The Christmas Conference

Ordination of Superintendent F. Asbury
Ordination of Superintendent F. Asbury

Thomas Coke and Harry Hoosier rode the country in late November-early December, 1784, calling the preachers to a preachers-only assembly, effectively a constitutional convention and known as the Christmas Conference. It met in Lovely Lane Chapel and Otterbein’s new brick church in Baltimore. (We’ll visit Lovely Lane UMC when we’re there. The old chapel no longer exists. We’ll also see Otterbein’s Old Church.)

Francis Asbury’s journal for December 24th has only brief entries for such a momentous occasion: “We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time,” Asbury wrote. “We then rode to Baltimore, where we met a few preachers: it was agreed to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons. When the conference was seated, Dr. Coke and myself were unanimously elected to the superintendency of the Church, and my ordination followed, after being previously ordained deacon and elder.”

Thus, Asbury was ordained by Thomas Coke a deacon, then the next day an elder, then on the next day, he was ordained “superintendent.” (Curiously, Asbury didn’t take the title “bishop” even though in Coke’s ordination sermon he made the historic case for the legitimacy of the act and an explicit case for the episcopal character of the office by delineating ten “grand characteristics of a Christian bishop.” Later, he would be referred to as bishop.) Asbury’s being “ordained” a superintendent has created confusion for historians and theologians. In the modern UM church, a bishop is not ordained to a third order of ministry – deacon, elder, then bishop. No, bishops in the UMC are ordained elders who are “consecrated” to the office of elder.

Phillip William Otterbein
Phillip William Otterbein

Asbury requested that Phillip William Otterbein lay hands on him as he was being ordained superintendent. Remember Otterbein? He was the German Reformed pastor we met earlier in our story who would go on to join with Martin Boehm to form the United Brethren Church, the so-called “German Methodists.” The United Brethen Church would later combine with Jacob Albright’s Evangelical Association to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). This EUB and The Methodist Church combined in 1968 in Dallas to form the United Methodist Church. Otterbein did participate in the laying on of hands for the episcopal ordination, a fact noted by Coke but curiously omitted from Asbury’s ordination certificate.

In 1784, Methodists anticipated the American religious future  by…

  1. embracing disestablishment,
  2. offering a denominational ordering of religion,
  3. achieving autonomy from European headquarters,
  4. institutionalizing voluntarism.
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America

However, American Methodists would only slowly understand their prescience. The Christmas Conference indeed made or confirmed a number of denomination-shaping decisions. It accepted John Wesley’s plan for the church, in principle if not in every detail, including his prepared liturgy, hymnbook, and revised Articles of Religion. It explicitly conceded final authority to Wesley: “During the life of Rev. Mr. Wesley, we acknowledge ourselves his Sons in the Gospel, ready in Matters belonging to Church-Government, to obey his Commands”, a rubric, however, which was soon to be struck.

On the other hand… it chose to make decisions by debate and majority rule, thereby claiming the prerogative to approve, alter, add to, and subtract from what had been Wesley’s document (the “Large Minutes”). It added to the Articles of Religion a rubric on U. S. political autonomy and it removed the “descent into hell” from the Apostles  Creed. (See yesterday’s post for more on this latter point.) It followed Anglican, Catholic, and ancient precedent in adopting a threefold ministry of superintendents (bishops), elders, and deacons, proclaiming the new church to be episcopal and naming it “Methodist Episcopal.”

Balancing its deferential acknowledgment of Wesley’s authority, it provided for election of superintendents/bishops by and for their accountability to the conference. (Today, bishops are elected at Jurisdictional Conferences.) It selected elders (thirteen or so) and by charging them with supervisory as well as sacramental roles created the office of presiding elder (today’s district superintendent). It prohibited “Ministers or Travelling-Preachers” from drinking “spirituous Liquors.” It legislated courageously and extensively against slavery, mandating that all Methodists, laity as well as preachers, emancipate their slaves. But it also provided for white oversight of African American gatherings. It embraced a proposal for a college and naming it for the two superintendents (Cokesbury College in Abingdon, MD). It set a common salary at twenty-four pounds per year. It approved missionaries for Nova Scotia (Freeborn Garrettson and James Cromwell). And it recast Wesley’s connectional mission statement in terms apt for the new nation and the yawning American continent. “God’s Design, in raising up the Preachers called Methodists,” the Discipline indicated was “To reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these Lands.”

