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History of Methodist Denominations in the U.S.

Common Heritage
Division and Separation
Coming Together

Methodist denominations in the United States share a common heritage going back to John and Charles Wesley in England in the 1730s.
In the United States the Methodist Episcopal Church organized in 1784. Thereafter American Methodism experienced division and separation from 1787 to 1870.
The process of coming together began in 1939 and is still underway.

Methodism began in the 1730s in England as a reform movement within the Church of England, led by John and Charles Wesley. Small groups met for Bible study, worship, and mutual support for seeking holiness in daily living. This encompassed "social holiness", the love and service of others. Because of their disciplined way of life they were dubbed "Methodists". Methodism spread to Ireland and then to the British colonies in North America. Methodist preaching, with its message that the gospel is for everyone, appealed especially to persons on the lower rungs of society. By the 1760s several Methodist societies were flourishing. John Wesley sent lay preachers to assist them. Members, however, were expected to receive the sacraments from clergy of the Church of England.

After the Revolutionary War, with few Church of England clergy remaining in America, John Wesley ordained lay preachers and set apart Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to be joint superintendents (later called bishops). On Christmas Eve 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in Baltimore, Maryland. Membership was open to all believers, white and black, free and slaves. Many of their leaders followed John Wesley in opposition to slavery, but they functioned in a society rampant with racial inequality.

It didn't take long for racism to appear within American Methodism and for separation to occur.

St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia required its black members to sit in the gallery. In protest Richard Allen, a Methodist lay preacher, in 1787 led an exodus of black members and formed the Free African Society. In 1794 Allen and his followers built Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816 Allen convened black Methodists from five churches to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). He was consecrated bishop of this new denomination.


In this same period black members of John Street Methodist Church in New York City could receive communion only after whites were finished. Affronted by this situation, in 1796 under the leadership of James Varick they began worshiping together in a private home. They called themselves the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1800 they completed their own building, named Zion, but still part of the regular Methodist conference. This connection lasted two decades until dissatisfaction with treatment of black preachers led to the formation of a new denomination known as the American Methodist Episcopal Church in America. Varick was the first bishop. In 1848 this denomination added Zion to its name,
honoring its mother church, to become the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ).

Although separate in structure, these two African American denominations retained Wesley's Articles of Religion and adapted the Methodist Discipline for church governance.

Religious leaders of German immigrants in the early days of the America republic found spiritual kinship with John Wesley. But because of the language barrier they formed their own churches.
In 1800 Phillip William Otterbein, a German Reformed pastor, and Martin Boehm, a Mennonite, founded the United Brethren in Christ. In 1803 Jacob Albright organized the Evangelical Association. In the distant future they would join their destiny with the Methodist Church.

Imbued with the spirit of American democracy, some Methodists became dissatisfied with the episcopal structure. Instead they advocated more democratic participation in administration and placement of pastors. They favored equal lay representation in annual conferences. In 1830 about 5,000 preachers and lay persons departed and formed the Methodist Protestant Church, which functioned without bishops. Anti-slavery sentiment was also strong amongst them.

Other Methodists were disturbed by compromises by church leadership on slavery. Some perceived a waning of the Wesleyan emphasis upon individual and social holiness. This led to the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection in 1843 as a separate denomination.

The slavery issue divided the broader Methodist Episcopal Church, as it did the whole country. Many northern Methodists were abolitionists, but southern Methodists adapted to regional practices. The issue came to a head in 1844 when the General Conference suspended a bishop who had acquired slaves through marriage until he freed them. Southerners split off and formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South.

In 1860 the Free Methodist Church came into being in western New York and Illinois. Led by B.T. Roberts, the founders emphasized the warm-hearted, biblical message, and lifestyle of original Methodism. They chose their name to signify free seats for all (a protest against pew rental), freedom from slavery and slaveholding, freedom from secret societies, and freedom in the Spirit in worship and in daily living.

Before the Civil War slaves were allowed to be members the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. After emancipation black members expressed a desire to have their own separate and independent organization. This was authorized by the 1866 General Conference of the M.E. Church, South. In 1870 forty-one delegates from eight colored conferences met in Jackson, Tennessee and formed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME). They elected two of their own preachers -- William H. Miles of Kentucky and Richard H. Vanderhorst of Georgia -- as their first bishops. (In 1954 the term "Colored" was changed to "Christian".)

In this same period the Methodist Episcopal Church began to organize mission conferences among black people. By 1900 there were 19 such conferences. They were supervised by white bishops until 1920 when the first black bishop to serve in the United States was elected. (Previously three black ministers had been elected as missionary bishops for Liberia.)

After a long period of division and separation, in 1916 representatives of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church began to discuss a plan of union. It took years of discussion and negotiation until the three denominations merged into the Methodist Church in 1939.

In the union Methodist Protestants accepted episcopal governance. To get the Methodist Episcopal Church, South into the union, the newly formed Methodist Church was organized into five geographic jurisdictions and a Central Jurisdiction encompassing black conferences regardless of where they were located. Most of the black conferences opposed this segregated feature of the union.

Parallel to Methodist union, merger negotiations began in 1933 between the two German-heritage denominations, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and the Evangelical Church. (The latter had split in half in 1891 but came back together in 1922). They united as the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB) in 1946.

The next twenty years saw increased cooperation between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, each with similar spiritual heritage though with a historically different ethnic background. In 1968 they merged into the United Methodist Church (UMC). This union also eliminated the Central Jurisdiction. By 1974 all black conferences had merged with white conferences.

Also in 1968 the Wesleyan Methodist Church (having changed from "Connection" to "Church" in 1947) merged with the like-minded Pilgrim Holiness Church to become the Wesleyan Church.

The three major black denominations -- African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Christian Methodist Episcopal Church -- maintained their separate existence. But recognizing their common heritage, beginning in the mid-seventies their bishops joined with United Methodist bishops in a Consultation of Methodist Bishops. This has become a quadrennial event.

An official Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation came into being in 1988 with six representatives from each denomination. In 1992 a separate Commission on Union formed. The two bodies merged in 2000 into the Commission on Pan-Methodist Cooperation and Union.

As a step toward reconciliation and forgiveness, the 2000 United Methodist General Conference conducted a liturgical Act of Repentance for Racism . AME, AMEZ, and CME bishops participated. By the end of 2002 thirty-one United Methodist annual conferences had conducted their own acts of repentance for racism services. Twenty-nine more are scheduled for 2003.

The 2000 United Methodist General Conference also required 14 general boards and commissions to have on its governing board at least one member from the three historically black Methodist denominations. These new members will have both voice and vote.

In 1996 the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church began exploring the possibility of union. Discussion was suspended in the fall of 2002 but interest remains.

History of Four Methodist Denominations

Origin of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church

The A.M.E.Zion Church History

Roots of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church

Evangelical United Brethren Church: General Information

About the UM Church: Our History

Free Methodist Church: People with a Rich Heritage

These are the Wesleyans

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