Methodism During the Revolutionary War

AmericanRevolutionaryWarMonIn 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)

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)

On the Eve of War

Thomas Rankin
Thomas Rankin

The last few posts have focused on the Father of American Methodism, Francis Asbury. Now, we leave him for a short while and return to considering some of the other people and events in our developing story.

In May, 1774, William Phillip Otterbein – remember him from earlier posts? — relocated from Pennsylvania where he had been influenced by Martin Boehm — to Baltimore. He accepted a call to become pastor of its German Reformed Church. This church became known as Old Otterbein church, which we will visit when we are in Baltimore. He will be serving there when the Methodists organize their new church in 1784 and he will be there to lay hands on Francis Asbury during his ordination. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Thomas Rankin, who had been sent over from England by John Wesley and who had called the first Methodist annual conference in 1773, knew Otterbein and found him to be a congenial companion spirit. Otterbein had continued his established pattern of itinerating, organizing and nurturing outlying communities, and raising up leaders.

Not long after arriving in Baltimore, Otterbein gathered the preachers under his influence into a conference, six including himself, attending what have been known as the Pipe Creek meetings. The first of these semiannual affairs met May 29, 1774. The Minutes indicate the conference concerned itself with discipline in the classes and with expansion into new communities.

The resemblance of Otterbein’s methods to Wesleyan organization (itineration, classes, discipline, conference) was more than superficial. Asbury had encountered Otterbein in early May, discussed the matter of discipline and reported that the German ministers “agreed to imitate our methods as nearly as possible.” Thus began the long and complex relationship of mutual influence between the German- and English-speaking Pietist impulses, a relationship that would reach organic union in 1968 when their movements formally merged to create The United Methodist Church. But again, we get ahead of ourselves.

Both Otterbein’s and Asbury’s movements continued association with their respective “mother” churches and both experienced disruptions during the Revolution. For the Wesleyan Methodists, that disruption proved severe and largely of their own making.

You see, Thomas Rankin’s efforts to bring order and discipline to the Methodist preachers yielded unity, but ironically also discord. This was a consequence of having British leadership in a colonial society riven with crisis over that exact point— British control. Remember, we are literally now in our story on the eve of the outbreak of hostilities. The Stamp Act protests (1765), the Boston Massacre (March 5, 1770), and the Boston Tea Party (December 16, 1773) are all in the rear view mirror as all this is taking place.

Not only that, but Thomas Rankin proved unusually adept in inviting Americans to view Methodists as Tory, speaking out frequently and publicly in criticism of colonial self- indulgence, pride, and ingratitude and warning Americans of divine judgment. He also offended colonists, including members of the Provincial Congress (in Philadelphia in 1776), by speaking of the hypocrisy of slaveholders raising the banner of liberty. What “a farce it was,” he noted, “for them to contend for liberty, when they themselves, kept some hundreds of thousands of poor blacks in most cruel bondage.” Many confessed it was true, but it was not now the time to set them at liberty.

Was Methodism part of the much feared Anglican plot to impose on the colonies an episcopate, i.e., control by British bishops just as politically the colonies were controlled by the British king? Was Methodism a friend or foe to the colonial cause and American liberties?

The period of English (i.e., Wesley’s) control over American Methodism was brief. The preachers at the first annual conference called by Rankin in 1773 had all been British-born. But the second annual conference in 1774 admitted five preachers, four of them colonists, adding seven on trial, all colonists. Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman – the first Methodist preachers sent by Wesley from England — feeling the rising heat in the colonies had earlier returned to England. (Though Pilmore would return years later to accept a pastorate in another denomination.) Well over half the appointments at the 1774 conference went to colonists.

In early 1775, John and Charles Wesley wrote Rankin and “all the preachers” counseling neutrality, peacemaking, love to all parties and silence (politically) and “full union with each other”. The third annual conference heeding Wesley’s advice met in May 1775 in Philadelphia, the very time and place of the Second Continental Congress. The conference declared a “general fast for the prosperity of the work, and for the peace of America, on Tuesday the 18th of July.”

Unfortunately Wesley did not heed his own counsel. He issued in 1775 – the year of the battle of Concord and Lexington which began on April 19th — the first of several publications on the American situation. Entitled, A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, it was a Tory tract largely extracted from Samuel Johnson’s Taxation No Tyranny. This publication, similar public statements by both Wesleys, and intemperate loyalist actions by several preachers in America imaged Methodism publicly as a Tory movement. The result was anything but calm. But where Wesley lost influence with the colonists, Francis Asbury would gain it.

