I’m sitting in King David’s Restaurant in Syracuse, New York. I’ve spent two days speaking with a wide diversity of religion scholars, and I’m realizing religion is not yet dead. A few days ago I wrote about the Burnt Over District and the Second Great Awakening. It occurs to me as I climbed the hill to the Religion Department in the rain, that I am on the trail of that Great Awakening. Syracuse University began as a Methodist school. Today, although affiliated with the United Methodist Church, it considers itself non-sectarian. Yet without those abstemious Methodists, they wouldn’t be here. The Methodists, now primarily represented by the United Methodist Church, owe their explosive growth to the Second Great Awakening. Out on the frontiers—for America was a rural nation—the revivals became showcases of the social, the supernatural, and the salacious. The Methodists and Baptists, in terms of numbers, benefited immensely.
With their enviable population base, the Methodists invested in higher education. Syracuse University, just up the hill, Adrian College, Boston, Central Methodist, Drew, Duke, Emory Universities, Florida Southern College—you could go nearly through the alphabet and not exhaust their schools—all owe their beginnings or present stature in part to those thrifty Methodists. Believers in an educated clergy, they reached out to embrace an educated laity as well. Although many of these institutions grew up and left their religion behind, the Methodists have impressed their stamp on American higher education unlike nearly any other denomination. Even when numbers in the pews decline, the Methodists will have left a legacy on the wider culture through their belief in education. About the only other Christian group invested so heavily in higher education has been the Catholic Church. Even so, the Methodist academic reputation climbs a bit higher.
I spent many happy years among the Methodists. Their way of looking at life, officially, anyway, isn’t extremist. Some aver that John Wesley was an extreme evangelist. Today he’d be snowboarding down the Alps to seek the unsaved, a Red Bull or two in his belly to stoke that restless fire. His followers, via media Methodists, eased into the mainstream—in some ways defined the mainstream. Methodism was good for a kid who needed to fit in. So as I sit in King David’s Restaurant, reflecting over my past that has landed me in this most unusual place, I am thinking about my Methodist roots. I’ve failed to impress those Methodist institutions where I was once courted for a circuit riding future. Now I watch as they educate other people’s kids. It is a safe guess that King David wouldn’t even be here if it hadn’t been for John Wesley and his personal need for assurance. If only more churches took education so seriously.