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The War Years of the Early 20th Century (1914-1945)


In the years prior to World War I, the Methodist Episcopal Church demonstrated its concern for social issues by adopting a Social Creed at its 1908 General Conference. Social problems were also a spur in the movement toward ecumenism and interchurch cooperation. Each of the denominations now included in The United Methodist Church became active in the Federal Council of Churches, the first major ecumenical venture among American Protestants. There was also much sympathy in the churches for negotiation and arbitration as an alternative to international armed conflict. Many church members and clergy openly professed pacifism. When the United Sates officially entered the war in 1917, pacifism faded as American patriotism was identified with the war effort.

After the war, the churches returned their energies to social change. One of their perennial concerns was temperance, and they were quick to recognize it among their highest priorities. They published and distributed large amounts of temperance literature. Members pledged that they would abstain from alcoholic beverages.

There was significant theological ferment during this period. Biblical fundamentalists and neo-orthodox theologians questioned liberal Protestant theology and accused it of undermining the very essence of the Christian message. Since each of these theological parties—fundamentalist, neo-orthodox, and liberal—was well represented among the forerunners of United Methodism, heated doctrinal disputes were present in these churches.

Despite internal theological strife, the churches continued to cooperate with other denominations and acted to heal earlier schisms. A division that had occurred in The Evangelical Association in 1894 was repaired in 1922, when two factions united as The Evangelical Church.

A numerically larger union took place among three Methodist bodies—The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Protestant Church, and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Representatives of these churches began meeting in 1916 to forge a plan of union. By the 1930s, their proposal included partitioning the united church into six administrative units called jurisdictions. Five of these were geographical; the sixth, the Central Jurisdiction, was racial, including African American churches and annual conferences wherever they were geographically located in the United States. African American Methodists and some others were troubled by this prospect and opposed the plan. The majority of Methodist Protestants favored the union, even though it meant episcopal government, which they had not had since their church was organized in 1830. Following overwhelming approvals at the General Conferences and annual conferences of the three churches, they were united in April, 1939, into The Methodist Church. At the time of its formation, the new church included 7.7 million members.

Conflict in Europe was heating up again. Although Methodists, Evangelicals, and United Brethren each had published strong statements condemning war and advocating peaceful reconciliation among the nations, once again the strength of their positions was largely lost with American involvement in the hostilities of World War II.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2016. Copyright 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.