April 19, 2012

Methodism and Politics in the 20th Century

I'm grateful to the folks at The Institute on Religion and Democracy for sending me a review copy of Mark Tooley's new book Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century (Bristol House, 2011). As the title indicates, this volume is about the socio-political witness and activity of the people called Methodists over the course of the last 100 years. The book has a journalistic feel, and (contrary to my expectations) offers a limited amount of commentary. The detailed discussion reflects thorough and well-informed research. Anyone interested in the role of religion in American political history will find this study informative and illuminating.

The major theme of the story of Methodism in the 20th century, as Tooley recounts it, might be summarized in terms of a movement from a fairly influential and unified social and political witness to one much less so. Methodists were apparently a political force to be reckoned with in the early decades of the 1900's, though that could hardly be said to be true now. Some of the major issues treated by Tooley are prohibition (which Methodists strongly supported), the increasing intensity of the just war/pacifism debate, and civil rights. I was a bit surprised to discover how furiously Methodists battled for prohibition and grateful for the increased calls for peace.

As president of the IRD, Tooley is no stranger to the intersection of politics and religion, and with this book, he has provided a very helpful resource for a narrow topic within that larger field of inquiry. This book fills a gap in the study of Methodist history; indeed, I don't know of another book that tackles this subject. The extensive end notes provide plenty of material for interested readers to track down further detail, and there is a helpful timeline of "Major Events in the Methodist Political History in the Twentieth Century" (xiv-xvii). Tooley's hope is that Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century will be instructive as Methodists work to discern the future of our social witness both in the United States and the rest of the world. As to whether his hopes will be fulfilled, only time will tell.

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