United Methodist Church

United Methodist Church
   The largest Methodist body in the world, and the original parent of many other Methodist churches around the world, the United Methodist Church was formed in the United States in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren. Both had been the products of earlier mergers.
   Methodism in America can be traced to immigrants who came from the British Isles in the 1760s. Baltimore, Leesburg (Virginia), New York City, and Philadelphia emerged as the first centers of activity. Originally conceiving his movement as a revitalization effort within the Church of England, John Wesley moved to create an independent Methodist Church in the United States after the American Revolution. He dispatched several superintendents with authority to ordain ministers; the new church took the name Methodist Episcopal Church. At the founding conference in 1784, the ministers selected Francis Asbury (1745-1816) as their first bishop.
   Beginning with just a few thousand members, the church became the largest religious body in the country within a few decades, despite facing a number of schisms. Many African-American Methodists left the church to found the African Union Church (now the African Union Methodist Protestant Church), the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Today, the latter two churches each have more than a million members. in 1830, a group rejecting episcopal leadership formed the Methodist Protestant Church.
   in 1844, a crisis developed when a bishop from Georgia was discovered to be a slaveholder. The church divided into two jurisdictions, which became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) and the Methodist Episcopal Church, south (MECs). The bulk of the African-American members still in predominantly white Methodist organizations were slaves in the Deep South. Following the Civil War, the southern church facilitated the movement of these members into an autonomous Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, now the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
   During the early 20th century, both the MEC and MECS became staunch members of the Federal Council of Churches and felt the ecumenical pressure to overcome their division. in 1939, joined by the Methodist Protestant Church, they merged to form the Methodist Church.
   During its formative years, Methodist thought and practice influenced many German-speaking Americans, most of whom had either a Lutheran, Reformed, or Mennonite background. The result was two new Methodistlike denominations, the Evangelical Association and the United Brethren in Christ. These two groups, having dropped the remnants of their German-speaking past early in the 20th century, merged in 1946 to form the Evangelical United Brethren.
   The United Methodist Church retains the doctrinal statements of both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren. They include the affirmations of early Christianity and of the Protestant Reformation, and the Twenty-five Articles of Religion sent by John Wesley to America, which were taken directly from the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. The founding churches that constituted the United Methodist Church were all identified with liberal Protestantism and its emphasis on ecumenism, social action, and a modern recasting of theological affirmations.
   The United Methodist Church retains its episcopal polity. Adult members of each church elect the local officers; they also choose one or more delegates to the regional annual conference, consisting of all ordained ministers in a given area and an equal number of lay delegates. Annual conferences are grouped into five regional jurisdictions that meet to elect bishops. The bishop presides over the annual conference, and in consultation with the district superintendents appoints ministers to their posts for the next year. The annual conference elects a designated number of ministerial and lay delegates to the quadrennial General Conference, the highest legislative body in the church.
   Since its founding in 1968, the United Methodist Church, like most liberal Protestant denominations, has experienced a significant loss of membership, moving from 11 million to 8.3 million in 2002. Of the larger Protestant groups, it is spread most evenly across the United States, with at least one congregation in more than 95 percent of the counties in the country. Most of its former mission affiliates have become fully autonomous churches, but it still retains a membership across Europe, Africa, and Asia.
   Further reading:
   ■ Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1995)
   ■ Anna Ledbetter and Roma Wyatt, eds., World Methodist Council, Handbook of Information, 2002-2006 (Lake Junaluska, N.C.: World Methodist Council, 2003)
   ■ John G. McEllhen-ney, ed., United Methodism in America: A Compact History (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1992).

Encyclopedia of Protestantism. . 2005.

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