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Methodism's Doctrinal Decline (Part 2)

By Jesse M. Jackson

As he assessed the dangerous conditions that threatened American pastors, churches, and seminaries in 1901, Methodist bishop Willard F. Mallalieu said, “The present hour is a time of bewilderment. The world is full of unrest. Christendom is in a perilous condition. Turn which way we will, we are confronted by portentous clouds full of danger and death. These things are so for the reason that we are living in a transitional age” (Mallalieu, p 10).

It is fair to say that shortly after its founding in 1784, disputes and divisions existed within the Methodist denomination. The primary controversial issues, in the beginning, were matters over slavery and the Holiness Movement.

Fast forward to 1968 and Methodism’s formation through two unions, and you still perceive the ongoing friction between theological conservatives and liberals over various doctrinal issues.

Yet, did any significant controversial issues occur between 1784 and 1968 within the Methodist movement? If so, are these controversies worth noting and examining?

In this article, we will become acquainted with the main controversial issues during this particular period in church history and discover from personal statements of Methodist ministers and theologians their heartfelt passion for Methodism and Christian doctrine as they sought to protect Christianity from the impending forces of rising Liberalism.

As early as the 1900s, there was an uphill battle for many evangelical Methodist believers and pastors who devoted themselves to biblical orthodoxy and desired to remain faithful to sound doctrine as presented in Scripture.

Throughout this period, one of the most significant reasons for the criticisms and disputes against the Methodist church was the denomination's bureaucratic efforts to gradually depart from the foundational doctrines of Scripture and yet, continue in its eagerness to embrace and promote liberal doctrine.

Is there any historical evidence that can shed light on Methodism's increasing and intentional decline from the fundamental doctrines of biblical Christianity? The answer is yes.

As early as the 1900s, there was an uphill battle for many evangelical Methodist believers and pastors who devoted themselves to biblical orthodoxy and desired to remain faithful to sound doctrine as presented in Scripture.

Methodism’s progressive decline in doctrine and its departure from the fundamentals of the faith are evidenced in American Methodist history and in every mainline denomination in America. We refer to the emergence of this historical period as Theological Liberalism.

Theological Liberalism in Methodism

My own understanding of the events relating to the rise of Theological Liberalism and this particular period in history grew from working alongside one of the original defenders of the faith who fought against Theological Liberalism since around the time of its emergence, Dr. Carl McIntire.

Carl McIntire was a student at Princeton Seminary under the teaching of Dr. J. Gresham Machen (known for Christianity & Liberalism) and would later help to form the Bible Presbyterian Church. McIntire was incredibly influential during the fundamentalist movement. Later in life, I would pastor McIntire's last congregation in New Jersey and continue learning more about him and his legacy from his original supporters.

Although Theological Liberalism would influence Methodism, as I already stated, it would also directly affect every mainline denomination, including Presbyterianism. Nevertheless, my thoughts in this article are limited primarily to Methodism. I will leave McIntire, Machen, and the Presbyterians for another time, so stay tuned.

When Theological Liberalism spread to the United States, it appeared in American Methodism as early as the 1900s, if not before. Its teachings were in direct contrast to Scripture and Methodism's own Wesleyan doctrinal heritage.

Many Protestant liberals during this time began adopting a group of young German intellectuals' theories of higher criticism. Those presenting these scientific and philosophical theories presented them as fact. The purpose was to try and rob the Bible of its claim to be the authoritative declaration of God's will. This modernistic approach was introduced mainly by liberal preachers in the pulpit preaching in the interests of so-called peace, unity, and love.

Although Theological Liberalism took on many different forms, its teachings were primarily circulating in colleges, seminaries, among professors, bishops, and various publications.

There is much that we could say concerning this influential movement, yet, I believe it is worth noting that this movement was “rooted in naturalism -that is, in the denial of any entrance of the creative power of God [as distinguished from the ordinary course of nature] in connection with the origin of Christianity” (Machen, p 2).

As Machen correctly stated, “that what the liberal theologians has retained after abandoning to the enemy one Christian doctrine after another is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christianity as to belong in a distinct category…and that in abandoning the embattled walls of the city of God he has fled in needless panic into the open plains of a vague natural religion only to fall an easy victim to the enemy whoever lies in ambush there” (Machen, p. 6-7).

Although Theological Liberalism took on many different forms, its teachings were primarily circulating in colleges, seminaries, among professors, bishops, and various publications.

However, the more liberal theologians continued abandoning Christian doctrine, the more bold and uncompromising voices in Methodism immediately rose to defend and preserve the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Through their various publications and sermons, passionate men willing to defend the faith and to be a light among the darkness began exposing Modernism.

