But Gideon Refused: The Institutionalization of Methodist Mission

Jane Donovan/West Virginia University



Then the Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian.”  Gideon said to them, “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you.” 

                                                                        – Judges 8:22-24 (NRSV)


American Methodism has always struggled with the tension inherent in American desires for both order and liberty, attempting to balance the organization and structure necessary to manage a large, disparate membership with the free exercise of Christian conscience.  Although founded and nurtured by Englishmen John Wesley and Francis Asbury who were uninterested in democratic church polity, the Methodist movement could not avoid being affected by American ideals of democratization and individual freedom.[1]  Wesley, who intended to renew the Church of England, not form a new denomination, stated Methodism’s mission: “To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” [2]   In other words, it began as an evangelistic mission which also advocated societal and ecclesiastical reform.

"Even formation o f the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches can be attributed in part to dissatisfaction with an increasingly bureaucratic church that was willing to compromise its anti-slavery principles for the sake of membership growth."

The conjunction of Methodism’s missional goals with this uniquely American tension between order and liberty has provoked some of the denomination’s greatest challenges.  From nearly the day that Francis Asbury set foot in America, sent by Wesley to (among other things) enforce discipline among the American converts, [3] the careful balance between order and liberty has increasingly given way to an emphasis on order at the expense of liberty.  With the evangelical mission’s success, as Methodist converts and societies spread like wild broomsage across the American continent, the hit-and-run itinerancy that left the day-to-day sustenance of the faithful in the hands of capable, dedicated laity gave way to institutional structures such as episcopacy, stationed pastors, a missionary society, and a publishing house.  Methodism proved unable to maintain the heady freedom of its exciting early days.  As Rosemary Reuther and Eleanor McLaughlin wrote, “In the next generation, as renewal movements settle down and begin themselves to institutionalize, there is a loss of this early freedom. . . .  Institutionalized leadership again reverts to the patriarchal pattern,” [4] eventually becoming a soulless bureaucracy more concerned with its own privileges and prerogatives than with the spiritual thirst, poverty, and suffering on its doorstep. 

The effects of creeping Methodist institutionalism and attendant centralization of power have fuelled numerous church conflicts, from Robert Strawbridge’s insistence on administering the sacraments absent ordination, to James O’Kelly’s determination that itinerant preachers be permitted to appeal their bishop-decided appointments, to the schismatic Methodist Protestant laity whose congregational leadership was curtailed by the settling in of stationed pastors, to recent church trials of clergy who conducted holy unions for homosexual couples.  Even formation of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches can be attributed in part to dissatisfaction with an increasingly bureaucratic church that was willing to compromise its anti-slavery principles for the sake of membership growth. [5]   Yet nowhere in American Methodist history is institutionalization of mission better illustrated than through the history of women’s involvement in the church’s missionary work.

Despite its origins as a missionary movement, Methodism was hesitant to establish overseas missions.  After his unhappy excursion to Georgia, Wesley focused on reforming and spreading scriptural holiness in his own nation, Great Britain, [6] but Irish converts transplanted the movement to North America, and it became necessary to send missionaries to tend the growing flock and extend Methodism’s reach. [7]

Before and after the American Revolution, a number of mostly non-denominational mission organizations were established on the continent, some of which were modeled on the old English voluntary societies from which Methodism had sprung. [8]   Following the War of 1812, a new crop of missional organizations formed, including the American Bible Society, American Tract Society, and, in 1819, the official, denominational Methodist Missionary Society. [9]   In its early years, the Methodist Missionary Society focused on home missions to frontier settlers and Native Americans.  Its philosophy, articulated by Nathan Bangs, was that “Christianity must precede civilization,” suggesting that evangelism took precedence over alleviation of suffering. [10]

Parallel to the development of these groups was a growing interest in mission work by churchwomen.  In 1800, Mary Webb organized the Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes, with the goal of promoting benevolence as well as evangelism.  Shortly thereafter, John and Mehitabel Simpkins began the first “Cent Society,” also in Boston.  Members paid one cent per week in dues gained by doing without some small extravagance.  Both groups spread quickly and effectively raised funds which they disbursed to “official” missionary organizations directed by men. [11]

