The Christmas Conference

Ordination of Superintendent F. Asbury
Ordination of Superintendent F. Asbury

Thomas Coke and Harry Hoosier rode the country in late November-early December, 1784, calling the preachers to a preachers-only assembly, effectively a constitutional convention and known as the Christmas Conference. It met in Lovely Lane Chapel and Otterbein’s new brick church in Baltimore. (We’ll visit Lovely Lane UMC when we’re there. The old chapel no longer exists. We’ll also see Otterbein’s Old Church.)

Francis Asbury’s journal for December 24th has only brief entries for such a momentous occasion: “We were in great haste, and did much business in a little time,” Asbury wrote. “We then rode to Baltimore, where we met a few preachers: it was agreed to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons. When the conference was seated, Dr. Coke and myself were unanimously elected to the superintendency of the Church, and my ordination followed, after being previously ordained deacon and elder.”

Thus, Asbury was ordained by Thomas Coke a deacon, then the next day an elder, then on the next day, he was ordained “superintendent.” (Curiously, Asbury didn’t take the title “bishop” even though in Coke’s ordination sermon he made the historic case for the legitimacy of the act and an explicit case for the episcopal character of the office by delineating ten “grand characteristics of a Christian bishop.” Later, he would be referred to as bishop.) Asbury’s being “ordained” a superintendent has created confusion for historians and theologians. In the modern UM church, a bishop is not ordained to a third order of ministry – deacon, elder, then bishop. No, bishops in the UMC are ordained elders who are “consecrated” to the office of elder.

Phillip William Otterbein
Phillip William Otterbein

Asbury requested that Phillip William Otterbein lay hands on him as he was being ordained superintendent. Remember Otterbein? He was the German Reformed pastor we met earlier in our story who would go on to join with Martin Boehm to form the United Brethren Church, the so-called “German Methodists.” The United Brethen Church would later combine with Jacob Albright’s Evangelical Association to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church (EUB). This EUB and The Methodist Church combined in 1968 in Dallas to form the United Methodist Church. Otterbein did participate in the laying on of hands for the episcopal ordination, a fact noted by Coke but curiously omitted from Asbury’s ordination certificate.

In 1784, Methodists anticipated the American religious future  by…

  1. embracing disestablishment,
  2. offering a denominational ordering of religion,
  3. achieving autonomy from European headquarters,
  4. institutionalizing voluntarism.
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America
Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America

However, American Methodists would only slowly understand their prescience. The Christmas Conference indeed made or confirmed a number of denomination-shaping decisions. It accepted John Wesley’s plan for the church, in principle if not in every detail, including his prepared liturgy, hymnbook, and revised Articles of Religion. It explicitly conceded final authority to Wesley: “During the life of Rev. Mr. Wesley, we acknowledge ourselves his Sons in the Gospel, ready in Matters belonging to Church-Government, to obey his Commands”, a rubric, however, which was soon to be struck.

On the other hand… it chose to make decisions by debate and majority rule, thereby claiming the prerogative to approve, alter, add to, and subtract from what had been Wesley’s document (the “Large Minutes”). It added to the Articles of Religion a rubric on U. S. political autonomy and it removed the “descent into hell” from the Apostles  Creed. (See yesterday’s post for more on this latter point.) It followed Anglican, Catholic, and ancient precedent in adopting a threefold ministry of superintendents (bishops), elders, and deacons, proclaiming the new church to be episcopal and naming it “Methodist Episcopal.”

Balancing its deferential acknowledgment of Wesley’s authority, it provided for election of superintendents/bishops by and for their accountability to the conference. (Today, bishops are elected at Jurisdictional Conferences.) It selected elders (thirteen or so) and by charging them with supervisory as well as sacramental roles created the office of presiding elder (today’s district superintendent). It prohibited “Ministers or Travelling-Preachers” from drinking “spirituous Liquors.” It legislated courageously and extensively against slavery, mandating that all Methodists, laity as well as preachers, emancipate their slaves. But it also provided for white oversight of African American gatherings. It embraced a proposal for a college and naming it for the two superintendents (Cokesbury College in Abingdon, MD). It set a common salary at twenty-four pounds per year. It approved missionaries for Nova Scotia (Freeborn Garrettson and James Cromwell). And it recast Wesley’s connectional mission statement in terms apt for the new nation and the yawning American continent. “God’s Design, in raising up the Preachers called Methodists,” the Discipline indicated was “To reform the Continent, and spread scriptural Holiness over these Lands.”

I’ve written some about Phillip William Otterbein earlier in our story. Since he’s played such an important part in our story and since we will see his church (“Old Otterbein Church”) when we get to Baltimore, I’ll write a little more about his work tomorrow.

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

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