The numerical growth that occurred in early American Methodism can be found in many different sources. However, in Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy, they tell the story in a slightly different way. Finke and Stark have a chart (on p. 56) that shows the religious adherents as a percentage of total adherents by denominations in 1776 and again in 1850. In other words, they show the market share of six denominations during this time.
In 1776 Methodists made up 2.5 % of religious adherent in the colonies. In 1850 Methodists made up 34.2 % of religious adherents! In seventy years they had increased from a tiny sect to the largest denomination in the United States. (In other words, in 1776 1 in 40 religious people in America were Methodist. In 1859 1 in 3 were.) And no other denomination was even close to the Methodists at this time. The second largest denomination was the Baptists with 20.5%.
This is significant because in a growing population it is possible to experience numerical growth while declining in relation to the overall population. Finke and Stark point to the Congregationalists as illustrative of this. In 1776 Congregationalists made up 20.4% of religious adherents (the largest denomination in the colonies). In 1850 they made up 4%. During this time they had been passed by the Methodists, Baptists, Catholics, and Presbyterians. Yet, “despite this extraordinary shift in their fortunes, Congregationalist leaders during this era expressed surprisingly little concern” (56).
I have just begun reading Finke and Stark’s book. However, one thing that reading the book has made me think about is that most people don’t go back far enough when discussing the decline of American Methodism. Most people point to, ironically, somewhere around the time of the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968. But the indicators of decline were in place long before that. Unfortunately, if in 1776 the Congregationalists were the largest denomination and they experienced an unexpected decrease in growth relative to other denominations, the Methodists would experience a similar decrease in growth relative to other denominations in the decades after 1850. The highwater mark, then, of American Methodism was not 1968, but somewhere around 1850.