Francis Asbury himself encouraged the development of Mite Societies, the Methodist version of Cent Societies. [12]   Mary W. Mason established the most influential of these (later known as the New York Female Missionary and Bible Society), three months after the Methodist Missionary Society was founded in 1819, but it folded in 1861 due to denominational insistence on controlling it. [13]   Once the genie of women’s leadership and participation was out of its bottle, however, it could not be put back inside.  During the second half of the nineteenth century, a “flourishing company of relatively autonomous women’s missionary societies” was established, including in the predecessor denominations of the United Methodist Church.  The women claimed neither a call to preach nor a leadership grounded in particular spiritual gifts; rather, they wished to address the “combined evangelical, physical, and social needs” of the marginalized in American society and overseas, especially women and children.  Their mission was accomplished mostly by volunteer lay women who raised and managed funds, recruited, commissioned, and deployed their own missionaries (most of whom were single women), [14] and arranged Bible study, prayer, and mission education programs in their local congregations to support their efforts.  Their purposes were consistent with the historic Methodist mission.  For example, the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church pledged in 1920 “To help win America for Christ [through] evangelistic, educational, and industrial” work. [15]

The women’s missionaries founded schools and hospitals.  Their societies published their own study materials, periodicals, and mission literature.  They undertook public policy advocacy on issues such as child labor, illiteracy, prison reform, and, above all, temperance. [16]   At times, they overshadowed the denominational societies.  In 1892, Julius Soper, a leading figure among the missionaries of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Japan, met missionaries recruited, trained, and funded by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, and ruefully noted that they were considerably better provided for than he. [17]

Despite their accomplishments—or perhaps because of them—a strong segment of church's leadership regarded the women’s accomplishments as a threat to social and denominational order. The church’s power structure periodically attempted to gain control of their programs, repeatedly returning to the old argument of order versus liberty; that is, the order of denominational efficiency and control trumps the church women's free expression of faith and compassion.  Frequently, the male-dominated leadership deemed women’s groups as competitors to the general mission boards refusing to embrace them as “real” church organizations. [18]  

Whenever events provided an opening, the women’s programs came under assault.  Between 1910 and 1964 virtually every quasi-autonomous Protestant women’s missionary organization was co-opted and absorbed by male-dominated general mission boards. [19]   In the Methodist Church, the 1939 merger of the Methodist Episcopal, Methodist Episcopal South, and Methodist Protestant churches provided the opportunity for the Methodist Board of Missions to subsume six women’s organizations into the new Woman’s Division of Christian Service, ending the organizational arrangement that had existed from the founding of the Women’s Foreign Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1869 – complete autonomy and a direct reporting relationship to General Conference.  Despite the organizational change with its attendant adjustments, the Woman’s Division maintained its own fund-raising, financial control, program generation, children’s and youth programs, and its own independent mission institutions, including its own missionaries.  The 1964 General Conference, however, imposed changes requested by the Board of Missions but not approved nor desired by the Women’s Division, eliminating the entire home and foreign mission departments of the Woman’s Division and leaving as its only responsibility a Department of Christian Social Relations created in 1940.  All direct supervision of long-established home and overseas missions and personnel was transferred to the denominational Board.  The Woman’s Division’s commissioned women workers were “given away” to other divisions without explanation, leaving them confused and demoralized.  The agenda of the Board of Missions was imposed on the Women’s Division without its consent.  All the women retained was control of their money and assets, although they were able to exercise some oversight of missions through their guaranteed participation on the Board and its staff. [20]

Even this dramatic evisceration of the women’s programs did not satisfy certain elements in the church, but several further attempts to restructure the Women’s Division were foiled.  The women’s advocacy on their own behalf – which they had learned from decades of advocacy on behalf of others – led to the establishment of the United Methodist Women, an important political victory for the assertion of women’s power and leadership in the denomination, and an acknowledgement of the philosophical differences between the church’s men and women on the subject of mission.  Theressa Hoover characterized the ecclesiological disagreement by positing that churchmen viewed mission activity as something separate from Christian social concerns, lay life, and discipleship, while the women’s mission societies took an integrated, interwoven approach. [21]   Beneath these philosophical differences, however, lies the order versus freedom conflict with which Methodism has always wrestled.  In the end, the pro-order contingent mostly prevailed, and the women’s freedom to respond their call to mission was curtailed. 