History provides us with several examples which are worth noting. I will highlight a few of them.

Methodism’s Doctrinal Descent

George W. Wilson and Willard F. Mallalieu

First, one of the earliest examples of Methodism’s doctrinal descent appeared in 1904 by George W. Wilson in his book Methodist Theology vs. Methodist Theologians.

In his book, Wilson informs his readers of the recent works published by Methodism in several volumes “in which the authors assail doctrines which are fundamental to the spirituality, growth, and perpetuity of her institutions. These volumes are influencing the thought of the church…their aim is to correct well-established beliefs, under the plea of giving us a more reasonable, philosophical, and sounder theology and terminology.” He adds, “Scriptural statements are contradicted or reasoned away, and the charge is made that the Church’s spiritual history has been wrought by erroneous beliefs” (Wilson, p 5-6).

We can immediately detect from Wilson’s statements that there were liberal theologians during Methodism's early history attempting to reconstruct the well-established beliefs and doctrines once considered fundamental to the denomination and its teachings.

Bishop Willard F. Mallalieu further demonstrates these same feelings, by writing in the introduction, “It is clear also that the time has come when there is need of such a book as this, and it is to be hoped that it will be read with candor and its truths accepted, and our Methodism become more Wesleyan and Scriptural as the years go on, rather than yield to the unevangelical, un-Wesleyan, and un-Scriptural tendency of the present times” (Wilson, p 12).

In other words, liberal theologians by this early stage according to both Wilson and Mallalieu began promoting theories and beliefs that were considered antithetical to Scripture and Wesleyan doctrinal teaching.

Again according to Wilson, “Everything distinctively Methodistic is negatived or denied in these pages [I.e., the writings by Professor Borden P. Bowne and other prominent teachers] Sin, repentance, regeneration, the witness of the Spirit, testimony to conscious spiritual experience.” Wilson continues by offering up a charge to, “Drive the cobwebs of German rationalism and human philosophy from the roof of the dome that once let in so much light, and as we again see the glory of God and feel His presence, dispel our doubts as we testify” (Wilson, p 122-123).

It is worth pointing out that Wilson dedicated this book to, “That branch of Methodism which has retained its spiritual consciousness of the soundness, truthfulness, and Scripturalness of the spiritual teachings of its illustrious Leader; Those who long for the preaching of an unadulterated Gospel; Those who can not surrender the facts of Christian experience for the undemonstrated, unscientific, and rationalistic theories of teachers who contradict Christian consciousness; and to those who shall to the end earnestly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Wilson, dedication page).

The fact that these theories were perceived as new and modern to Methodism at this time is further demonstrated by Wilson when he describes them as “new and different views of the Bible teachings and also discredit the teachings of Wesley” (Wilson, p 11).

Leander Whitcomb Munhall

Later in 1913, Evangelist Leander Munhall of Philadelphia also sounded the alarm against a group within the Methodist Episcopal Church that was promoting “a propaganda that denies the integrity, infallibility, and authority of the Bible, and thereby nullifies the doctrines of the Church-doing what the constitution imperatively forbids” (Munhall, p 8).

He also stated, “Therefore, if anyone, in his love for and loyalty to the Church, desires to arouse the Church to the impending peril, he is compelled to issue pamphlets and books, upon his own responsibility and at his personal expense, though occasionally he may have an opportunity to sound the alarm in a public assembly” (Munhall, p. 8-9).

According to Munhall, there was a concerted effort within the denomination made by powerful elites to abandon Scripture and move further away from such core doctrinal issues as the authority of Scripture and original sin.

Munhall offers several examples in his book and explains that the Christian pulpit was being compromised by those who were remaining “silent about human depravity and the judgment to come.” He also affirmed that church periodicals were considered “favorably of false teaching, and apologetically of men who are responsible for it” and even reveals how bishops acted more favorably by appointing liberal pastors. (Munhall, p 44, 46).

In which way were the Bishops more favorable towards liberal pastors? Munhall provides the answer by stating that many liberal pastors who were holding to new theology became appointed to “many of the big wealthy churches… and, how many men of acknowledged ability, who are loyal to the Bible and the doctrines and usages of Methodism, never get such churches, but are usually sent to second, third and even fourth rate appointments, we certainly have sufficient reason for thinking thus about this matter” (Munhall, p. 199).

According to Munhall, there was a concerted effort within the denomination made by powerful elites to abandon Scripture and move further away from such core doctrinal issues as the authority of Scripture and original sin.

Munhall’s book titled, Breakers! Methodism Adrift, interestingly enough, like Wilson, was dedicated to certain bishops whom he esteemed “with unquestioning faith; believed the Bible to be the veritable Word of the living God" [and who] ”were unswervingly loyal to the doctrine and usages of the Methodist Episcopal Church” (Munhall, dedication page).

By briefly considering a few credible examples in early Methodist history, it is clear the crucial role that Theological Modernism would play by the 1920s and the doctrinal path that the Methodist bureaucrats hoped to pursue.

As Riley Case points out in his book, Evangelical and Methodist, “By 1920, modernism basically controlled Methodism, at least institutional Methodism, in both the north and the south. The colleges, the seminaries, the pastors’ schools, the Courses of Study, the Church press, the Sunday school material, the Church agencies, and finally even the Council of Bishops were, or would soon be, in the hands of modernist” (Case, p. 81).

For the next few decades, this same trend would continue to intensify as Methodism would enter a downward spiral regarding matters of both discipline and doctrine.

As George Dollar accurately summarizes in his book, A History of Fundamentalism in America, “Individual Methodists stood by and watched their great testimony go farther and farther down the road of Liberalism. Most were willing to let the churches follow the officials and made few attempts to test the preaching and literature by Biblical standards. But there were a few brave souls in high places who let their voices be heard, and they did what they could to slow down the pace of spiritual decline. Their efforts did not keep the Methodist Church from becoming Modernist, as it is at the present time, but they fought as long as they could” (Dollar, p. 190).

John Alfred Faulkner

Next, we turn our attention to the following year in 1921, when a man named John Alfred Faulkner, who was a professor at Drew Theological Seminary, began attributing the current threatening liberal trend to the professors in the American seminaries who were indoctrinating students with the teachings of Ritschl, which according to Faulkner, had already been penetrating the English-speaking lands since the 1890s with the intent of changing Wesleyan doctrine.

Faulkner in his book titled, Modernism and the Christian Faith addresses the following question, “But why do we bring Wesley and Ritschl together?” Faulkner responds by saying, “For the best of reasons. The latter is threatening to drive the former out of business. That is, since about 1890 the ideas of Ritschl have been slowly penetrating English-speaking land and modifying former beliefs. His book and those of his disciples have been translated, earnest propagandists have defended his views in pamphlet, article, and book; others have taken them up and reshaped them so that there can be no doubt that one cause for the tremendous liberalizing influence which since the last twenty-five years has wrought a sea-change in the beliefs of evangelical ministers has been the trend which has gone forth from the potent name of Ritschl. Not only so, theological seminaries in America are filled with professors who have either sat in the Ritschilian lecture rooms in Berlin, Marburg, Gottingen, etc., and have come back devotees of the faith, or they have imbibed at Ritschlian springs nearer home. Now, as a thorough carrying out of Ritschl's principles would emasculate evangelical Christianity, especially the Methodist branch of it, it is not without reason that I have asked the question, Shall we leave Wesley or Ritschl?" (Faulkner, p 218).

Faulkner continues by illustrating a crucial distinction between Ritschl’s Christology and Christianity by explaining, “You can always distinguish a Ritschlian from an early Christian -the former never uses the word “God” of Christ, it is taboo…while the ancient Christian called Christ God and worshiped him as God. But what I insist on here is that that Ritschlian Christ was not only not the Christ of Wesley, but that if he had been, you and I would not be here today.” (Faulkner, p 224).

Harold Paul Sloan

A few years later in 1925, an organization with at least 10,000 dedicated followers, led by Harold Paul Sloan, was founded called, The Methodist League for Faith and Life. This organization included several bishops and other national leaders who united with one another to respond to the present-day threats of modernism. This League was founded and created primarily because of what previously took place.

The story goes that Sloan became appointed as a member of a committee in the Methodist denomination whose job was to review the publications of Sunday school literature and books assigned to ministers, many of which promoted modernism. Both Sloan and the committee understood the seriousness of this task because they realized “that the church was entrusted with certain inviolable doctrines: the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ; the supernatural works of Christ, especially his atoning death for sins; the resurrection and ascension of Christ; and the outpouring and continued presence of the Holy Spirit” (Cunningham, Harold Sloan and Methodist Essentialism p 65).

However, after Sloan and the committee recommended to the General Conference to remove certain publications from the course of study they felt promoted modernism, the conference rejected their suggestions and even advised Sloan to reinvestigate the denomination’s modernism. This decision by the General Conference resulted in Sloan writing a book titled, The Child and the Church and compelled him to launch an outright assault against modernism over the next four years.