I’ve written some about Phillip William Otterbein earlier in our story. Since he’s played such an important part in our story and since we will see his church (“Old Otterbein Church”) when we get to Baltimore, I’ll write a little more about his work tomorrow.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

Getting Ready to Plant an American Church

Count Nicolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf
Count Nicolas Ludwig von Zinzendork

We had a great pre-trip lecture #2 last Sunday. We had 34 of our 38 pilgrims in attendance to hear Al Hoppe give an excellent presentation on “European Pietism.” (If you missed the lecture, you can access Al’s handouts – caution, it is literally a book! – under the PRE-TRIP LECTURES tab above.) We learned about what distinguished Pietism from the Lutheranism in which it first emerged some 100 years after the Reformation began. We learned of some of the most influential thinkers in early Pietism, including Count Nicolas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, August Spangenberg, and Peter Bohler, who all had an enormous impact on John Wesley and early Methodism.

Meno Simons
Meno Simons

And, Al introduced us to a related movement that resulted from the followers of Meno Simons — the Mennonites — and their offshoot, the Amish. We will, of course, be visiting Pennsylvania Dutch Country on our trip, including a visit to the Mennonite Museum, and we’ll have our own step-on guide to take us through Amish country. In our next lecture on August 23rd at 12:30 pm in LC 214, as we explore the history of early American Methodism, we will meet several folks with Pietist roots and one Amish believer, all of whom were influential on early American Methodism. So Al, GREAT JOB!! You set us up well for our next lecture.

Thanks for sticking with me past yesterday’s little diversion on why Methodists don’t say “He descended to the dead” in the Traditional version of the Apostle’s Creed. Little detours like that fascinate me. Yup. I’m a Methodist history nerd.

Today, we pause a little further to catch our breath as we get ready to return next time to our story about the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church. As I write this, the City of Baltimore is in the news due to race riots in that city. This is the same city where the Methodist Episcopal Church began at the Christmas Conference in December of 1784 at Lovely Lane Chapel.

Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America

The design for the new church that Thomas Coke brought from John Wesley proved indispensable. Remember that Coke brought over Wesley’s edit of the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Sunday Service for Methodists in North America, which included a Psalter, and the Large Minutes of the English Methodist conferences, which served as a sort of early book of Discipline. He also brought Wesley’s Standard Sermons, which functioned much like the Anglican Homilies.

As helpful as these were, however, the foundations had already been well laid by Francis Asbury and the colonists. What those colonial Pietist foundations undergirded would stand. After these first encounters of Coke and Asbury, the latter – ironically, not yet a co-Superintendent — had the winning hand. Coke might have the blueprints, but Asbury had the foremen and workers. The church they made would be his.

Next time, on to Baltimore and the Christmas Conference. Hopefully, modern Baltimore will be at peace by then.

Why is “(Jesus) Descended to the Dead” Omitted from the Methodist Apostles’ Creed?

Apostles Creed
Apostles Creed

Since this is a LEARNING trip, with hopefully practical applications, we’re going to take a little pause in our ongoing story of the founding of Methodism in America to consider a very practical matter: Why is the phrase in reference to Jesus “he descended to the dead” omitted from the Apostles’ Creed in our United Methodist Hymnal?

