Abuse: The Hits and Misses of the United Methodist Church

The church universal and their institutions of learning has long had difficulty in both preventing and addressing domestic violence, institutional violence, assault, and stalking in its midst. From the violence done towards men, women, and children in Christian homes to the violations of personhood that occur in United Methodist Churches globally, there is much that is ignored or not taken seriously enough that leads to disastrous consequences in life development for the victim. The United Methodist Church has made moves to better define what these violations of personhood are and clearly express them in the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions alike, but it took work to get to these conclusions that still have room for improvement. Here, I will trace the work done by the United Methodist Church in regards to domestic violence and institutional abuse that began to take off in the Women’s Suffrage movement and the protesting of labor laws and has led the UMC to a continuously renewed declaration against domestic violence in the Book of Resolutions while shining a light on what more can be done.

The Methodist movement began with John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley is often vindicated as a seemingly flawless man who made some missteps, but otherwise was without blemish. That narrative is challenged by the shouting voices of history and is especially complicated with considering John Wesley’s marriage to Mary “Molly” Vazielle. John and Molly had a very rocky marriage. There are accusations of Molly’s physical abuse toward John in which she dragged Wesley around by his hair until some of the hair fell out into her hands.[1] Wesley traveled a lot even after he became married and that got to Molly and she would stalk him from town to town, opened his letters, and exposed his private life publicly.[2] In response to Molly’s actions, John wrote to her, “of what importance is your character to mankind? If you were buried just now, or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God?”[3] and would further write that he still loved her and yet stated, “Know me and know yourself […] suspect me no more, asperse me no more, provoke me no more: do not any longer contend for mastery. Be content to be a private insignificant person, known and loved by God and me.”[4] John returned alleged physical abuse and stalking with verbal abuse towards Molly. In his statements toward her, he declared her to be unimportant while trying to maintain his love for her. It appears that in John’s mind, he was the master of his home and marriage. Both John and Molly were practitioners of what we would understand to be domestic violence in different forms and that means that one of the founders of the Methodist movement was both an abuser and a victim of abuse as we would understand it. It should be rightfully acknowledged that, during this time period, this sort of behavior towards women was commonplace and widely practiced so there may have been no voice to really hold John accountable.

John Wesley’s language towards Molly in his letters is problematic in modern times, but it reflected a widely held theology that was patriarchal in nature and sought to keep women confined to their homes in silent submission to the will of men. This idea started to get challenged in a subtle way in the 1800s. During this time, Annie Wittenmyer led the efforts of the Ladies’ and Pastors’ Christian Union (LPCU) which still operated under the idea that a woman’s ministry was “in the home”, but encouraged women to visit homes of neighbors to evangelize and convert others now that Methodism had become a middle class denomination.[5] Within the first year of their existence, the combined efforts of various chapters saw 1,000 sick people, 325 poor people, and 419 children reached and brought into Sunday school in some cases.[6] This was a marginal shift from women being encouraged to stay in their own homes and should be noted as a big step for women seeking a larger role in the church and society that was free from the oppression of their male counterparts.

The systematic scales that enabled inequality to flourish between men and women was tipped slightly by the LPCU as they showed women could be effective in ministry as well. Women would continue to lay their stake in the growing Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1874, Annie Wittenmyer (president) and Frances E. Willard started the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) which carried the motto: “Woman will bless every place she enters and she will enter every place.”[7] Their work revolved around eliminating alcohol and drunkenness which they saw as the culprits behind abuse, crime, poverty, and unemployment as they took advantage of the MEC’s commitments to temperance.[8] In this rationale, alcohol can be seen as not only a cause for abuse, but also as an abusive substance against the life of the drinker which hindered their life. Willard openly denounced drunk, abusive husbands and pressed forward for women’s suffrage issues which included systematic oppression, oppression in the church, and oppression in the home pushing women to go out into society and advocate for their equality and for freedom from abuse and oppression.[9] Where before, women tried to advocate for their gifts and stayed in home environments, Willard led women to leave the traditional roles they had been pushed down into and to hit the streets for their advancement in both church and society.

