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Methodism and Providence: a Study in Secularization

  • Russell E. Richey (a1)


In 1884, the American Historical Association was founded. Four years later, in 1888, the American Society of Church History came into being. The two events, the founding of the ASCH as well as of the AHA, belong to the larger saga of late nineteenth century professional formation. In field after field, amateur and patrician endeavours fell before what seemed a common strategy to consolidate, standardize, resource, institutionalize, and professionalize. The relation of the ASCH to the AHA is instructive. The two organizations shared much. Both drew significantly upon the idiom and structures of German historical scholarship. The guiding spirit of the AHA, Herbert Baxter Adams, plied his German training in a research seminar at Johns Hopkins whose methods and graduates swept historical efforts across the nation into the AHA orbit. His counterpart, Philip Schaff, conceived the ASCH in comparable instrumental and imperialistic terms. German-born, trained by Ferdinand Christian Baur and Johann A. W. Neander, Schaff put an indelible mark on the field of church history. The scholarship attests the leadership and legacy: a 13-volume American Church History Series (1893-7), his own 6-volume History of the Christian Church (1882-92), a 3-volumc Religious Encyclopaedia (1882-4), adapted from that of J.J. Hcrzog, the 3-volumc Creeds of Christendom (1877), and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, the two series of which ran to 28 and 14 volumes (1886-9, 1890–1900).



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1 See Higham, J., History: Professional Scholarship in America (Baltimore and London, 1965,1983), Hall, P. Dobkin, The Organization of American Culture, 1700–1900: Private Institutions, Elites, and the Origins of American Nationality (New York, 1984), and the centennial issue of The American Historical Review for October 1984, and in that issue particularly, Tassel, D. D. Van, ‘From Learned Society to Professional Organization: the American Historical Association, 1884–1900‘, AHR, 89 (1984), pp. 92956 . Van Tassel distinguishes a learned society and a professional organization in these terms: ‘A learned society, therefore, may be defined as an organization, often exclusive in membership, dedicated to the preservation, advancement, and diffusion of knowledge solely through the publication of papers read at periodic meetings. While pursuing some of the same goals as a learned society, a professional organization usually distinguishes itself from other groups, sets standards of professional performance as well as guidelines for professional training programs, enhances communication among the members, serves and protects special interests of the profession by promoting legislation, among other things, and enforces a degree of conformity to professional practices and standards among its members. Indeed, a professional organization is the product of a community of people with a common sense of purpose’: p. 930. In these terms the ASCH remained a learned society long after the AHA had achieved professional status.

2 See Bowden, Henry W., Dictionary of American Religious Biography (Westport Conn., 1977). In this discussion I follow Bowden’s Church History in the Age of Science: Historiographical Patterns in the United States, 1876–1918 (Chapel Hill, 1971), and Higham, History.

3 Bowden, , Church History, pp. 59–61; Higham, p. 17 .

4 This formulation of history as science can be found in Bowden, , Church History, p. 17 et passim.

5 Quoted by Bowden, , Church History, p. 52 , from Schaff‘s, Theological Propaedeutic, p. 236 .

6 Higham, pp. 92–103.

7 Bowden, , Church History, p. 26 .

8 Ibid., p. 106n. From Emerton’s‘A Definition of Church History’, Papers of the ASCH, ser. 2, 7 (1923), pp. 55–6. Emerton affirmed that ‘Historical evidence concerns only such things as are perceptible to human powers and can be recorded by human means. Miracles— all miracles—are to be excluded from the historian’s function, because no human evidence can establish the fact of a miracle’: Bowden, p. 109; Emerton, p. 63.

9 Ibid., p. 103:Emerton, p. 57.

10 Ibid., p. 108: Emerton, p. 62. Emerton continued: ‘The belief in the superhuman… because it is a fact of human experience, has its historical record and can be studied historically’.

11 Ibid., p. 103: Emerton, p. 57.

12 For a related effort to show how Methodists use history for theological and definitional purposes, see my essay, ‘American Methodism: A Bicentennial Review’, The Drew Gateway, 54 (Winter, Spring, 1984), a double issue entitled Methodism and Ministry: Historical Explorations, special editors. Seleck, J. B. and Richey, R. E., pp. 13042 ; and also Rowe, K. E., ‘Counting the Converts: Progress Reports as Church History’, in Rethinking Methodist History: A Bicentennial Historical Consultation, ed. Richey, R. E. and Rowe, K. E. (Nashville, 1985), pp. 1117 . This effort builds on Rowe’s findings.

