Historical Sketch of the Origin of the Methodist Protestant Church
Compiled by Rev. T. H. Lewis, D.D.
and adopted by the General Conference at
Washington, D.C., 1904
Revised by the General Conference of 1964
The Methodist Protestant Church, instituted in 1828 and organized under its present title in 1830, traces its origin through the Methodist Episcopal Church, back to the Evangelical Reformation begun in England by John and Charles Wesley, of Oxford University and Presbyters of the Church of England.
Rise of Methodism
The rise of Methodism is described by Mr. John Wesley as follows: “In 1729, two young men reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness, followed after it, and incited others so to do. In 1737, they saw holiness comes by faith. They saw likewise that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out, utterly against their will, to raise a holy people.
“In the latter end of the year 1739, eight or ten persons came to me in London, who appeared to be deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly groaning for redemption. They desired (as did two or three more the next day) that I would spend some time with them in prayer, and advise them how to flee from the wrath to come, which they saw continually hanging over their heads.
“That we might have more time for this great work I appointed a day when they might all come together, which, from thenceforward, they did every week, namely, on Thursday in the evening. To these, and as many more as desired to join them (for their number increased daily), I gave those advises from time to time which I judged most needful to them, and we always concluded our meeting with prayer suited to their several necessities.
“This was the rise of the United Society, first in London and then in other places. Such a society is no other than a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love; that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.”
Growth and Organization In America
John and Charles Wesley came to America in 1736 and remained nearly two years. This was before the Methodist movement had taken definite shape even in their own minds, and their labors here were without practical results.
Methodism began in America with the coming of Robert Strawbridge, of Ire-land, to Frederick County, Maryland, and Philip Embury of Ireland, to New York City, in 1766. In 1769 Mr. Wesley sent Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor, and in 1771, Francis Asbury and Richard Wright
These and others traveled constantly and labored so abundantly that in 1784, although the work had been seriously interrupted by the Revolutionary War, the number of traveling preachers in America was about eighty, and of members about fifteen thousand.
Up to this time no Methodist Church had been organized. Methodist preachers and members of Methodist societies in America, as in England, were mostly members of the Church of England. As this church ceased to exist in America it became necessary to organize the Methodists into a church, for they were as sheep having no shepherd.
Mr. Wesley, although refusing to the last to consent to a separation from the Church of England, saw the necessity in America and gave his consent in the fol-lowing words: “As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely set them free.”
The letter containing this permission was sent over by Dr. Thomas Coke, he and Francis Asbury being designated joint superintendents over the work in America.
Accordingly, on Dr. Coke’s arrival, a conference of the traveling preachers was called to meet in Baltimore, Maryland, in December, 1784. About sixty were present, who proceeded to organize an independent church under the title of “The Methodist Episcopal Church,” and to elect Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, Bishops.
The church thus organized was peculiar in several respects, but its most remarkable feature was that the unlimited exercise of the legislative, executive and judicial powers of the church were vested by these traveling preachers in them-selves and their successors, to the entire exclusion of all the members of the church, no provision being made for any layman to vote, as such and directly, upon any question in any church meeting.
This fact explains the origin of the Methodist Protestant Church, and fixes its date as well. For, although some forty years intervened before the Methodist Protestant Church emerged into historical fact, yet Methodists began to protest against the kind of government established in 1784 almost before the Conference adjourned, and the protest gathered volume and intensity with every succeeding Conference. In ten years it resulted in a secession on the question of giving preachers an appeal from the stationing authority. In twenty years it produced a delegated General Conference with restrictions upon the legislative power; and in thirty-six years it grew into an overwhelming, although ineffective, majority of the General Conference in favor of electing presiding elders by the annual conferences.
Origin Of The Methodist Protestant Church
The particular protest made by those who finally organized the Methodist Protestant Church was aimed at the feature of the government which was regarded as the real cause of all the dissatisfaction among Methodists, viz., the exclusion of laymen from the councils of the Church, and withholding from them the right of suffrage.
After years of desultory discussion of this point, William S. Stockton, a lay-man, of Philadelphia, PA, began in 1821 the publication of a periodical called the “Wesleyan Repository,” which was intended to provide a medium for the more formal examination of what began to be called “the mutual rights of the ministry and laity,” and also to spread abroad the views of leading ministers and laymen on this subject.
This publication was superseded in 1824 by “The Mutual Rights of Ministers and Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” published at Baltimore, Mary-land, with the same general object in view. A large number of pamphlets, also pri-vately printed, contributed to the stream of discussion which continued to spread over the Church.
When the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church met in 1824, a large number of petitions were presented, praying a representation of min-isters and laymen in the law-making department, but no change was promised, and the only answer vouchsafed was: “if by ‘rights and privileges’ it is intended to sig-nify something foreign from the institutions of the Church as we received them from our fathers, pardon us if we know no such rights; if we do not comprehend such privileges.”