Speaking of women’s issues in the church, Willard would go on to push for ordination for women in 1889 with Woman in the Pulpit seeking equality with male ministers in rebuke of the abusive system of oppression women were victims in.[10] Prior to this, several women such as Maggie Newton Van Cott and Anna Oliver were granted local preaching licenses, but never actualized full ordination or recognized licensure in all areas[11] and the General Conference in 1880 had responded by revoking licensure of female pastors.[12] As time went on, women would gain the ability to becomes local pastors, but the fight for full clergy rights raged on as the Methodist Woman’s Division of Christian Service petitioned General Conferences in 1944, 1948, and 1952 only to meet defeat and continued oppression.[13]

Two decades later, the 1972 General Conference would establish the Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW), following the aftermath of Supreme Court decisions mandating equal rights for men and women, Roe v. Wade, and the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment by the United States Congress, as a way to challenge the church to more fully embrace women and the issues they face in inequality, sexual assault, and oppression.[14] Full clergy rights for women who follow along gradually. By 1980, for example, women represented more than three percent of the total professional ministry which was a marked increase over 1975, just five years prior.[15] This year, when the 864 delegates meet in Oregon for General Conference, 44% of delegates from the United States are women with 36% being clergy delegates and 52% being lay delegates.[16] While there is more work to be done in combating male abuse of power that enables oppression towards females in the church, these numbers are still promising and seem to indicate progress towards a more even handed gender representation of leadership in the UMC.

Orphaned children and child labor (children employed in inhumane conditions forsaking education seeing a rise during the Industrial Revolution[17]) also became issues in American society that needed to be addressed. In the late 1800s, the northern Methodists founded an organization known as the Woman’s Home Missionary Society which looked at the plight of children in society and offered orphanages and homes for children who were orphaned following in the footsteps of Ellen Simpson’s Methodist Episcopal Orphanage which was in Philadelphia.[18] Early in the 1900s, southern Methodist women entered into special studies on children and started local groups for children as they took positions against child labor and in favor of the development of children.[19] These orphanages largely catered to children who were abandoned or subjected to poverty, and they started to fade away in the 1920s.[20]

Harry F. Ward led in the creation of the Methodist Federation for Social Service and at the MEC’s General Conference in 1908, they pushed for and achieved the adoption of the first ever statement of social principles which included a call for the end of child labor and sweatshops along with what they perceived to be inappropriate working conditions for women in sweatshops.[21] In 1996, the Council of Bishops’ Episcopal Initiative on Children and Poverty would make child welfare a top priority for the church which received praise from-then First Lady and United Methodist Hillary Clinton.[22][23] The work of the MEC against child labor continues today as the UMC indicates in their “Rights of Workers” statement that child labor needs to be abolished in countries where it still exists in today’s time.[24] The 2008 Book of Resolutions (hereafter BOR)  contains Resolution 3083 which elaborates the UMC’s stance against “Abusive Child Labor” as childhood is robbed in abusive working environments globally impacting educational and moral development.[25] What is clear is that the United Methodist Church has not tired of combating the abuses of child labor and rightfully challenges the abuse perpetuated against children on an institutional level in various workforce contexts.

The issues that women and children face are still being combated today. Domestic violence still seems to be a fairly taboo term in American culture especially. Domestic violence includes assaults (physical, sexual, verbal, emotional) against children or one another within the home, and sometimes, this sort of abuse trickles into church settings. Within the “Baptismal Covenant I” in the UMC’s Book of Worship are two distinct questions with one being to the parents of a child or someone unable to speak for themselves and another directed to the congregation and they both invite the personal and greater communities to join in raising the child in a nurturing and Christian life.[26] The issue is that seldom is this understood as a practice beyond getting those baptized to church on a Sunday morning and the result is that assaults and abuses occur in the homes of United Methodist congregants with little to no accountability in an unholy practice of private life and communal life as if they are exclusive towards one another. This stands in contrast with the UMC’s “Theological Task” which is described as individual (participation by each congregant individually) and communal (collaboration that involves experience of every member) where daily incarnational participation in the life of the church and world as participants in God’s liberating work in opposition to human suffering. [27]

Studies on abuse and assault are still fairly new in a generational sense. As such, people are still learning about the ramifications that result from abuse and that is especially complicated when an assault against a child is still championed as discipline in the name of “corporal punishment. As recently as 2004, General Conference gave clergy discretion on whether or not they are to report cases of child abuse if their state laws do not require it.[28] While many states do have laws which require reporting child abuse confessions and cases, the United Methodist Church can certainly consider itself in the wrong on this issue and would do well to take a firmer stance on what social justice looks like when it comes to stopping child abuse, and on the larger scale: domestic violence.

In the “Social Principles” section of the BOD, there are glimpses of growth in the UMC’s understanding of many degrees of abuse. In the section “Nurturing Community”: gender equality is trumpeted, family violence and abuse is condemned, sexual abuse and sexual assault are denounced as recognition that men and women can both be victims of these violations of human flourishment.[29] In the “Social Community” section: men, women, children, the elderly, and young people are uplifted as creations of God who are all full human beings that should be nourished and respected while recognizing each group can be victims of abuses in its many forms.[30] There is no doubt that movements such as women’s suffrage and those against child labor alongside advancements in psychological and medical understandings led to such statements in the BOD.

