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Matthew Sigler ~ Knowing What We Have: The Methodist Liturgical Heritage, Part II

In my last post I showed that many Methodists remain unaware of their own liturgical heritage—something that is tragic given the fact that many are now longing for more historically resonant forms of worship. To be fair, it has often been difficult to point to a definitive period of Methodist worship because it has changed so much over time. This makes a basic knowledge of Methodist liturgical history even more important for those seeking to design worship services with a Wesleyan accent.

In this post we will travel through two centuries of American Methodist worship history. I began this brief history of American Methodist worship by looking at the prayer book John Wesley sent to the American Methodists following the end of the American Revolution. Again, you can learn more about The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America here.


Untrammeled Freedom

The late bishop, Nolan Harmon, often likened the disuse of the Sunday Service by early American Methodists to a young David shedding Saul’s suit of armor on the eve of his battle with Goliath. The American context was quite different from British Methodism and, to quote Harmon: “The saddlebags [of the circuit riders] were too tightly packed to carry around copies of the Sunday Service…” At least by the end of the eighteenth century American Methodist worship looked significantly different from what John Wesley envisioned for his followers.

The primary venue that came to shape Methodist worship in these early days was the Quarterly Meeting. These gatherings allowed for extended periods of preaching and were punctuated by celebrations of the Love Feast, the Lord’s Supper, baptisms, and even funerals. Worship at Quarterly Meetings was full of vibrant expressions of faith. Accounts from this time period are replete with examples of “the work of God” or “the melting time”—phrases early Methodists often used to describe their experience of God in worship. Writing of “the work of God” witnessed during his appointment on the eastern shore of Maryland in 1785, Ezekiel Cooper recalled: “The power of God so fell upon the people that many cried out aloud; others fell dumbfounded to the floor.” Jesse Lee recalled a similar scene from a New England quarterly meeting in in 1802:

“The meeting continued till sun sitting, in which time, it was said, sixteen souls were converted…About the going down of the sun, a young lad got converted…One of the preachers shouted aloud, and praised God that the Christians had taken the field, and kept the ground for there was not a sinner left.”

Methodists often used the phrase “a little heaven below” to describe their experience of worship at Quarterly Meetings. It is no wonder why Methodists easily embraced the Camp Meeting as it mirrored many of the liturgical activities they had already been celebrating.

Depending on your liturgical persuasion this period in Methodist worship is either idyllic or uncouth. For many years, the dominant scholarship narrated this part of the Methodist story as one in which American Methodists squandered the high eucharistic piety of the Wesleys for banal emotionalism. On the other hand, many from the evangelical tradition have viewed this period of freedom from constricting forms as the definitive period of Methodist worship. Both perspectives do well to recall that Wesley advised American Methodists to use a blend of set forms with extemporaneous prayers; and valued the affections alongside a robust sacramental piety.



There is evidence that Methodists were sensing a need for greater uniformity in their worship as early as 1820 —the Discipline that year rather vaguely calls for regularity in public worship on the Lord’s Day. With Methodism’s explosive growth came calls by many for faithfulness to the Ritual and other forms of public worship. One of the louder voices was Thomas O. Summers, who, among other roles, served as the head of the MEC, South’s publishing house from 1850 until his death in 1882. Summers held that uniformity within worship practice was important in maintaining the “peculiar” identity of Methodists. To this end Summers called for greater fidelity to the Ritual and even reissued John Wesley’s Sunday Service.

The great challenge for Summers was to convince Methodists that the use of forms did not mean succumbing to formalism. Within the context of nineteenth century American Methodism,  Summers often found himself swimming upstream against a current that was driven by skepticism toward any type of scripted prayer. In a letter written by Bishop John Early to Summers, which was published in the Quarterly Review in 1860, the bishop writes:

“Our people are so much opposed to excessive forms that they neglect their own services, and it is high time that our ministers call their attention to the neglect, and by both precept and example correct the error.

At issue was the question of what made Methodist worship distinctly Methodist. Drawing from Wesley’s example, Summers argued that form and freedom should go hand in hand in Methodist worship. By the last decade of the century Summers was not alone in his efforts at nudging Methodists toward the greater use of forms in their worship. For example, in 1891 Charles S. Harrower published a collection of psalms, prayers, and parts of Wesley’s Sunday Service to serve as a sort of Methodist Book of Common Prayer. Of course many Methodists shuddered at the thought of resembling anything remotely like an Episcopalian in their worship. Others, reveling in a new found sense of privilege and respectability embraced these developments as a natural outcome of a maturing denomination.

Even today these disagreements over what makes Methodist worship “Methodist” continue. For all the talk over “high” and “low” church; “spirit-led” and “ordered;” or “contemporary” and “traditional”—whatever the current iteration of the debate—we might do well to take a page from Wesley and Summers who both understood that form and freedom are two sides of the same coin for Methodists. Of course, the question of which “form” should guide Methodist worship also remains contended. In my next post I’ll explore the liturgical developments in Methodism during the twentieth century and how Methodist worship moved beyond the Anglican-Methodist pattern inherited via the Sunday Service.