Doctrinal Standards in American Methodism
As long as the American colonies were primarily under British control, the Methodists could continue as part of the sacramental community of the Church of England. The early conferences, under the leadership of British preachers, declared their allegiance to the Wesleyan principles of organization and doctrine. They stipulated that the Minutes of the British and American conferences, along with the Sermons and Notes of Wesley, contained their basic doctrine and discipline.
After the formal recognition of American independence in 1783, Wesley realized that the Methodists in America were free of English control, religious as well as civil, and should become an independent Methodist church. Wesley then furnished the American Methodists with a liturgy (The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America) and a doctrinal statement (The Articles of Religion). The Sunday Service was Wesley's abridgment of the Book of Common Prayer; the Articles of Religion were his revision of the Thirty-Nine Articles.
The American Methodist preachers, gathered at Baltimore in December 1784, adopted the Sunday Service and the Articles of Religion as part of their actions in forming the new Methodist Episcopal Church. This "Christmas Conference" also accepted a hymnbook that Wesley had prepared (1784) and adopted a slightly modified version of the General Rules as a statement of the Church's nature and discipline. The conference spent most of its time adapting the British "Large Minutes" to American conditions. Subsequent editions of this document came to be known as the Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church (the Book of Discipline).
The shift from "movement" to "church" had changed the function of doctrinal norms within American Methodism. Rather than prescribing doctrinal emphases for preaching within a movement, the Articles outlined basic norms for Christian belief within a church, following the traditional Anglican fashion.
The preface to the first separate publication of the Articles states, "These are the doctrines taught among the people called Methodists. Nor is there any doctrine whatever, generally received among that people, contrary to the articles now before you."
American Methodists were not required to subscribe to the Articles after the Anglican manner, but they were accountable (under threat of trial) for keeping their proclamation of the gospel within the boundaries outlined therein. For generations, the Doctrines and Discipline cited only the Articles as the basis for testing correct doctrine in the newly formed church: The charge of doctrinal irregularity against preachers or members was for "disseminating doctrines contrary to our Articles of Religion." In this manner, the church protected its doctrinal integrity against the heresies that were prevalent at the time-Socinianism, Arianism, and Pelagianism (see Articles I, II, and IX).
The Articles of Religion, however, did not guarantee adequate Methodist preaching; they lacked several Wesleyan emphases, such as assurance and Christian perfection. Wesley's Sermons and Notes, therefore, continued to function as the traditional standard exposition of distinctive Methodist teaching.
The General Conference of 1808, which provided the first Constitution of The Methodist Episcopal Church, established the Articles of Religion as the Church's explicit doctrinal standards. The first Restrictive Rule of the Constitution prohibited any change, alteration, or addition to the Articles themselves, and it stipulated that no new standards or rules of doctrine could be adopted that were contrary to the "present existing and established standards of doctrine."
Within the Wesleyan tradition, then as now, the Sermons and Notes furnished models of doctrinal exposition. Other documents have also served American Methodism as vital expressions of Methodist teaching and preaching. Lists of recommended doctrinal resources vary from generation to generation but generally acknowledge the importance of the hymnbook, the ecumenical creeds, and the General Rules. Lists of such writings in the early nineteenth century usually included John Fletcher's Checks Against Antinomianism and Richard Watson's Theological Institutes.
The doctrinal emphases of these statements were carried forward by the weight of tradition rather than the force of law. They became part of the heritage of American Methodism to the degree that they remained useful to continuing generations.
During the great frontier revivals of the nineteenth century, the influence of European theological traditions waned in America. Preaching focused on "Christian experience," understood chiefly as "saving faith in Christ." Among the Methodists there was a consistent stress on free will, infant baptism, and informal worship, which led to protracted controversies with the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians, respectively.
Methodist interest in formal doctrinal standards remained secondary to evangelism, nurture, and mission. The Wesleyan hymnody served in practice as the most important single means of communicating and preserving the doctrinal substance of the gospel.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Methodist theology in America had become decidedly eclectic, with less specific attention paid to its Wesleyan sources.
The force of the Articles of Religion underwent several shifts. For a time, the first Restrictive Rule was exempted from the process of constitutional amendment, thus allowing no consideration of change in doctrinal standards. Mention of the Articles of Religion was included in the membership vows of The Methodist Episcopal Church, South.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, the waning force of doctrinal discipline and the decreasing influence of the Wesleyan theological heritage among the American Methodists, along with minor but significant changes in the wording of the Book of Discipline regarding doctrinal standards, led to a steady dilution of the force of the Articles of Religion as the Church's constitutional standards of doctrine.
During this same period, theologians and church leaders began to explore ways of expressing the gospel that were in keeping with developing intellectual currents. These leaders also began to rethink the historical social compassion of the Wesleyan tradition in the midst of the emerging industrial, urban civilization. They deepened our awareness of the systemic nature of evil and the urgency to proclaim the gospel promise of social redemption. Consequently, theologies supportive of the social gospel found fertile soil within the Methodist traditions.
These years were times of theological and ethical controversy within Methodism as new patterns of thought clashed with the more familiar themes and styles of the previous two centuries.
In recent decades there has been a strong recovery of interest in Wesley and in the more classic traditions of Christian thought. This recovery has been part of a broad resurgence of Reformation theology and practice in Europe and America, renewing the historical legacy of Protestantism in the context of the modern world. These trends have been reinforced in North America by the reaffirmation of evangelical piety.
The ecumenical movement has brought new appreciation for the unity as well as the richness and diversity of the church catholic.
Currents of theology have developed out of Black people's struggle for freedom, the movement for the full equality of women in church and society, and the quest for liberation and for indigenous forms of Christian existence in churches around the world.
The challenge to United Methodists is to discern the various strands of these vital movements of faith that are coherent, faithful understandings of the gospel and the Christian mission for our times.
The task of defining the scope of our Wesleyan tradition in the context of the contemporary world includes much more than formally reaffirming or redefining standards of doctrine, although these tasks may also be involved. The heart of our task is to reclaim and renew the distinctive United Methodist doctrinal heritage, which rightly belongs to our common heritage as Christians, for the life and mission of the whole church today.
From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2012. Copyright 2012 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.