What can we learn from the Methodists? The United Methodist Church seems likely to divide this year over matters of sexuality - at least as the surface issues. Writers like David French and Carl Trueman delve into the deeper causes and lessons to learn from the present circumstances. It’s also worth asking how the nearly seven-million person church grew to be the second largest Protestant denomination in America. The answer, in large measure historically, was their ability to train men for ministry.
Currently, I am teaching a class at church on church history in our state. In Indiana, Methodists have been the dominant force, and have provided astounding leadership over the years. The Methodists of various stripes, and later descendants including the Wesleyans, Nazarenes, and various holiness-themed churches, are responsible for at least six universities in the state, leading health care providers, and mercy ministries in many communities. And many remarkable individuals with the Methodist tradition have risen to be remarkable public servants, community leaders, and social pillars.
There are several reasons why Methodism was especially popular in the Hoosier State. In 1816, Indiana was the first state to attain statehood after the War of 1812, an event that paused Westward migration. As the new nation moved West with fresh confidence, it asserted its fiercely independent streak that made the personal appeal of Methodist Arminianism appealing to frontier residents. Momentum for revivalism grew through the Second Great Awakening, and the Methodists grabbed hold of that momentum as the pioneers surged into Indiana. It also seems that the independent mindset of the early residents had not shaken their sense that the children in the church community still counted. Most migrants were Scots-Irish descendants who came from the Upland-South with Presbyterian roots. Methodist polity--which practiced infant baptist--was more emotionally attractive than Baptist ecclesiology.
But, as stated, beyond these factors, one stands out in the Methodists’ expansion: they knew how to train men to their standards. One Pharisaical, proud, pejorative, pioneer Presbyterian proverb sheds light on how leading denominations prioritized formal education in general in that day: “A Methodist is just a Baptist who can read.” Methodists developed educational models for the whole community, but they prioritized breadth over depth. Their models had to be able to adapt quickly enough to meet the needs of a growing population. They viewed the education of pastors in a similar light. Presbyterians failed to grow because their men were back East in seminaries for three years and could not get to the field, and the Baptists did not emphasize education and organization. But the Methodists combined organizational flexibility with adequate academic rigor, at least from their perspective, to equip pastoral leaders to organize the whole state with churches.
Historian L.C. Rudolph writes:
“Preaching is what made the Methodists grow--preaching that was regular, frequent, and exciting. The system was engineered to produce charismatic preachers. When these home-grown young men were enlisted for leadership, there were requirements for entry and more requirements for continuation and course of study on which to be examined. But the crucial requirement was genuine religious faith very powerfully conveyed.” 1
A fellowship of circuit riding preachers developed, in which the development of young men flourished. Rudolph states “there was an openness to untrained young men at the bottom of the organization of preachers” and “congregations knew how to provide encouragement and were sympathetic towards beginners.” The neophytes were not abandoned in their training on the bottom rung. Young preachers would be admitted on a trial basis as a circuit rider. As a man developed alongside a senior preacher, he could be ordained as a deacon in the Methodist system, and then become an elder, a presiding elder, or even a bishop in a hierarchy that roughly resembled the structure of the Anglican church of their fore-bearers. 2
Allen Wiley, the premier Methodist preacher of pioneer Indiana reflected on his own experience within this system late in his career and he penned these words:
Although I am a warm friend to all literature and science, yet I ask what are colleges and theological institutions compared with this course of training ministers? I answer, they are poor, time-wasting, mind-cramping, heart-freezing, zeal-destroying, soul-neglecting things, of which it should be said to every man called of God to preach the Gospel, let the dead bury their own dead, but go thou and preach the Gospel, but with the science of heaven, and with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. 3
And yet, Wiley expected his men to be ardent students. In his manual for preachers, he allocated seven hours of sleep for circuit-riders, and then he prescribed the following routine:
On an average he will need two hours to ride to his appointments, and two more to hold meeting; fifteen minutes in the morning, and the same in the evening, to attend family worship, where he may stay, will make half an hour; twenty minutes, three times each day, for private devotion, will make one hour; thirty minutes, three times per diem, for eating, will be one hour and a half; and to the foregoing may be added two hours employed in profitable conversation with the children and others, where he may be; all of which will make sixteen hours out of twenty-four, leaving eight to be employed in mental culture, which will be as much time as most constitutions can endure close mental application, without endangering the health of the body. I have allowed two hours for riding, which, however, in fair weather, I consider the best time for learning grammar, or logic, or any similar study, or in preparation for the pulpit; and if thus employed, may be added to the eight, which will make ten to be used in every twenty-four, in gaining a good store of general knowledge. Now, we behold the young man, with eight hours or more on his hands for valuable use, or the most criminal abuse; the latter of which will take place unless he remember what he is styled — a Methodist ; that is, one who has method in all his pursuits, a want of which has been the cause of failure to hundreds who might have been eminent, but who have wasted their energies to no purpose.
While we Presbyterians would certainly disagree with Wiley’s assessment of seminaries and their impact, we can admire his passion for the gospel and the rigorous method set forth for his men. We may have different academic standards to be attained before setting men free to preach, but we can appreciate the fact that the Methodists far more effectively summoned and encouraged young men into gospel ministry and provided a blueprint for ministry that served many people.
What can we learn from the Methodists of two centuries ago? I am staunchly Presbyterian and am not arguing that we should change our standards, but we can surely learn from history. Omitting a number of critiques we might explore, two positive lessons stand out:
- Pioneer Methodists trained men with a flexible structure. They seemed to excel in having one eye on the horizon and one eye on the next step on their path. Their organized polity and deliberate methods of learning helped equip the minds of their ministers in ways the Baptists could not. Their flexibility allowed them to train far more men than the Presbyterians. How can we apply those lessons today in a context of more accessible denominational seminaries, local educational options, distance education opportunities, and far greater ease of travel and communication for internships and more?
- Pioneer Methodists proved their men by training them among the people. Baptists placed greater emphasis on the internal call. Presbyterians waited until a man completed seminary and presbytery exams to give the church extensive exposure to the man and his graces and gifts. But, Methodist preachers-in-training loved their people because they were so often with them. The Methodists won the hearts of people by allowing lay people to know the up-and-coming preacher and give significant feedback in a pastoral-training system that retained important leadership accountability. Before their men were set free to preach on their own, they had passed the exams of their superiors, but they had also won the hearts of their lay hearers. How can churches today train men in such a way that by the time men are called to serve outside of the training program they are known and trusted quantities?
1 L.C. Rudolph, Hoosier Faiths (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), 16.
2 Ibid, 17.
3 Fernandez C. Holliday, Life and Times of Rev. Allen Wiley... (Cincinnati, OH: Swormstedt and A. Poe, 1853), 286.
4 Ibid, 171.