Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Luther Lee and Antoinette Brown (5)

For previous posts in this book review series, click here.

If you are Wesleyan and ever interview for a teaching job at Indiana Wesleyan, there is a question you are sure to get from Bud Bence or one of his surrogates: "Do you have a lover's quarrel with the Wesleyan Church?" He is basically asking what you would change about the Wesleyan Church if you could blink and instantly change anything. It's a tricky question because you want to convey the idea that you are a critical thinker but you don't want to convey that you don't belong in the Wesleyan Church!

I am a lifelong Wesleyan for these 43 years of my pilgrimage thus far. Obviously I did not choose to become Wesleyan. I was born into it. Who knows what I would choose if I became a Christian out of the blue today. Probably not Wesleyan, simply because it is an extremely small denomination (around 1700 churches in North America, many more overseas). If I were in England, I would almost certainly be Anglican. In America I have never experienced the crazy side of the United Methodist Church and would feel very much at home in most of the congregations I've visited in the past.

But as I reflect on Dayton's 7th and 8th chapter, I am reminded of how significant some of the origins of my denomination are, particularly on its Wesleyan Methodist side (I actually come from the "Pilgrim" side). Indeed, it was not the Methodist Episcopal Church (the UM church of the time) that stood up against slavery or for women to be ministers. The Methodist hierarchy of the time refused to take a stand and cow-towed to powerful slavery owners in the South (voted down 120-14 affirming elements of their Discipline on slavery that traced back to John Wesley himself). The UM church didn't ordain women until the 1950s when it became more convenient and respectable in terms of the broader culture.

Rather, it was people like Orange Scott and Luther Lee, founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection, who were willing to stand up for what was right and not play along. Luther Lee would later show that he was not a schismatic by returning to the Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil War. But they had started something and it continued. The women's rights movement started in 1848 in Seneca Falls at a meeting held in a Wesleyan Methodist Church. The first woman's ordination was in 1853 and was preached by Luther Lee, one of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church.

If you visit Southern Wesleyan University, you can still see the bullet holes of the church Adam Crooks planted in Alamance County, North Carolina in 1847, Freedom's Hill church. There he preached abolition in the south until he was forced to leave to escape harm. At least one Wesleyan minister was lynched in those days leading up to the war.

I talk about history with my youngest children on the way to school on Mondays, and I was sharing some of this history yesterday morning. As we got out of the car, I thought to myself, "Wow. For such a small denomination, we sure have some huge things in our past to be really proud of!"

All the holiness denominations of the late 1800s ordained women and promoted the equal rights of women to vote. There is a tendency for those in the Wesleyan tradition to reach back to respectable Wesley once they begin to study. But he is really more our grandfather than father. Like it or not Phoebe Palmer is more our immediate parent, a lay Methodist evangelist of the mid-1800s.

Luther Lee's sermon at the ordination of Antoinette Brown was superb and I have uploaded a PDF of it here. It is interesting to see how much my booklet on Women in Ministry is similar in argument (you can get this booklet at cost from the Wesleyan Church, Department of Education and the Ministry, or I can get you one). B. T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, wrote a book on it. Catherine Booth was co-founder of the Salvation Army, a completely egalitarian organization.

Somewhat more surprising is to realize that key founders of what become Gordon-Conwell and Trinity Evangelical were supporters of women in ministry. The Baptist A. J. Gordon argued for the right of women to speak at missionary conventions based on the "your daughters will prophesy" prediction in Acts 2 and also from Galatians 3:28. Frederick Franson, founder of the Evangelical Alliance Mission that would flow into the Evangelical Free Church, the denomination of Trinity Evangelical, defended the right of women to preach.

The word feminism is a dirty word in my circles, and there is a real drive to draw distinctions between this feminism of the 1800s and the secular feminism of the 1950s and after. I personally don't see the difference in the word feminism but in the word secular. Maybe I'm missing something about the feminist part of the more recent movement, but I suspect the main problem with it is the secular part.

It seems to me that the values of the civil rights movement--truly to give African-Americans all the same rights and opportunities as the dominant ethnicities--are fully Christian. Yet my own denomination, ironically founded because of abolitionism, pretty much said nothing during that era, like the Methodist Episcopal Church of 150 years ago.

Our number of women ministers actually declined from the 50s on. At one time, as many as 40 percent of Pilgrim Holiness Church preachers were women in some segments of the church. It was as much as 20 percent of Nazarene ministers at another point. When Dayton wrote in the 70s, it was something like 6 percent in the Nazarene Church.

In some of these things to our shame it looks like in these last decades God has had to use the world to move things toward kingdom values and the church has largely stood idle, even opposing God's will. Today, though, I am proud to belong to a denomination that fully affirms that God calls women to preach the gospel and that fully supports that African-Americans can ride anywhere on a bus and drink from the same water fountain I can.

We are glad for individuals to sit peacefully in the Washington Mall listen to someone of another skin dream about "on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood." Why did anyone equivocate about those things back then, again? Why do some of my friends and family still sneer at the name of Martin Luther King Jr.?

And, yes, since it is biblical, you will find the words "social justice" on our denominational website. If you have a problem with that, you have a problem with the Bible.

What a wonderful heritage I have as a Wesleyan! Wesleyans, accept no substitutes.

No comments: