Bishops and Conference

Thomas Coke
Thomas Coke

Thomas Coke returned to Britain in 1787, 3 years after he arrived. (He would be back to America several different times. Coke was a very active missionary whom Wesley would refer to as “the flea” because he seemed always to be hopping around on his missions.)

After returning to Britain, Thomas Coke returned again to the United States later in 1787 with explicit, written directions from Wesley to “appoint a General Conference of all our preachers in the United States, to meet at Baltimore on 1st May 1787” and further that “Mr. Richard Whatcoat may be appointed Superintendent with Asbury” and Freeborn Garrettson be superintendent for British North America.

Such directives accorded with the “binding minute” from the Christmas Conference to obey Wesley’s commands and with Wesley’s vision of a global connection. But they hardly accorded with newly rewarded American sensitivities to be free of British influence. Of Wesley’s several directives, the Americans honored the most inconsequential. They met May 1 in Baltimore rather than as they had appointed at Abingdon, Maryland, on July 24. They also rescheduled two other conferences for Charleston in late March and Virginia in late April, gathering for the latter as many as three thousand at Rough Creek, Virginia.

Francis Asbury & Thomas Coke
Francis Asbury & Thomas Coke

At the latter conference, in addition to confirming Coke (when present in the States) and Asbury as their General Superintendents – vs. Wesley’s desire for Whatcoat (he would later be elected a bishop, don’t worry) – they also rescinded the binding minute of loyalty to Wesley from the Discipline, sometimes described as dropping Wesley’s name from the Minutes.

Sometime after the 1787 conferences, Coke and Asbury took another action hardly to Wesley’s liking. They substituted the word bishop for superintendent, an alteration ratified in the 1788 conferences and Discipline.

John Wesley
John Wesley

As the MEC’s relation to Wesley evolved so did the relative power and authority of the two superintendents in the American context. While Coke enjoyed the personal relation with Wesley and seemed to be trying on the aging Mr. Wesley’s (he was 85 by this point, just three years before his death in 1791) mantle and authority, Asbury consolidated influence with and power over the American itinerants. He did so by riding with them through their circuits, preaching and praying, by making the quarterly meetings and presiding in conference, by meeting classes and staying in Methodist homes, by hearing their efforts to preach and counseling with them, by filling the appointments with insight about both preachers and circuits, by traveling the entire connection.

So Asbury exhibited, daily and constantly, privately and publicly, the office of itinerating general superintendent. He understood himself as the exemplary traveling Methodist preacher. Thomas Coke might write letters of counsel and direction. Coke’s name might go first on Minutes and Discipline. In conference, Coke might preach and preside. And when the two superintendents traveled together, Coke might claim the pulpit. However, Francis Asbury ran the show. Coke performed. Asbury governed.

Coke’s relation with Asbury and his standing among American Methodists deteriorated further when his secret negotiations later surfaced. Without Asbury’s knowledge, Coke wrote and then met with Bishop William White of the newly constituted Protestant Episcopal Church (The American version of the Anglican church, today’s Episcopal Church) about union of the two churches, outlining advantages to Episcopalians, Methodist conditions, and probable roadblocks (among them, Asbury). They worked out a scheme that predicated union on relaxation of Episcopal ministerial standards, reordinations of Methodist preachers, reconsecration of the two bishops and some continuing oversight of specifically Methodist work by the two Methodist bishops. Coke also wrote the High Church Episcopal bishop of Connecticut, Samuel Seabury, summarizing the plans.

Asbury discovered the scheme, responded negatively, and resisted submission of the plan to the 1792 General Conference. That body emerged to deal with such issues of power and authority.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a contemporary event that just occurred in March of this year, an event that might have caused Coke joy and Asbury consternation.

