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)

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