Book Review: Serving the Present Age
This book review was initially prepared for the course History and Theology of the United Church of Canada.
Methodism is definitely the most interesting to me of the three major traditions which merged into the United Church of Canada in 1925. The main reason for this is probably largely because of the revivalist aspect of that tradition. Serving the Present Age clearly covers an intriguing topic to me, then: the decline of the revivalist form of religion in Methodism and in North American Protestantism in general during the late Victorian era to the point that it was hardly if at all a factor by the time of Union. In the early years of Methodism, there was no doubt that revivalism served as its single most defining feature. Many religious movements begin with a revivalist flavour but quickly fade out; Methodism took longer because it was such a strong emphasis. Over time and with the solidification of North American Protestantism as a whole, though, it eventually declined and Methodism lost its distinctive revivalist flavour. The progressive spirit that characterizes many Methodists to this day came out of this, as the two ideas of saving souls and saving the social order were not considered in opposition in early Methodism as they are often treated today. Over time as North American Protestant began to divide into one emphasis or the other, Methodists moved toward progressivism and the salvation of the social order. At its heart, this was seen as “a more adequate way ‘to serve the present age.’”
The book thus conducts a study on this shift. Airhart relies on two sources: the denominational press and sermons of the time from influential Methodist leaders. She readily identifies the problems with this technique. For one, there is also a difference between the ideal as preached and the actual beliefs and practices of the congregation. A principle from my Hebrew Bible course comes to mind: generally if something is emphasized in teaching or laws, it is because it was a consistent problem in the day-to-day life of the people who the laws are designed for. The sermon is not always emblematic of the congregation, but for the sake of the study, it does at the least establish what the denomination at the leadership level believed about the role of revivalism and progressivism. There is also a geographic issue: since most of Canadian Methodism at this time was located in Ontario, the remaining portion is hardly represented in denominational literature, and differences between regions may not show up in the study. Lastly, leaders were all men at this point in Methodist history, so there is a distinct masculine tone to the denominational press and sermons, leaving the women in the congregation largely un-represented. Although Airhart doesn’t identify more, this same theme can probably be continued with other groups not in leadership. These types of bias are inevitable in virtually any study and so it is a sign of good scholarship that Airhart does not waste any time pointing out her study’s limitations in her introduction.
Summary and Reflection
Methodism had a simply phenomenal start in the British North American province of Canada. By the time of Wesley’s death, there were four circuits, six preachers, and about eight hundred total members of Methodism in all of the Canadian provinces. Within 50 years, Methodism was the largest Protestant cluster of denominations in the country. The key to this success was the “method” of revivalism. I am weary of using that phrase, or the similar term “strategy,” as Airhart does. I have never gotten the sense that Methodism used revivalism as a technique to convert others, which is what I would understand from referring to it as a method. It seemed to me to be a quite genuine theological understanding that true conversion required a personal revival. It may not be any difference in the historical analysis, and Airhart’s conclusion of revival being the cause of such rapid growth still makes perfect sense, but referring to the “method” of revivalism seems to me to be an unwarranted insult (or maybe I’m simply reading way too much into those terms).
As Airhart began to describe some of the evangelistic style, which she covers in great detail, I can’t help but respect the straightforwardness of it, like this introduction to a sermon: “My name is Nathan Bangs. I was born in Connecticut, May 2, 1778. I was born again in this Province [Upper Canada], May, 1800… I am bound for the heavenly city, and my errand among you is to persuade as many of you as I can to go with me.” Granted, this bluntness is typically not received as positively in a post-modern and pluralistic Canada as they did in a largely Christian (at least culturally) 19th century Canada and this quickly led for me to questions about what constitutes effective evangelism in 21st century Canada. Some groups still follow similar approaches to evangelism as the early Methodists – emphasis on the conversion experience and the lack of shame over trying to be evangelistic, even the altar calls and the short summaries of “the Gospel” (put in quotes because there are so many definitions of that term).
These Methodist converts continued to have this revivalist and pietist approach to religion after conversion. Airhart quotes Thomas Carlyle who caricatured British Methodists by saying that they were navel-gazers, constantly asking whether they were saved and still experiencing the blessings of their conversion (the fruits and assurance of the Spirit). This movement also crossed denominational lines, which explains why many other evangelicals of other denominational histories sound so much like John Wesley and the other early Methodists and some argue that this time between the Great Awakening and the First World War should be called The Methodist Age because their influence was so widespread. Even the conflicting doctrines of Arminianism (Wesleyanism) and Calvinism did not stand in the way of this revivalist fervour spreading across denominational lines (although this was partly because many denominations steadily shifted to Arminianism.) Nathanael Burwash, the most prominent Canadian Methodist at this time, freely admitted that the “peculiarity” of Methodism wasn’t its doctrines of justification, faith, or even regeneration, but rather for the conversion experience. This is a really interesting idea as it seemed to be the beginning of the turn away from the rapid divisions that followed from the Protestant Reformation. Although this was a time when defining various orthodoxies and emphasizing the differences was normal, the Methodist movement seemed to be able to transcend that mindset with its emphasis on revivalism. Airhart puts it this way: “The assumption of a shared revivalist piety was at the heart of their conviction that the evangelical denominations were growing more alike.”
