The Hidden History of Methodist Schism

by | Feb 13, 2020 | 11 comments

As United Methodists face General Conference 2020 and the potential of forming new church bodies, it feels as though the denomination is at a significant crossroad. It’s as if we are doing something we have never done before. If only that were true. Let’s talk about the history of Methodist Schism.

The truth is, Methodist history is fraught with conflict. Two centuries of it. It’s part of our DNA. It’s who we are. Splitting and reforming are woven into our very being. Historically, there are more divided Methodists than there are United Methodists.

I recently led a session on Productive Conflict with Bishop Jimmy Nunn of Oklahoma. In preparation for our time together, he pulled together two centuries worth of Methodist tussles—theological and organizational—that have resulted in splits. Splits in the 1800s produced the following new denominations: African Methodist Episcopal, the Methodist Protestant, the Primitive Methodist, the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South, Free Methodist, Salvation Army, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and Nazarene.

Splits in the 1900s produced these movements:

  • Pentecostal Holiness
  • Social Gospel
  • Methodist Church
  • Southern Methodist Church
  • Evangelical Methodist
  • Association of Independent Methodist Churches
  • United Methodist Church
  • Autonomous Methodist Churches
  • The Autonomy of Methodists in South and Central America

It turns out schism is nothing new. It’s in our blood. It’s right there in the history books.

Hidden History of Methodist Schism

Twenty years ago, I mapped my family genogram. I was startled to realize that I wasn’t the only person in my family to have changed their name. Decades earlier, my Italian Catholic grandfather had changed his surname from Scozzafava to Scott. On the other side of my family, my Orthodox Jewish uncle had changed his first name from Harold to Hillel. My cousin Todd became Adlai. All of a sudden, my unique and significant history wasn’t so unique or meaningful. It was almost predictable, in my DNA, a part of my hidden history.

Similarly, the people called Methodist have been doing schism for a very long time. Perhaps what is different this time is that we haven’t split YET over this issue. In the past, splits took place every 20 years on average.

Methodist schism falls into three distinct categories: theology, inclusion, and polity. Our present conflicts have roots in all three areas. Read more here: Click To Tweet

It’s not like the previous issues were less significant. As Bishop Nunn reminded us: “Methodist schisms fall into three distinct categories: theology, inclusion, and polity. Our present conflicts have roots in all three areas.”

“This realization should lead us to ask these three questions,” Bishop Nunn believes. “What do we believe, and how do we live out our beliefs? Who is fully included in the life and ministry of the church? What is the balance between connection and autonomy?”

Today’s Methodists

As we well know, today’s United Methodists respond differently to these questions. Our varied responses give rise to another dynamic that is at play. Historically, when a reform movement happened, it was followed by a restorationist movement. And vice versa. Often these counter-splits happened the very next year.

Our current issues have all the makings of a historical split. It’s a good drama. We have restorationists and reformers. We have the urge and precedent for splitting.

I wonder if we are freer when we split. After all, specific energy comes with a divorce—a sudden burst of freedom of independence. However, this new energy must not be sustainable because we continue to divide.

Perhaps it’s time to split once again. Maybe the genetic/cultural temptation is too strong to withstand, and the call of the times too strong to ignore. On the other hand, perhaps we’ll decide to do something different and find a way to work together—reformers and restorationists under one big tent. If so, we would finally have the opportunity to live out John Wesley’s aspirational thought, “Though we may not all think alike, can we not love alike?”

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  1. Joyce DeToni-Hill

    It so important to know history. When I was in seminary so many student grumbled about having to take quite a few church history courses. If we don’t know our context we don’t go how to live with in it. I am always amused at northwestern university’s early mascot was the “ fighting Methodists “. I prefer to think of them fighting for justice but ….other images come to mind too. Thanks for the article .

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks, Joyce, for your comments! I remember sitting through an entire year of Church History with Dr. Alton Templin at the Iliff School of Theology wondering if I was going to remember any of it. Plus a semester of Methodist history with Jean Miller Schmidt. I don’t remember a lot of the details however the overarching sense of history has stayed with me. I am grateful to Bishop Nunn for bringing the particulars of Methodist history into the light.

  2. Bradford Reeves

    One other thought, when the conservatives leave, historically, it is usually only about half of them. I cannot speak for the progressives.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Good insight Bradford. I wonder how that figures into the historical and current dynamics.

  3. Vivian C. Hiestand

    As I read the article I was struck by how the lack of knowledge of our history leads to a sense of identity that is disconnected from other Methodist congregations. Combine that with a lack of knowledge of our polity, doctrines, and Wesley’s teaching about grace and the Holy Spirit, and you have people with little reason to remain connected to persons they do not know personally.

    Thank you, Rebekah, for another insightful commentary.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      You are quite right, Vivian—we would do well to learn much more about our polity, doctrine and history. Your comments however, got me wondering about something else. Since our forebears have been quite adept at splitting every twenty years, and since we have hung together since the merger, is it possible that there is something about our connectionalism—including the many, many meetings that we have where we meet people across the way, the district, the conference, the denomination, and the world–that is actually keeping us engaged as never before?

  4. Steve Pudinski

    Thanks for the insightful article, Rebekah. It seems as the start of GC2020 gets closer, more and more individuals are sharing their thoughts. Another that I thought was very interesting was published yesterday on UMNS, Why I’m not leaving The United Methodist Church, by the Rev. Steve West. If more people looked at the perceived differences as Steve West did, it may be another 20 or so years before the church faces another potential schism.

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Thanks Steve, I’ll check it out.

  5. Phil Tarman

    Good stuff, Rebekah! I have faith that God will bring good out of the current conflict. I choose to be with those who favor inclusion and affirmation of all God’s people.

  6. David Allhusen

    I find it fascinating that the current topics cited as conflictual present historically as reflecting of cultural norms and sensibilities and harbor no threat to one’s belief system. The entire drawn out and unresolved debate may reflect the stark reality that a church system of more than 12 people is destined to split. I sense this as a more spiritual attack on the church as I find limited intellectual discourse substantiating most perspectives. Progressives are leaving; conservatives are leaving. Who’s left to turn out the lights?

    • Rebekah Simon-Peter

      Good questions, Dave.


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