13 The literature on secularization is immense and the definitions various. The definition used here is one of five outlined in Larry Shiner’s ‘The Concept of Secularization in Empirical Research’, Journalfor the Scientific Study of Religion, 6 (1967), pp. 207–20. Shiner’s third definition, ‘the desacralization of the world’, proves most helpful here. His other rubrics for secularization are ‘the decline of religion’, ‘conformity with the world’, ‘the disengagement of society from religion’, and ‘the transposition of beliefs and patterns from the “religious” to the “secular” sphere’. For an alternative estimate of the literature and exhaustive survey of the same, see Dobbelaere, K., Secularization: A Multi-Dimensional Concept, which constitutes a full issue of Current Sociology, 29 (Summer, 1981). See also his ‘Secularization Theories and Social Paradigms’, Social Compass, 31 (1984), pp. 2–3, 199–219. See also‘Rethinking Secularization: Retrospect and Prospect’, Review of Religious Research, 26 (1985), pp. 228–43. The several works of Bryan R. Wilson and David Martin have, of course, been immensely influential on this topic.

14 On Providence as an American commonplace see especially Berens, J. F., Providence and Patriotism in Early America 1640–1815 (Charlottesville, 1978); Nagel, P. C., This Sacred Trust. American Nationality 1798–1898 (New York, 1971); May, H. F., ‘The Decline of Providence?’ in Ideas, Faiths and Feelings. Essays on American Intellectual and Religious History 1952–1982(New York, 1983), pp. 13046 ; Gillespie, J. Bowen, ‘“The clear leadings of Providence”: pious memoirs and the problems of self-realization for women in the early nineteenth century’, Journal of the Early Republic, 5 (1985), pp. 197221 ; Hood, F.J., Reformed America: The Middle and Southern States, 1783–1837 (Alabama, 1980); Saum, L. O., The Popular Mind of Pre-Civil War America (Westport Conn., 1980); Bercovitch, S., The American Jeremiad (Madison, 1978).

15 The former two gave the movement its substance, the latter its form.

16 The initial version of the American Discipline suggested in its title the loyalty to the Wesleyan format— Minutes of Several Conversations between the Rev. Thomas Coke LLD. and The Rev. Francis Asbury and others, at a Conference, begun in Baltimore, in the Stale of Maryland, on Monday, the 27th of December, in the Year 1784. Composing a Form of Discipline for the Ministers, Preachers and other Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America (Philadelphia, 1785). For comparison of the American with the Wesleyan minutes see Tigert, John James, A Constitutional History of American Episcopal Methodism, 6th edn. rev. and enl. (Nashville, 1916), Appendix VII, which puts the two in parallel clumns. Consult this volume and Harmon, N. B., The Organization of The Methodist Church, 2nd edn. rev. (Nashville, 1962) on constitutional matters.

17 A Form of Discipline, For the Ministers, Preachers, and Members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America (New York, 1878), pp. 3–4. For sustained reflection on the import of the changes that the Americans made see the first seven essays in Reflections Upon Methodism During the Bicentennial (Dallas: Bridwell Library Center for Methodist Studies, 1985; Papers presented at the 1984 Regional Conference of the World Methodist Historical Society).

18 See The Doctrines and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (Philadelphia, 1817); The Doctrines and Discipline of the Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in America, Established in the City of New-York, October 25th, 1820, 2nd edn. (New York, 1840); The Doctrine and Discipline of the Evangelical Association, Together with the Design of Their Union, translated from the German (New-Berlin, 1832); Origin, Constitution, Doctrine and Discipline, of the United Brethren in Christ (Circleville, Ohio, 1837); Constitution and Discipline of the Methodist Protestant Church (Baltimore, 1830); The Discipline of the Wesleyan, Methodist Connection of America, particularly in the 2nd and 3rd versions (New York, 1875 and 1849), which include a Preface by a committee appointed to prepare a short account of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America, to be inserted in the Discipline’ (1845, in; The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Richmond, 1846); The Doctrines and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church (Rochester, 1870); The Doctrines and Disciplinef the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in America (Louisville, 1874). All were consulted in The Archives Center, Drew University.

