Most of us in this current era assume that Methodists and emotion have an uneasy, awkward relationship.
Now: Good Shepherd has its share of worship enthusiasm. There’s clapping, amen-ing, and even the occasional “WOOH-ing,” especially at our 11:30 gathering. So, while we’re not aisle running or altar flailing, we are often emoting. Collectively.
And that’s rare for Methodism. The vast majority of United Methodist churches place a high value on reserve and on calm. In fact, many years ago in another town, a congregant suggested I might want to become “holiness” instead of Methodist because I liked people to clap in worship and Methodists much prefer three hymns and the Creed. Well.
I tell you all that because it wasn’t always this way. In reading John Wigger’s American Saint: Francis Asbury & The Methodists, I have received confirmation of what I had long suspected: our Methodist ancestors in the United States were an unruly lot. When the revival spirit “fell” on them, they responded with physical and emotional abandon. Ezekiel Cooper, one of Rev. Bishop Asbury’s colleagues, was one of those Methodist preachers who thrived in a revivalistic atmosphere: “Our meetings, tis true, were very noisy with penitential cries and shouts of praise . . . “
But guess what? “Many could not bear this.” So the lines between emotion and reserve in worship were drawn even in the 1790s. But what interests me most about Cooper’s account of both revival and the skepticism it created is his post-game analysis:
He suspected that the real problem for those upset by the revival’s noise was a desire for respectability in the eyes of the ungodly. “I am awfully afraid that many will lose their souls through fear of reproach. The cross is a mortifying thing to nature — a fathomable, honourable religion, allowing the maxims, customs, and pleasures of this world many would like; but when gospel holiness, the pure religion of Christ is preached and enforced — that we must deny ourselves of all vanity, and walk the strait and narrow way of humility and meekness, love and obedience, they pray to be excused.”
Oh man. When it’s convenient and respectable, we’ll take it. When it becomes inconvenient and oddball, please excuse us.
I pray I will lead a church full of Ezekiel Cooper Methodists.