The Wesleyan Church is an evangelical Christian religious denomination in the United States, Canada and Australia associated with the holiness movement that has roots in Methodism and the teachings of John Wesley.
The Wesleyan Church in America (formerly Wesleyan Methodist) was officially formed in 1843 at an organizing conference in Utica, New York, as a group of ministers and laymen splitting from the Methodist Episcopal Church, primarily over their objections to slavery, though they had secondary issues as well. Orange Scott presided as the meeting formed a federation of churches at first calling themselves the Wesleyan Methodist Connection.(The name was chosen to distinguish themselves from the British Wesleyan Methodists). Other leaders at the founding of the church were LaRoy Sunderland, who had been tried and defrocked for his antislavery writings, Lucious C. Matlack, and Luther Lee, a minister who later operated an Underground Railroad station in Syracuse, New York.
In addition to anti-slavery, the early Wesleyan Methodists championed the rights of women. The Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York hosted the first Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, also known as the Seneca Falls Convention. It is commemorated by the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in the village today.
Luther Lee, General President in 1856, preached at the ordination service of Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) the very first woman ordained to the Christian ministry in the United States. A Canadian group which merged into the Wesleyan church and mentioned in the next paragraph, ordained the very first woman to the ministry in Canada in the late 1800s. At the General Conference in 1867, a resolution was adopted favoring the right of women to vote (as well as the right of freedmen — blacks). This was 44 years before the U.S. constitution was amended to allow women voting privileges.
In 1966 the denomination merged with the Alliance of Reformed Baptists of Canada and 1968 with the Pilgrim Holiness Church. It spread through revivals emphasizing a deepening experience with God called holiness or sanctification. Heart purity was a central theme. During this period of time, many small churches developed through revivals and the emphasis of sanctification (taught by John Wesley, but not emphasized by many Methodists). As many as 25 or 30 small denominations were formed and eventually merged with other groups to enlarge the church. The church was strong in missionary and revival emphasis. The Wesleyan merger took place in 1968 at Anderson University, Anderson, Indiana.
The Church today
The denomination has 1,731 member churches in the United States and Canada and nearly 5,000 worldwide; the Wesleyan Church is active in almost 100 nations. They claim over 411,000 worshippers, including more than 194,000 in North America. “Wesleyan Life” is the official publication of The Wesleyan Church, and The Wesleyan Church World Headquarters is in Fishers, Indiana, about 10 miles northeast of Indianapolis. The denomination has five colleges in North America, of which Indiana Wesleyan University is the largest. The Wesleyan Church is a member of the Christian Holiness Partnership of 23 denominations, member of the National Association of Evangelicals, and the World Methodist Council. They do not hold membership in the National Council of Churches nor the World Council of Churches, both organizations deemed to be too liberal for the Wesleyan Church’s conservative theological positioning.
The church is an evangelical holiness church that believes in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and is Wesleyan-Arminian in doctrine. Local churches are organized into a network of districts with equal representation of clergy and laity at their annual conferences. Each has an elected administrator known as the District Superintendent and has a district board of administration with both lay and clergy serving. National and multi-national networks are called General Conferences with very strong national leadership and meet every four years. The North American General Conference has three General Superintendents and each of them have about a third of the church under their administrative oversight.
Currently, General Conferences exist in the Philippines, the Caribbean, and North America, though the Wesleyan church has recently began a process of “internationalization” in which areas and regions of the world have the opportunity to form their own general conferences. Though it is too early to predict which general conferences will be formed in the coming years, the eventual shift is inevitable. The overarching goal of the internationalization process is to create a global network of partnership and not a “top-down” leadership structure within the worldwide church.
Wesleyans rank among the top three or four denominations in per capita giving to charity. The church maintains a website.
Some of the largest local congregations are the Bogotá North Wesleyan Church in Bogotá, Colombia, Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, Michigan, Eastern Hills Wesleyan and The Wesleyan Church of Hamburg, both in suburban Buffalo, New York, Skyline Wesleyan in suburban San Diego, California, Kentwood Community Church in Kentwood, Michigan, and Celebrate Community Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It is interesting to note that although the Wesleyan Church finds its historic roots in the abolition movement, its North American congregations are largely white. Orval Butcher founded Skyline in 1954 and was followed by well known leaders in the church in recent years including author John Maxwell and author James Garlow. George Beverly Shea was raised in a Wesleyan parsonage.
After 25 years of broadcast, the Wesleyan Church canceled its radio program the “Wesleyan Hour.” This 30-minute program had been broadcast internationally with popular author and speaker Dr. Norman Wilson. The last program aired June 25, 2008.
Wesley Seminary is a proposed Evangelical Christian theological seminary affiliated with the Wesleyan Church that would be located on the campus of Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. In 2008, IWU administrators and the Board of Trustees endorsed the concept of the seminary and have already set aside funding for it. The seminary is currently under consideration to be accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools and is expected to launched in the fall of 2010, pending accreditation approval. Wesley would be the denomination’s first officially affiliated seminary.
Current Board of General Superintendents
The North American General Conference has three General Superintendents and each of them have about a third of the church under their administrative oversight. The current General Superintendents are Dr. Thomas E. Armiger, Dr. Jerry G. Pence, and Dr. Jo Anne Lyon.