Immediately after the close of the General Conference, a meeting was held, composed of distinguished members of the Conference and others from different parts of the country, to determine whether it was advisable to continue efforts for reform. It was recommended that reformers everywhere organize themselves into societies “in order to ascertain the number of persons in the Methodist Episcopal Church friendly to a change in her government.” These were called the Union Societies, and their whole object was so to unite the reformers as to present to the next General Conference a petition which would obviate the objection made against the appeals to the Conference of 1824. The objection had been that the reformers were so various and conflicting in their aims that it was impossible to determine what they wanted or who wanted it.
In November, 1827, a General Convention was held in Baltimore, composed of one hundred delegates representing Reformers in seven states, by whom a Memorial was prepared to be presented to the ensuing General Conference, praying for the admission of laymen into the legislative councils of the Church.
The General Conference, after deliberating three whole weeks in committee upon the Memorial, not only denied the necessity or justice of the change proposed, but extended the claim for the exclusive right of ministers to legislate for the Church beyond what had ever been attempted before: “The great Head of the Church Himself has imposed on us the duty of preaching the Gospel: of adminis-tering its ordinances, and of maintaining its moral discipline among those over whom the Holy Ghost in these respects has made us overseers. Of these also, namely, of Gospel doctrines, ordinances, and moral discipline, we do believe that the divinely instituted ministry are the divinely authorized expounders; and that the duty of maintaining them in their purity, and of not permitting our ministra-tions in these respects to be authoritatively controlled by others, does rest upon us with the force of a moral obligation.”
The resources of peaceable reform would thus seem to have been exhausted. But it is probable that the protestants would have continued discussion and petition indefinitely had they been permitted. It is certain that they professed again and again their loyalty to the church, and their strong desire to remain in its communion. But this they were not allowed to do. Immediately after the “Mutual Rights” began to be circulated, and Union Societies began to be formed, members of the Church in various sections of the country were threatened by their pastors with expulsion unless they would cease to read the “Mutual Rights” and withdraw from the Union Societies.
When they were brought to trial and insisted on being informed what law of the Church or of the Bible they had violated, they were referred to a clause of one of the “General Rules” of John and Charles Wesley, which forbids “speaking evil of Magistrates or of Ministers” and to a regulation of the General Conference for-bidding “inveighing against either our Doctrines or Discipline,” which the General Conference itself declared admitted of no other construction than “the sense of unchristian railing and violence.”
One Annual Conference went a step further, and replied through its presiding bishop to the demand of an accused minister to know what law of the Discipline he had violated that “An Annual Conference has authority to make rules and regulations for its own members.”
These facts would seem to show that the majority were not careful to find the violated law. They had an occasion and they had the power. Their determination was voiced by one of their leaders as follows: “You publish the ‘Mutual Rights’ and say you will not discontinue that publication. You also say you will not with-draw from the Methodist Episcopal Church. Now we are reduced to one of two alternatives, either to let you remain members of the Church and go on peaceably publishing the ‘Mutual Rights’ by which you agitate the Church, or expel you. We have come to the determination to take the latter alternative, and expel you.”
It seems difficult to believe, but it is the literal fact of history that this ruthless determination was rigorously executed. In North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the District of Columbia, able and efficient ministers, prominent and devoted laymen who lived blameless and pious lives and against whom no charge of heresy or immoral conduct could be brought, were ex-communicated because they read and recommended to their friends a religious newspaper in whose columns it was argued that laymen ought to be admitted into the councils of the Church.
The immediate effect of these expulsions was to convince reformers that there was no hope of obtaining any change in the government, and they began to with-draw in considerable numbers in various parts of the country, both as a mark of their sympathy with their persecuted brethren, and as their final protest against a power that struck but would not hear.
As for the expelled and their friends, nothing remained but to form a new Church. They were Methodists and the only Methodist Church in existence had cast them out. They had no controversy with Methodism, for its doctrines and spirit and experience were their joy and their crown. But because they did not believe it was necessary for the lovely and free spirit of Methodism to be cast in the mold of absolutism, and because they could not consent to the suppression of free speech in behalf of free suffrage, they sorrowfully took up the task of organizing a new Church, which should hold fast to all the distinctive features of Methodism, and at the same time ally it to all the great heritage which Protestantism had bequeathed to the world; which two ideas they sought to express in its name.
Reformers throughout the country were invited to send delegates to a convention to meet in Baltimore, November 12, 1828. This convention effected a provisional organization under the title of “The Associated Methodist Churches,” adopted Articles of Association covering the main features of a church to serve until a Constitution could be matured, and called another convention to meet in 1830.
