Summary: An edited adaptation of material presented in History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America by Abel Stevens (digital online edition by Holiness Data Ministry) that will be of particular interest to Methodists. Christmas, 1784.
“Another Important Christmas Birthday—Christmas 1784, The Birthday of the Methodist Church” (an abridgement and adaptation of material presented in “History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America” by Abel Stevens – digital online edition by Holiness Data Ministry)
Christmas is, of course, the celebration of the birthday of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of the supreme importance of the birth of Jesus, we seldom celebrate another significant birthday. Today, however, we will pause to squeeze in a bit of time for Christmas of 1784. Christmas week, 1784, was the birthdate of what was to become, at least for a while, the largest and most influential church in America.
Dedicated lay pastors had devoted their life to serving the people of the American frontier, but they had been shackled by a less than cooperative Church of England which failed to send ordained ministers into the field. This would all change on Christmas of 1784. The Treaty of Paris brought political freedom to the former colonies in 1783. Then, on Christmas of 1784, a new church, empowered to ordain its own much needed ministers, was authorized by the decisive action of John Wesley and given birth by the vote of the lay preachers who had been summoned to the first General Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The newly born and unshackled church would become, for a time, the pre-eminent church in the newly formed and independent nation. Asbury, its bishop, and other men, heretofore only occasional or irregular leaders, began after Christmas of 1784 to rise into the stature and character of heroes. Great church leaders including a series of apostolic bishops, extraordinary "pulpit orators," and missionaries to the savages, slaves, and foreign nations began to crowd the history of this new-born church. The newly born Methodist Episcopal church created an unequaled publishing network, established academies and colleges in most, if not all, the multiplying states of the Union; and, advanced the growth of Christianity in Canada, carried the Gospel over the Alleghenies, through the length and breadth of the Valley of the Mississippi, and over the Rocky Mountains, to the shores of the Pacific, eventually reaching to the ends of the earth.
During the early days of the newly formed nation, this new American church born on Christmas, 1784 experienced unequaled numerical growth. In but a score of years the fledgling church having less than fifteen thousand members, and about eighty preachers, advanced to more than a hundred and thirteen thousand members, and four hundred preachers. And the one Conference, with its two annual sessions, multiplied into many, extending from Maine to Georgia, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.
Today let us remember and celebrate the birthday of that church born at the “Christmas Conference” of 1784. This day was indeed an important date in the reformation history of the church. On this date a new and thoroughly reformed version of the articles of religion of the quasi-reformed Church of England was adopted under the encouragement of John Wesley who wrote the revision for the American Church and encouraged its adoption. 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 importance 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.
This part of our American history is often forgotten, and we seldom celebrate this forgotten Christmas birthday. This year, however, I think it time to celebrate the birthday of this church which was to have so profound an impact on the early history of our nation.
The central event of the Christmas Conference of 1784 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' Creeds, is totally omitted; though Wesley, with Christendom generally, 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.