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

Selected Readings from Francis Asbury’s Journal

Francis Asbury
Francis Asbury

Sunday, November 14, 1784 – I came to Barratt’s chapel: here, to my great joy, I met these dear men of God, Dr. Coke, and Richard Whatcoat, we were greatly comforted together. The Doctor preached on “Christ our Wisdom, Righteousness, Sanctification, and Redemption.” Having had no opportunity of conversing with them before pubic worship, I was grealy surprised to see brother Whatcoat assist by taking the cup in the administration of the sacrament. [ED: Apparently Asbury was unaware that Whatcoat had been ordained by Wesley on September 2.] I was shocked when first informed of the intention of these my brethren in coming to this country [ED: To ordain Asbury and make him co-Superintendent with Coke]: it may be of God. My answer then was, if the preachers unanimously choose me, I shall not act in the capacity I have hitherto done by Mr. Wesley’s appointment. The design of organizing the Methodists into an Independent Episcopal Church was opened to the preachers present, and it was agreed to call a general conference, to meet at Baltimore the ensuing Christmas; as also that brother Garrettson [Freeborn Garrettson] go off to Virginia to give notice thereof to our brethren in the south [ED: O, for the want of e-mail!]

Sunday, December 12, 1784 – At The Point my heart was made to feel for the people, while I enlarged on, “Blessed are the pure in heart,” etc. I was close and fervent in town at four o’clock. A young man pushed the door open while we were meeting in society; he was carried before a justice of the peace, and committed to jail, but he was bailed out.

Friday, December 24, 1784 – We 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, as by the following certificate may be seen. [ED: There follows in his journal the words of his ordination certificate signed by Thomas Coke.]

Francis Asbury
Francis Asbury

Monday, January 3, 1785 – The conference is risen, and I have now a little time for rest. In the evening I preached on Ephesians 3:18, being the first sermon after my ordination; my mind was unsettled and I was but low in my own testimony. [ED: Apparently, Asbury didn’t much like his own sermon!]

Tuesday, January 4, 1785 – I was engaged preparing for my journey southward. Rode fifty miles through frost and snow to Fairfax, Virginia, and got in about seven o’clock.

Wednesday, January 5, 1785 – We had an exceeding cold ride to Prince William – little less than forty miles, and were nearly two hours after night in getting to brother Hale’s.

Sunday, January 16, 1785 – Although there was only a probability of my coming, a few people met at Doby’s store, where I preached with some life, on John 3:19-21.

Tuesday, January 18, 1785 – Brother Willis was ordained elder at Carter’s church; the Lord was with us in this, the sacrament, and the love feast; and all was in life.

Sunday, February 6, 1785 – Yesterday some were prevented from offering their children to God in baptism by a zealous Baptist: to-day brother Willis spoke on the right of infants to baptism; our opposer soon took his leave.

Tuesday, February 8, 1785 – I observed this as a day of abstinence. I preached and administered the sacrament [ED: something Asbury would have been unable to do prior to his ordination a month and a half before]; held a love feast – our friends were greatly comforted. Here I plunged four adults, at their own request, they being persuaded that this was the most proper mode of baptism. [ED: Methodists are not opposed to immersion; we only believe the amount of water doesn’t matter. So we will do immersion baptisms for adults, as Asbury did here.]

Hopefully, this gives you a flavor for Asbury and what his life was like in the months after his ordination. We’ll return to his Journal in later posts.

Next time, we’ll examine growing tension between the Americans and the aging Mr. Wesley back in England. The pledge of loyalty to Mr. Wesley made at the Christmas Conference will go by the wayside.

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

Race, Gender, and Gentility in the Early Methodist Church

Harry Hosier
Harry Hosier

The tone of the Christmas Conference in the formative stages of the Methodist Episcopal Church was definitely antislavery. The preaching of the movement’s leadership— Thomas Coke, Freeborn Garrettson, Francis Asbury, and many others— as well as their success in bringing African Americans into Methodist fellowship, took place primarily in slaveholding areas. Two years later, in 1786, when Methodism began to report membership by race, it claimed 18,791 whites and 1,890 blacks. The latter numbers (and its proportion) grew dramatically in the first decade to 45,384 and 11,280 in 1796.

