A New Day Dawns

Francis Asbury in 1812
Francis Asbury in 1812

At last, we have reached the end of our story of the formation of American Methodism. The story goes on, of course. All through the 19th and 20th centuries, right up to our present day, the Methodist Episcopal Church went on, breaking apart over this issue and that – most sadly, prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and the deaths of 600,000 Americans, including many Methodists — and then finding new ways to come together. As we’ve seen, the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist Church merged in 1968 in Dallas, TX, to become The United Methodist Church. So there is much more we could tell. But we will end our story with the death of Francis Asbury on March 31, 1816.

Bishop Asbury’s Journal ends on Thursday, December 7, 1815, some 3 ½ months prior to his death. That day, the elderly and infirm bishop, for whom travel was becoming increasingly more difficult, simply wrote, “We met a storm and stopped at William Baker’s, Granby.” That was his last entry.

The previous month, on November 9th of 1815, the great man recorded this in his Journal: “I die daily – am made perfect by labour and suffering, and fill up still what is behind. There is no time or opportunity to take medicine in the daytime, I must do it at night. I am wasting away with a constant dysentery and cough (ED: In a letter to a friend around this time, the bishop wrote of “hawking up blood,” symptoms of the tuberculosis that would eventually take him).”

The General Conference referred to in my last entry, was scheduled to meet in Baltimore beginning May 2, 1816. Bishop Asbury, in rapidly declining health, was determined to be there. But it was not to be. Francis Hollingsworth, writing in 1821 “A Short Account of His Death,” records, “In this expectation he was, however, disappointed; the disease with which he was afflicted, terminating in the consumption (ED: tuberculosis), made such rapid progress as to baffle the power of medicine, and to prostrate the remaining strength of a constitution already trembling under the repeated strokes of disease, and worn down by fatigue and labour. He appeared, indeed, more like a walking skeleton than like a living man.”

Bishop Asbury preached his last sermon in Richmond, VA, on March 24, 1816, one week before his death. He preached upon Romans 9:28; “For he will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.” Thus, closed Asbury’s public work. Being too weak to walk, the bishop was carried from his carriage in a chair and placed on a table set up for the purpose. He spoke for over an hour.

Still trying to get to Baltimore to the General Conference, he eventually made it to the home of his friend, Mr. George Arnold, in Spotsylvania, VA. He was traveling with his good friend, Rev. John Wesley Bond. The night of March 30-31 was a difficult one for the bishop. Here’s more from Hollingsworth’s account: “About eleven o’clock on Sabbath morning, he inquired if it was not time for meeting; but recollecting himself, he requested the family to be called together. This being done agreeably to his request, Brother Bond sung, prayed, and expounded upon the twenty-first chapter of the Apocalypse (Rev. 21). During these religious exercises he appeared calm and much engaged in devotion. After this, such was his weakness, he was unable to swallow a little barley water which was offered to him, and his speech began to fail. Observing the distress of brother Bond, he raised his dying hand, at the same time looking joyfully at him. On being asked by brother Bond if he felt the Lord Jesus to be precious, exerting all is remaining strength, he, in token of complete victory, raised both his hands. A few minutes after, as he sat on his chair, with his head reclined upon the hand of brother Bond, without a struggle and with great composure, he breathed his last, on Sabbath, the 31st day of March, in the year of our Lord 1816, and in the seventy-first year of his age; — after having devoted to the work of the ministry about fifty-five years, forty-five of which were spent in visiting the cities, villages, and wildernesses of North America; during thirty of these he had filled the highly responsible office, and conscientiously discharged the arduous duties of general superintendent of the Methodist Episcopal Church.”

Bishops’ Monument, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Baltimore, MD

Francis Asbury’s body was buried in the family cemetery of Mr. Arnold in Spotsylvania. However, by request of the Conference, it was moved to Baltimore, and eventually placed in Mt. Olivet Cemetery near the site of Lovely Lane Chapel, which had given American Methodism its birth. On this lot, the Trustees of Lovely Lane erected the “Bishops’ Monument” which was dedicated June 16, 1854. It is a monolith of Italian marble and measures 18 feet. Near this monument rest the remains of Bishops Francis Asbury, Enoch George, John Emory and Beverly Waugh and his wife. In recent years the ashes of E. Stanley Jones and Mabel Lossing Jones, leaders of the modern church and world missionaries, were interred in the lot.

Before he died, Francis Asbury learned that Rev. Dr. Thomas Coke had died a year earlier on board a ship in the Indian Ocean. America had been but one nation in which Coke ministered. He was again financing his own mission trip. In their different ways, Coke and Asbury had modeled and enforced an itinerant, missional form of ministry that they insisted was the primitive, apostolic, New Testament form.

With the deaths of Coke and Asbury, the Methodist Episcopal Church’s bishops were now all American-born and with new institutions in formation, the MEC looked forward to a new day. The MEC had grown rapidly from its beginnings in the 1740s under the leadership of the people whose stories we’ve told, people like Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge, Philip William Otterbein, George Whitefield, Martin Boehm, Jacob Albright and the others we have met in telling this story.

It is my hope that in reading their story, and in traveling this fall to the places where they lived, worked, and ministered, we may “learn from the past, to influence the present, and thereby shape the future.”

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

Racializing the Church

Richard Allen
Richard Allen

By 1810, African American Methodists constituted roughly half the membership in South Carolina, more than 40 percent in Maryland, and close to 40 percent in Delaware. In the latter two states those numbers included both free and slave, and the church had played no small part in the fight against slavery.

