The Methodist Church was the last of the major denominations to be transplanted to the new world, arriving about 175 years late. Apparently Wesley was unaware of the grass-roots Methodism growing in America until he received an appeal for help in 1768. But the total headcount in 1769 was only 1160 members.Wesley sent eight missionaries, but when the war broke out they all returned home, except for Francis Asbury. Methodism lost ten years of momentum until after the war. It was at the Christmas Conference of 1784 that the Methodists were officially organized as a church.
But in the fifteen-year period from 1785-1790 Methodism grew from 18,000 to 57,631. By 1805 they were almost 120,000 strong. During this same period the American population increased 75%, while Methodism increased 5500%. When Asbury died in 1816, every third church member in America was a Methodist and that the Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest religious body in the nation.
Methodism flourished because it was organized, became it kept moving, and because it was basically a lay movement. The genius of its growth was its mobility. The circuit riders were able to keep pace with the westward expansion of our nation. Yet most of these circuit riders rode for twelve years or less. Nearly half died before they reached 30. In fact, the average life expectancy of a circuit rider was age 33. Their exposure to the elements gave rise to the common expression, "the weather is so bad nothing is out today but crows and Methodist preachers."
These riders were driven by their zeal to establish God's kingdom on earth. Francis Asbury wrote in 1796, "The time certainly is drawing near when universal peace shall bless the earth: when distracted Europe, superstitious Asia, Blind Africa, and America shall more abundantly see the salvation of our God." In 1799 he wrote, "The coming of Christ is near, even at the door, when he will establish his kingdom. He is now sweeping the earth, to plant it with righteousness and true holiness." After forty-five years of labor, Asbury wrote in 1815, "We will not give up the cause - we will not abandon the world to infidels."
Asbury epitomized the circuit rider. In 1924 a statue depicting Asbury on his horse was dedicated by Calvin Coolidge and the president declared, "He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation."
At its zenith, Methodism was the fastest growing denomination in America. It was the year 1881, when Robert Ingersoll, a famous agnostic, claimed that the church was dying. This was picked up and carried by newspapers all across America. Charles McCabe, secretary for the Methodist Extension Society wired Ingersoll, "Dear Robert: All hail the power of Jesus' name. We are building more than one Methodist church for every day in the year and propose to make it two a day."
Yet since 1965 they have not reported an increase in membership, despite a merger in 1968. They are now the fastest declining church having lost over 4.5 million or one-third of their membership since 1965. Since 1972 the UMC has been unwilling to make a clear biblical statement on sexual morality. Toward the end of his life Wesley declared,
I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe of America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.
As a movement in Great Britain, Methodism struggled with the lawlessness of the Moravians, the fatalism of Calvinism, the deadness of Anglicanism, and the fanaticism of mysticism. The Methodist revival of the eighteenth century was based on the dedication and zeal of the Methodist circuit riders, unordained laymen, who were motivated to establish the Kingdom of Christ in the new world.
But it was rendered impotent through its higher education, which first separated from the church and then influenced future generations of clergy to adopt secular philosophy and depart from Methodist doctrine. A 1967 survey found 60% of Methodist clergy disbelieving the Virgin Birth and 50% disbelieving the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fifty years later institutional Methodism has been rent by the anarchy of pagans and sodomites who have placed their own agenda above that of Methodist discipline and Wesley's priority of holy living.
America needs for Methodism to become great again. In order for Methodism to become great again, it must return to its original dynamic. Wesley's stated purpose for Methodism was to "reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land."
Classic Methodism, as a revival movement, embraced
This is the birthright of every believer. Wesley preached, "Let none rest in any supposed fruit of the Spirit without the witness. . . . This is the privilege of all the children of God and without this we can never be assured that we are his children."
Yet Methodism was always more than doctrine. Methodism is a disciplined lifestyle. In a conversation with Robert Miller in 1783, Wesley was asked what must be done to keep Methodism alive when he was dead: to which he immediately answered,
The Methodists must take heed to their doctrine, their experience, their practice, and their discipline. If they attend to their doctrines only, they will make the people antinomians; if to the experimental part of religion only, they will make them enthusiasts; if to the practical part only, they will make them Pharisees; and if they do not attend to their discipline, they will be like persons who bestow much pains in cultivating their garden, and put no fence round it, to save it from the wild boar of the forest.
The greatness of Methodism was its rediscovery of "true, old Christianity," advanced by the best methods available, be it a horse, an open field in which to preach, or internet technology and mass media. Methodism was driven by a passion to advance God's kingdom on earth, accompanied by the best system for discipleship and accountability. The Methodist Society was organized into classes in order to create accountability and effect behavioral change through the power of being connected.
If institutional Methodism is too timid to proclaim the Methodist message any longer, may God raise up a new movement, regardless of the moniker, which will declare the whole gospel to the whole world. This alone will make America great again and help us realize Wesley's vision of a Christian world.