Nathan Bangs and the Methodist Episcopal Church
The Spread of Scriptural Holiness in Nineteenth-Century America
- ISBN: 9781945935312
- Published By: General Board of Higher Education & Ministry
- Published: July 2018
Nathan Bangs and the Methodist Episcopal Church: The Spread of Scriptural Holiness in Nineteenth-Century America provides a rare glimpse into the life and ministry of “one of the most important figures in Methodist Episcopal Church history” (122). This biography, by Jared Maddox, is the first major work devoted entirely to Bangs (1779-1862), an influential, yet underrated, early American Methodist leader, since the hagiographies by A. H. Tuttle (Nathan Bangs, Jennings & Graham, 1909) and Abel Stevens (Life and Times of Nathan Bangs, Carlton & Porter, 1863) were published over a century ago.
Maddox walks the reader carefully through the life and ministry of this prolific scribe in a well-written, carefully documented, and easily accessible account. In some respects, the Bangs narrative is the story of American Methodism’s maturation from a movement to an institution after the death of their pioneer leader, Francis Asbury in 1816. Bangs, who eschewed the office of bishop (though nominated on several occasions) and barely survived a one-year stint as a university president, believed that a ministry of publication was far more suited to his personal inclinations and station in life. Bangs “employed the power of the press to shape how Methodists understood their doctrine, polity, and division” (128), serving as the Methodist Episcopal Book Agent while writing, editing, and printing countless books, articles, and other publications, including The Methodist Magazine, The Christian Advocate, and The Methodist Quarterly Review.
Wielding his pen, Bangs championed such issues as increased compensation for itinerants, Sunday Schools, global missions, parsonages for Methodist ministers, clergy education, and support for superannuated (retired) elders. He also defended Methodist doctrine and its governance structures and is perhaps most noted for his four-volume tome A History of the Methodist Episcopal Church from its Origin in 1776 to the General Conference of 1840 (Mason & Lane, 1838-40). In an impressive eighteen-page appendix, Maddox meticulously catalogues the prolific writings of Bangs, including a compendium of his books and a list of his over 350 articles. Bangs’ ministry of writing clearly contributed to his significant and enduring denominational influence.
According to Maddox, Bangs served as a moderating, standardizing, and institutionalizing voice during the turbulent adolescence of American Methodism, a season of preserving unprecedented growth through structural change. While some, such as Nathan Hatch and John Wigger, have suggested that Bangs was motivated by a quest for Methodist respectability, Maddox suggests a simpler and more altruistic motive for his actions: the promotion of scriptural holiness.
Sadly, the moderating role he played in Methodism landed Bangs on the wrong side of history as the church grappled with the debate over slavery. While personally holding (and declaring) anti-slavery views, he nevertheless saw abolitionism as a dangerous threat to church unity, and as such used his pen to castigate such anti-slavery proponents as Orange Scott. His strident opposition to abolitionist voices lent credence to the critique that Methodist leaders of that era were soft on slavery and hard on abolitionists.
Bangs’ efforts to appease Southern Methodists while denouncing slavery on principle brought animus from both sides and did little to assuage the rising tension or prevent the denominational split which, to his dismay, occurred in 1844. For Bangs, unlike his Wesleyan Methodist brothers and sisters, scriptural holiness did not translate into a social holiness of immediate emancipation. Maddox treats Bangs charitably in this regard, recounting events from Bangs’ perspective without inserting 21st century commentary. Especially in light of current Methodist controversies, one wonders what contemporary implications might be drawn from this historic dilemma.
Maddox’s account of Bangs’ partnership with the holiness revivalist Phoebe Palmer, and his participation in her Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness, is especially illuminating. Bangs clearly demonstrated an affinity towards Palmer; he supported her emphasis on warm-hearted sanctification and counted participation in her Tuesday meetings among his “greatest means of grace” (103). Nevertheless, Maddox asserts that Bangs held deep reservations about Palmer’s “altar theology” and “denounced the doctrine as unsound, unscriptural, and anti-Wesleyan” (112). Recalling that Bangs frequently attended (and often led) the meeting and was regarded as its “virtual president” (103), cherishing it as “a sanctuary for him and other Methodists,” one wonders if the apprehensions Maddox describes might be overstated. Is it possible that Bangs saw great value in Palmer’s ministry, and his caution was more along the line of supportive admonition in order to preserve something he considered beautiful and good? The footnote on page 103 suggests such approval.
Bangs has always been a figure lurking in the shadows of my own ecclesial history. Because of its support of the abolitionist movement, The Wesleyan Church (my denomination) split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843. The movement was led by Orange Scott, who brought charges against Nathan Bangs for slander prior to Scott’s departure. Thus, before reading this account, I had negative perceptions of Bangs with limited information. Maddox brought Bangs from the shadows into the light, providing a genuine introduction. His presentation of Bangs’ life, without inserting contemporary comment or bias, helped me realize that he was a product of his day and not supportive of slavery as I had previously supposed. Instead, he was a church politician who softened his stance to protect the church, diffuse tensions, and facilitate peace. Like moderates in today’s polarized climate, Bangs sought to avoid ditches of extremism, and served as a bridge between warring factions, but this position backfired on him. As the old saying goes, the problem of being a bridge is you get stepped on from both sides and eventually you’ll get run over.
Mark O. Wilson is associate professor of Christian ministry and religion program coordinator at Southern Wesleyan University, South Carolina.Mark O. WilsonDate Of Review:July 21, 2022