Methodism: Consolidation and Reunion, 1865–1939

Authored by: Morris L. Davis

The Ashgate Research Companion to World Methodism

Print publication date:  February  2013
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781409401384
eBook ISBN: 9781315613789
Adobe ISBN: 9781317040996

10.4324/9781315613789.ch4

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Abstract

Western historians considerably overstate the amount, kind, and quality of change experienced by societies in the North Atlantic, between 1865 and 1939. Perhaps because historians often associate the increase in the speed of technological change and the creation of vast private wealth with the latter half of the nineteenth century, and because it is the era of the rise of the United States as a global power, contemporary observers tend to favor it as a possible story of origin for the twenty-first century and our current predicaments and optimistic self-regard. Among scholars of Wesleyan Methodist traditions, however, there seems to be a low level of interest, especially in relation to the amount of work produced on eighteenth-century Methodism. Again, historians’ fascination with narratives and moments of origin can help explain this, as competing desires for the contemporary state of Wesleyan Methodist institutions lead those with interest and stake to lay claim to founders and their times. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though, offer fewer examples of solid ground on which such narratives, used in the service of contemporary constructive interest, can find purchase. Several aspects of this time period present themselves as obstacles to more conventional forms of denominational history—such as narratives of origins or founders, narratives of growth and success, or morality tales. The earlier part of the nineteenth century, for instance, while obviously a dark chapter in Methodist self-narratives in which Methodists in the U.S. still owned slaves or condoned the slave system, remains the source for histories of inspiration. Slaves who found and held onto their faith in the midst of unimaginable suffering, and abolitionists who fought against overwhelming odds, offer material that lends itself to satisfying endings, recognizable causes, and fodder for the continuing myths of progress that permeate Western historiography. Some of this is available in the time period of this chapter as well: missionary heroes, strong and activist women, self-supporting churches in former colonized nations, and churches that turned their attention to helping the poor and systemic social problems. There are endlessly fascinating stories to be told from this era: world-traveling adventurers, strong women, brilliant, culture-savvy converts in non-Western lands who adapt to the bewildering array of options and changes that confronted them as they navigated with a new religion ensconced in a menacing and strange new array of powerful appendages of empire. But perhaps what holds additional robust scholarly work at bay are the more difficult features of this time period. How do we understand the relationships between missions, colonialism, and empire? How can historians of this topic move beyond the entrenched framing of missions as either imperialistic or not? What were the causes of the leveling and then decline in numbers of the North Atlantic Methodist bodies? Why were the fissures among Methodists caused by race, region, and gender so enduring? How do we understand what changes were wrought by the exponential increases in wealth in the churches and among many of their members? How did national influence and cultural prominence change the Methodist denominations in the North Atlantic? What is the nature of those Methodisms that remain from missionary endeavors, and how do they tell their histories?

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