This general acceptability of Methodism changed with the first major North American confrontation, in that case in opposition to the Plymouth Brethren. This new movement was gaining ground largely because of their new understanding of the end times through dispensations, something that “Methodists seemed to be relatively uninterested in” and those who did accept it tended to leave the denomination to join the Brethren or other groups that had adopted this theology. The heart of the disagreement came in details of the conversion experience, even though this experience was something that they both emphasized in different ways. Brethren:
taught that Christ had suffered the actual penalty for the sins of those for whom he died, thus freeing them from that penalty. Dewart [a Methodist] argued that such a view of the atonement made faith unnecessary, led either to a doctrine of universal salvation or to the unconditional salvation of an elect number, and made the work of atonement a commercial transaction.
This did confuse me a little as I thought that Methodists, at least at this time, would also speak of the actual penalty paid by Jesus for all. The latter part explains why this would logically offend them, though; if it was a case of “finished salvation” completely done by Jesus then there was no room for faith, which is such an important aspect for Methodists. Instead, Christians were to know (not trust) that they were saved and there was no discussion of the witness of the Spirit for the assurance of faith after conversion that was taught by Wesley. This “propositional piety of Plymouthism threatened to undercut the Methodist tradition, for it challenged its more experiential piety.” To this day, evangelicals still have this tendency to divide over these two emphases/options of assurance through knowledge or through experience, and the “easy conversion” of the Brethren as well as the sanctification emphasis of the Methodists are both strong in different groups.
The issue at the heart of the study of the book became more prominent at the end of the 19th century. Airhart says that “Methodists juxtaposed revivalist piety with progressivist presuppositions” which led to a form of “the religious life that to us appears to be a radical divergence from the past.” A new division between revivalism and progressivism was developing, one that is still present for most churches today even though they aren’t actually contradictory. The new economic realities for Canada (and the United States) as we developed into an established nation contributed to the rise of the Social Gospel with a variety of new societal concerns. The Salvation Army’s beginnings and their work with the poor, still a core point to this day, were a more dangerous threat to Methodism in that it was similar enough to be very appealing to many Methodists. Much of the belief systems and practices were the same as Methodism, with a few key differences, and Methodists generally appreciated the goals of the Salvation Army even if not always the methods. Even though Methodists ultimately rejected merging to combine resources, there was clearly some influence with the Salvation Army putting social work back on the table for Methodist discussion.
At this time, though, “despite a growing recognition of the church’s social mission, Methodists began the new century convinced that “souls” necessarily superseded “the social order” as the primary (though not exclusive) concern.” But it wasn’t much longer before disagreements began to develop between those wanting to hold onto the emphasis of revivalism and those who no longer saw why it was necessary. This seems to be true of all movements: initial explosion of growth followed by steady decline, although Methodism maintained it longer because of its particularly strong revival emphasis. In place of this revival urge was able to be put the Social Gospel’s emphasis on work bringing the social order to the Christian ideal.
This “new model of piety” then began to develop in the early 20th century as a response to the realization that the old methods of evangelism were not working as effectively as they had in the past. Revivalism as central to the Methodist way began to fade: “some men and women began to speak of their religious life without reference to a conversion experience. Even some who had earlier claimed such an experience recast the events to make it less dramatic and significant.” Higher criticism techniques also began to emerge in Methodism, partly through the work of Nathanael Burwash, which would add the more intellectual elements in place of the revivalist experiential ones. Burwash would also go on to lie some of the groundwork for church union into the United Church of Canada, where this tradition of higher criticism remains strong. The revivalist forms of piety were not completely removed, since this new emphasis made perfect sense from the old slogan “saved for service,” but the emphasis continued to shift.
The shift continued with theological method where: “Methodism did not simply adopt a completely new approach to theology.” Liberal theological method was an ideal fit for the Methodist emphasis on personal experience, with an inductive epistemology overcoming the deductive one. The emphasis on the crisis conversion experience had to be quickly discarded as many were now being raised in the faith, with new members coming more from births than from evangelism, and were considered “un-Methodistical.” With theology and practice intertwined as they always are, new ideas developed, such as “that revelation was progressive, that is, not confined to the events recorded in the Bible.”
These tensions between revivalism and progressivism eventually hit the tipping point at the General Council in 1910. Burwash was again at the forefront, now holding on to the insistence that a particular religious experience was necessary, but decreasing the importance of the revival conversions as the main means of evangelism and sustaining the church in general. The old methods were described as being ineffective: “They seemed ‘to fall pointless and dead,’ and ‘to have lost all their virtue.’ It was ‘slowly coming to be recognized that the normal conversion should be that of which no memory exists.” Some even called revivalism a “vicious tradition.” By the time of church union in 1925, much of the initial DNA of Methodism – the revivalist spirit – had faded away and even been outright rejected. All in all, this book did a great job of chronicling that journey of change for Canadian Methodism.
Airhart, Phyllis D. Serving the Present Age: Revivalism, Progressivism, and the Methodist Tradition in Canada. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.
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