While there is ample more the UMC can do going into the future to better address abuses in the home and institutionally, perhaps it can start in the BOR by more fully embracing the realities that men can be victims of abuse just as women can. Resolution #3423 (“Violence Against Women And Children”) first appeared in the BOR in 2000 as #177 and was readopted as #186 in 2004 and #3423 in both 2008 and 2012 and it rightly confronts the issues of violence against children and women.[31] However, there is no such resolution in regards to men. Of course, children can incorporate boys, but the abuse journey does not end when a child becomes a man because the journey of the survivor lasts a lifetime. That said, the BOD rightfully asserts that even men can be victims of abuse. By passing a resolution that incorporates men alongside women and children, advocacy can be enhanced and men will be encouraged to speak out on a greater scale.

The United Methodist Church has long had its issues both enabling and confronting institutional, systematic, and domestic abuses. From the questionable actions of John Wesley and Molly to women’s suffrage, to child labor advocacy, the UMC has and continues to, challenge society and itself in order to see all of creation flourish as God intends. This pursuit is one that will continue to take time, but it is not one the church can afford to abandon. May the Spirit of grace and love continue to pour itself out on the UMC as it marches against (and sometimes slips) abuse in all its forms.


[1] John P. Briggs Sr. and John Briggs, “UNHOLY DESIRES, INORDINATE AFFECTIONS: A Psychodynamic Inquiry into John Wesley’s Relationship with Women”, WCSU.edu, http://people.wcsu.edu/briggsj/Wesley.html (accessed April 20, 2016).

[2] Mildred Lewis Rutherford, English Authors: A Hand-book of English Literature from Chaucer to Living Writers, (Atlanta, GA: Ten Constitution Book & Job Print, 1890): p. 196.

[3] Ibid. p. 196.

[4] Dag Heward-Mills, BASIC Theology, (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2011): p. 177.

[5] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010): pp. 234-235.

[6] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I: p. 235.

[7] Ibid. pp. 240-241.

[8] Ibid. p. 241.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010): pp. 241-242.

[11] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I: pp. 242-245.

[12] Ibid. p. 244.

[13] Ibid. p. 402.

[14] Ibid. p. 465.

[15] Ibid. p. 466.

[16] Leigh Goodrich and Amanda Mountain, “Women by the Numbers”, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, published April 26, 2016, http://www.gcsrw.org/ResearchMonitoring/WomenbytheNumbers/Currentarticle.aspx(accessed April 27, 2016).

[17] History.com, “CHILD LABOR”, History.com, http://www.history.com/topics/child-labor (accessed April 22, 2016).

[18] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010): pp. 210- 213.

[19] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I: p. 212.

[20] Ibid. pp. 212-213.

[21] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010): pp. 324-325.

[22] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, The Methodist Experience in America: A History Volume I: p. 554.

[23] Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt. The Methodist Experience in America: A Sourcebook Volume II (Nashville: Abindgon Press, 2000): pp. 680-686.

[24] United Methodist Church, “Rights of Workers: What Does the Church Say?”, UMC.org, 2012, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/rights-of-workers, (accessed April 24, 2016).

[25] General Board of Church and Society, “Eradicating Abusive Child Labor (#3083, 2008 BOR)”, GBCS, 2008, http://umc-gbcs.org/resolutions/eradicating-abusive-child-labor-3083-2008-bor (accessed April 28, 2016).

[26] Discipleship Ministries, “BAPTISMAL COVENANT I”, Discipleship Ministries, 2009, http://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/the-baptismal-covenant-i, (accessed April 25, 2016).

[27] United Methodist Church, Book of Discipline, 2012 ed. (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012): ¶ 105.

[28] Kathy Gilbert, “Clergy granted decision whether to report child abuse confessions “, UMC.org, published May 7, 2004, http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/clergy-granted-decision-whether-to-report-child-abuse-confessions, (accessed April 19, 2016).

[29] United Methodist Church, Book of Discipline, 2012 ed. (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012): ¶ 161.

[30]United Methodist Church, Book of Discipline, 2012 ed.: ¶ 162.

[31] General Board of Church & Society, “Violence Against Women And Children (#3423, 2008 BOR)”, GBCS, 2008, http://umc-gbcs.org/resolutions/violence-against-women-and-children-3423-2008-bor (accessed April 15, 2016).


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My name is Charlie Tinsley and I blog about The Bible. I post theology and have leaned towards an emphasis on domestic violence and forgiveness. I serve as Ambassador for the state of Virginia in the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. I hold a Masters of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary and Bachelors Degree in Science in Religion Summa Cum Laude with a Biblical Studies Minor from Liberty University. I have studied in the two “major fields” of theological thought. I am married and have been for several years and I currently reside in Virginia.

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