Next time you have a UM Hymnal in your hands, compare the versions of the Apostles’ Creed printed as numbers 881 and 882. The 881 version, titled “The Apostles’ Creed, Traditional Version,” reads:

I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord:
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried;*
The third day he rose from the dead;
He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. …

The 882 version, titled “The Apostles’ Creed, Ecumenical Version,” reads:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and was buried;
On the third day he rose again;
He ascended into heaven,
Is seated at the right hand of God the Father,
And will come again to judge the living and the dead. …

In the 881 version, there is that all-important asterisk*, which reads in the footnote, “Traditional use of this creed includes these words, ‘He descended into hell.’” Wait a minute, I thought this WAS the Traditional version!?? Why is the phase omitted in the Methodist Traditional version? What’s going on?

Let’s begin unpacking this quandary with this question: Why is the phrase “He descended into Hell / to the dead” in ANY version? Why are we talking about Jesus in Hell at all??

The phrase, “He descended into Hell,” – sometimes, “He descended to the dead” — is a highly controversial clause in the Apostle’s Creed. Those who defend its inclusion usually point to scripture texts such as Job 38:17, Psalm 68:18-22; Matthew 12:38-41; Acts 2:22-32; Romans 10:7; Ephesians 4:7-10, 1 Peter 3:18-20, and 1 Peter 4:6.

One of these texts, 1 Peter 3:18-20, is often associated with Holy Saturday, the day before Easter that we just experienced. That verse reads:
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water…

This verse raises the questions, “Who were the imprisoned spirits? Were they imprisoned in Hell?” But that is another blog post! (Which I’ve written. E-mail me and I’ll send it to you.)

Relative to this blog post, we note that when John Wesley sent over to the American Methodists his version of the Anglican

Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion
Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion

Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, he rewrote some of them, and omitted many of them altogether. One that he omitted entirely was Article III, entitled “Of the going down of Christ into Hell.” It reads, “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The reason Wesley removed this article is not entirely clear, scholarly opinion is divided. Plus, he himself seemed divided on the issue. When, in 1784, he designed the Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, he included the phrase occasionally: in the Creed, in the liturgy for baptism. But in other places he left it out, as we’ve seen in his revision of the Articles of Religion, for example.

American Methodists have been ambivalent ever since. Or maybe not so ambivalent. By 1792, only eight years after Wesley’s instructions, American Methodists quit saying this phrase at all. It wasn’t in the Creed nor in the baptismal liturgy.

The ambivalence can be seen in scholarly debate about the subject. Professor Thomas Oden quotes Edwin Lewis as providing Wesley’s reasoning concerning his omission of Article Three as: “The omission may be ascribed to a lack of clear Scriptural support.” Indeed, if you read the above scripture texts, Christ’s descent into Hell is not clear. But in another of his books (John Wesley’s Teachings, vol. 2, page 45), Professor Oden states that “It is likely that the main reason Wesley did not include the descent of Christ into the netherworld is not that it lacked Biblical support, but that it was even in his time regarded as a controversial hypothesis among scholars.” Professor Ted Campbell notes in an e-mail to me, “It was interesting that at an ecumenical conference in Cambridge a few years ago a Coptic (Oriental Orthodox) scholar said that Orthodox in general have no opposition to any of the statements of the Apostles’ Creed except perhaps ‘he descended to the dead,’ which they themselves find a bit perplexing.”

Wesley was also “aware of the nest of exegetical problems embedded” in 1 Peter 3:19 and other verses. Prof. Oden quotes Prof. John Deschner as saying that Wesley had another motive for the omission: Wesley was “loath to teach anything suggesting a second chance for those who resisted repentance in this life.”

