Star InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar InactiveStar Inactive
 

Article Index

By far the most momentous event of American church history in the closing period of the colonial era was the planting of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Wesleyan revival was strangely tardy in reaching this country, with which it had so many points of connection. It was in America, in 1737, that John Wesley passed through the discipline of a humiliating experience, by which his mind had been opened, and that he had been brought into acquaintance with the Moravians, by whom he was to be taught the way of the Lord more perfectly. It was John Wesley who sent Whitefield to America, from whom, on his first return to England, in 1738, he learned the practice of field-preaching. It was from America that Edwards's "Narrative of Surprising Conversions" had come to Wesley, which, being read by him on the walk from London to Oxford, opened to his mind unknown possibilities of the swift advancement of the kingdom of God. The beginning of the Wesleyan societies in England followed in close connection upon the first Awakening in America. It went on with growing momentum in England and Ireland for quarter of a century, until, in 1765, it numbered thirty-nine circuits served by ninety-two itinerant preachers; and its work was mainly among the classes from which the emigration to the colonies was drawn. It is not easy to explain how it came to pass that through all these twenty-five years Wesleyan Methodism gave no sound or sign of life on that continent on which it was destined (if one may speak of predestination in this connection) to grow to its most magnificent proportions.

At last, in 1766, in a little group of Methodist families that had found one another out among the recent comers in New York, Philip Embury, who in his native Ireland long before had been a recognized local preacher, was induced by the persuasions and reproaches of a pious woman to take his not inconsiderable talent from the napkin in which he had kept it hidden for six years, and preach in his own house to as many as could be brought in to listen to him. The few that were there formed themselves into a "class" and promised to attend at future meetings.

A more untoward time for the setting on foot of a religious enterprise could hardly have been chosen. It was a time of prevailing languor in the churches, in the reaction from the Great Awakening; it was also a time of intense political agitation. The year before the Stamp Act had been passed, and the whole chain of colonies, from New Hampshire to Georgia, had been stirred up to resist the execution of it. This year the Stamp Act had been repealed, but in such terms as to imply a new menace and redouble the agitation. From this time forward to the outbreak of war in 1775, and from that year on till the conclusion of peace in 1783, the land was never at rest from turmoil. Through it all the Methodist societies grew and multiplied. In 1767 Embury's house had overflowed, and a sail-loft was hired for the growing congregation. In 1768 a lot on John Street was secured and a meeting-house was built. The work had spread to Philadelphia, and, self-planted in Maryland under the preaching of Robert Strawbridge, was propagating itself rapidly in that peculiarly congenial soil. In 1769, in response to earnest entreaties from America, two of Wesley's itinerant preachers, Boardman and Pilmoor, arrived with his commission to organize an American itinerancy; and two years later, in 1771, arrived Francis Asbury, who, by virtue of his preëminent qualifications for organization, administration, and command, soon became practically the director of the American work, a function to which, in 1772, he was officially appointed by commission from Wesley.

Very great is the debt that American Christianity owes to Francis Asbury. It may reasonably be doubted whether any one man, from the founding of the church in America until now, has achieved so much in the visible and traceable results of his work. It is very certain that Wesley himself, with his despotic temper and his High-church and Tory principles, could not have carried the Methodist movement in the New World onward through the perils of its infancy on the way to so eminent a success as that which was prepared by his vicegerent. Fully possessed of the principles of that autocratic discipline ordained by Wesley, he knew how to use it as not abusing it, being aware that such a discipline can continue to subsist, in the long run, only by studying the temper of the subjects of it, and making sure of obedience to orders by making sure that the orders are agreeable, on the whole, to the subjects. More than one polity theoretically aristocratic or monarchic in the atmosphere of our republic has grown into a practically popular government, simply through tact and good judgment in the administration of it, without changing a syllable of its constitution. Very early in the history of the Methodist Church it is easy to recognize the aptitude with which Asbury naturalizes himself in the new climate. Nominally he holds an absolute autocracy over the young organization. Whatever the subject at issue, "on hearing every preacher for and against, the right of determination was to rest with him."[201:1] Questions of the utmost difficulty and of vital importance arose in the first years of the American itinerancy. They could not have been decided so wisely for the country and the universal church if Asbury, seeming to govern the ministry and membership of the Society, had not studied to be governed by them. In spite of the sturdy dictum of Wesley, "We are not republicans, and do not intend to be," the salutary and necessary change had already begun which was to accommodate his institutes in practice, and eventually in form, to the habits and requirements of a free people.