It is fair to say that even though Sloan was not a champion of all of the basic fundamental doctrines of Christianity against modernism, he did “perceive modernism as a threat to The Methodist Church and, he lamented the neglect of the preaching and experience of new birth among fellow Methodist” (Cunningham, Harold Sloan and Methodist Essentialism p 65).

Over the next few years, Sloan would bring together many theological conservative Methodists and continue to speak out against modernism through the League’s Call to Colors, a publication funded by professionals and small-business proprietors.

Charles Keysor

Lastly, one final example of Methodism’s ongoing doctrinal decline in history worth mentioning appears from more recent statements by Charles Keysor in 1966. Charles Keysor, pastor of the Grara Methodist Church in Elgin, Illinois, and Editor of the Good News magazine, established a movement known as the Good News movement that provided a voice and platform for Methodist evangelicals.

On July 14, 1966, Keysor published his first article in the New Christian Advocate called “Methodism’s Silent Minority,” which identified major evangelical concerns and convictions during this time within the Methodist denomination. The response to Keysor’s article became so overwhelmingly appreciated by fundamental conservatives (primarily Methodist pastors) that it launched the beginning stages of Good News magazine.

In Keysor’s article, he mentions a silent minority group that was not being represented in the higher councils of the (Methodist) church and identifies this minority as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists” and defines them as “orthodox, because they held to a traditional understanding of the Christian faith.

Keysor explains that not only was there an unbrotherly spirit that was circulating within the denomination towards embracing and promoting ecumenicalism, but he observed how those who were Orthodox in their Christian faith (as declared in the Holy Scriptures and doctrinally defined in the five fundamentals) were “destined to remain as Methodism’s silent minority” (Christian Advocate, 1966).

Furthermore, Keysor provides evidence of how the leadership in the UMC attempted to rid Methodism of the “last vestiges of fundamentalism.” Also, by mentioning the predictions of Dr. Paul Hessert, Keysor affirmed the increasing present liberal influence and the “continuing eclipse of orthodox influence” that would continue in the Methodist denomination (Christian Advocate, 1966).

In Keysor’s article, he mentions a silent minority group that was not being represented in the higher councils of the (Methodist) church and identifies this minority as “evangelicals” or “fundamentalists” and defines them as “orthodox, because they held to a traditional understanding of the Christian faith.

Keysor’s charge to evangelical, orthodox Christians was to become involved in the current theological debates and for pastors to start boldly proclaiming the gospel from the pulpit and not remain silent.

In conclusion, after reviewing several examples and listening closely to the significant statements and testimonies from those who played an active role in early historical Methodism, we discover the unrelenting attempts by Methodism’s bureaucracy to modernize its denomination by teaching and advocating new doctrines and theories contrary to Christianity and its own Wesleyan teaching.

In less than fifty years, a dramatic doctrinal shift in Methodism would occur as bureaucratic elites deliberately chose to distance the denomination from the fundamental doctrines of Scripture, all while edging closer and closer toward embracing the ideologies and dangers of Theological Liberalism. Unfortunately, within a short time, these radical progressive steps would alter the course of Methodism forever and place it into an irreversible doctrinal downward slide.

Next time we will turn our attention to consider another question, What about modern-day United Methodism? Do we detect the same ongoing presence of liberal influence in today’s denominational bureaucracy? We will look at this next time in part three and consider some of the more recent happenings of the UMC to answer this and other questions.


Case, Riley B. Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History. (United States, Abingdon Press, 2004), 81.

Cunningham, Floyd T., (1987). Harold Sloan and Methodist Essentialism, The Asbury Theological Journal, 42 (No. 1), 65.

Dollar, George W.. A History of Fundamentalism in America. (United States, Bob Jones University Press, 1973), 190.

Faulkner, John Alfred. Modernism and the Christian Faith. (United Kingdom, Methodist book concern, 1921), 218, 224.

Keysor, Charles W., “Methodism’s Silent Minority,” Christian Advocate 10/14 (14 July 1966). Excerpts.

Machen, John Gresham. Christianity and Liberalism. (United Kingdom, Macmillan, 1923) 2, 6, 7.

Mallalieu, Willard Francis. The Why, When, and how of Revivals. (United States, Eaton & Mains, 1901), 10.

Munhall, Leander Whitcomb. Breakers! Methodism Adrift. (United States, C. C. Cook, 1913), Dedication page, 8-9, 44, 46, 199.

Wilson, George Washington 1853-. Methodist Theology Vs. Methodist Theologians; a Review of Several Methodist Writers. (United States, WENTWORTH Press, 2016), Dedication Page, 5-6, 11-12, 122-123.


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