In Ted Campbell’s revised edition of Methodist Doctrine, The Essentials, he states that Wesley’s omission of Article Three “probably did not indicate his disapproval.” He goes on to say that when Methodists began to include the Apostles’ Creed in their hymnals in the 1800’s “many did not understand the meaning of this expression. They thought that to say that Christ descended into Hell meant that Christ went to the place of judgment (‘Hell’ in the sense of eternal punishment) and so removed the expression from the Creed.” “We have always said,” Ted Campbell wrote to me, “that this relied on a misunderstanding of the word ‘Hell.’ Previous generations of pious Methodists could hear it as ‘the place of eternal punishment,’ and find it impious to have Jesus there. I know that the Latin of the creed, descendit ad inferos, really just means that ‘he went to the-place-where-dead-people-go,’ wherever that is. That is to say, ‘he really died,’ just as ‘he was buried’ in I Corinthians 15:3-4 reinforces the claim that ‘Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.’”

So there you have it! Clear as mud!! But now, every time you profess your faith using the Apostles’ Creed, Traditional Version (No. 881), you are stepping back not only into ancient Christian history, but also into the heart of the Christmas Conference of 1784.

Enjoy this tidbit of Methodist insight.

(Sources: research into this topic by Al Hoppe and documented in an e-mail to me dated April 5, 2015, e-mail to me from Prof. Ted Campbell dated April 6, 2015, the web-site; The United Methodist Hymnal,

Provisioning an American Church

Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America

Last time we saw that John Wesley in 1784 took matters into his own hands to solve a very real problem in America. Due to the American Methodists’ lack of access to the sacraments, Wesley ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as clergy, and also ordained Rev. Thomas Coke as “Superintendent” for America.

Incidently, that Wesleyan “ordination” of the already Anglican-ordained Thomas Coke has left several questions for historians and theologians to pick at. Was Coke ordained to a separate order beyond elder? Thus, are there THREE orders of clergy – deacon, elder, and superintendent/bishop – in the Methodist church? (We have long recognized only two orders – deacon and elder. Bishops are elders consecrated to the office of bishop, not ordained to it. Big difference to theologians. Yet Wesley spoke of Coke as ordained to the Superintendency.) While Wesley specifically gave instructions for Coke and Asbury to be joint Superintendents of the American work, they soon took the title of Bishop, further complicating things. Is a Superintendent the same as a Bishop?

All these interesting questions aside, Coke, Vasey, and Whatcoat sailed for America soon after their ordinations. Wesley did not send Coke empty-handed. In a letter to his American brethren, Wesley announced that he had “drawn up a little Sketch” for a new church order, appointed “Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury (not yet ordained), to be joint Superintendents over our Brethren in North America,” and drafted a liturgy for the new church. He then exhorted American Methodists to be “at full liberty, simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.”

Sounds very much aligned with the spirit of the new country. However, Wesley did not intend by “full liberty” to remove himself from the determination of how Americans might “follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church!”

Wesley also sent with Coke as provisions for the new church revisions or analogues of documents constitutive of his Church of England. The “liturgy” Wesley sent he called, The Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America. (If you’d like to see it, click here.)  It was a revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer worship liturgy for the American Methodists. Wesley also revised the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the official doctrine of the Anglican Church. In addition to rewording some articles, he reduced the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion down to twenty four.

As an interesting aside, one of the Articles Wesley removed altogether was Article III, entitled “Of the going down of Christ

Christ's descent into Hell
Christ’s descent into Hell

into Hell.” It reads, “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The reason he removed it is not entirely clear, scholarly opinion is divided. What IS clear is that the version of the Apostles’ Creed found in our United Methodist Hymnal as number 881 does NOT contain the words found in the number 882, Apostles Creed Ecumenical version, “he descended to the dead.” This is interesting enough (to me!!) that I’ll dedicate the next blog post to it.

In addition to The Sunday Service and Articles of Religion, Wesley also provided a Psalter, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for the Lord’s Day. His Sermons and Notes served the doctrinal boundary-setting tradition in the same way as the Anglican Book of Homilies. The “little Sketch” also included a revised “Large Minutes,” a collection of British Methodist Conference decisions stated in Q&A format, which became the Discipline for the new church and held all these church-defining documents together.

