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6 Methodist historical figures to help illustrate your next lesson

Sojourner Truth became a Methodist in 1843 and, on June 1 of that year, heard a clear call from God to become a traveling preacher speaking out against slavery. The Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Mass. Photo by Lynn Graves, Massachusetts Office of Tourism.
Sojourner Truth became a Methodist in 1843 and, on June 1 of that year, heard a clear call from God to become a traveling preacher speaking out against slavery. The Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Mass. Photo by Lynn Graves, Massachusetts Office of Tourism.

The history of The United Methodist Church is filled with deeply spiritual people like John Wesley, people who devoted their lives to the cause of Christ. We stand upon their lives and work; they continue to challenge us. Here are the stories of six Methodists that you can use in your lessons to help others hear the voice of God.

Fannie Crosby

Though her name may not be familiar to modern worshippers, her words are among the most well-known in all Christianity. Fannie Crosby penned over 9,000 hymns. While her songs like Blessed Assurance became popular among many denominations, Crosby was a lifelong Methodist.

At the same time she was sharing her incredible musical gifts, Crosby lived a life characterized by hope and generosity. She followed Wesley’s example regarding possessions, constantly giving away all but what was required for her survival.

Blinded by a treatment prescribed by a man pretending to be a doctor, Crosby could easily have become bitter. Instead, she chose a different path and wrote that her blindness allowed her to enjoy blessings that other people could not.

John Fletcher

When faced with the question of whom would lead the Methodist movement after his death, Wesley had one person in mind: John Fletcher. Though Fletcher died before Wesley, his considerable skill as a theologian helped craft the formidable works that included Wesley’s world-shaping ideals.

A prolific writer, Fletcher’s pursuit of God provides a powerful example for the 21st-century church. It was during a small group gathering that Fletcher shared that he believed he had received the gift of entire sanctification. He went on to say that he had received it twice before but lost it because of false humility and failure to share the news of the incredible gift with others. (1) His teaching: When God does something for us, we must not shy away from praising to God and sharing what God has done.

Sojourner Truth

Born Isabella Baumfree, she grew up as a slave in New York. She escaped in 1862, a year before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A courageous and formidable woman, she took a slave owner in Alabama to court to get her son out of slavery. She succeeded and blazed a trail as the first black woman to win a case against a white man.

Her fierce obedience to God’s call continues to be an example. She became a Methodist in 1843 (2) and, on June 1 of that year, heard a clear call from God to become a traveling preacher speaking out against slavery. With call came a new name from God — Sojourner Truth. It named her work of traveling and speaking the truth. When asked why she was leaving the security of a good job and housing, she said, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” She exemplifies the courage and confidence that God will provide as we follow God’s call.

Richard Allen

A part of American Methodism from its earliest days, Richard Allen witnessed the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church and saw Francis Asbury become a bishop during the historic Christmas Conference of 1784.

The first black Methodist minister, Allen was a powerful preacher and incredible movement builder. Restricted in his early years to preaching only at early morning services, Allen built congregations wherever he served. After being continually held back, Allen left his appointment and established his own congregation. As that congregation grew, he was ordained by Asbury. Eventually — after continuing to experience and witness discrimination against black members — Allen left the Methodist Episcopal Church and established the first fully independent black denomination in the United States. This year, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is celebrating its bicentennial.

Selina, Countess of Huntingdon

Lady Huntingdon became part of the Methodist movement as a member of one of its earliest expressions: the Fetter Lane Society. (3) Though much is written about the effect of the Methodist movement on the lower classes in England, her passion was bringing the fire of revival to England’s elite.

In service of that goal, she appointed George Whitfield as her personal chaplain. She had him preach at dinners attended by the most influential members of British society. She also used her considerable wealth to build 64 chapels and aid Methodist efforts to serve the poor. After the Methodists were expelled from Oxford, she established a minister’s training college to educate preachers. Her commitment to education inspired the founding of Huntingdon College in 1854. The United Methodist-related college is today in Montgomery, Alabama.

Clementine and William Butler

Though they married later in life after he was twice widowed, William and Clementine Butler played a crucial role in planting Methodism in two countries. In 1856, they traveled to India, where they endured the Indian Revolution of 1857, a bloody uprising against British rule. In the aftermath, the Butlers began orphanages for children left homeless and parentless by the revolution and established the India Missionary Conference.

Returning to the United States, Clementine met with women from both Methodist and Congregational churches to encourage the support of single women missionaries. That initiative developed into the Women’s Foreign Mission Society, a forerunner of today’s United Methodist Women.

After their furlough, the Butlers traveled to Mexico. In their years there, they established a printing press, school, orphanage and several churches that offered the gospel in both word and deed. Their work and lives orbited around serving the hurting and poor.

Fannie Crosby, John Fletcher, Sojourner Truth, Richard Allen, Lady Huntingdon and William and Clementine Butler — these incredible saints are part of the great “cloud of witnesses” that God provides to help us see the path forward. No matter where we are or how we are struggling, we can recall someone else who dealt with similar circumstances. These examples can provide that inspiration for the people you teach and lead.

1. Wood, Lawrence W. The Meaning of Pentecost in Early Methodism. Oxford: Scarecrow. 148-151.
2. McCleary, Paul. Reform Movements in Methodism Brought on By Societal Issues 1830-1885. Xlibris. Kindle Edition. Kindle Location 911.
3. Heitzenrater, Richard P. Wesley and the People Called Methodist. Nashville: Abingdon. 135.

Jeremy Steele

When Jeremy and his wife are not playing with their four children, he oversees youth and college ministries and leads the evening worship service at Christ UMC in Mobile, Al. Jeremy is an author of several books and resources that you can find at JeremyWords.com or follow him on Twitter!

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