For the last three weeks I've been making my way through Bob Black and Keith Drury's magnificent new Story of the Wesleyan Church.
So far we've learned:
Chaps 1-2 About Wesley and the origins of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in abolitionism
Chaps 3-4 About its activist early days that were low church, pro-women (and anti- some other things)
I can think of no better title to capture chapters 5-6 than their own title for chapter 6: "Surviving Success." The success in question is of course emancipation of the slaves. It called into question the very reason for the church's existence. With the abolitionist cause over, why continue as a denomination?
10-15% of the church went back to the Methodist Episcopal Church. In fact, almost all the "best and brightest" exited, including Luther Lee and pretty much all the founders of the connection. It looks like a really bad decision was made by the grass roots (against the leadership) not to merge with the Methodist Protestant Church. Adam Crooks, the church planter who went to North Carolina before the Civil War, looks to be about the only great leader who stayed, and he wrestled strongly with it.
Black and Drury do a good job of these chapters. They don't have the pessimistic tone of my take-away, but these years were frankly depressing. After founding Wheaton College and Adrian College, the WMs lost them both because of financial issues. We lost having Asa Mahon in our history because the grass roots refused to merge with the Methodist Protestants. There was even a 12 year stint from 1879-91 where they backed off on the ordination of women. Laura Smith Haviland left for the Quakers.
The only bright light I see is that the WMs seem to have had the right positions on civil rights for the newly freed slaves. They opposed President Andrew Johnson's support for Black Codes and veto of a federal Civil Rights bill. They opposed the KKK when a lot of churches were giving them members.
But you wonder how different church history might have looked if the WMC had merged with the Methodist Protestants, a group twice as large. Might not have the Free Methodists merged with such a church? Most of the MPs eventually merged back into the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939.
P.S. Although the WMs were Republicans, they thought Lincoln too soft on slavery because he was a gradualist (wanted to abolish slavery slowly). It all proved academic anyway.