Cultivating Private Gardens of Inward Spiritual Development: How the Wesleyan Methodists Became Fundamentalists

Randall Stephens

Wesleyan Church conference, ca. 1930s, Wesleyan Archives.
My father’s side of the family has had its share of preachers and pastors, missionaries and music ministers. My grandfather, Raymond (born in 1906), was a holiness minister and evangelist in the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  He supplemented his meager income with pig farming, near Scott City, Missouri.  (I wasn't ever up to the challenge of riding on one of the hogs, affectionately named Oscar, but my cousin did it, to my great surprise and delight.)  My grandpa had a booming voice that modulated volume when he sang "Holiness unto the Lord" and crackled like a hickory log in a fire when he preached.  Raymond’s mother and father where evangelists, too.  In the early 20th century, Alfred, my great grandfather, would barge into pool halls in Iowa and implore, “Boys, put down the pool sticks, I need to tell you about life everlasting.” So goes the family legend.

Many on this side of the family were in the Wesleyan Church.  They lived all over the country, but had mostly put down roots in places where the Wesleyans were active.  Great uncles, aunts, and an army of cousins attended Wesleyan churches and colleges from Indiana to California.  The church followed the westward, Yankee pattern of settlement.  Quite a few of my kin went to Miltonvale Wesleyan College, a holiness outpost in the north central part of Kansas. The tiny hamlet was far removed from the dens of iniquity in Topeka or the saloons and brothels in Kansas City.  The school closed in 1972 and merged with Bartlesville Wesleyan College.  I wrote my masters thesis on MWC back in the stone age/dial-up modem era.  My Jurassic word processing software had a bright blue screen with a chunky, jagged white font.
Miltonvale Wesleyan College. From Ira Ford McLeister
and Roy S Nicholson, Conscience and Commitment (1976).

One of the questions that sparked my interests had to do with how and why the Wesleyan Methodists had made a kind of religious and cultural pilgrimage from abolitionism, women’s rights crusading, and pacifism to conservative, quasi-fundamentalism.  Like many historians working on evangelicalism I’ve been inspired by the work of Donald Dayton, Timothy Smith, Peggy Bendroth, Nancy Hardesty, and others who thought through related questions. 

In the last couple of years I’ve been re-exploring this question of the so-called “great reversal,” meaning the change in evangelicalism that first began in the years after the Civil War.  Sociologist David Moberg used the term as a title for a book on the topic.  In the years after the Civil War, writes Mark Noll, “Protestants who had once guided national life retreated from efforts at shaping society in order to cultivate private gardens of inward spiritual development; and when potentially innovative religious convictions (Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish) were only inching toward broad public commentary on economic issues.”[1]  The nature of this conservative, inward turn was particularly interesting to scholars of evangelicalism in the 1970s, like Moberg and Smith, who looked back on their tradition's roots for some guidance on social justice.  Steven Miller recently remarked that they were asking themselves, “What had happened to the abolitionist legacy of Charles Finney, the Tappan brothers, and the early administrators of Oberlin and Wheaton Colleges?”[2] 

The Wesleyan Methodist Church in
Seneca Falls, New York, Wikimedia Commons.
But long before the 1970s, one ambitious, bright young Wesleyan had been asking himself similar questions.  Future democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, whose father was a key mover in the church, grew up on Miltonvale Wesleyan College’s prime recruiting grounds in the upper Midwest.  He enjoyed the school's quartets, who would swing through his father’s church, belting out their close harmonies and crooning their heart-tugging alter calls. He found inspiration in his comfortable church environment. Yet McGovern would eventually leave the restricting confines of the Wesleyans.  Already by the early 20th century there was not much of a place in his home church for liberal ideas about social justice and social salvation.  It would have been a chilly environment for disciples of Walter Rauschenbusch, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Richard T. Ely, or Washington Gladden. 

