Friday, January 17, 2014

The story of William Taylor also points to a phenomenon that I term the “global reflex.” Missionaries not only shaped foreign contexts, but they themselves were shaped by their experiences abroad. In a Western context preoccupied with “civilizing” indigenous peoples, they saw examples of indigenous effectiveness and sought to emulate them. Missionaries not only adopted new methods, but also became convinced that ordinary, “uncivilized” Christians could build Methodism at home too.

This was an important point for Taylor as he bumped up against a modernizing United States and a gentrifying Methodism. He had little patience for a nation bent on bureaucratization, industrial growth, and technology. Even religious leaders in America, in Taylor’s estimation, had fallen prey to over-systematization. He resented bishops who tried to prescribe geographical boundaries for his evangelistic work and who tried to limit the use of laity in evangelism. He resented when they tried to control his activities through formal review processes. For much of his career, he tried to escape these systems, to work unencumbered by the bureaucracies of the Methodist Missionary Society and the Methodist Episcopal Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Increasing numbers of Methodists were drawn to this critique and to Taylor’s missionary exploits.

These American Methodists, who opposed modernist systematization and sought to depend more fully on the supernatural, formed the backbone of a burgeoning holiness movement. Its adherents opposed the proliferation of rational planning and “church machinery and ritualism,” as a 1881 writer for the Advocate of Christian Holiness put it. In 1882 Taylor himself declared, “I believe in creating missions in foreign lands by the power of God, but do not believe in a fictitious creation of foreign missions in New York by the policy of men.”

Read it all.

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