The center of gravity of the Methodist Society, beginning at New York, moved rapidly southward. Boston had been the metropolis of the Congregationalist churches; New York, of the Episcopalians; Philadelphia, of the Quakers and the Presbyterians; and Baltimore, latest and southernmost of the large colonial cities, became, for a time, the headquarters of Methodism. Accessions to the Society in that region were more in number and stronger in wealth and social influence than in more northern communities. It was at Baltimore that Asbury fixed his residence--so far as a Methodist bishop, ranging the country with incessant and untiring diligence, could be said to have a fixed residence.

The record of the successive annual conferences of the Methodists gives a gauge of their increase. At the first, in 1773, at Philadelphia, there were reported 1160 members and 10 preachers, not one of these a native of America.

At the second annual conference, in Philadelphia, there were reported 2073 members and 17 preachers.

The third annual conference sat at Philadelphia in 1775, simultaneously with the Continental Congress. It was the beginning of the war. There were reported 3148 members. Some of the foremost preachers had gone back to England, unable to carry on their work without being compelled to compromise their royalist principles. The preachers reporting were 19. Of the membership nearly 2500 were south of Philadelphia--about eighty per cent.

At the fourth annual conference, at Baltimore, in 1776, were reported 4921 members and 24 preachers.

At the fifth annual conference, in Harford County, Maryland, were reported 6968 members and 36 preachers. This was in the thick of the war. More of the leading preachers, sympathizing with the royal cause, were going home to England. The Methodists as a body were subject to not unreasonable suspicion of being disaffected to the cause of independence. Their preachers were principally Englishmen with British sympathies. The whole order was dominated and its property controlled by an offensively outspoken Tory of the Dr. Johnson type.[202:1] It was natural enough that in their public work they should be liable to annoyance, mob violence, and military arrest. Even Asbury, a man of proved American sympathies, found it necessary to retire for a time from public activity.

In these circumstances, it is no wonder that at the conference of 1778, at Leesburg, Va., at which five circuits in the most disturbed regions were unrepresented, there was a decline in numbers. The members were fewer by 873; the preachers fewer by 7.

But it is really wonderful that the next year (1779) were reported extensive revivals in all parts not directly affected by the war, and an increase of 2482 members and 49 preachers. The distribution of the membership was very remarkable. At this time, and for many years after, there was no organized Methodism in New England. New York, being occupied by the invading army, sent no report. Of the total reported membership of 8577, 140 are credited to New Jersey, 179 to Pennsylvania, 795 to Delaware, and 900 to Maryland. Nearly all the remainder, about eighty per cent. of the whole, was included in Virginia and North Carolina. With the exception of 319 persons, the entire reported membership of the Methodist societies lived south of Mason and Dixon's line. The fact throws an honorable light on some incidents of the early history of this great order of preachers.

In the sixteen years from the meeting in Philip Embury's house to the end of the War of Independence the membership of the Methodist societies grew to about 12,000, served by about 70 itinerant preachers. It was a very vital and active membership, including a large number of "local preachers" and exhorters. The societies and classes were effectively organized and officered for aggressive work; and they were planted, for the most part, in the regions most destitute of Christian institutions.

