23 March 2012

Chapter 1: A New Century for Methodism in America

The Methodist Church in West Branch in 1900,
Herbert Hoover NHS Collection
This is a review of the first chapter of Methodism And Politics in the Twentieth Century.

The Methodist Church in the late 19th century and early 20th century was learning to accept and exert its size and influence as the most dominant representation of Christianity in America. Tooley notes, "It had grown from 65,000 members in 1800 to 6 million members in 1900, with 39,000 preachers and 60,000 churches" (p. 7). As the Methodist denomination grew in the U.S. its leaders focused some attention on U.S. foreign policy, apparently for the sake of missions. Domestically, they were concerned with correcting what they believed to be the worst societal ills in the U.S. Chief among those ills was the consumption of alcohol. They lobbied and spoke out against liquor and kept a close watch on their beloved Methodist Commander-in-Chief.

The 25th President of the United States, William McKinley, was the first Methodist President. He was very vocal about his faith. He prayed strenuously about what to do with the Philippines and clearly stated that his ultimate decision was based on prayer. Teddy Roosevelt delivered uplifting speeches to groups of Methodists. Woodrow Wilson also held many values in common with the Methodists. It seemed the denomination had great influence in helping to decide who got elected and who didn't, except in the case of Taft.

The author compiled a lot of speeches and other public records to show us how the Methodists tried to enact the help of politicians in their quest to rid American society of destructive vices like alcohol. The rise and fall of Methodist sentiments towards congressional and presidential hopefuls seemed mostly to be based solely on whether the politician chose to abstain from alcohol or not. They were concerned with other issues such as labor reform and gambling, but alcohol was the primary focus of attack.

The chapter gives a good introduction to the way the Methodist leaders entered or involved themselves in U.S. politics as they struggled with the question of how to be involved in contributing to (or correcting) the society in which they lived. We are also told of the division between the more theologically liberal northern churches who wanted to focus on transforming society through social programs; and the conservative churches of the south who preferred to focus on discipleship and evangelism in hopes of transforming the individual in preparation for eternity. The chapter ends by looking forward to an event that would forever change the world and how Methodists would engage it - World War I.

You can read the review for Chapter 2 here.



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