Monday, October 08, 2012
Wesleyan Merger: Black and Drury
I reach chapters 16-17 today from Bob Black and Keith Drury's, The Story of the Wesleyan Church. So far it's been:
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)
Chaps 5-6 The post-Civil War let down, when the best and brightest returned to the Methodists
Chaps 7-8 Birth of Pilgrim Holiness Church
Chapter 9 Multiple Ministries
Chapters 10-11 Roaring Holiness 20s
Chapters 12-13 Institutional Solidification (30s/40s)
Chapters 14-15 Prelude to Merger
Now chapters 16 and 17 on the merger of the Wesleyan Methodist and Pilgrim Holiness Churches:
I was very impressed with the emphasis on parity in the merger. How hard it is for people not to want to come out ahead, but the spirit of the merger was genuinely one of equality. Two general superintendents from each denomination, very similar numbers of general officials. We now reach my childhood and people I at least met in my first decade or so of life. (My parents, for example, got the idea of Kenneth as a name from J. D. Abbott's son. Having grown up in Florida, I came across many of the old leaders of both churches at Brooksville winter camp meeting)
The new denomination took equal ministerial and lay representation from the WMs, as well as some of the older wording of faith statements, some of which go back to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church. I'm glad the Pilgrims lost over dispensational language in relation to the end times. I'm glad the Pilgrims won over a more centralized local church board, as opposed to the scattered boards of the WMs.
The most painful part of merger beyond question was the closing (although called merging) of three, later four Pilgrim Bible colleges. I think they probably made the right decisions, but having close connections with Frankfort, I know how hard it was (My Dad didn't vote to close Frankfort, but he was on its college board at the time).
This chapter has a lot of interesting details about how merger worked its way out on the local level. It is interesting in Indiana, for example, sometimes to find Wesleyan churches right down the street from each other. One of them usually was originally Wesleyan Methodist and the other Pilgrim.
One of the more disappointing aspects of this period--although maybe it was all for the good--is the failure to merge with the Free Methodists. The two sticking points were initially the FM statement on Scripture, which did not say anything about inerrancy--and the percentage of college board of trustees who had to be members of the church. The FM church was actually willing to change its statement on Scripture, and the Wesleyan Church later went with percentages more like the FMs anyway.
With regard to language of inerrancy, the debate went along merger lines. The WMs had put inerrancy language in their discipline in 1955 at the urging of Stephen Paine, then president of Houghton and strong participant in the neo-evangelical movement of the fifties. The Pilgrims didn't have a statement of that sort in their Manual but didn't oppose it in the merger. After all, who wants to argue that the Bible is errant?
But it is fascinating in the FM merger discussions that Roy Nicholson, the old WM general emeritus, was the one that argued the term was essential for merger. Meanwhile J. R. Mitchell, a Pilgrim, didn't think it should be a sticking point. (I wish I had known this during my Asbury days so I could have picked his brain) It remains a mid-twentieth century artifact in our Discipline that I suspect most Wesleyan scholars consider more problematic than helpful.
But the most fascinating part of this story by far is something Black and Drury omitted. I suspect that those at the 1976 General Conference actually thought that they had voted to merge with the Free Methodists. I was there. My father was a delegate. My family had reservations about the merger (I obviously would have supported it in retrospect). At nine years old, I remember leaving Wichita thinking we had merged (and thinking it probably wasn't a good thing ;-).
But the motion on the floor was not a motion to adopt the recommendation of the merger committee, as I suspect almost everyone thought. It was a motion to receive the report of the committee. Perhaps in a clever parliamentary move, the General Conference gave a hearty thanks to the committee and, by implication, shelved the recommendation until this day.