Meanwhile local churches were gathered, and annual conferences organized; and when the General Conference met in St. John’s Church, Baltimore, Maryland, November 2, 1830, fourteen Annual Conferences were represented by one hundred and fourteen delegates.
The title “Methodist Protestant Church” was substituted for the former title, and the Constitution and Discipline adopted substantially as it still remains.
And so at last the long controversy was closed. The desire of the Reformers to remain in the old Church, and accomplish changes in its government by the peace-able methods of discussion, was not realized. But perhaps it was better so. Set free from the past, albeit by the stern mandate of an angry authority, they were now disentangled from the American as well as the English hierarchy, and at liberty to recur to the advice of Mr. Wesley, which the Conference of 1784 had strangely ignored, and “simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church” in laying the foundations of the new ecclesiasticism. That they did this completely would be too much for uninspired judgment to claim; but that they earnestly desired to do it, and welcomed discussion or even change of what they did when shown a better way, is asserted with confidence.
Outline Of The Methodist Protestant Constitution
They drew up a Constitution which recognized Christ as the only Head of Church, and all elders in the Church as equal, which secured to every adult lay-man the right to vote and to be represented in every church meeting, and to every itinerant the right of appeal from an oppressive appointment and a veto upon his/her removal from a charge while in the faithful discharge of his/her duty, until the expiration of his/her term; which made Church trials for matters of opinion impossible, and gave to every accused person the right to challenge his/her jurors and appeal from their verdict; which refused the modern episcopacy and the presiding eldership as unnecessary; which guarded, as a necessary part of organic law, the rights and privileges of individual members and local churches as carefully as those of the Annual and General Conferences, and yet bound all parts of the system together in lawful and loyal cooperation for the advancement of the common good. In fine, they built a Representative Church. And, not being Englishmen, but Americans; having no traditional prejudices in favor of a divine-right monarchy or a divine-right hierarchy, they took for their model “the church without a bishop, and the state without a king,” which had been planted in this new continent at the expense of so much treasure and blood.
They made a church government in harmony with the Republic to which they gave their glad allegiance as citizens; and in conformity, so far as they understood them, with the principles of the kingdom of God.
In 1939, a majority of the Methodist Protestant Churches were swept back in-to the present-day “Methodist Church” in the so-called union of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.
The basic differences which led to the establishment of the Methodist Protestant Church were not resolved. In addition many Methodist Protestants felt that the “liberal” element in the modern church was so influential that the basic doctrines of Christianity, particularly pertaining to the inspiration of the Scriptures, the deity of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit as taught by Wesley, were threatened. This group, spear-headed by the Mississippi Annual Conference, re-fused to enter the uniting church and determined to preserve the name, the doctrines, and the form of government so long cherished.
Rev. F. L. Sharp, one of the delegates from the Mississippi Conference to the Uniting Conference held at Kansas City in 1939, saw the situation as it was developing with the “liberal” and “social gospel” element gaining control of the united Methodist Church, walked out of the conference, and returned to Mississippi to save as much of the church from union as possible. The majority of the people and churches in the Mississippi Conference agreed with him and voted to continue as the Methodist Protestant Church.
In 1941 the Methodist Protestant Church joined with other fundamental groups in the formation of the American Council of Christian Churches as a nationwide witness to its faith in the infallibility of the Holy Scriptures and in the historic doctrines of Christianity. It is also a charter member of the International Council of Christian Churches organized in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in 1948.
A representative of the General Conference has been on the Executive Committee of both the ICCC and the ACCC since their organization.
In May, 1944, the 29th Quadrennial Session of the General Conference (the first to be held after unification) met in Friendship Church in Jasper County, Mississippi. God in His infinite love and mercy had spared the Methodist Protestant Church to continue with its doctrine, its government, its faith, and its name. Rev. F. L. Sharp, the leader in the preservation of the church, was elected President of the General Conference, a position he held until 1960. In the years which fol-lowed, churches were organized in various states, and a mission was established in Mexico.
At the General Conference of 1948, held in the Mill Creek Church, Kosciusko, Mississippi, the reorganized Alabama and Missouri Conferences were admit-ted and given full rights and privileges.
The General Conference of 1952, held at Clear Creek Church, Brooklyn, Mississippi, saw the church reaching new heights. A mission was opened in British Honduras, and a number of new churches added. Efforts were made toward organizing a denominational college. These efforts culminated in the re-opening of Whitworth College, Brookhaven, Mississippi, as a church-related institution in 1961.
In 1964, a new mission was opened in Korea through the cooperation of the International Council of Christian Churches.
For more than 172 years the Methodist Protestant Church has proclaimed the gospel according to the Bible, the inspired, infallible Word of God, and has upheld and defended the “Faith of our Fathers.” Its motto is “Earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” Jude 3.