Methodism’s willingness to confront the slave owner directly and to embrace African Americans in “society meetings” gave its witness a decided edge over the Quakers who preached antislavery but showed little eagerness to include African Americans in their own fellowship. No small part of Methodism’s appeal to slaves and freed persons derived from this double witness to liberty— freedom from slavery to cosmic powers of sin and death, attested by inclusion within the membership, and freedom from its collusive force, human enslavement of fellow human beings, attested by antislavery legislation and preaching.

Such advocacy, not unexpectedly, proved very unpopular among Southern whites. So discovered Coke on his 1785 tour south, where his antislavery statements and reputation earned him the threat of flogging by a mob. Thus began the unfortunate long saga of ambiguity, compromise, and retreat in Methodist race relations — inclusion but segregation, recognition but constraint, empowering but delimiting it. Methodist class meetings were segregated, separate Black chapels were created, and separate cemeteries established.

Still, important African American leaders emerged, such as Harry Hosier (c. 1750–May 1806), better known during his life as “Black Harry.” He was a black Methodist preacher during the Second Great Awakening in the early United States. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, said that, “making allowances for his illiteracy, he was the greatest orator in America”. His style was widely influential but he was never formally ordained by the Methodist Episcopal Church or the Rev. Richard Allen’s separate African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (more on that story later).

Harry met Bishop Francis Asbury around 1780, a meeting Asbury considered “providentially arranged”. Hosier worked as Asbury’s carriage driver and servant. Finding that his illiterate guide could memorize long passages verbatim and warm up the crowds for his sermons, Asbury began to read the Bible aloud during their travel from county to county and to train Hosier as a preacher in his own right. The first reference to Hosier in Asbury’s journals observes, “If I had Harry to go with me and meet the colored people, it would be attended with a blessing”.=

Speaking after Asbury, Hosier delivered his first sermon – “The Barren Fig Tree”, concerning Luke 13:6–9 – to the black Methodist congregation at Adams’s Chapel in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 1781. “The white people looked on with attention” even at the first performance;  subsequently, they would often be moved to tears. Dr. Rush declared it to be the greatest sermon he’d ever heard. Although Asbury had originally intended to use Hosier to minister among blacks and they “came a great distance to hear him”, his delivery was so effective and affecting that his primary audience seems to have been white. His sermon at Thomas Chapel in Chapeltown, Delaware, in 1784 was the first to be delivered by a black man to a white congregation. His sermons called on Methodists to reject slavery and champion the common working man. At the same time, he told his black audiences “that they must be holy”, which criticism displeased no small number of them.

As with most early Methodist preachers, Harry Hosier was a circuit-rider and traveled from Cainhoy, South Carolina, to Boston, Massachusetts, usually in attendance with Asbury. Having grown used to the relative freedom of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he was at first unwilling to return south to Virginia and the Carolinas. Asbury was generally anxious to have him come, though, as Hosier’s reputation preceded him and news of his coming would draw larger crowds than the bishop alone.

While Thomas Coke and Harry Hosier toured Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to call preachers to the Christmas Conference, Coke wrote in his journal that Hosier was “one of the best preachers in the world” and yet “one of the humblest creatures I ever saw”. Hosier was present at the Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane Chapel. Along with Richard Allen, he was permitted to observe but not vote on any of the items before the conference.

An erroneous charge against him in 1791 led to Hosier’s exclusion within the church. The Rev. Henry Boehm credited his “fall” to Hosier’s pride in his work: “poor Harry was so petted and made so much of that he became lifted up”. The Carolinian elder Rev. Jenkins was less circumspect: he described “some difficulties” with “an influential colored man, who desired further promotion within the church”. Jenkins proclaimed he “generally found that these people cannot bear promotion: like too many white people, they become proud”. Hosier was not included in the group of black Methodist preachers who were ordained in 1799. At the end of his life, Hosier was found drunk and scavenging garbage looking for cloth to sell as rags. He subsequently preached that he wrestled with God and screamed Psalm 51 repeatedly before recovering and carrying on his ministry.

