on social issues strayed so far away.
In the 1940’s, the church felt that it was not the mission of the conferences to operate purely social institutions. (The Church of Today, The Allegheny Conference Centennial : The history of One Hundred Years of Conference Activity, I.F. McLeister and Joseph B. Mankey.) This was an example of the changing view of the Wesleyan Methodists as social reformers. “Wesleyan Methodists still thought of themselves as reformers and in the sense they were. Living-but–limited might be the best way to describe the shift of social conscience. Amusement, dress, divorce, and the Sabbath observance preoccupied the Church when its attention was turned on society. Important as they were, these issues were focused more on personal behavior than on the greater needs of society. The balance was missed.” (Reformers and Revivalists, pg. 209, Dr. Robert Black) Again, it seems surprising that a church so focused on social reform, would turn its back on orphanages, schools, and similar institutions and focus purely on legalism.
- While reading The Discipline of the Wesleyan Church, I was reading about baptism. I discovered that not only do we believe in immersion, we also believe in pouring and sprinkling. When I married in the Wesleyan Church it was the first time I ever heard of immersion. I have never seen anyone baptized by sprinkling or pouring since being in The Wesleyan Church. I was baptized by sprinkling in my former denomination. I have been told by some that I was not going to heaven because I was not immersed. This is important because within The Wesleyan Church, there is a lot of grace given in many areas such as baptism, both adult and infant; communion; worship; and military service.