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American University was founded in 1893 as the culmination of a vision of our founder, Methodist bishop John Fletcher Hurst, to found a national Methodist university in the nation's capital. Since that time, our relationship with the Methodist church (now the United Methodist Church) has evolved and changed but the area where our connections to our Methodist roots remain the strongest is in our values as an institution.
Open and Honest Inquiry
Methodism has a long tradition of seeking open and honest intellectual inquiry. The early Methodists were encouraged to become as learned as possible. Charles Wesley, the brother of Methodism's founder John Wesley, wrote in a hymn, "unite the pair so long disjoin'd, knowledge and vital piety—learning and holiness combined." Spiritual growth and intellectual rigor were not seen as contradictory, but mutually necessary. As a result, Methodists have established over 110 colleges and universities in the U.S. alone, reflecting this commitment to learning.
In addition, the Methodist tradition has never been dogmatic and Methodism long embraced a wide range of opinions on theological and other matters. While the Methodists certainly have had their creeds, beyond the most central doctrines, there has long been an embrace of diversity of opinion. Methodists frequently embrace Wesley's advice to have "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Furthermore, Wesley wrote that having the correct and orthodox theology was not the be-all end-all of religion: "Orthodoxy, I say, or right opinion, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if any part of it at all." In another letter, he wrote:
It is the glory of the people called Methodists that they condemn none for their opinions or modes of worship. They think and let think, and insist upon nothing but faith working by love.
He and the Methodists after him have been content to "think and let think."
This value of openness, diversity of opinion, and embracing reason alongside spiritual growth and development has been a cornerstone of AU's values.
Service and Social Justice
John Wesley and the early Methodists emphasized a doctrine known as "sanctification," which meant a growth in holiness accomplished by the grace of God. This sanctification took place in two ways: personally and socially. Personally, it meant the abstention from vice and the commitment to works of piety (prayer, worship, study of scripture, etc.).
Social holiness, on the other hand, referred to acts of what Wesley called "mercy": acts of service and justice. This commitment to social holiness has been seen in Methodist work to end the slave trade, abolish slavery, improve workers' condition, support women's suffrage, oppose child labor, work for temperance, and to support civil rights and international human rights.
So important was this aspect of holiness, that John Wesley even said that "the Gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness."
This commitment to social holiness through service and social justice is deeply embedded in our AU culture. From our commitment to serving our city, to the number of graduates entering the Peace Corps, to the desire of so many students to bring meaningful change in our world, this old Methodist value lives on.
Affirming Human Dignity
The Imago Dei, or "Image of God," is a doctrine not limited to Methodism; it can be found throughout Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and others. In Methodist thinking, the reclamation of the image of God within us was the "one thing needful" and the church's Social Principles state:
We affirm all persons as equally valuable in the sight of God. We therefore work toward societies in which each person's value is recognized, maintained, and strengthened.
This value is found in AU's commitment to diversity and inclusion: a recognition that all people have a place at the table, that all are worthy of dignity and respect, and that our task as a community is to embody in our actions our commitment to this fundamental value.
American University's connection to our Methodist heritage may not be as visible as it once was—with mandatory chapel services and a majority of the Board of Trustees required to be Methodists—but the university's commitment to open and honest inquiry, servant leadership through service and justice, and our affirmation of human dignity through a commitment to diversity and inclusion are the ongoing legacies of the foundational Methodist values with which we were formed and in which we still live.
The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with a worldwide connection of 12.8 million members. The United Methodist Church was formed when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged in 1968, but traces its heritage back to the movement begun in 1729 in England by John and Charles Wesley.