Next time we’ll look at where some of the earlier folks we met stood regarding the approaching war – Barbara Heck, her cousin, Phillip Embury, Captain Thomas Webb, and of course, Francis Asbury.

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

The Conversion of Francis Asbury

Asbury leaves for America
Asbury leaves for America

We saw last time how Francis Asbury, as an 18-year old teen, attended a Methodist revival service and was very taken by it. He and a friend, William Avery, were praying afterward in the old barn at the Asbury home. Something happened to him. He doesn’t describe it as a heart suddenly warmed, but in a matter of just weeks, Asbury was reading Scripture and giving out the hymns in the women’s meeting to which he accompanied his mother. Soon, he was exhorting. At the tender age of just 18 years old he became a local Methodist preacher and delivered his first sermon while standing behind a chair in a cottage near Manwoods, a quarter mile south of Forge Mill Farm, a house erected in 1680 by a great-uncle of Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Events began to move rapidly now for young Francis Asbury. He was still working as a blacksmith at the Foxall forge at this time. But he says he traveled widely through the region and preached several times each week. In 1766 he left his work and took the place of an ailing itinerant preacher for nine months in Staffordshire and Gloucestershire. During this service he was rebuked greatly by the “assistant” of the Staffordshire Circuit, W. Orp, because of certain alleged neglect. Maybe it was just the sort of training the teen needed to become the man he was to become.

The following  year, Asbury was admitted on trial as a traveling preacher and appointed to the Bedfordshire Circuit. Other assignments followed regularly. In 1768, he was admitted in full connection and appointed to Colchester.

As an aside, Asbury seems to have had a sweetheart at Great Barr, a girl named Nancy Brookes. But their romance was broken off by his mother. (Mother’s are like that. My mother tried to break off a teenage romance of mine once.) The result was Asbury’s commitment to lifelong celibacy.

In 1771, when Asbury was now 26 years old, he attended his first Methodist conference in Bristol, site of The New Room, and where John Wesley had first been taught by George Whitefield to take up field preaching. At that conference, when John Wesley declared, “Our brethren in America call aloud for help,” Asbury raised up and said, “Here am I, send me.”

On September 4, 1771, Francis Asbury began his journey to Philadelphia from the port of Pill near Bristol, the scene depicted in the above painting. “It cost him much to leave home and kindred, as is witnessed by his affectionate letters and sacrificial remittances home: but the call of God was not to be denied” (Frank Baker). Before he left, Asbury wrote a letter to his family. “I wonder sometimes how anyone will sit to hear me, but the Lord covers my weakness with his power…. As for me, I know what I am called to. It is to give up all, and to have my hands and heart in the work, yea, the nearest and dearest friends…. Let others condemn me as being without natural affection, disobedient to parents, or say what they please…. I love my parents and friends, but I love my God better and his service…. And tho’ I have given up all, I do not repent, for I have found all”.

Finally, on October 27, 1771, Francis Asbury landed at his destination in Philadelphia. And America would never be the same.

Next time, we’ll look at tensions and controversies as Revolution looms in America.

(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: Volume I, The Journal,” and Wikipedia entry for Francis Asbury)

Who Was Francis Asbury?

Francis Asbury Boyhood Home, Bromwich, England
Francis Asbury Boyhood Home, Bromwich, England

I have been away a few days, attending the annual meeting of the Friends of Estonia in Marietta, GA. Sorry for missing a few posts. I couldn’t help but think of the similarities faced by our Methodist friends in Estonia with the challenges faced by Francis Asbury and the other early Methodists in America as they struggled to grow their church.

Francis Asbury is such an important figure in the history of American Methodism, we going to spend a few posts looking at who he was. Fortunately, he left us a Journal and countless letters to draw upon.

Francis Asbury was born at Hamstead Bridge, Staffordshire, England on August 20 or 21, 1745, to Elizabeth and Joseph Asbury. They were poor but godly parents whose home was open to the preachers and whose hearts were turned seriously to religion by the death of a small daughter, their only other child. His mother, who wanted him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, read young Francis the Bible, sang him hymns, and prayed over him.

Francis was sent to school at Snails’ Green, a mile away from the family home on Newton Road; and he was so good in his studies that he could read the Bible himself at the age of six or seven. The schoolmaster, however, was a tyrant, and Francis’ formal education ended when he was thirteen years old. For a few months he was in service in the home of a prosperous but irreligious family, and then he became an apprentice at the Old Forge nearby.

