Methodists and Their Political Leanings on the Eve of War

Captain Thomas Webb
Captain Thomas Webb

Despite the public impression that Methodists were Tory supporters, an impression not helped by John Wesley’s A Calm Address to Our American Colonies written on the eve of war in 1775, Methodists could in truth be found along the complete spectrum on the Revolution.

Captain Thomas Webb, for example, the soldier/preacher we met earlier in connection with both the John Street and St. Georges churches, was a Tory supporter. As a trained soldier who had fought in the French and Indian War, he took advantage of itinerancy to move around the middle colonies for surveillance purposes. He crossed military lines. He fed information to the British command. He defied colonial authorities. He kept up contact by letter with Lord Dartmouth and passed along military advice to him. Captain Webb was eventually arrested and tried by the Continental Congress, and though not convicted, he was held as a prisoner of war.

Thomas Rankin
Thomas Rankin

Several other preachers, including Thomas Rankin and George Shadford, both of whom had been sent to America from England by John Wesley, joined Captain Webb in writing Lord Dartmouth with information about and advice on the American crisis.

Among the principled loyalists especially noteworthy are those who moved to Canada and replayed their founding roles in establishing Methodism in Canada. Barbara Heck and her cousin, Phillip Embury, who we met in connection with starting a class meeting in New York City, joined approximately 7,500 United Empire Loyalists who settled in Upper Canada.

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

Francis Asbury, the consummate centrist, in March 1778 went into hiding at Thomas White’s home in Delaware. He did so to avoid having to take a Maryland test oath that required individuals to disavow obedience to the king, to pledge allegiance to “the State of Maryland,” and to “defend” its freedom and independence. Those refusing to swear were subjected to a variety of penalties and prohibited from teaching, preaching, or traveling.

The Tory image of Methodism, exaggerated by the demands of the Maryland test, brought hardship, suffering, beatings, and imprisonment on many, including especially leaders, whose loyalties belonged either to the patriot cause or to kingdoms quite beyond this world. Methodist Philip Gatch was tarred and threatened with whipping. Caleb Pedicord bore whipping scars to his grave. Samuel Spragg escaped a mob.

Several Methodist preachers aligned with the revolutionary cause.

Jacob Albright

Also in the Revolutionary cause but not then under Methodist influence or in a leadership role was the future leader of The Evangelical Association, Jacob Albright (1759–1808). He served in a local militia. (The Evangelical Association would later merge with the United Brethren in Christ to become the Evangelical United Brethren, the EUB – the German Methodists, they were sometimes called — which merged with The Methodist Church in 1968 to become The United Methodist Church. We’ll meet Jacob Albright in a later post.)

Jesse Lee, on the other hand, who would play a leadership role after the war, was drafted into the Continental Army soon after beginning traveling. As “a Christian and as a preacher of the gospel,” he recalled, “I could not fight. I could not reconcile it to myself to bear arms, or to kill one of my fellow creatures; however I determined to go, and to trust the Lord.” He refused a gun, was put under guard, and was interrogated for his refusal to bear arms. He responded, “I could not kill a man with a good conscience, but I was a friend to our country, and was willing to do any thing that I could, while I continued in the army, except that of fighting.” Lee exercised chaplain roles serving as a noncombatant, the latter role also played by another soon-to-be prominent Methodist, the African Richard Allen, who hauled supplies for George Washington.

Next time, we’ll look at how Methodism fared during and after the war.

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

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