Pilgrim Holiness History – 1966-1968

“Merger with the Wesleyan Methodists”



Mergers of similar-sized denominations don’t happen suddenly. The final wedding usually only occurs after many years of dating.  The Pilgrim The “urge to merge” with the Wesleyan Methodists surged and retreated several times before an actual wedding took place in 1968.


The first merger surge occurred in May, 1944 when Wesleyan Methodist leader F. R. Eddy[1] came to the Pilgrim General board opening up merger discussions. The GBA liked the idea and voted to explore closer contact and cooperation. The GBA then followed up their vote by deciding to send the sister denomination’s magazine, The Wesleyan Methodist, to every Pilgrim pastor for the following year in hope of fanning merger flames.  Five months later, in October, 1944 a Joint Commission on Church Union was named and negotiations began in earnest. At the Pilgrim General Conference in 1946, GS Walter Surbrook urged the Conference to instruct the GBA to pursue continued serious negotiations, but the urge to merge soon hit a down surge and the idea went dormant.


Ten years later in the 1950’s the urge to merge was again surging. The 1954 Pilgrim General Conference referred merger explorations to the GBA and four years later (1958) a General Conference memorial was recommended for merger with the Wesleyan Methodists. It passed the Pilgrim General Conference overwhelmingly. However, when a similar memorial went to the Wesleyan Methodist general conference their own urge was on the down surge and it failed to pass the Wesleyan Methodist Conference.[2] With their marriage proposal turned down, the Pilgrims put the idea on the shelf again for another decade.


By 1962 the idea surged again and both denominations (Pilgrims in 1962 and Wesleyan Methodists in 1963) established a commission to explore a merger. The Pilgrims, having their previous proposal rebuffed said to Wesleyan Methodists, “You go first this time.”  So Wesleyan Methodists voted first the next time around. At the Pilgrim General Conference in 1966 the business was interrupted with the announcement that the Wesleyan Methodist General Conference had voted 130 to 33 to merge with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrim Chair recessed the conference instructing all delegates to go to prayer for a half hour. Following the prayer time the Pilgrims voted 229 to 73 approving the merger.


A June wedding occurred in 1968 on the campus of Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana. At 8:30 in the morning on June 26 the formal merger ceremony began with as much pageantry and pomp as a wedding. Following a prelude and processional a hymn was sung, then a reading from the epistles and gospels then they sang the Doxology. Next several sets of representatives—one from each denomination marched forward to lay a symbol on the table. Two ministers marched forward and each laid a Bible on the table[3], followed by the two publishers laying a hymnal, then two General Superintendents with their respective manual and discipline, then the new constitution was brought to the table. All this was followed by two children—one from each denomination—who marched forward and joined hands, then two youth, six ordained ministers and two representatives from overseas. After a unity hymn J. D. Abbott led in prayer, the covenant of merger was read and the service closed with the Lord’s Supper. The two denominations had become “One... that the World may Believe”.[4] (John 17:21)


The seventy one year history of The Pilgrim Holiness Church now merged with an equal but older stream to become The Wesleyan Church. Like all marriages, there would be adjustments and adaptations[5] as the two streams worked through the early years of marriage, but for both denominations the marriage was a strong one.


The Pilgrims brought into the marriage a steady growth rate through its 71 year history. Since the year records were first kept (1930) the Pilgrims had grown and expanded their North American membership by 92% in those 36 years prior to merger where records had been kept—an average of 3431 members per quadrennium. And the Pilgrims had grown abroad an astonishing 361% during the same period. The Pilgrims brought with them a lively entrepreneurial spirit that was now more accountable than during its early days and they brought a solid fully funded pension plan.[6]


The Pilgrims got in the marriage at least as much as they brought. They inherited an extensive highly developed education system including colleges at Houghton, Marion, Central, and Miltonvale, along with an energetic Bible College in Sussex, New Brunswick. Pilgrims inherited the heroic anti-slavery history which they embraced and recited all trough the 1960’s and 70’s and even to today as if it was their own heritage. Pilgrims got a host of high-quality scholars, a more respectable name, and a greater value on the laity in decision-making.[7] Along with all this, the Pilgrims inherited a legacy of organizational and procedural expertise which provided solid structural systems for the coming decades.


It turned out to be a good marriage.  One of my Wesleyan Methodist friends puts it this way: “The Wesleyan Methodists had a great boiler and the Pilgrims had great steam.”



To think about….

  1. What are the common internal and external factors that seem to contribute to an “urge to merge?”
  2. How do you account for the Pilgrim growth rate over their history? What was their “secret” at the time? How much of that strategy is outdated and what ought to come down to the present?
  3. Mergers allow denominations to make something new—in a way they can enable leaders to “start with blank paper” and design a denomination for the future—if we were to merge today what would you want to change about the present way we do thing? What would you keep and what would you discard?
  4. The merger of these two denominations took place more than 40 year ago. What changes have taken place since then that have nothing much to do with former Pilgrim or Wesleyan Methodist tradition but are now such a part of The Wesleyan Church that we would want to maintain it in any future merger negotiations with other denominations?
  5. Wesleyans have periodically flirted with merging with other bodies including the Free Methodist Church and The Church of the Nazarene. Indeed the Nazarenes passed such a memorial in 2009. Which of these two denominations do you think we are more likely to merge with in the future, and why? What might Wesleyans bring and get in such a merger?



So what do you think?

During the first few weeks, click here to comment or read comments


Keith Drury   November 17, 2009




[1] F. R. Eddy was the “Publishing Agent” for the Wesleyan Methodist at the time and was a major force in Wesleyan Methodist leadership when he made this visit. He is the grandfather of Edie Thompson, wife of David Thompson, Wesleyan professor at Asbury Theological Seminary.

[2] This merger proposal failed to pass by a very slim majority, but you will need to read the related history of the Wesleyan Methodist church to hear that story.

[3] The Pilgrim pastor carrying a Bible was my father, L. W. Drury.

[4] This motto continued to be a part of the official logo for decades.

[5] For a few years “parity” was an issue—making sure that an equal number of “former Pilgrims” and “former Wesleyan Methodists” were elected or appointed to boards and committees but in just four years (1972), when I joined the headquarters staff this was diminishing. The last general leader who had a card file of district leaders marked “WM” or “PH” had been quietly replaced and the new denomination quit looking backwards.

[6] Under the leadership of Roy Beltz the Pilgrim Pension Plan was fully funded and did not rely on present collections to pay pensions but funded all ministerial pensions out of past payments into the fund. This approach was adopted in the new denomination.

[7] The Wesleyan Methodist Church from its founding insisted on parity between laity and ministers in decision making. This 50-50 principle of representation has pervaded the merged church’s polity ever since and is now considered sacrosanct. The Pilgrims had been more clergy-driven and adopted the Wesleyan Methodist value happily. In the final quarter of the 20th century in the merged church greater authority gravitated to pastors and district and denominational leaders and away from the boards and committees but the actual boards and committees are still largely set up on the 50-50 principle.