Next time, we’ll look at some of Asbury’s journal entries as he worked to expand the newly formed Methodist Episcopal Church.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Wikipedia entry for Harry Hosier

Phillip William Otterbein in Baltimore

Phillip William OtterbeinWe’ve already seen how Phillip William Otterbein keeps darting into our story of early American Methodism. We recall from an earlier blog post that Otterbein, born in Germany to a family that included many clergy, was present at a worship service in Long’s Barn near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Martin Boehm, a Mennonite who had been born in Lancaster, preached, and after the service Otterbein came forward and greeted Boehm with words that became famous in United Brethren tradition: “Wir sind Brűder” (We are brothers). From that day forward they had a close working relationship. Historian Frederick Norwood comments that “They were an interesting pair: Otterbein the stately university-trained minister and Boehm the Mennonite farmer with a full beard.”

As a German missionary to America, Otterbein had been organizing religious classes on the Wesleyan model among the German immigrants to America. On the day he began pastoral duties in Baltimore, May 4, 1774, he met Francis Asbury who would be his friend throughout the remainder of his life. As we saw in our last post, Asbury asked Otterbein to join Coke in laying hands on him during his ordination as Superintendent at the Christmas Conference. Later, Otterbein would join up with Martin Boehm to form the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which became part of the United Methodist Church in 1968.

The relation between Otterbein’s Evangelical Reformed Church of Baltimore (today, Old Otterbein United Methodist

Plaque at Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore
Plaque at Old Otterbein Church in Baltimore

Church, which we will visit) and the German Reformed Pennsylvania Coetus (synod) was unclear.

The Coetus first dissuaded Otterbein from accepting the Baltimore call but acquiesced after he settled there in May 1774. And though both the church and its pastor enjoyed the affiliation with the Coetus, Otterbein continued the wider itinerations, care for outlying German communities, and nurture of persons into ministry that made him as much a competitor to as agent of the Coetus.

Further, Otterbein launched in May 1774 what might be seen as an alternative to the Coetus, a semiannual multidenominational gathering of preachers that met initially at Pipe Creek, Maryland. These provided mutual counsel for some eighteen class leaders and the various classes ministered to by the six attending preachers. Calling itself the “United Ministers,” it continued at least through 1777.

That year, the Mennonites expelled Martin Boehm for preaching false doctrine, engaging in irregular practices, and fraternizing with other religious communities— including Methodists! Increasingly, Boehm partnered with Otterbein in leading the new evangelical party developing among German pastors and people. This would eventually become its own denomination, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, which as we’ve seen, eventually became part of the UMC.

Under Otterbein’s leadership, the Baltimore church prospered, growing steadily in membership and in 1785 erecting a brick and stone building, now the oldest in Baltimore (the one we will see, known as Old Otterbein). That year, congregation and pastor signed a covenant which, in effect, created a denomination (albeit like Wesley’s Methodism remaining within the German Reformed). It retained the Reformed or Calvinist ministerial order— government by vestry, doctrine of scriptural authority, and constitution by covenant. But it repudiated predestination and irresistible grace and provided for class meetings (“special meetings” or collegia pietatis) to maintain order, exercise oversight, discipline members, encourage growth in the faith, and pray and sing together. Their mandated character and agenda— “to flee the wrath to come”— suggest some Wesleyan influence, as does a rule for ecumenically open Communion.

Otterbein and Asbury developed strong personal bonds. Their movements also explored unity, efforts frustrated by differences in discipline, authority, and language, until they joined together in Dallas, TX, in 1968.

Next time, we’ll take a closer look at race, gender, and gentility in the new Methodist Episcopal Church.

(Source: “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt; Wikipedia entry for Phillip William Otterbein)