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Heritage Sunday

The General Commission on Archives and History urges every local congregation to observe Heritage Sunday annually. It is one of the Special Sundays officially recognized by The United Methodist Church. This year's theme for Heritage Sunday determined by action of the General Commission on Archives and History is "World Methodism." It reminds us of the common history Methodists around the world share, especially the earlier years of the Methodist movement.

The sun never sets on Methodism!
William Kellon Quick

We speak many languages. We are a people of many colors. We come from a variety of ethnic heritages and ecclesial bodies. The story of Methodism is fascinating and multifaceted because there are so many distinct traditions within it, some stemming directly from England and others arising out of the United States. Yet the claim of John Wesley continues to ring true, "The Methodists are one people in all the world!"

Samuel and Susanna Wesley's influence upon their sons, John and Charles, helped to shape a mission consciousness in the 18th century which continues to reflect its remarkable witness through the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Susanna had an interest in Danish missionaries, but it was Samuel who "saw the colony of Georgia as a fresh opportunity for implanting the gospel in the New World," according to Dr. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Duke University Divinity School. John accepted an invitation to go to Georgia as a missionary and Susanna, encouraging his decision to answer the call, said, "Had I twenty sons, I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more."

The Methodist family, anchored in the Wesleyan tradition of the Christian faith, is now approaching a global community estimated to be almost eighty million persons. A network of tens of thousands of churches girdles the globe and Methodists are to be found on every continent!

The Methodist movement has doubled in the last fifty years due mainly to the unparalleled growth of the Wesleyan family in Africa, Asia, Central and Latin America! New congregations are being established somewhere every month in the former Soviet Union.

Through its Evangelism and Church Growth section, the General Board of Global Ministries has established 11 new initiatives in the past 13 years in countries where there were no United Methodist congregations including Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, and Mongolia. The Cambodia initiative is the result of an intentional collaborative effort of Methodist churches in Singapore, the Philippines, Korea, India, and The UMC.

Methodism's growth overseas has helped offset decades of decline within the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination. The Rev. H. Eddie Fox, director of evangelism for the World Methodist Council, reported to the 2001 global gathering in Brighton, England that, "World Methodism has grown at the rate of one million persons per year for the past decade."

Headquartered at Lake Junaluska, N.C., the World Methodist Council, established in 1881, is the umbrella organization which provides the connecting link for Methodist and related United Churches in over 160 countries which share the Wesleyan heritage.

John Wesley, we are reminded, would come to look upon "the world as my parish." The explosive growth and flourishing of the movement he spawned would probably surprise and please Mr. Wesley.

The growth, likewise, will please - and probably surprise - numbers of United Methodists as we celebrate Heritage Sunday, the day commemorating John Wesley's Aldersgate experience. The United Methodist Church, created by the uniting of two denominations, at the time of union was the largest Protestant denomination in America with 11,027,000 members. Its membership in the United States has declined noticeably since 1968 although membership in Africa and Asia has grown significantly. Click this link to see charts in pdf format illustrating world-wide membership totals. The 2001 data was derived from the World Methodist Council's Handbook of Information: 2002-2006 (Lake Junaluska, N.C., The World Methodist Council, 2003) 254-269.

Heritage Sunday is a reminder to the church," to remember the past by committing itself to the continuing call of God."

The Book of Discipline clearly and simply calls us to remember, "The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ." The rationale for the mission remains the great commandment of Jesus to his apostles as well as contemporary followers:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)

At the 1784 founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church at the historic Christmas Conference in Baltimore, 12 of the 60 preachers present were ordained Elder. Two of the 12 were appointed to labor in Nova Scotia and one was appointed to serve on the island of Antigua. Almost 50 years passed before the first Methodist overseas mission was born when Melville B. Cox arrived in Liberia in 1833.

The tide of nationalism and expansion carried the settlers across the continent. The circuit riding preachers made it a tide of Methodist church growth. John Stewart, a black lay preacher, commenced his ministry in 1819 among the Wyandot Indians of Ohio. The Shawnee mission near Kansas City opened in 1830 followed by Methodists arriving in Oregon in 1834, San Francisco in 1847, Santa Fe in 1850, and Denver in 1858.

Over the intervening years The United Methodist Church became more inclusive while struggling with theological and social issues such as evangelism, world mission, peace, the environment, and human sexuality. We join in world Methodism's efforts, "to respect human rights, to uphold justice and to stand alongside persecuted or needy Christian minorities who suffer because of injustice, want or tyranny."

The more recent response of Methodists all over the world to the tsunami devastation across 11 Southeast Asia nations, is a shining example of global Methodism's united efforts in humanitarian aid. From multiple millions given by American Methodists to love offerings raised by the reestablished Methodist Church in Lithuania, the response is another example of the Wesleyan family's outpouring of concern to human tragedy by providing relief, bringing hope, and teaching peace.

Yes, the Methodists are "one people in all the world" and in Mr. Wesley's words, "are determined so to remain."

Dr. William Kellon Quick is Pastor Emeritus of Metropolitan UMC in Detroit, Michigan and currently teaches at Duke Divinity School. He has been a delegate to eight World Methodist Conferences, served on the Executive Committee of the World Methodist Council since 1971 and as Associate General Secretary. From 1996-2004 he chaired the History Committee of the General Commission on Archives and History.

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