Barratt's Chapel
Barratt’s Chapel

Thomas Coke arrived in New York City and soon traveled south to Delaware. There, in November, he met Francis Asbury for the first time at a quarterly conference at Barratt’s Chapel, Delaware (which we will get to visit, and have a very special treat while there. I can hardly wait!).

Coke doubtless expected simply to announce Wesley’s new order to Asbury and then to ordain him into it. At most, Wesley had said, Asbury was “respectfully to be consulted in respect to every part of the execution of it.” However, remember earlier when I wrote that Francis Asbury had caught the spirit of American liberty? He countered Coke’s ideas with precedent-setting gestures that revealed that he did not intend to hand over leadership of the new church to Coke.

In a further presumption of authority and notwithstanding Coke’s credentials and sole title then as Superintendent, Asbury sent Coke on a thousand-mile circuit with celebrated black preacher, Harry Hoosier. Asbury wanted Coke and Hoosier to call a special conference of the preachers in Baltimore, at Christmas, for the purpose of voting on whether or not to accept Asbury as their leader with Coke. Coke was astonished that Asbury — who had been and still was, very loyal to John Wesley — would not simple acquiesce. But Coke complied. Throughout the months of November and early December, he and Harry Hoosier called the Methodist preachers to conference.

Next time, I’ll write a bit more about this strange quirk that the Methodist version of the Apostles’ Creed leaves out the part about Jesus descending to Hell, or to the dead. Then we’ll return to our main story and attend the Christmas Conference, held in December of 1784, and founded the Methodist Church for the very first time.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

Thomas Coke

Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke
Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke

REMEMBER: Our 2nd pre-trip lecture is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. tomorrow, April 26, 2015, in LC214. Al Hoppe will speak on the influence of European Pietism on Methodism.

In 1784, after American independence had been won, John Wesley sent over Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke to co-Superintend with Francis Asbury the work of the newly independent American Methodist Episcopal Church. Who was Thomas Coke, whose name makes up the first half of Cokesbury?

Thomas Coke was born in Brecon, South Wales on September 9, 1747. He lived to be 67 years old, dying on May 2, 1814. In between, he lived a life full of foreign missions to not only America, but also the West Indies, France, Gibraltar, and Sierra Leone. He promoted others in setting up missions in Canada and Scotland. He actually died aboard a ship headed on a mission to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the East Indies. Wesley would call his assistant Coke “the flea” because he seemed always to be hopping around on his missions.

His father, Barthomolew, was a well-to-do apothecary. Coke, who was only 5 foot and 1 inch tall and prone to being overweight, studied law at Jesus College, Oxford. (Anyone see the irony in that – a lawyer studying at Jesus College?) His college has a strong Welsh tradition. After taking an undergraduate and Masters degrees, Thomas graduated with a Doctor of Civil Law in 1775. On returning home to Brecon after receiving his Masters Degree, he served as Mayor in 1772.

In the same year as his mayoralty, Coke was ordained in the Church of England and served a curacy (a curate is like an assistant pastor) at South Petherton in Somerset, England. He had already allied himself with the Methodist movement, which was about 30 years old by then, and this made for trouble when a new Rector arrived in the South Petherton parish. Coke had begun to hold cottage services and open services of the sort promoted by Wesley. His new Rector was “not amused,” and Coke was dismissed from his post on Easter Sunday 1777. His parishioners celebrated at the Rector’s behest by ringing the church bells and opening a hogshead of cider. (Talk about a tough church!) Years later, after his service in America and other mission fields, Thomas Coke returned to Petherton in 1807 and preached to a crowd of 2,000! (That will show them!)

Thomas Coke had met John Wesley in August of 1776, becoming one of his closest assistants. He was appointed

John Wesley
John Wesley

Superintendent of the London District in 1780 and President of the Methodist Church in Ireland in 1782 – a function he was to serve many times in the coming decades.