       *       *       *       *       *

Parallel with the course of the gospel, we trace in every period the course of those antichristian influences with which the gospel is in conflict. The system of slavery must continue, through many sorrowful years, to be in view from the line of our studies. We shall know it by the unceasing protest made against it in the name of the Lord. The arguments of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet were sustained by the yearly meetings of the Friends. At Newport, the chief center of the African slave-trade, the two Congregational pastors, Samuel Hopkins, the theologian, and the erudite Ezra Stiles, afterward president of Yale College, mutually opposed in theology and contrasted at every point of natural character, were at one in boldly opposing the business by which their parishioners had been enriched.[204:1] The deepening of the conflict for political liberty pointed the application of the golden rule in the case of the slaves. The antislavery literature of the period includes a printed sermon that had been preached by the distinguished Dr. Levi Hart "to the corporation of freemen" of his native town of Farmington, Conn., at their autumnal town-meeting in 1774; and the poem on "Slavery," published in 1775 by that fine character, Aaron Cleveland,[204:2] of Norwich, hatter, poet, legislator, and minister of the gospel. Among the Presbyterians of New Jersey, the father of Dr. Ashbel Green took the extreme ground which was taken by Dr. Hopkins's church in 1784, that no person holding a slave should be permitted to remain in the communion of the church.[204:3] In 1774 the first society in the world for the abolition of slavery was organized among the Friends in Pennsylvania, to be followed by others, making a continuous series of abolition societies from New England to Maryland and Virginia. But the great antislavery society of the period in question was the Methodist Society. Laboring through the War of Independence mainly in the Southern States, it publicly declared, in the conference of 1780, "that slavery is contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to society; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion, and doing that which we would not that others should do to us and ours." The discipline of the body of itinerants was conducted rigorously in accordance with this declaration.

It must not be supposed that the instances here cited represent exceptions to the general course of opinion in the church of those times. They are simply expressions of the universal judgment of those whose attention had been seriously fixed upon the subject. There appears no evidence of the existence of a contrary sentiment. The first beginnings of a party in the church in opposition to the common judgment of the Christian conscience on the subject of slavery are to be referred to a comparatively very recent date.

Another of the great conflicts of the modern church was impending. But it was only to prophetic minds in the middle of the eighteenth century that it was visible in the greatness of its proportions. The vice of drunkenness, which Isaiah had denounced in Samaria and Paul had denounced at Ephesus, was growing insensibly, since the introduction of distilled liquors as a common beverage, to a fatal prevalence. The trustees of the charitable colony of Georgia, consciously laying the foundations of many generations, endeavored to provide for the welfare of the nascent State by forbidding at once the importation of negro slaves and of spirituous liquors; but the salutary interdict was soon nullified in the interest of the crops and of the trade with the Indians. Dr. Hopkins "inculcated, at a very early day, the duty of entire abstinence from intoxicating liquids as a beverage."[206:1] But, as in the conflict with slavery, so in this conflict, the priority of leadership belongs easily to Wesley and his itinerants. The conference of 1783 declared against permitting the converts "to make spirituous liquors, sell and drink them in drams," as "wrong in its nature and consequences." To this course they were committed long in advance by the "General Rules" set forth by the two Wesleys in May, 1743, for the guidance of the "United Societies."[206:2]

An incident of the times immediately preceding the War of Independence requires to be noted in this place, not as being of great importance in itself, but as characteristic of the condition of the country and prophetic of changes that were about to take place. During the decade from 1760 to 1775 the national body of the Presbyterians--the now reunited synod of New York and Philadelphia--and the General Association of the Congregational pastors of Connecticut met together by their representatives in annual convention to take counsel over a grave peril that seemed to be impending. A petition had been urgently pressed, in behalf of the American Episcopalians, for the establishment of bishops in the colonies under the authority of the Church of England. The reasons for this measure were obvious and weighty; and the protestations of those who promoted it, that they sought no advantage before the law over their fellow-Christians, were doubtless sincere. Nevertheless, the fear that the bringing in of Church of England bishops would involve the bringing in of many of those mischiefs of the English church establishment which neither they nor their fathers had been able to bear was a perfectly reasonable fear both to the Puritans of New England and to the Presbyterians from Ireland. It was difficult for these, and it would have been even more difficult for the new dignitaries, in colonial days, to understand how bishops could be anything but lord bishops. The fear of such results was not confined to ecclesiastics. The movement was felt by the colonial statesmen to be dangerously akin to other British encroachments on colonial rights. The Massachusetts Assembly instructed its agent in London strenuously to oppose it. In Virginia, the Episcopalian clergy themselves at first refused to concur in the petition for bishops; and when at last the concurrence was voted, it was in the face of a formal protest of four of the clergy, for which they received a vote of thanks from the House of Burgesses.[207:1]

The alliance thus occasioned between the national synod of the Presbyterian Church and the Congregationalist clergy of the little colony of Connecticut seems like a disproportioned one. And so it was indeed; for the Connecticut General Association was by far the larger and stronger body of the two. By and by the disproportion was inverted, and the alliance continued, with notable results.