The Women’s Division remains in business as one of ten divisions of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, a participant in the Board’s mission “to introduce people to Jesus Christ, strengthen churches and communities, alleviate human suffering, and seek justice, freedom, and peace,” [22] which is certainly consistent with the historic purposes of Methodism and of the women’s societies.  It still supplies Bible and mission study materials, leadership training, and periodicals for one million lay members in more than 25,000 local chapters.  It still collects modest sums from thousands of individual women in support of home and foreign missionaries, and about twenty percent of those funds support programs under the direct control of the Women’s Division, including child care centers, residences for women, community centers, hospitality facilities for church workers, and a lay women’s training center, all in the United States, [23] as well as various specific programs and projects administered by the General Board.  Specific relationship with individual missionaries is all but forgotten. [24]    Although Women’s Division officers and staff serve on the decision-making bodies of the General Board, their membership no longer exercises complete authority over funds they raise.  “Undesignated giving,” the other eighty percent of UMW-raised funds, about $20 million per annum and more than twenty percent of General Board of Global Ministries total budget, is allotted by the General Board. [25]   Order has prevailed.  The Women’s Division is neatly packaged into the denominational structure.  But what of freedom?  Some remains, but the scale no longer balances.

Permitting either order or freedom to have the final word, for one to dominate the other, is a recipe for disaster.  When freedom is ascendant, anarchy reigns; structure and boundaries go unrespected.  Ascendancy of order quashes creativity, and can lead to corruption and tyranny. [26]   American Methodism is still challenged to balance the two, seeking to maintain denominational order while welcoming the free work of the Holy Spirit who, they believe, can keep the church forever refreshed and renewed.        



[1] Douglas M. Strong, Course Lecture, “The Church in History II,” Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 16 March 2001.

[2] As quoted in Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1995), 214.

[3] Douglas M. Strong, Course Lecture, “History and Doctrine in the Methodist Traditions,” Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.,  23 Oct 2001.

[4] As quoted in Theressa Hoover, With Unveiled Face: Centennial Reflections on Women and Men in the Community of the Church (New York: Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, 1983), 15.

[5] Strong, History and Doctrine lectures, 23 October 2001 and 6 November 2001; Jane Donovan, Many Witnesses: A History of Dumbarton United Methodist Church, 1772-1990 (Interlaken, N.Y.: Heart of the Lakes Publishing, 1998), 109-136.

[6] Wesley made twenty-one preaching tours of Ireland, but as it was under British control throughout his lifetime, the case could be made that he did not leave his homeland.

[7] Strong, History and Doctrine lecture, 23 Oct 2001.

[8] R. Pierce Beaver, American Protestant Women in World Mission: A History of the First Feminist Movement in North America (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1980), 16-17.

[9] Donovan, 73.

[10] Frederick A. Norwood, The Story of American Methodism (Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974), 330-331.

[11] Beaver, 14-27.

[12] For example, the Methodists in Georgetown, D.C. established such a group on 25 April 1817, a year after Asbury’s death, and named it “The George Town Asbury Mite Society.”  Although it was explicitly a women’s fund-raising organization in support of missions, its founding officers were men, charged with supervising the ladies’ activities and managing their money.  Montgomery Street Methodist Episcopal Church, “Quarterly Conference Minutes,” 25 April 1817, Archives of Dumbarton United Methodist Church, Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

[13] Beaver, 40.

[14] Hoover, 13, 29.

[15] As quoted in Campbell, 7.

[16] Campbell, 3, 5, 58.

[17] Julius Soper to A. B. Leonard, 14 October 1892, Julius Soper Papers, Archives of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.

[18] Hoover, 16.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 26-31.

[21] Ibid., 35-52.

[22] General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, “In Mission Together,” available on-line at http://gbgm-umc.org/home_page/index.cfm, 17 November 2001.

[23] Ruth A. Daugherty, “United Methodist Women in Mission,” Pamphlet 2139 (Cincinnati, Ohio: United Methodist Women Service Center, n.d.), 3, 10, 15-16, distributed at the United Methodist Women’s Learning Resource Center for Wesley Students, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 26 September 2001.

[24] Ellen Hoover, United Methodist missionary to the People’s Democratic Republic of Congo, to Jane Donovan 15 November 2001.

[25] General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, “Mission Money Means: The Women’s Division and Undesignated Giving,” Pamphlet 5626 (Cincinnati, Ohio: Women’s Division Service Center, 2001), n.p., distributed at the United Methodist Women’s Learning Resource Center for Wesley Students, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 26 September 2001.

[26] Strong lecture, “The Church in History II,” 16 March 2001.

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