Tuesday, August 16, 2011

comment on previous post

The post of July 24 elicited a response from a reader. I responded to a comment in the response but the site would not accept my comments so I post them here.

Thank you for you comments about This Week in Texas Methodist History, and pardon me for the delay in responding to your inquiry concerning ministerial education. I must admit that I did not look at the "comments" section until a friend brought your response to my attention.

Even though Methodism had its origins on a university campus (Oxford) where John and Charles Wesley participated in the "Holy Club" so methodically that they were called "Methodists" in derision, educational standards for Methodist preachers in the 19th century did not require divinity school. As a matter of fact, the expectation that all preachers will receive formal seminary training is a post-World War II phenonmenon. As recently as my childhood in the 1950s I knew many preachers in small rural churches who did not possess a B. A. much less a seminary degree.

The first Methodist seminary was Boston University (chartered by Mass. in 1869, even though it had earlier antecendents).
Methodist preachers in 19th century Texas varied widely. Some of them such as Littleton Fowler, T. O. Summers, Chauncey Richardson, Homer Thrall, were college educated. Remember that general liberal arts college in those days included Greek and Latin. The text for Greek class was almost always the New Testament. Many more of them had little more than a grade school education.

Their theological education consisted of the "Course of Study". When a man presented himself for membership in an annual conference, he would receive a probationary membership. One of the parts of that probation was to read four books and come to next year's annual conference ready to be examined on the contents of those books. That process would repeat for three more years. Today annual conference consists mainly of the reports given by the various committee and agencies of the church, but in the period in which you are interested, annual conference consisted mainly of examining the character and behavior of each of the members and examining the younger preachers on how well they had learned the books that had been their assigned reading.

What were the books? The required books for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year probationary candidates stayed remarkably stable through most of the 19th century. The core was Wesley's Sermons. The main commentaries were by Fletcher and Watson. There were specific commentaries on books of the Bible and church history, sometimes a book on missions etc. There is a letter in the Fowler Collection at Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, SMU, from Daniel Carl to John Woolam from 1841 that gives the flavor.

My studies I have red through the new Testament very near twice am now reading in the old part of the Bible--have red one volum of Westley's Sermons through or nearly so have been studying Watsons Theological Dictionary and Westley's Notes some not mutch.

The Course of Study still exists and provides a path to full ordination for preachers who cannot or wish not to attend seminary on a full time basis. Rather than self-study, it now consists mainly of intensive summer school courses at the seminaries.

There was an anti-intellectual bias in 19th century Methodism. The key element in anyone's spiritual life was a personal religious experience that was emotional rather than intellectual. The bias of emotion over intellect was reinforced when the first Methodist educational effort (Cokesbury College in Maryland) burned. Some church members interpreted the fire as a sign that God did not want Methodists to be involved in schooling. T. O. Summers reports that he was criticized for wearing reading glasses. Wearing glasses was a sign that you had ruined your eyes by reading so much.

As the century progressed though, and Methodist laity became more educated , they demanded better educated preachers. Only a very tiny fraction of Methodist preachers in the 19th century had formal seminary training. Those who desired it had to leave. Besides Boston (already mentioned) there were Yale and and Harvard. Princeton was highly suspect because of its Calvinistic/Presbyterian roots. A few such as John M. Moore (later bishop) went to Germany which was the center of theological education in the period in which you are interested.

With the establishment of Vanderbilt Unviersity in Nashville, the Methodist Epsicopal Church South finally entered the field of theological education. Vanderbilt did not remain under control of the MECS and, although Vanderbilt continued to train preachers, Emory and SMU assumed the main roles of seminaries for the MECS (Emory for east of the Mississippi and SMU for west of the Mississippi)


Anonymous Lennie Brown said...

What can you tell us about the Episcopal Methodist connections in the early 19th C. in Texas and elsewhere. The Episcopal Church (formerly the Church of England) appears to formalized in Texas in the late 1840's. Could that be because of its connection/collaboration with the Methodist? How did this come about and how did it dissolve. Lennie Brown

8:57 PM  

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