6:00 A.M. EST May 17, 2010
Members of the California Oriental Mission gather for an annual
conference session sometime during the 1920s. Photos courtesy
of the General Commission on Archives and History.
"We're building two a day." That cry from C. C. McCabe and the Board of Church Extension rallied Methodists in the late 1800s.
In a message circulated throughout the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1881, McCabe responded to news reports from what he called a "convention of infidels." A speaker at the Freethinkers’ Convention had declared, “The churches are dying out all over the land. They are struck with death. They will soon be dead."
McCabe wrote, "I stepped into a telegraph office and sent the following dispatch: ‘To the President of the Freethinkers' Convention, Watkins, N.Y.: 'All hail the power of Jesus' name!' We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year, and propose to make it two a day!’"
The same cry can rally United Methodists today as we look to one of the Four Areas of Focus: New places for new people and renewing existing congregations. The focus area is a legitimate child of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren past and the theme for this year's Heritage Sunday observance. It is even more appropriate as the 2010 observance is on May 23, which is also Pentecost Sunday.
We recall McCabe's words while also remembering:
- John Wesley preaching in the fields and using laity as preachers;
- Philip Otterbein and Jacob Albright going to German-speaking people in the United States;
- William Capers and others leading pre-Civil War missions to the slaves; and
- The Freedmen's Aid Society creating schools for freed slaves.
- Planting new faith communities and building new churches received church wide attention and financial support in the late 19th century.
Grants and loans helped plant 434 Methodist
churches in the U.S. in 1882.
Alfred J. Kynett was a pioneer executive of what became the Board of Church Extension in the Methodist Episcopal Church. McCabe was his assistant. During Kynett's 32 years as the board's corresponding secretary, more than $6 million was raised and distributed through annual conferences to more than 11,000 churches. A loan fund was also established.
Most of the funds assisted small churches on the western frontier (then Iowa and Nebraska). Funds also went to African-American churches in the South, poor communities throughout Appalachia and ethnic churches across the United States. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South had a similar board. The two united in 1939.
In 1891, McCabe reported 12,274 church buildings had been constructed in the previous quarter century. The Church Extension Society assisted 8,447 of them. "It is an amazing work and is only a prophecy of what it is to be in the future," McCabe proclaimed. “It is an amazing work and is only a prophecy of what it is to be in the future,” McCabe proclaimed, “as we see this great financial wheel making one revolution after another, leaving in its pathway a thousand churches every time it revolves upon its axis, and a thousand congregations and a thousand Sunday schools, we see in the execution of this great plan something that works mightily for the salvation of the nation and the salvation of the world.”
Annual conferences in the United States organized by language became one of the most effective ways of reaching new people. In 1924, there were 16 language-based conferences (10 German, four Swedish and two Norwegian-Danish) in the Methodist Episcopal Church with additional mission conferences (Pacific Chinese, Pacific Japanese, Latin American, Southwest Spanish, Puerto Rico and Hawaiian Japanese, Korean and Filipino). The church published materials in 13 languages besides English. Local ministry was taking place among people speaking French, Armenian, Chinese and Hebrew.
Members pose outside the Italian Mission Methodist
Episcopal Church in Youngstown, Ohio.
During the same period, the Evangelical Church worked with Italians in Wisconsin, while Red Bird Mission served "mountain people" in Kentucky. The Evangelical United Brethren Church built 163 churches between 1947 and 1950, primarily in Kentucky, New Mexico and Florida.
Methodist deaconesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also targeted new places and new people, providing social services, spiritual enrichment and life-enhancing skills in urban areas.
As The United Methodist Church marshals its resources to renew existing congregations and create new places to bring the gospel to new people, these efforts build on the work of the previous 250 years. May our heritage inform, inspire and invigorate the efforts of today so that future generations will look to this time and be encouraged.
*The Rev. Robert J. Williams is general secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History, Madison, N.J.
This article originally appeared in Interpreter Magazine, May-June 2010.