The Wesleyan Cavalry Arrives

Joseph PilmoreFINALLY, after a little detour to focus more specifically on the engine of Methodist growth in its early days – the class meeting – and to take note of some elements of our DNA, we are finally ready to consider John Wesley’s response to America’s cry for spiritual leadership.

Again, I remind you that the period now under consideration is exactly the same time the political situation between America and Britain is reaching the boiling point, and soon, even spilling over on the stove.

Methodist class meetings were operating in America, but there was little in the way of trained spiritual leadership. Methodists could look to Anglican clergy for worship and especially sacramental ministry, but even then, Anglican clergy weren’t enthusiastic about Methodist class meetings. And, they weren’t in over abundant supply either, especially in northern colonies like New York and Pennsylvania. Besides all that, soon, with the political situation being what it was, even that supply was about to dry up.

So, responding to pleas for leadership from the infant Methodist societies in North America, John Wesley sent over successive pairs of trained itinerant preachers from his Methodist system in England. In late October of 1769, two missionaries, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, were appointed by Wesley to begin the task of organizing Methodism in America, not as something separate from the Church of England, but as a society of people who “earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come” and who desired to “walk according to the Oracles of God.” Pilmore said, “This is our one point, that Christ died for us, to live in us, and reign over us in all things.”

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

Two years later, in 1771, he appointed a lay preacher, Francis Asbury and another missionary, Richard Wright. Then, Thomas Rankin and George Shadford came in 1773 and James Dempster and Martin Rodda in 1774. Some preachers came on their own including John King, Joseph Yearbry, and William Glendenning. On the eve of revolution, eleven of Wesley’s itinerants had come from the Mother Land — with whom war was about to break out — to bring order to Pietist ferment and enthusiasm. Do you smell trouble brewing?

Upon landing on October 22, 1969, Pilmore and Boardman encountered Captain Webb, “a real Methodist,” Pilmore called him in his journal, as they discovered the Philadelphia society. Captain Webb and Boardman, the senior of the two missionaries, began to bring order by implementing “the Wesleyan system,” which consisted of: 1) preaching in the open air, 2) itinerating on a planned basis, 3) making and meeting appointments, 4) inviting into connection all of any confession who would “flee the wrath to come,” 5) admitting the same as probationers, 6) organizing classes, 7) holding love feasts, 8) maintaining the society’s boundaries, 9) establishing circuits, 10) cultivating good relations with the churches and their clergy, 10) discerning those who could serve in leadership— steward, class leader, exhorter, local preacher— and appointing them to these key local posts.

St. George's Church
St. George’s Church

In late November, 1769, Pilmore, cooperating with Captain Thomas Webb, acquired a shell of a building from the “Dutch Presbyterians” (German Reformed), and St. George’s Church in Philadelphia (where we will visit on Wednesday of our trip) was born.

Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman endeavored, as did their missionary successors to make good on these commitments and bring Wesleyan order to colonial Methodism. But Wesley’s appointees faced three large challenges: 1) The ecclesiastical challenge was how to stay within the Church of England and, in general, how to sustain the Methodist commitment, as Pilmore explained it, not “to make divisions … or promote a Schism but to gather together in one the people of God that are scattered abroad, and revive spiritual religion.” 2) A second challenge, essentially theological, was how to advance Methodist doctrines, particularly those of free grace and free will, in a context where “rigid predestinarians” (Puritans) took pains to keep their families and servants from hearing the Methodist gospel. 3) The third, a social challenge, was how to negotiate the social and class structure of American society and especially to make space among the Methodists and in a slaveholding context for the many “poor Affricans” (sic) who proved “obedient to the faith.”

Faced with these challenges, Pilmore established three leadership imperatives: 1) sustain Wesley’s commitment to remain within the Church of England (but remember that war with England is brewing); 2) do battle with the Calvinists; 3) build a bi-racial fellowship.

When he arrived with Richard Wright in late 1771, Francis Asbury – who would become the Father of America’s form of Methodism — judged the order that Boardman and Pilmore had achieved over the previous two years was defective. The societies in New York and Philadelphia did not sufficiently heed Methodist discipline, he believed. And Boardman and Pilmore did not sufficiently heed the Methodist preacher’s self-discipline— itinerancy. They were content “to be shut up in the cities.” He exclaimed, “I have not yet the thing which I seek— a circulation of preachers, to avoid partiality and popularity.”

In response, the early leaders spread themselves out among the colonies and began to itinerate. Pilmore, having preached in Virginia among slave owners, proved effective in starting societies. His heart lay there and not in constant itineration. He discovered something we know today: “Frequent changes amongst gospel preachers, may keep up the spirits of some kinds of people, but is never likely to promote the spirit of the Gospel nor increase true religion.”

Asbury, on the other hand, modeled itinerancy, establishing an effective continental strategy. Next time, we’ll look at the contrasting strategy of Francis Asbury on the eve of the American Revolution.

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

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