A Brief History of Multiculturalism in The Methodist and United Methodist Churches
by Mary Beth Coudal
In 1782, Jean de Crèvecoeur, a French-born American farmer and essayist, wrote: "Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves... can that man call England or any other kingdom his country? A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a foot of the extensive surface of this planet? No!... Urged by a variety of motives, here they came."
The poor and disenfranchised came to America. "Formerly they were not numbered in any civil lists of their country, except in those of the poor; here they rank as citizens," de Crèvecoeur wrote.
Spurred by the prospect of improving their economic status, people have been immigrating to the United States for hundreds of years. They have also come to escape religious persecution and ethnic wars. The mingling of cultures has always been a challenge for churches and communities throughout the history of the United States. The idea of multiculturalism is not new to The United Methodist Church of the late 20th century. Rather, multiculturalism is steeped in the history of the church.
The Methodist Church has responded to the influx of people from many cultures in a variety of ways. In the 1800s, Methodist Episcopal laypeople, particularly women (who could not be ordained), worked in cooperation with other groups to create Bible societies, relief agencies, Sunday schools, city revivals, and the YMCA and YWCA. Many of these groups still exist.
One hundred and fifty years ago, the mission movement sought to help the distressed, the poor, the destitute, and the new immigrants. In 1850, in one of New York's poorest areas, the Five Points Mission was begun by a group of Methodist women. The arrival of immigrants invigorated the urban ministries of women in mission.
Methodist women saw the influx of immigrants as an opportunity to evangelize and do good work. Southern Methodist Women heard the rallying cry and ministered to the many European immigrants heading south.
By the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, deaconesses committed themselves to mission work in the cities where poverty and society's ills congested. The deaconesses forged a new direction for the church, working on behalf of the poor, many of them immigrants, who lived in the cities.
Endorsed by Methodist clergy and laity, deaconesses expanded national missions by creating settlement homes, institutional churches, hospitals, asylums, orphanages, and neighborhood houses. The demand for the deaconesses' good work increased.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Methodist women focused on the evils of intolerance and racism. A spirit of ecumenism swept through the mission movement. Methodist women worked in partnership with other groups to organize for a better society. For example, they coordinated anti-lynching rallies and urged legislation to abolish racism.
Throughout the 20th century, United Methodist churches have remained places to welcome immigrants and the dispossessed, like those de Crèvecoeur wrote about more than two hundred years ago--those who have been frowned upon by the rich, discriminated against by the powerful, impoverished by circumstances, and exiled by their countries. All were and are welcomed in The United Methodist Church, which has a long history of encouraging the spirit of multiculturalism.
Through its policies, the General Board of Global Ministries, the mission instrument of The United Methodist Church, seeks justice, freedom, and peace for all people everywhere.
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