19 A tentative claim, based on a small sample of constitutions: A Summary of Church Discipline… by The Baptist Association (Charleston, 1774); The Canons and Constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1829); The Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church (1793); The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (1821).

20 The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, ed. Telford, J., 8 vols (London, 1931), 8, p. 259 . The letter was dated 1 Feb. 1791.

21 (Philadelphia, 1791). See American Methodist Pioneer. The Life and Journals of The Rev. Freeborn Garrettson, 1752–1827, ed. R. Simpson (Rutland, Vt., 1984): published under sponsorship of Drew University Library.

22 The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury, ed. Clark, E. T., 3 vols (Nashville, 1958), 3, p. 197 . To Daniel Hitt, dated 30 Jan. 1801. Cf. the letter to Stith Mead ten days earlier, 3, pp. 195–6.

23 (New York, 1805).

24 See my ‘From quarterly to camp meeting: a reconsideration of early American Methodism’, Methodist History, 23 (1985), pp. 199–213.

25 Minutes of The Methodist Conferences, Annually Held in America: From 1773 to 1813 Inclusive (New York 1813), iii. Noting the dramatic growth and prosperity of Methodism, the editors comment, ‘With wonder and gratitude, we may exclaim, what hath God wrought?’ iv.

26 (Baltimore, 1810); facsimile edition Rutland, Vt., 1974).

27 Stevens, Abel, A Compendious History of American Methodism (New York, 1868), pp. 517–18, 1436 ; Buckley, J. M., A History of Methodists in the United Slates, 4th edn. (New York, 1890), pp. 354, 353. 181, 21316 .

28 Lee, , Short History, pp. v-vi; 362 .

29 Ibid., p. 129. The distinction between general and particular Providence was a common one. John Wesley examined the issue in his sermon ‘On Divine Providence’, The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols (Grand Rapids, n.d.) = reprint of the standard Jackson edition in its 1872 version, 5, pp. 313–25. Wesley asked the reader, p. 322: ‘You say, “You allow a general providence, but deny a particular one?” And what is a general, of whatever kind it be, that includes no particulars?’ and p. 323: ‘What becomes, then, of your general providence, exclusive of a particular?’ However, both in this sermon and in ‘Spiritual Worship’, 6, pp. 424–35, Wesley did attend to both. This series of statements (each of which is elaborated) summarizes his position on general Providence:

‘He is the true God, the only Cause, the sole Creator of all things’;
‘And as the true God, he is also the Supporter of all the things that he hath made’;
‘As the true God, he is likewise the Preserver of all things’;
‘[H]e is the true Author of all the motion that is in the universe’;
‘The true God is also the Redeemer of all the children of men’;
‘The true God is the Governor of all things’.

Wesley distinguished God‘s providential government over the children of men by a threefold circle of divine providence, p. 428: ‘The outermost circle includes all the sons of men; Heathens, Mahometans, Jews, and Christians. He causeth his sun to rise upon all. He giveth them rain and fruitful seasons. He pours ten thousand benefits upon them, and fills their hearts with good and gladness. With an interior circle he encompasses the whole visible Christian Church, all that name the name of Christ. He has an additional regard to these, and a nearer attention to their welfare. But the innermost circle of his providence encloses only the invisible Church of Christ; all real Christians, wherever dispersed in all corners of the earth’.

30 Ibid., pp. 43–4. Lee continued, p. 44: ‘The revival of religion which first began under the ministry of Mr. Jarratt, was gready increased by the labours of the Methodist preachers, who, who, uniting with Mr. Janatt in the same blessed work, were greatly owned and honoured of God and had the pleasure of seeing the work of the Lord prospering in their hands’. Lee was himself one measure of that prosperity. He had been converted by Williams, , whom he regarded as his spiritual father. See Stevens, Compendious History, p. 49 . At earlier points where religious vitalities might have warranted a comparable judgement, Lee refrained from rendering the judgement himself. For instance, of a 1760 revival in Britain, Lee said, ‘Many persons, men and women, professed to be cleansed from all unrighteousness and made perfect in love in a moment’. Then he quoted Wesley, p. 21 : ‘Here began that glorious work of sanctification…’. So also Lee rendered an account of George Whitefield’s 1740 revivals in New England by citing a passage from Whitefield’s journal that advanced the claims about the work of God.