In the beginning, American Methodism had committed itself constitutionally, legislatively, and programmatically to antislavery. Methodists conveyed their resolve in their preaching and on the circuit life. They also took public stands. But increasingly Methodism found itself facing greater resistance and opposition to its commitment from within and beyond its own ranks, the consequence of its growth and evangelistic outreach in slaveholding areas and of the waning of the societal antislavery sentiments bred during the Revolutionary epoch.

Even where the antislavery commitment remained strong, Methodists found it extraordinarily difficult to translate idealism into practice, to turn preaching into inclusive fellowship, and antislavery into inter-racial community. So segregated classes, virtually from the start, continued to evolve toward segregated ecclesial structure, sometimes with white leadership support, often in the face of white efforts at control, as African Methodist Episcopal (AME) narratives indicate, Richard Allen’s biography charts, and letters to Bishop Asbury attest.

In 1794 Bethel Church, Philadelphia, issued a “Public Statement” of some 2,200 words explaining why its members needed separate accommodations. The 1804 General Conference, conceding that the church’s official stance caused offense in the South, published a version of the Discipline without the section on slavery. It made that self-censorship a policy in 1808. That General Conference also authorized “each annual conference to form their own regulations relative to buying and selling slaves.”

By 1816, General Conference conceded that “little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice” and was “sorry to say that the evil appears to be past remedy.” By that time, some Black Methodists decided that the MEC would simply not accommodate their needs and gathered to form the AME. For some, Methodism’s biracialism died with that General Conference in 1816.

Next time, we will officially wrap up our look at early American Methodist with the death of Francis Asbury.

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

Methodist Spirituality: In Camp Meetings and the Home

Camp meeting hymn book
Camp meeting hymn book

I apologize that it’s been so long since I posted in this blog. You may or may not know that my daughter, Lauren, gave birth to our first grandchild – Ella Rose – on May 16th. That SAME DAY, my wife’s mother, Sarah Rosella (catch the similarity in name with my granddaughter) Kindle Hunsberger passed away. In fact, my daughter was in the car on the way to the hospital to deliver Ella when she got word about her grandmother’s passing. Real “circle of life” stuff.

Then, we had Annual Conference, during which we had a “little bit” of rain here in Houston – 12 inches in four hours worth of little!! Fortunately, I didn’t get that much at my house, but I drove through it for the scariest ride home of my life.

So bottom line is we’ve been a little preoccupied lately. But we’re back now to complete our history of early American Methodism blog.

I think everyone has heard somewhere along the way how important camp meetings were to the growth of religion in America generally, and Methodism specifically. The origins and authorship of the camp meeting movement have been and will remain contested, in part because similar multi-day preaching, sacramental, and revivalistic events— including the Methodist quarterly conferences and Pennsylvania German large meetings— had long occurred in Western Christianity.

William McKendree
William McKendree

Camp meeting definition emerged with the well-reported Presbyterian-initiated, multi-denominational encampments in the summers of 1800 and 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Rev. William McKendree, then presiding elder of the Kentucky district but in 1808 elected as the first native-born bishop of the Methodist Episcopal church, recognized immediately the value of the camp meeting. So did Bishop Asbury who, along with a number of Methodist leaders, communicated the revivalistic import of camp meetings to Bishop Coke and through the (British) Methodist Magazine to the wider Methodist world.

By late 1802, Asbury had turned from observer and reporter to promoter. He directed Methodist leaders to establish camp meetings in connection with annual conferences. More typically, Methodists structured camp meetings in relation not to annual conferences but to the staple of local Methodist religious life, quarterly meetings.

Literally exploding across the North American landscape, camp meetings became a hugely successful engine of Methodist growth and a highly familiar signature of its organizational life. Preachers and presiding elders spent a considerable portion of their time, particularly in the summer, in going to or conducting camp meetings.

Camp meetings blossomed as much in the East where they put increasingly urbanized Methodism in touch with its fervid past as in the frontier where they served well to command the attention and to create the community around the Methodist message and program requisite for individual transformation and corporate formation.

Methodist preachers ran conferences and camp meetings. But Methodism as a whole ran predominantly in the home and as a movement of and for women whose spiritual agency was pervasive, if not always prominent. Indeed, as American Methodism grew in numbers and stabilized itself, as early as the 1790s in New York, a decade later elsewhere, women lost places in the offices of the church, offices to which Wesley had admitted them, most notably as class leaders. A number of women found ways to evade the restrictive conventions and to exercise leadership, even preaching roles. So, for instance, Fanny Newell experienced a call to preach.

The major legislative battles for women’s official leadership lay decades ahead. In early nineteenth-century Methodism, the primary modality of Methodist witness, overall and for women, was through lives that testified to gospel order and to steady progress toward loving, compassionate holiness.

Methodism functioned day to day, in women’s spheres: in homes, on a domestic level. Classes met in homes and shops, even in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia where Methodism boasted church buildings that accommodated some of the meetings. Outside these cities, Methodist buildings and preaching places were the houses of their adherents and friends. And membership effectively also had a domestic character in that members belonged through their classes. Their good standing, still registered by ticket from the class leader and often meeting in homes, opened up participation on larger levels.

Even the predominantly male preachers were, in a sense, domesticated. As they traveled around the circuit, they stayed with families or widows, such preacher homes a centerpiece of the itinerant plan in established circuits and a project to be worked on in frontier areas.

Domesticity, spontaneity, and informality proved the rule in early Methodist spirituality and worship. One casualty of such informal piety were the liturgies and other formal worship provisions sent over in 1784 by Wesley (i.e., The Sunday Service).

Next time we’ll look at racializing the church, and then wrap up our pre-trip look at early American Methodist history.

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