His superior at the forge was a Methodist whose name was Foxall. The work was very manual, and all biographers have pointed out that the muscular strength developed by the hard work equipped Asbury for the tasks which were later to face him in the American wilderness. He also became a friend of the superintendent’s son, Henry Foxall, who in later years became a rich iron merchant in America and built and named the famous Foundry Church in Washington, D.C. (which we will probably see), reminiscent of the forge in England and the business in which the donor had prospered. Bishop Asbury dedicated the church in 1810.

The Asburys attended the parish church (Anglican) at Great Barr, which was a chapel-of-ease to Aldrich, and also All Saints’ Church in West Bromwich. At the latter, the young Francis Asbury heard the famous Edward Stillingfleet, who sympathized with and participated in the Wesleyan Revival.

As a late teen, Asbury heard of the Methodists through Foxall and others, and with his mother’s consent, he attended

Francis Asbury Tavern, near Wednesbury, England
Francis Asbury Tavern, near Wednesbury, England

one of their services at Wednesbury. This town was the scene of the bitterest persecutions which Wesley and his preachers had endured, according to Wesley’s own journal. Interestingly, when I was visiting with a Chapelwood pilgrimage group to Wesley’s England in 2011, we were looking for the site of Asbury’s boyhood home in the Wednesbury area. Asking a passerby if he knew where it was, he said he never heard of Francis Asbury (the Francis Asbury Tavern, where this picture was taken, was across the street!) When our guide told him he was an early Methodist, the man rose up and said, ‘OH! He was one of dem, was he?!!” Apparently, it’s STILL dangerous to be a Methodist in Wednesbury!) A large Methodist Society, never-the-less, developed in Wednesbury. It was embraced in what was the Staffordshire Circuit and under the ministry of a preacher named Alexander Mather, who was to become the second president of the British Conference after the death of John Wesley.

As a young 18 year-old, Asbury was most favorably impressed by the singing and the extemporaneous nature of the prayer and sermon he heard among the Methodists.

In my next post, we’ll look at Asbury’s conversion and what followed. Stay tuned!

(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: Vol 1, The Journal,” Wikipedia entry on Francis Asbury)

Asbury Calls the First Quarterly Conference

CommunionBreadWineIn December 1772, a year after his arrival in America, exercising his role as assistant, Francis Asbury convened a quarterly meeting. The quarterly meeting, later called the quarterly conference and now moved to an annual meeting called the Charge Conference, is the body in the Wesleyan system charged with oversight of a pastoral charge, either circuit or, as is more common today, station. The records for this first quarterly conference remain. Interestingly, this quarterly conference was held a year BEFORE Thomas Rankin would call the first general conference, a meeting of all the American Methodist circuit riders. Asbury seemed to be stepping into a leadership role which was not clearly his yet.

One of the tensions the conference dealt with was an issue that modern Methodism STILL deals with: the issue of sacramental authority. The question on the table: Would the inertias of Methodism’s spontaneous Pietist beginnings OR the imperatives of Wesleyan order prevail? In other words, should the Robert Strawbridge cohort — who were, after all, the planters of American Methodism — set policy, ordain themselves, and carry sacramental authority? Or should the Wesleyan principle of not separating, so zealously preached by Joseph Pilmore and others, prevail? You see, as an Anglican, Wesley and his English preachers believed at this point that sacramental authority came only with ordination. Ordination could only be conveyed by a presbyter, i.e., a bishop. Thus, to exercise sacramental authority as an unordained person, or to ordain someone outside the Anglican Church, was an act of separation from that Church. Remember, this was occurring BEFORE political separation came to be in the Revolutionary War. Wesley – and his assistant, Asbury — was not yet willing to allow that.

For now, Robert Strawbridge resolved to quit serving Communion, but the issue would not go completely away. Thus was established the importance of conferencing to deal with troublesome issues, a tradition that remains to this day.

Here is an interesting fact — All in actual attendance at that first quarterly conference, ten preachers and Thomas Webb, were British born. They had come to bring Wesleyan and British order just at the time that the colonies were deciding to throw off such order. The times, as they say, were a-changin’. John Wesley and American Methodism would be forced to revisit this issue of ordination and sacramental authority a few years down the road.

