The roots of The United Methodist family tree: Digging deeper
In April 1968, The United Methodist Church was born, but our roots go back much farther. Let’s take a quick, chronological look at the shaping and reshaping of the historic denominations that led to the formation of The United Methodist Church.
Methodist Episcopal Church (1784)
One branch of our United Methodist roots was nurtured in the soil of the Church of England. John Wesley, his brother Charles, and a host of others formed societies throughout England to help people grow in their Christian faith. In the late 1760s Methodist societies began to gather in America.
On Christmas Eve 1784, the Methodist preachers in the United States came together at Lovely Lane Chapel. Over the next 10 days, they founded the Methodist Episcopal Church and Francis Asbury was ordained elder and then elected bishop at this gathering known as the Christmas Conference.
Church of the United Brethren in Christ (1800)
Another branch of United Methodism grew in the soil of the German Reformed Church and the Mennonites. As Methodism was growing in the United States among English speakers, a similar movement was happening among the German-speaking population.
Around 1767, German Reformed pastor Philip William Otterbein, heard a sermon by Mennonite pastor Martin Boehm. Although their two churches did not look kindly on one another, Otterbein announced to Boehm, “We are brethren.”
In 1800, the movements each of these leaders started within their respective denominations came together to form the Church of the United Brethren in Christ with Otterbein and Boehm as their first bishops. Asbury, Boehm, and Otterbein knew one another and often shared in ministry together.
Evangelical Association (1803)
In the late 1700s, a German Lutheran lay person named Jacob Albright joined a Methodist class in Pennsylvania. When the class named him as a lay preacher, he began sharing the gospel throughout central Pennsylvania. In 1803, Albright was ordained and a new denomination was formed that in 1816 took the name Evangelical Association.
Methodist Protestant Church (1830)
In the early years of the 19th century, a group within the Methodist Episcopal Church became dissatisfied with the leadership of the bishops and lobbied to have lay members at both annual conferences and General Conference. In 1830, they separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church and formed the Methodist Protestant Church, a denomination without bishops that included laity their decision making bodies.
Lay representatives were added in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1866 and Methodist Episcopal Church in 1872.
Methodist Episcopal Church, South (1844)
At the 1840 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, James O. Andrew was elected bishop. Andrew owned slaves, despite the Methodist Episcopal Church’s antislavery stance since its founding.
At the following General Conference in 1844, the issue of a bishop owning slaves was an important debate. When the General Conference failed to come to agreement, a Plan of Separation was adopted that described how to divide the church. Two years later, the churches in the states where slavery was legal formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a separate denomination.
United Evangelical Church (1894)
In the 1880s, early evidence of dissension was emerging in the Evangelical Association. Rivalries between leaders and disagreements over the role of bishops seemed to create irreconcilable differences. In 1887, all of this energy was focused on who had authority to set the place for the 1891 General Conference.
Although the General Conference voted to give that responsibility to the Board of Publication, others wanted to keep the decision with the East Pennsylvania Conference who had historically made the selection. When neither side yielded, two General Conferences were held in 1891 and the church was effectively divided. In 1894, the East Pennsylvania group met in Illinois and formed a new denomination, the United Evangelical Church.
Evangelical Church (1922)
A little more than 25 years later, the Evangelical Association and United Evangelical Church came back together to form the Evangelical Church.
Methodist Church (1939)
Discussions to reunite the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, began as early as 1869, but proceeded slowly. In 1884, the two churches celebrated the centennial of the Christmas Conference together. Then in 1898, they formed the Joint Commission on Federation that developed a common hymnal, catechism, and order of worship. By 1910, the Methodist Protestant Church joined these efforts.
The first attempt at unification was voted down by both churches in 1924, but the work to bring them together continued especially when the Methodist Protestants joined the discussion. Finally on April 26, 1939, the Uniting Conference began in Kansas City, Missouri, to bring together the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church to form the Methodist Church.
Regrettably, the Methodist Church created the Central Jurisdiction that segregated African-American congregations, conferences, and clergy.
Evangelical United Brethren Church (1946)
On November 16, 1946, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church came together to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
The United Methodist Church (1968)
Finally, in April 1968 in Dallas, Texas, the Uniting Conference brought together this family of churches that shares so much history. The Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church joined to form The United Methodist Church. The merger dissolved the Central Jurisdiction and all congregations were grouped geographically.
Today’s United Methodists share a rich history. Through our steps and missteps God continues to work in and through us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
This story was published July 3, 2018.