Provisioning an American Church

Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America

Last time we saw that John Wesley in 1784 took matters into his own hands to solve a very real problem in America. Due to the American Methodists’ lack of access to the sacraments, Wesley ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as clergy, and also ordained Rev. Thomas Coke as “Superintendent” for America.

Incidently, that Wesleyan “ordination” of the already Anglican-ordained Thomas Coke has left several questions for historians and theologians to pick at. Was Coke ordained to a separate order beyond elder? Thus, are there THREE orders of clergy – deacon, elder, and superintendent/bishop – in the Methodist church? (We have long recognized only two orders – deacon and elder. Bishops are elders consecrated to the office of bishop, not ordained to it. Big difference to theologians. Yet Wesley spoke of Coke as ordained to the Superintendency.) While Wesley specifically gave instructions for Coke and Asbury to be joint Superintendents of the American work, they soon took the title of Bishop, further complicating things. Is a Superintendent the same as a Bishop?

All these interesting questions aside, Coke, Vasey, and Whatcoat sailed for America soon after their ordinations. Wesley did not send Coke empty-handed. In a letter to his American brethren, Wesley announced that he had “drawn up a little Sketch” for a new church order, appointed “Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury (not yet ordained), to be joint Superintendents over our Brethren in North America,” and drafted a liturgy for the new church. He then exhorted American Methodists to be “at full liberty, simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.”

Sounds very much aligned with the spirit of the new country. However, Wesley did not intend by “full liberty” to remove himself from the determination of how Americans might “follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church!”

Wesley also sent with Coke as provisions for the new church revisions or analogues of documents constitutive of his Church of England. The “liturgy” Wesley sent he called, The Sunday Service for the Methodists in North America. (If you’d like to see it, click here.)  It was a revision of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer worship liturgy for the American Methodists. Wesley also revised the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the official doctrine of the Anglican Church. In addition to rewording some articles, he reduced the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion down to twenty four.

As an interesting aside, one of the Articles Wesley removed altogether was Article III, entitled “Of the going down of Christ

Christ's descent into Hell
Christ’s descent into Hell

into Hell.” It reads, “As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.” The reason he removed it is not entirely clear, scholarly opinion is divided. What IS clear is that the version of the Apostles’ Creed found in our United Methodist Hymnal as number 881 does NOT contain the words found in the number 882, Apostles Creed Ecumenical version, “he descended to the dead.” This is interesting enough (to me!!) that I’ll dedicate the next blog post to it.

In addition to The Sunday Service and Articles of Religion, Wesley also provided a Psalter, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns for the Lord’s Day. His Sermons and Notes served the doctrinal boundary-setting tradition in the same way as the Anglican Book of Homilies. The “little Sketch” also included a revised “Large Minutes,” a collection of British Methodist Conference decisions stated in Q&A format, which became the Discipline for the new church and held all these church-defining documents together.

Barratt's Chapel
Barratt’s Chapel

Thomas Coke arrived in New York City and soon traveled south to Delaware. There, in November, he met Francis Asbury for the first time at a quarterly conference at Barratt’s Chapel, Delaware (which we will get to visit, and have a very special treat while there. I can hardly wait!).

Coke doubtless expected simply to announce Wesley’s new order to Asbury and then to ordain him into it. At most, Wesley had said, Asbury was “respectfully to be consulted in respect to every part of the execution of it.” However, remember earlier when I wrote that Francis Asbury had caught the spirit of American liberty? He countered Coke’s ideas with precedent-setting gestures that revealed that he did not intend to hand over leadership of the new church to Coke.

In a further presumption of authority and notwithstanding Coke’s credentials and sole title then as Superintendent, Asbury sent Coke on a thousand-mile circuit with celebrated black preacher, Harry Hoosier. Asbury wanted Coke and Hoosier to call a special conference of the preachers in Baltimore, at Christmas, for the purpose of voting on whether or not to accept Asbury as their leader with Coke. Coke was astonished that Asbury — who had been and still was, very loyal to John Wesley — would not simple acquiesce. But Coke complied. Throughout the months of November and early December, he and Harry Hoosier called the Methodist preachers to conference.

Next time, I’ll write a bit more about this strange quirk that the Methodist version of the Apostles’ Creed leaves out the part about Jesus descending to Hell, or to the dead. Then we’ll return to our main story and attend the Christmas Conference, held in December of 1784, and founded the Methodist Church for the very first time.

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

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