In September 1784, in Bristol, Wesley consecrated Coke as Superintendent, a title replaced in 1787 in America by that of Bishop (Greek episkopos) in spite of Wesley’s strong disapproval (“superintendent” is etymologically equivalent to “episkopos”). Since Coke was already a priest (Greek presbuteros) or presbyter in the Church of England, some interpret this consecration as the equivalent of episcopal consecration. Wesley’s action took place two months before the consecration in Aberdeen of Samuel Seabury as bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA.

After his consecration, Thomas Coke set sail for New York with instructions from John Wesley for the new American Methodist Episcopal Church, which included instructions to ordain Francis Asbury to serve as a co-Superintendent. During the voyage he read Augustine’s Confessions, Virgil’s Georgics, biographies of Francis Xavier (Jesuit missionary to India) and David Brainerd (Puritan missionary to North American aboriginals), and a treatise on episcopacy.

Barratt's Chapel
Barratt’s Chapel



After landing in New York, Thomas Coke made his way south to Barratt’s Chapel in Delaware (which we will see on our trip, and while there, have a very special treat). There, in November, he met for the very first time, Francis Asbury, and together they planned for what became known as the Christmas Conference, in which the Methodist Episcopal Church was born. But more on that later.

After ordaining Asbury and co-Superintending the new church for nearly a year with him, Thomas Coke returned to England in June 1785. He would make eight more visits to America, his final visit being in 1803. The American Methodists made it clear that when Coke was away, he was NOT a co-Superintendent. In those times, they would take their orders from Asbury alone. While in America, Coke spoke out against slavery and wrote a letter on the subject to George Washington. Washington met Coke twice and even invited him to preach before the United States Congress. After spending some months travelling throughout Great Britain and Ireland, Coke made his first mission to the West Indies in 1786, making further visits in 1788-89, 1790, and 1792-93.

Following the death of John Wesley in 1791, Coke became Secretary to the British Conference, having been widely supposed to be Wesley’s desired successor. He was President of the Conference in 1797 and 1805, on both occasions trying to persuade the Conference to confer on him the official title of Bishop.

In the same year he went to Paris and preached in French. He established a mission in Gibraltar in 1803 and then spent five years travelling in the cause of Methodist missions, including visiting Sierra Leone. As stated above, he promoted others in setting up missions in Canada and Scotland.

On the personal side, on April 1, 1805 (April Fool’s Day?), at the age of 58, Thomas Coke married Penelope Goulding Smith, a wealthy woman who happily spent her personal fortune funding her husband’s missions. She travelled with him until her death on January 25, 1811. That same year in December he married for a second time, to Anne Loxdale, who unfortunately died the following year, on December 5.

image071Thomas Coke hoped to open Methodist missions in the East Indies. At his own expense he set sail for Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) on December 30, 1813. He had in fact tried to persuade the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, to appoint him to an Indian bishopric in the Church of England (the appointment of Church of England bishops being then, as now, a prerogative exercised by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Sovereign). However, Coke died after four months at sea on the way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is thought he died of a “fit of apoplexy,” or possibly a stroke. He died aboard ship, located 2 degrees, 29 minutes south latitude, and 59 degrees, 29 minutes longitude east of London, England, in the Indian Ocean. This is where Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke, co-Superintendent with Francis Asbury of the Methodist Episcopal Church, was laid to rest.

Upon hearing of Coke’s death, Francis Asbury described Coke as “a gentleman, a scholar, a bishop to us; and as a minister of Christ, in zeal, in labours, in services, the greatest man in the last century.”

Next time, we’ll return to the story of the formation of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Awaiting Wesley’s Directives

Rev. John Wesley

The signing of the Peace of Paris in 1783 and recognition of the United States as independent from England prompted action from the aging Mr. Wesley on behalf of the American Methodists. This was only 8 years before his death.

