It didn’t happen! The year 2020 was supposed to be the year in which a schism would take place in the United Methodist Church. Well, it would seem that Covid-19 came along and not only disrupted the World but even the United Methodist Church. So, the probable schism has been rescheduled until 2021. Schisms are not a new thing to Methodism and I am not at all sure that people should get upset about this latest one on the horizon. After all, is it better to continue with all the infighting in the Denomination or to split into two denominations, each with a direction and each with no infighting, at least for a year or two?
It didn’t take long from the 1784 Christmas Conference for the new denomination to have its first schism. In 1792 James O’Kelly openly challenged the Episcopal power saying that they were too powerful. In that same year, O’Kelly formed the Republican denomination. This denomination would go on through a number of mergers until it merged with the United Church of Christ.
In the early 1800s, the Reform Movement was started within the Methodist Episcopal Church and it focused on three issues: (1) The election of presiding Elders, (2) Seating laypersons as delegates to the Conferences, and (3) The wish for local preachers to have representation at General Conference. The differences came to a head in 1824 when legalism won out. The call for change was defeated at General Conference that same year and four years later in 1830 the Methodist Protestant Church was formed.
The next schism would take place just 13 years later with the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church by Orange Scott in 1843. Since 1784 the Methodist Episcopal Church had strayed from the strong teachings of John Wesley on slavery and the slave trade. This was the driving force in the separation and formation of this new conference.
Just one year later we have the fourth major division within the Methodist Episcopal Church. This is considered the last major schism in the denomination up until modern time. This schism was over one issue: slavery. The General Conference of 1844 formed a plan for separation and the following year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formed in Louisville, Kentucky. 1844 is considered the year of the schism. You would think that this would be enough but there is one more!
The final schism took place in 1860. It came out of the Genesee Conference in New York and affected many parts of the Methodist Church. It was called the Free Methodist Church. One reason for the name was they did away with pew rents by families; however, this was not the main reason for the schism. “Secret Societies” (Masonic Order mainly), along with Episcopal authority and doctrinal emphasis had more to do with the schism. It is a wonder how one little Annual Conference could have such a wide spread influence. As with most of the new denominations, it was small in number and probably should never happened.
We now have a pause in church divisions in the Methodist Episcopal Church and with the exception of the “Holiness” movement, organized religion had a time of growth and spiritual awakenings. It was a time of healing and rejoining that would culminate in the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968. It is amazing that since that time there has been almost constant disagreement within the United Methodist Church over a number of issues. So much for the name “United”.
But what were Mr. Wesley’s thoughts on schisms? Some are seen in a tract he published in 1762 entitled, “Cautions and Directions Given to the Greatest Professors in the Methodists Societies”. Q. 37 What is the Sixth? A. Beware of Schism, of making a rent in the Church of Christ. The inward disunion, the members ceasing to have a reciprocal love “one for another” (1 Cor. 12:25) is the very root of all contention and every outward separation.”
We can only hope that as Methodists we will go forward toward the upcoming “probable” schism with each group taking some time to go back to their Methodist roots and study again the doctrines and disciplines of the Rev. John Wesley.
Rev. Dennis Lamm
Rev. Bryan Huffman