In 1783, the war for American independence ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris. It not only ended the war, it also recognized the sovereignty of the United States over the territory bounded roughly by what is now Canada to the north, Florida to the south, and the Mississippi River to the west. Politically, and spiritually – at least for the Methodist movement in America – the new country was on uncharted ground. “The Grand Experiment” in democracy had begun. And soon enough, it would impact the Wesleyan movement.
Notwithstanding the image problems that we discussed in our last post, and all the suppression that went with it, Methodism had actually prospered during the Revolution. It did so, ironically, precisely in patriot-held rather than British-held areas. Given the charge that Methodism was a Tory movement, one wouldn’t have expected that!
Methodism had all but disappeared in the land of its birth in America — New York and Philadelphia, the locales favored by Wesley’s British preachers. It had fallen to under a hundred people in each city by the late 1770s. It recovered to a little over 500 combined by 1784 when the Methodist Episcopal Church was officially born. By that point, the little movement boasted almost 15,000 members (but consider, all of Methodism, nationwide, drew only about 2 ½ times Chapelwood’s current membership!). Methodism had taken hold in the Chesapeake, a land of both slavery and freedom.
We recall that John Wesley had sent over his missionaries from England in 1769 to bring Wesleyan order to the unorganized Pietist awakenings, beginning. In just four years, by 1773, they had secured the movement with six circuits and anchored it in New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.
Ten years later the American preachers they had raised up spread across the eastern seaboard onto thirty-eight circuits, overwhelmingly south of the recently drawn Mason-Dixon Line. The missionaries came to connect, control, and order. A strange set of providences interposed a Revolution, put the Wesleyan order to new purposes, chased away the British leadership, and left the American Methodists wandering toward a strange new freedom.
The British Methodist leaders sent by Wesley fled, one-by-one, except for Francis Asbury (but he was forced into hiding). During the war, the movement leaders’ questions were many, and guidance from Wesley — tinged as it was with war-related overtones — was problematic. Were they on their own as a church? Should they begin ordinations and assume sacramental authority as Robert Strawbridge had done years before?
The war-year conferences of 1777 and 1778 struggled with the commitments instilled by Joseph Pilmore, including their loyalty to Wesley and the vow not to separate from his church. The official, later-published Minutes of 1777 so resolved, “We purpose, by the grace of God, not to take any step that may separate us from the brethren, or from the blessed work in which we are engaged.” However, other manuscript minutes indicate otherwise. The conference contemplated a future without Wesley-appointed preachers and laid the groundwork for authority exercised through committee in presbyterian fashion. Many of these questions would not get settled until the Christmas Conference in 1784 at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore when the Methodist Episcopal Church was born.
Next time, with Francis Asbury still in hiding, we’ll look at the first schism to threaten Methodism in America. It would draw Asbury out of hiding, forcing him to assert control. While Asbury settled that schism, it definitely would not be Methodism’s last.
(Sources: Wikipedia entry on the American Revolutionary War, “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)