Summary: An edited adaptation of material presented in History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America by Abel Stevens (digital on-line edition by Holiness Data Ministry).
There have been many changes in interpretation of the New Testament over the centuries. Some of these changes in theological understanding led to massive political and social upheavals in Europe. There was more than one “reformation”. Some of these reformations occurred within the Roman Catholic Church itself, others occurring as break offs from the Roman Catholic Church, still others within the bodies so created. One such reformation occurred in America as a result of the American Revolution. The Methodist Episcopal Church was establishment on Christmas, 1784.
Today we remember and celebrate the Christmas Reformation of 1784. On this date a new and thoroughly reformed version of the Articles of Religion of the quasi-reformed Church of England, having been prepared for the Americans by John Wesley was adopted by the new American church. Wesley remained a part of the Church of England, but in a very real sense became the father of a new and thoroughly reformed church in America. Wesley authorized the ordination of church pastors without the consent and independent of the control of the Church of England. This was a reformation event of little less significance than Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses. In one decisive moment in American history, Wesley emancipated, reformed, and empowered what was to become one of the largest and most dynamic churches in the world, and most certainly the largest and most dynamic church in early American history.
The central event of the Christmas Conference of 1784, other than the ordination of Francis Asbury and the other lay-preachers, was the adoption of Wesley’s changes to the previously governing 39 Articles of the Church of England. With the birth of a new nation, came the birth of a new church, The Methodist Episcopal Church of America.
In his abridgement of the 39 Articles, Wesley obliterates nearly every trace of those Roman Catholic traditional opinions which the framers of the Anglican Articles retained. The third article, on "The going down of Christ into Hell," entirely disappears. The enumeration and recommendation of the "apocryphal Scriptures” in the sixth article, shares the same fate. Prior to this time the apocryphal books of the Bible were still printed with King James Versions of the Bible. The eighth article, recognizing the Nicene, Athanasian, and Apostles' Creed, is totally omitted; though Wesley approved the last, the Apostles’ Creed, as a good expression of Christian doctrine, and retained it in the baptismal ritual of the new Church. The twentieth and twenty-first articles, on "The authority of the Church" and "The authority of General Councils," are abandoned, and also the similar twenty-third article, declaring "it not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of public preaching," without the approval of ecclesiastical authorities. The thirty-third article on the treatment of "excommunicated persons” is unmentioned.
Wesley also changes the understanding of infant baptism. The twenty-fifth article of the Church of England declares the sacraments to "be certain, sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace, and God's goodwill toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us.” Wesley omits the phrases "sure" and "effectual." More significant is his re-construction of the twenty-seventh article, "Of Baptism," which becomes the seventh American article. The Church of England version declares baptism to be "a sign of regeneration, or the new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; and faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God." The entire phrase after "the new birth" is omitted in the American articles. Instead, Wesley guides the new church into a more “protestant” understanding that regeneration does not come about as the result baptism. This is again emphasized in Wesley’s alterations to the sixteenth Anglican article. The original article is entitled, "Of Sin after Baptism”. Wesley titles the American article, "Of Sin after Justification." The original article reads, "Not every deadly sin willingly committed after baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost”. The American article reads, "Not every sin willingly committed after justification (i.e. accepting God’s plan of salvation) is the sin against the Holy Ghost”. The original article declares that "the grace of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after baptism”. Wesley’s version for the Americans says "after justification”. Clearly, the new American church born on Christmas, 1784, was a church that henceforth embraced the protestant notion that justification is the result of faith rather than the Catholic notion that justification is conferred through baptism.
On Friday, the 24th of December, 1784, a small apostolic company of itinerant frontier lay-preachers and Wesley’s emissary, Thomas Coke, rode into Baltimore, and at ten o'clock that morning began the first "General Conference," in the Lovely Lane Chapel. The chapel was still a rude structure, and Coke gratefully commended the kindness of the people in furnishing a large stove, and backs to some of the seats, for the comfort of the Conference.