So the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which first broke away from its parent body in the early 1840s over the issue of slavery, seemed like a great denomination to focus on in order to explore this alleged transition.  I recently published an article on the subject in American Nineteenth Century History, titled "From Abolitionists to Fundamentalists: The Transformation of the Wesleyan Methodists in the 19th and 20th Centuries." I’m pleased as punch that the journal has made the piece free to download with the generous support of the Northumbria University library.  Below are some of my thoughts, from the article, concerning why this might have happened as it did.

But first, a caveat.  Perhaps too much has been made of the discontinuities of the "great reversal," or the "great split" as Martin Marty called it.  In some ways the idea has parallels to C. Vann Woodward's monumental argument about the late-19th century change in race relations that he laid out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow.  Interestingly enough, here’s Woodward’s 1962 advice to fellow historian Richard Hofstadter about applying the term "fundamentalism" to an earlier era: "if you mean by fundamentalists those addicted to literal scanning of Scripture you take in a hell of the proportion of the population from the seventeenth down through the nineteenth-centuries . . ."[3]  Woodward's historicist caution is important and brings to mind a host of questions. Was their more evangelical continuity before and after the Civil War than has been imagined?  (Women ministers, to take just one example, remained a strong presence in the Wesleyan Church until the period after WWII.)  Do the political ideals of one era bare any comparison to those of another?  I'm still not sure where I land on these and other thorny questions.  Regardless, in my article I’ve tried to tell this story in light of the broader context of late 19th and early 20th century disappointment and dissatisfaction.  In this sense the Wesleyans—as well as others like Free Methodists, United Brethren, United Presbyterians, and Reformed Presbyterians—did not reinvent themselves in a cultural vacuum.  

In the case of the Wesleyan Methodists several factors clearly contributed to the transformation from an abolitionist church to a quasi-fundamentalist one. Surely, the exodus of radical leaders immediately after the Civil War played a part. The war itself disrupted the denomination, sowed chaos and disappointment, and created extensive problems for the church, much as it did in other religious bodies in the North and South. Related to that the denomination’s loose organization, or “connection,” in part a response to the rigid episcopal government of the Methodists, weakened
From Ira Ford McLeister and Roy S Nicholson,
Conscience and Commitment (1976).
the church and made it less theologically coherent in subsequent years. In the decades after the war the Wesleyans, in search of a new identity following emancipation, joined the holiness movement and members embraced premillennialism. They then turned much of their attention to issues of personal morality and private piety. That change mirrored the growing disenchantment of millions of other Americans during the Gilded Age and Progressive Eras. The Wesleyans’ growing pessimism about social reform made them far less likely to take part in poverty relief or urban outreach that so enlivened advocates of the Social Gospel. In an interesting reversal Methodism, which had been too conservative on the slave issue for the first generation of Wesleyans, eventually adopted the social reforms Wesleyans now rejected. For this reason George McGovern, when he came of age, left the Wesleyans to join the United Methodists, a denomination that had turned to the Social Gospel in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While attending university the future presidential nominee discovered, as he put it, that “Religion was more than a search for personal salvation, more than an instantaneous expression of God’s grace; it could be the essential moral underpinning for a life devoted to the service of one’s time.”[4] Those who remained in the church he grew up attending were skeptical of that brand of social activism. It looked too human-inspired, devoid of God. It drew attention away from evangelism, holiness, and worship. So extensive was the Wesleyan transformation that 100 years after the denomination formed, its laity and leadership either chose to ignore or downplay their church’s abolitionist roots. By then, most sympathized with, or fully embraced, fundamentalism.

[1] Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 53.
[2] Steven P. Miller, The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born Again Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 36.
[3] C. Vann Woodward to Richard Hofstadter, May 11, 1962, in The Letters of C. Vann Woodward,
ed. Michael O’Brien (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 227.

[4] George McGovern, Grassroots: The Autobiography of George McGovern (New York: Random House, 1977), 34.


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