31 Ibid., pp. 54–9. For other revival accounts, see pp. 43, 49, 51, 74, 77, 82, 129–34, 138–40, 145, 218, 271–5, 277–80, 283–7, 289–94, 300–4, 308, 311–15, 344, 351, 356.

32 Ibid., pp. iv, v.

33 Hermann, R. E., ‘Nathan Bangs: Apologist for American Methodism’ (Emory, Ph.D. thesis, 1973). Scott, L., ‘The message of early American Methodism’, in The History of American Methodism, ed. Bucke, E. S., 3 vols (New York, 1964), 1, p. 347 ; Stevens, , Compendious History, pp. 3678 .

34 I am using the 6th edn., 4 vols (New York, 1860).

35 I, p. 89.

36 2, pp. 101, 109–19.

37 I, p. 360. He continued, pp. 360–1; ‘We have not, therefore, enumerated the communicants of the Methodist Episcopal Church as an evidence, of itself, that its ministry were moving in obedience to God’s will, and in the order of his providence. Though they had been as “numerous as the sands upon the seashore”, had they been destitute of righteousness, they would be no proof that the instruments of their conversion were sent of God.’

38 I, p. 361. The specification of three criteria and the numbering are mine.

39 (New York, 1837): 2nd edn. rev. (1837, 1840). I am using the 1840 edition.

40 I, p. 165. Chapter 3 of this volume recounted the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church and effectively summarized the defense that Bangs had mounted in An Original Church of Christ. See particularly his twelve points, pp. 159–63.

41 I, p. 364.

42 Thomas Coke made this point at the organization of the church and in specific reference to the church order being adopted. See his The Substance of a Sermon Preached at Baltimore…Before the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church … at the Ordination of the Rev. Francis Asbury to the Office of a Superintendent (Baltimore, 1785).

43 I, p. 160.

44 4, p. 456; I, p. 46.

45 2, pp. 111–12. In ‘A Plan Account of The People Called Methodists’, Wesley said of ‘the whole economy of the people commonly called Methodists’, 8, p. 248: ‘[A]s they had not the least expectation, at first, of any thing like what has since followed, so they had no previous design or plan at all; but every thing arose just as the occasion offered. They saw or felt some impending or pressing evil, or some good end necessary to be pursued. And many rimes they fell unawares on the very things which secured the good, or removed the evil. At other rimes, they consulted on the most probable means, following only common sense and Scripture: Though they generally found, in looking back, something in Christian antiquity likewise, very nearly parallel thereto’.

46 An Original Church of Christ, pp. 346–7. Cf. pp. 347–8. Note the curious anomaly in Bangs and early Methodism. Providential leadings yielded a dynamic view of structure and a static view of doctrine. However, that anomaly disappeared as Bangs and others insisted that what had been dynamically given should be left alone. See ibid., p. 370.

47 History, 1, pp. 20–33, 46, 280–8; 2, pp. 146–50.‘And although it formed no part of the design of its disciples to enter into the political speculations of the day, nor to intermeddle with the civil affairs of the country, yet it is thought that its extensive spread in this country, the hallowing influence it has exerted on society in uniting in one compact body so many members, through the medium of an itinerant ministry, interchanging from north to south, and from east to west, have contributed not a little to the union and prosperity of the nation’ (p. 46).

48 2, pp. 148, 146, 147.

49 2, pp. 148–9. Bangs recognized the divisive spirit abroad in the land. He said, p. 149: ‘It is well known that our civil organization, into several state sovereignties, though under the partial control of the general government, naturally tended to engender state animosities, arising out of local and peculiar usages, laws, customs, and habits of life. What more calculated to soften these asperities, and to allay petty jealousies and animosities, than a Church bound together by one system and doctrine, under the government of the same discipline, accustomed to the same usages, and a ministry possessing a homogeneousness of character, aiming at one and the same end—the salvation of their fellow-men by the same method—and these ministers continually interchanging from north to south, from east to west, everywhere striving to bring all men under the influence of the same “bond of perfectness?” Did not these things tend to bind the great American family together by producing a sameness of character, feelings and views?’ Not long after Bangs wrote this, the church divided, north and south; and not to many years after the Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian divisions, the nation itself divided. Clarence Goen in Broken Churches, Broken Nation (Macon, Ga., 1985) echoing Bangs’s sentiments, has carefully argued what others have intimated, that the first divisions largely determined the latter.