Part of the problem faced by the American Methodists was the lack of ordained clergy. All of the preachers sent over to America by Wesley from England – Joseph Pilmore, Richard Boardman, Richard Wright, Thomas Rankin, George Shadford, James Dempster, Martin Rodda, John King, Joseph Yearbry, and William Glendenning – had all fled. All but one – Francis Asbury – had returned to England. Many Anglican clergy had also fled the colonies during the war. American Methodists were now cut off from the sacraments. Remember the schism we talked about last time? One of the issues was the southern Methodists’ decision to give themselves sacramental authority to deal with this problem. But Asbury wouldn’t hear of it. But, what was the solution? Methodists need access to baptism and Holy Communion!

Wesley gradually came to see his stature as a scriptural bishop, with a right to ordain. An Oxford scholar, Wesley was well read in the ancient church fathers. He came to believe that a presbytos, which he was, not just an Anglican episcopos (bishop), had authority to ordain. Besides, he had exhausted the obvious solution. Wesley had approached Robert Lowth, bishop of London, the man responsible for the religious order of the colonies, and begged him to send ordained clergy to America. But Bishop Lowth rebuffed Wesley’s requests for regular ordinations.

Wesley put to work on the case his new assistant and troubleshooter, Thomas Coke, who had earned a law degree

Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke
Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke

and taken orders in the Church of England before affiliating with the Methodists. After studying the matter, and praying upon it, Wesley made his decision. On September 1 and 2, 1784, despite opposition from virtually all others in his inner circle of counselors and without his brother Charles’ knowledge or consent, John Wesley ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as deacons, the following day as elders, and ordained the Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke as a “Superintendent.” These clergy he would send to the American Methodists. Coke would have instructions to ordain Francis Asbury, who at that point was not ordained, and American Methodism would have her clergy.

When Charles found out about the ordinations, he was appalled, shocked, and deeply hurt by his brother’s lack of candor. Not to mention that John failed to tell Charles about his decision in advance.

Rev. Charles Wesley
Rev. Charles Wesley

Let’s take a little pause here to consider the impact of this decision on the two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, who together had lit England, Ireland, Wales — and America — on spiritual fire. This was the second time in their lives that a serious breach came between the two brothers. The first one happened in late 1740s and concerned a woman, a Methodist named Grace Murray, with whom John had fallen in love and desired to marry. Charles believed her already committed to English Methodism’s most successful itinerant preacher, Mr. John Bennett. Charles thought a wedding between his brother John and Grace scandalous and would potentially derail the Methodist movement, then in its infancy. So Charles urged Grace and John Bennett to marry, which they did. John was heartbroken.

The two brothers didn’t speak for a long time. This alone threatened the survival of the Methodist movement. Eventually, their mutual friend – George Whitefield – was able to bring about a reconciliation and save the Methodist revival. George Whitefield, remember him? The man with the thumb we will see keeps popping into our story! When we’re looking at his thumb at the Methodist Archive and Museum at Drew University in New Jersey, remember this belonged to the man who not only preached some Benjamins out of Benjamin Franklin’s pocket, whose bones were believed to have brought divine favor to the Patriots defending Boston, but by reconciling the Wesley brothers, literally saved Methodism!

Forty years later, John’s decision to ordain Whatcoat and Vasey again drove the brothers apart, this time over a theological difference. Just four years before his own death, as befits a storied hymn writer, the elderly Charles Wesley penned a hymn to mark the “occasion” of the ordinations. Incidently, you won’t find this Charles Wesley hymn in our hymnal…

So easily are Bishops made

By man’s, or woman’s whim?

W______ his hands on C______ hath laid,

But who laid hands on him?

Hands on himself he laid, and took

An Apostolic Chair:

And then ordained his Creature C______

His Heir and Successor.

Episcopalians, now no more

With Presbyterians fight,

But give your needless Contest o’re

‘Whose Ordination’s right?’

It matter not, if Both are One,

Or different in degree,

For lo! ye see contain’d in John

The whole Presbytery!

Incidently, it’s written in CM, common meter, so you can sing it to the tune of Amazing Grace. Try it!

