On the Eve of War

Thomas Rankin
Thomas Rankin

The last few posts have focused on the Father of American Methodism, Francis Asbury. Now, we leave him for a short while and return to considering some of the other people and events in our developing story.

In May, 1774, William Phillip Otterbein – remember him from earlier posts? — relocated from Pennsylvania where he had been influenced by Martin Boehm — to Baltimore. He accepted a call to become pastor of its German Reformed Church. This church became known as Old Otterbein church, which we will visit when we are in Baltimore. He will be serving there when the Methodists organize their new church in 1784 and he will be there to lay hands on Francis Asbury during his ordination. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Thomas Rankin, who had been sent over from England by John Wesley and who had called the first Methodist annual conference in 1773, knew Otterbein and found him to be a congenial companion spirit. Otterbein had continued his established pattern of itinerating, organizing and nurturing outlying communities, and raising up leaders.

Not long after arriving in Baltimore, Otterbein gathered the preachers under his influence into a conference, six including himself, attending what have been known as the Pipe Creek meetings. The first of these semiannual affairs met May 29, 1774. The Minutes indicate the conference concerned itself with discipline in the classes and with expansion into new communities.

The resemblance of Otterbein’s methods to Wesleyan organization (itineration, classes, discipline, conference) was more than superficial. Asbury had encountered Otterbein in early May, discussed the matter of discipline and reported that the German ministers “agreed to imitate our methods as nearly as possible.” Thus began the long and complex relationship of mutual influence between the German- and English-speaking Pietist impulses, a relationship that would reach organic union in 1968 when their movements formally merged to create The United Methodist Church. But again, we get ahead of ourselves.

Both Otterbein’s and Asbury’s movements continued association with their respective “mother” churches and both experienced disruptions during the Revolution. For the Wesleyan Methodists, that disruption proved severe and largely of their own making.

You see, Thomas Rankin’s efforts to bring order and discipline to the Methodist preachers yielded unity, but ironically also discord. This was a consequence of having British leadership in a colonial society riven with crisis over that exact point— British control. Remember, we are literally now in our story on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities. The Stamp Act protests (1765), the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770), and the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) are all in the rear view mirror as all this is taking place.

Not only that, but Thomas Rankin proved unusually adept in inviting Americans to view Methodists as Tory, speaking out frequently and publicly in criticism of colonial self- indulgence, pride, and ingratitude and warning Americans of divine judgment. He also offended colonists, including members of the Provincial Congress (in Philadelphia in 1776), by speaking of the hypocrisy of slaveholders raising the banner of liberty. What “a farce it was,” he noted, “for them to contend for liberty, when they themselves, kept some hundreds of thousands of poor blacks in most cruel bondage.” Many confessed it was true, but it was not now the time to set them at liberty.

Was Methodism part of the much feared Anglican plot to impose on the colonies an episcopate, i.e., control by British bishops just as politically the colonies were controlled by the British king? Was Methodism a friend or foe to the colonial cause and American liberties?

The period of English (i.e., Wesley’s) control over American Methodism was brief. The preachers at the first annual conference called by Rankin in 1773 had all been British-born. But the second annual conference in 1774 admitted five preachers, four of them colonists, adding seven on trial, all colonists. Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman – the first Methodist preachers sent by Wesley from England — feeling the rising heat in the colonies had earlier returned to England. (Though Pilmore would return years later to accept a pastorate in another denomination.) Well over half the appointments at the 1774 conference went to colonists.

In early 1775, John and Charles Wesley wrote Rankin and “all the preachers” counseling neutrality, peacemaking, love to all parties and silence (politically) and “full union with each other”. The third annual conference heeding Wesley’s advice met in May 1775 in Philadelphia, the very time and place of the Second Continental Congress. The conference declared a “general fast for the prosperity of the work, and for the peace of America, on Tuesday the 18th of July.”

Unfortunately Wesley did not heed his own counsel. He issued in 1775 – the year of the battle of Concord and Lexington which began on April 19th — the first of several publications on the American situation. Entitled, A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, it was a Tory tract largely extracted from Samuel Johnson’s Taxation No Tyranny. This publication, similar public statements by both Wesleys, and intemperate loyalist actions by several preachers in America imaged Methodism publicly as a Tory movement. The result was anything but calm. But where Wesley lost influence with the colonists, Francis Asbury would gain it.

Next time we’ll look at where some of the earlier folks we met stood regarding the approaching war – Barbara Heck, her cousin, Phillip Embury, Captain Thomas Webb, and of course, Francis Asbury.

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

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