Incidentally, I mentioned that sacramental authority is still an issue in the modern United Methodist Church. Technically, only an elder can preside at Holy Communion or conduct baptisms. While deacons are considered clergy, they can only assist at the sacraments. However, a deacon serving in a setting where there are no elders available – say as a chaplain in a small country hospital – can apply to a bishop and be granted sacramental authority in that setting. A licensed local pastor, who is NOT clergy but laity, can exercise sacramental authority in the charge to which they are appointed. Technically, they do this under the authority of an elder. This practice developed from the fact that there didn’t used to be enough elders to go around to be appointed to all the small, country churches. These pulpits were and still are filled by laity who are licensed to preach. Methodism is nothing if not pragmatic. So you can see, that the issue of who has sacramental authority in the Methodist Church is still a live issue.

Next time, our old friend Phillip William Otterbein, will return to our story.

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

Francis Asbury

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

Last time we compared the leadership of Francis Asbury, who was sent to the American Methodists by John Wesley in 1771, to that of Joseph Pilmore and Richard Boardman, who were the first two Methodist missionaries sent by Wesley. Asbury seemed to be a man who could sense and tap into the spirit of the times.

The place of Francis Asbury in American history is secure. In

Stature of Asbury in Washington, D.C.
Stature of Asbury in Washington, D.C.

Washington there stands a noble equestrian monument of the great circuit rider which was unveiled and presented to the nation by the President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, who said on that occasion in 1924: “His outposts marched with the pioneers, his missionaries visited the hovels of the poor, that all might be brought to a knowledge of the truth. Who shall say where his influence, written on the immortal souls of men, shall end? It is more than probable that Nancy Hanks, the mother of Abraham Lincoln, had heard him in her youth. Adams and Jefferson must’ve known him, and Jackson must have seen in him a flaming spirit as unconquerable as his own. He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”

Asbury was one of the greatest explorers of the American frontier. He was more widely traveled than any other man of his generation, and was known by more people. He was the welcome visitor in thousands of humble homes. And such notables as George Washington and Meriwether Lewis knew him. More than 60 times he crossed the eastern mountain; his annual circuit stretched from New England or New York to Charleston; his total mileage was more than a quarter of a million.

John Wesley’s intemperate attack on the American cause in his Calm Address to the American Colonies cost the great founder of Methodism his influence in the New World. Francis Asbury inherited that influence. He became the organizing genius, the virtual father of American Methodism, and “the second man in Methodist history,” as Dr. James Dixon called him, second only to John Wesley himself.

As we saw last time, Asbury’s greatest contribution to American Methodism was his successful insistence upon the principle of itinerancy, which he learned from Wesley. This was undoubtedly the secret of Methodism’s amazing success during the frontier period. As his journal reveals, he had been in the country only three weeks when he discovered the preference of the preachers, Pilmore and Boardman, for the city, and with prophetic insight he discerned that this would mean failure for the Evangelical movement. So the new arrival did not hesitate to rebuke his superiors and seniors. They did not want to leave the cities, but he would show them the way! He desired “a circulation of preachers, to avoid partiality and popularity!” “I am fixed,” he wrote, “to the Methodist plan, and do what I do faithfully as to God. I expect trouble is at hand. This I expected when I left England, and I am willing to suffer, yes to die, sooner than to betray so good a cause by any means.”

Thus stubbornly did he stand against those who presumably knew America better than he did. In the end he won, and the conference adopted a time limit of six months for the preachers, with three months for those in New York. Under this rule they rode the eastern seaboard and continued everywhere, until the words “Methodist circuit rider” became and remained a part of the American vocabulary. Methodists were thus able to move with the pioneers everywhere, and their church far outgrew the population and outstripped those which had been established the century or more before the Methodists came.

Asbury was called a dictator, and in a sense the charge was not wholly unfounded. When Dr. Thomas Coke came to ordain him and set up the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, in a meeting at Barratt’s Chapel (which we will see on our trip), Asbury insisted upon a democratic election. But he did not administer in a democratic fashion! Had he done so, he might have averted some misunderstandings and schisms; but his church would not have spread to the Father of Waters and grown from 1,000 to 200,000 members in his lifetime. His control of the preachers and their appointments was the main element in the success, and he could not have exerted such control and escaped the charge of tyranny.

If Francis Asbury was a dictator, he learned the art from John Wesley; and his dictatorship saved Methodism and built it into the largest Protestant body in all the land.

(Source: “The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury: Volume I, The Journal”)