 

FOOTNOTES:

[182:1] See G. P. Fisher, "History of Christian Doctrine," pp. 394-418; also E. A. Park in the "Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia," vol. iii., pp. 1634-38. The New England theology is not so called as being confined to New England. Its leading "improvements on Calvinism" were accepted by Andrew Fuller and Robert Hall among the English Baptists, and by Chalmers of the Presbyterians of Scotland.

[184:1] Of what sort was the life of a church and its pastor in those days is illustrated in extracts from the journal of Samuel Hopkins, the theologian, pastor at Great Barrington, given in the Memoir by Professor Park, pp. 40-43. The Sabbath worship was disturbed by the arrival of warlike news. The pastor and the families of his flock were driven from their homes to take refuge in blockhouses crowded with fugitives. He was gone nearly three months of fall and winter with a scouting party of a hundred whites and nineteen Indians in the woods. He sent off the fighting men of his town with sermon and benediction on an expedition to Canada. During the second war he writes to his friend Bellamy (1754) of a dreadful rumor that "good Mr. Edwards" had perished in a massacre at Stockbridge. This rumor was false, but he adds: "On the Lord's day P.M., as I was reading the psalm, news came that Stockbridge was beset by an army of Indians, and on fire, which broke up the assembly in an instant. All were put into the utmost consternation--men, women, and children crying, 'What shall we do?' Not a gun to defend us, not a fort to flee to, and few guns and little ammunition in the place. Some ran one way and some another; but the general course was to the southward, especially for women and children. Women, children, and squaws presently flocked in upon us from Stockbridge, half naked and frighted almost to death; and fresh news came that the enemy were on the plains this side Stockbridge, shooting and killing and scalping people as they fled. Some presently came along bloody, with news that they saw persons killed and scalped, which raised a consternation, tumult, and distress inexpressible."

[188:1] Jacobs, "The Lutherans," pp. 191, 234; Dubbs, "German Reformed Church," p. 271.

[188:2] See extracts from the correspondence given by Dr. Jacobs, pp. 193-195. Dr. Jacobs's suggestion that three congregations of five hundred families each might among them have raised the few hundreds a year required seems reasonable, unless a large number of these were families of redemptioners, that is, for the time, slaves.

[190:1] Jacobs, "The Lutherans," p. 196. The story of Zinzendorf, as seen from different points of view, may be studied in the volumes of Drs. Jacobs, Dubbs, and Hamilton (American Church History Series).

[191:1] Acrelius, quoted by Jacobs, p. 218, note.

[194:1] Jacobs, "The Lutherans," pp. 215-218; Hamilton, "The Moravians," chaps, iii.-viii., xi.

[196:1] Jacobs, "The Lutherans," p. 289.

[198:1] Jacobs, pp. 227, 309, sqq.; Hamilton, p. 457. No account of the German-American churches is adequate which does not go back to the work of Spener, the influence of which was felt through them all. The author is compelled to content himself with inadequate work on many topics.

[201:1] Dr. J. M. Buckley, "The Methodists," p. 181.

[202:1] The attitude of Wesley toward the American cause is set forth with judicial fairness by Dr. Buckley, pp. 158-168.

[204:1] A full account of Hopkins's long-sustained activity against both slavery and the slave-trade is given in Park's "Memoir of Hopkins," pp. 114-157. His sermons on the subject began in 1770. His monumental "Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans, with an Address to Slave-holders," was published in 1776. For additional information as to the antislavery attitude of the church at this period, and especially that of Stiles, see review of "The Minister's Wooing," by L. Bacon ("New Englander," vol. xviii., p. 145).

[204:2] I have not been able to find a copy of this poem, the character of which, however, is well known. The son of Aaron Cleveland, William, was a silversmith at Norwich, among whose grandsons may be named President Grover Cleveland, and Aaron Cleveland Cox, later known as Bishop Arthur Cleveland Coxe.

[204:3] Dr. A. Green's Life of his father, in "Monthly Christian Advocate."

[206:1] Park, "Memoir of Hopkins," p. 112.

[206:2] Buckley, "The Methodists," Appendix, pp. 688, 689.

 

[207:1] See Tiffany, "Protestant Episcopal Church," pp. 267-278, where the subject is treated fully and with characteristic fairness.

Source: A History of American Christianity chapter 12, by Leonard Woolsey Bacon etext available at the Project Gutenberg website