A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality

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Ashley Dreff
  • Nashville, TN: 
    General Board of Higher Education & Ministry
    , May
     294 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Between 1961 and 1962, just over two decades after the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Protestant Methodist Church merged to become The Methodist Church, Abingdon Press published a four-volume series titled Methodism and Society. These works examined the place of social witness in the life of The Methodist Church, and the influence of society on American Methodists and vice versa, particularly in relation to the Methodist Social Creed. Race, work, international relations, and the economy received special attention. Sexuality, however, was only considered in short sections on the Christian family. 

Ashley Boggan Dreff’s Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality studies American Methodist responses to sexual issues and the interweaving of politics with church polity in the United Methodist Church, formed in 1968. The particular issues Dreff evaluates are birth control, divorce, sex education, abortion, and homosexuality. She emphasizes the close connection between Methodist morality and American politics, and argues “that United Methodists became divided once they were asked to confront nonheterosexual and nonmarital sexual expression; and they remain divided because they cannot untangle political rhetoric from Christian concepts of sexuality” (2-3). The new morality of the mid-20th century gave some Methodists new theological and ethical frameworks to discern sexual morals. For others, the new morality presented an attack on white heterosexual dominance in the church and in politics.

Chapter 1 looks at Methodists and birth control. Dreff traces the change in understanding on the purpose of sex for married heterosexual couples. Women’s advocacy promoted sex as important outside of procreation and challenged typical gender roles in the Christian home. With women’s roles extended beyond child bearing and rearing came the need for access to birth control. Chapter 2 focuses on the strengthening and dissolution of the family. While Methodists searched for the mythical ideal family through togetherness, a rise in divorce and Playboy bachelorhood threatened this ideal. Chapter 3 considers the development of non-marital sexual identity as birth control and divorce became normal facts of American life. The new morality increased the need for sex education in Methodism. However, conservative voices sensed an attack on male-dominated white heterosexuality, and polarized Methodist sexual ethics and politics. This polarization continued in Methodist responses to abortion, the topic of chapter 4. The Christian Right emerged as both a political and ecclesial influence, forming advocacy groups in both arenas. Left-leaning Methodists formed equally vocal groups, and those without strong leanings either way had little influence. According to chapter 5, conservative caucus groups pushed United Methodists as a denomination toward anti-homosexuality and consolidated the weight of the General Conference in determining and enforcing morality. General Conferences maintained that Methodists could disagree on the matter as the conservative caucuses increased their politicized rhetoric into the 21st century. 

Entangled is an essential book on Protestant Christianity and sexuality in the United States. Its structure and clarity makes tracing both the argument and historical arch simple. The analysis of caucus groups in United Methodism and the political rhetoric that guides them is an insightful and important contribution to the field. The focus on sexuality fills a vital gap in American Methodist history, and lays an extraordinary foundation for future research. 

By way of critique, Dreff’s analysis gives the impression that progressive sexual morality represents the majority of United Methodists, and that conservative caucuses simply remain loud enough to force the hand of an otherwise willing church. Her weaving of historical studies like Heather R. White’s Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) with the rise of conservative Methodist caucuses suggests, perhaps unintentionally, that less progressive voices in the denomination assert their true Methodist and Wesleyan identity without support from Methodist or Wesleyan theology. This is particularly relevant in her summary of White’s explanation of homosexuality in biblical translations. A brief analysis of influential United Methodist theologians who have engaged in critical studies on sexuality and Christian ethics, such as New Testament scholar Richard Hays, would have been helpful in the section on contemporary arguments within the denomination. However, given the focus on General Conferences, this may have been distracting, and this absence neither detracted from Dreff’s overall argument nor undercut her significant historical evidence.

Entangled is a timely contribution. The United Methodist Church held a Special Session of the General Conference between February 23-26, 2019, and considered the place of LGBTQ+ persons in the denomination. The denomination voted for the Traditional Plan, maintaining the lines of sexual morality drawn by more conservative members. Those in the denomination will find the research insightful, as will those with an outside interest in Methodist history or the history of religion and sexuality in the United States.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alex Gunter Parrish is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and a postgraduate assistant at Manchester Wesley Research Center.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ashley Boggan Dreff is Director of United Methodist Studies and Student Recruitment at Hood Theological Seminary.


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