50 Stevens, See, The Centenary of American Methodism: A Sketch of Its History, Theology, Practical System, ana Success (New York, 1865).

51 3 vols (New York, 1858–61), and 4 vols (New York, 1864–7).

52 The first of Stevens’s major writings treated Providence explicidy, Centenary Reflections on the Providential Character of Methodism (New York, 1840). Among Stevens’s other works are Sketches and Incidents; or, A Budget from the Saddle-bags of a Superannuated Itinerant (New York, 1843–5), Memorials of the Introduction of Methodism into the Eastern Stales (Boston and New York, 1848), Memorials of the Early Progress of Methodism in the Eastern States, ser. 2 (Boston, 1851), The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century, 3 vols (New York, 1858–61), An Appeal to the Methodist Episcopal Church … on the Question of Slavery (New York, 1859), Dr. Cartwright Portrayed (New York, 1861), Life and Times of Nathan Bangs (New York, 1863), The Centenary of American Methodism (New York, 1865), The Women of Methodism (New York, 1866), Cliaracter-sketclies (New York, 1882), Supplementary History of American Methodism (New York, 1899).

53 Stevens, , Compendious History, pp. 146, 223 . Cf. History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1, pp. 26–7.1 will follow the one-volume, condensed version of Stevens’s narrative. He worked these essential points into whatever scale analysis he undertook. Cf., for instance., The Centen ary of American Methodism, pp. 147–53 with the sections just cited. There Stevens also con cluded, p. 151 : ‘It would indeed appear that the Methodist movement was thus a providential intervention for the new nation’.

54 Compendious History, p. 24; History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, I, p. 28.

55 Compendious History, p. 18 and chapter I; History of the Methodist Episcopal Church, I, p. 18 and chapter I. Stevens does not himself call Methodism a machine, though some of his con temporaries did. See Marx, L., The Machine in the Garden (London, 1964), which treats the image of the machine in the garden in American literature.

56 Compendious History, p. 176. See also pp. 199–200, 262, 506, 578–80 and, indeed, the entirety of this concluding chapter (XXXVI) as well as the entirety of chapter I.

57 This particular formulation comes from Handy, Robert T., A Christian America (2nd ed., New York, 1984). Compatible but differently nuanced readings prevail in the critical literature.

58 Compendious History, pp. 46, 55, 107–9, 146, 199–200, 262, 266, 424–5, 506.

59 Compendious History, pp. 404, 419.

60 Ibid., pp. 39, 49, 81, 84, 85, 91, 257, 442.

61 Ibid., pp. 96, 143.

62 Ibid., pp. 55, 263.

63 Ibid., pp. 578–82.

64 (New York, 1912.)

65 In addition to those mentioned in the text, the works of Buckley include Christian Science and Other Superstitions (New York, 1899); Christians and the Theater (New York, 1875); Extemporaneous Oratory (New York, 1898); The Fundamentals and Their Contrasts (Nashville, 1906); Oats or Wild Oats? Common-sense for Young Men (New York, 1885); Theory and Practice of Foreign Missions (New York, 1911) and The Wrong and Perii of Woman Suffrage (New York, 1909). For a fuller enumeration of Buckley’s works see Rowe’s, K. E. Methodist Union Catalog: Pre-1976 Imprints (Metuchen, N.J., 1976), 2 .

66 (New York, 1896); A History of Methodism in the United Stales, 2 vols (New York, 1897). Reference is to A History of Methodists in the United States, 4th edn. (New York, 1900).

67 A History of Methodists, p. xvii.

68 Ibid., p. 49, the title of chapter 3.

69 Ibid., pp. 170–3, 176–7, 179, 203, 205, 248.

70 Ibid., p. 173.

71 Ibid., p. 188. See also pp. 533, 655.

72 Ibid., p. 221.

73 Ibid., pp. 220–1.

74 Ibid., p. 97.

75 Ibid., p. I.

76 A History of Methodists, pp. 407–63, chapter 17. Buckley entitled the chapter ‘Bisection of The Methodist Episcopal Church’, perhaps a further indication of his effort at ‘objectivity’, and implicitly a recognition of Southern claims that both branches represent genuine episcopal Methodism and that neither is a schism.

77 Ibid., p. 685.

78 Ibid., p. 686.

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Methodism and Providence: a Study in Secularization

  • Russell E. Richey (a1)


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