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke. In case you haven’t figured this out yet, take Coke and Asbury, smoosh them together, and what do you get? Cokesbury, the name of the Methodist bookseller!

(Sources: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; “The Story of American Methodism,” by Frederick A. Norwood)


49283Next year, 2016, is the next quadrennial session of the worldwide United Methodist General Conference. It will be held in Portland, Oregon. Because of a schism that took place in 1830 and saw the separation of what became The Methodist Protestant Church – a schism over the lack of inclusion of laity in the Annual and General Conferences — the membership of the 2016 General Conference will be half lay, half clergy. The response of the church to issues involving human sexuality, i.e., gay marriage, are expected to figure prominently on the agenda. To be discussed are several proposals ranging from removal of the prohibition for gay marriage to outright schism. As you can see already, it won’t be the first time schism has been threatened in the Methodist Church.

In 1779, in defiance of the-still-in-hiding Francis Asbury — who led his own conference — in Fluvanna, VA, the Methodist Annual Conference voted to separate from Anglicanism. This was a BIG move, but totally in keeping with the spirit of the Revolution that was still going on. Despite its earlier pledge of loyalty to Wesley, the American Methodists voted to separate from his Anglican church. It also voted to ordain its lay preachers, and the conference assumed sacramental authority.

This effectively was the first schism, yielding a northern and a southern conference. Asbury “was not amused.” A year later, in the 1780 conference, Asbury made sure to attend. He was still loyal to Wesley, and he reasserted control.

This Annual Conference was held in Baltimore at the new Lovely Lane Chapel. It represented the “southern” conference only by a disciplinary action: “Quest. 20. Does this whole conference disapprove the step our brethren have taken in Virginia? Answ. Yes.” And then, “Quest. 21. Do we look upon them no longer as Methodists in connection with Mr. Wesley and us till they come back? Answ. Agreed.”

Eventually, when Asbury and a contingent travelled to meet with the southerners, the breach was healed. As an indication of the influence Asbury wielded, the southern Methodists capitulated, agreed to reunite, suspended the sacraments, accept Asbury’s itinerating general superintendency, and wrote Wesley “a circumstantial letter.”

In addition to its disfellowshiping of the southerners, the 1780 Asburian conference took several other actions of note. In particular, it took forceful stands on slavery: “Quest. Does this conference acknowledge that slave-keeping 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 others should do to us and ours?— Do we pass our disapprobation on all our friends who keep slaves, and advise their freedom? Answ. Yes.” The conference required “those travelling Preachers who hold slaves to give promises, to set them free” adding in one version of the Minutes “on pain of future exclusion.”

The conference balanced this remarkable antislavery commitment with troubling concessions to racism, a foreshadowing of future conferences which would turn away from the clear condemnation of slavery. It specified that gatherings of African Americans should be presided over by a “helper” or “proper white person” and that “the Negroes” not be permitted “to stay late or meet by themselves.” The preachers in conference obviously did not foresee or desire the emergence of Black leadership beyond limited levels or imagine themselves and the laity trusting it. Methodists would live in this ambiguity until the 1970s when the African American central conferences were final disbanded.

As 1780 dawned, with the arrival of the half-way point in the Revolutionary War, despite disruption caused by the war, continued persecution, and the after-effects of internal discord, Jesse Lee reported “a gracious revival of religion in many places,” especially on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Again, in 1781, he noted revival there and a “blessed revival of religion” in Virginia and parts of North Carolina. The engines of revival were the quarterly meetings, classes, family religion, and personal discipline of Methodism.

And the results showed, despite the war turmoil, in the growth of the small movement: nearly doubling from 6,968 in 1777 to 13,740 in 1783.

In our next post, we’ll look at the aftermath of the war. America was now an independent nation. Were the Methodists still part of the British Anglican church? Or were they, too, separate? But they had no ordained clergy of their own. Once again, the American Methodist church, now clearly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, awaited word from Mr. Wesley on what to do.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)