United Methodist Heritage Sunday this year falls on May 20. That is also Pentecost Sunday, giving the day a double-heritage significance, since that is when we celebrate the birth of Christ’s church.
Speaking of births, however, I invite us all to begin our United Methodist heritage celebration a month early, on Sunday, April 22, in order to commemorate the birth of our denomination from merger and reorganization 50 years ago. That labor-intensive birth happened on April 23, 1968. But it came after nearly a decade of prayerful negotiations, General Conference legislation and prevenient mergers of racially segregated annual conferences—like ours—until the glorious day of delivery when we finally became The United Methodist Church.
The Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church—both denominations being offspring of earlier mergers themselves. The new denomination abolished Methodism’s Central Jurisdiction, created in 1939 to unify and segregate annual conferences with predominantly black churches and members across the nation, like our former Delaware Annual Conference.
So, in 1968 and in the years that followed, after a history of divisions and dubious mergers, we finally got it right, for the most part. Getting it right meant reorganizing churchwide agencies and creating legislation and special commissions to monitor our still-unfinished journey toward racial and gender equity and denominational inclusiveness. For that same journey and others, it also meant creating special programs and funds, Special Sunday offerings and eventually, missional priorities.
It meant—and it still means—living into our divine call to manifest integrity, generosity, grace and other bedrock Christian values, as we strive to become what our own annual conference approved as its vision statement in 2017: United in Christ, Committed to Transformation.
We are 50 years old as a denomination this year, and we have made much progress. But there is much more to be done. I pray that our life expectancy, our arc in history, is long, with no end in sight, and that it will forever bend toward justice, in James Russell Lowell’s famous words.
The year 1968 was one of emergent change, not only in our church, but across our nation and throughout society. There was turbulent racial conflict, violence in our streets, war, protests and questions about the relevancy of the church.
The Rev. Dr. Albert C. Outler, a prominent theologian at the time, cast a vision for the Uniting Conference in his address on the morning of our merger ceremony. He called for the new church to be steadfast in unity and committed to ecumenism and evangelism in word and deed. He also stressed the need for the church to reform itself from being an insulated institution to actively demonstrating the presence of the living Christ.
In order to reform, he said, we needed to be “…a church united in order to be uniting, a church repentant in order to be a church redemptive, a church ‘cruciform’ in order to manifest God’s triumphant agony for mankind (sic).” When he finished, the 10,000 people at Dallas Memorial Auditorium gave him a prolonged standing ovation.
Dr. Outler’s call is still with us today as we celebrate 50 years of United Methodism. If each one of us would take to heart these principles of unity, ecumenism, evangelism and reform, we could become the church that our founders envisioned many years ago, as they sought to spread “scriptural holiness” across the land.
“This is the day the Lord has made,” said Outler. “Let us really rejoice and be glad in it—glad for the new chance God now gives us.”
Indeed, for the next month, from April 22 through May 20, and for months and years to come, let us really rejoice and be glad in this faithful, if not faultless, heritage we share as United Methodists. Let us clothe ourselves in love, seeking always to be transformed as those redeemed through grace. And let us be glad for our unity in a Christ who “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). Yes, glad “for the new chance God now gives us.”
Please read and share these recent accounts, resources and ideas to help celebrate our United Methodist history, as we celebrate 50 years together. Also, be sure to view the compelling, 11-minute historical video that shares diverse views on the in 1968 merger of the EUB and Methodist denominations and related concerns.
- The United Methodist Church Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Historic Merger
- Amid tumult of 1968, a church came together
- Uniting Conference sermon still talked about
- Formation of The United Methodist Church
- "JUBILEE": The 50th Anniversary of The UM Church
- VIDEO: Proclamation of and Responses to EUB-Methodist Union, 1968