METHODISTS. --The Wesleys at the time of their brief sojourn in Georgia, represented the High Church, ascetic, Oxford stage of their religious development. Methodism in its proper character they did not represent. Whitefield at his coming was possessed by the evangelical spirit of the great revival, and in this view may be regarded as a genuine exponent of Methodism. But Whitefield followed simply the vocation of an evangelist. He left others to gather up the fruits of his labors, and those labors inured mainly to the benefit of the Calvinistic communions. Methodism in its Arminian phase, and as a distinctly organized movement, was due to agents who had received their religious impulse from a different source.
In the order of time these agents followed the apostle of Calvinistic Methodism. Whitefield was on the way to his last triumphant tour in America and to his grave in Newburyport, when the first missionaries sent out by John Wesley were crossing the Atlantic. The arrival of Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor at Philadelphia, in October of the year 1769, preceded by only a few weeks the completion of Whitefield's final voyage.
While Boardman and Pilmoor were the first immediate representatives of Wesley and the English Conference in this country, the founding of Methodism here, as is well known, is not to be ascribed to them. They came in fact at the urgent call of an already existing Methodism. Several laborers preceded them, by at least a few years. In 1766 Philip Embury, belonging to a family which had emigrated from the Palatinate to Ireland, began to minister as a local preacher to a small congregation in New York City. The next year his efforts were seconded by Captain Webb, a military evangelist, who, as John Adams testifies, knew how to wield effectually the sword of the Spirit as well as to handle carnal weapons. Displaying in a new form the soldierly character which he had exhibited at Louisburg and Quebec, he not only inspirited the little band at New York, but helped also to carry the Methodist standard into New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. About the same time that Embury commenced to preach in New York, or shortly before, as some writers contend,
1 A sentence of Asbury can be quoted on the side of this conclusion. Speaking of Pipe-Creek, he says: "Here Mr. Strawbridge formed the first society in Maryland--and America." (Journal, April 30, 1801.)Robert Strawbridge, a native of Ireland, inaugurated a work that soon manifested its fruitfulness in the sending forth of a number of Methodist evangelists. Robert Williams also preceded the arrival of those who were directly commissioned for the American field, though only by a very brief interval. To him belongs the distinction of having founded Methodism in Virginia.
An appreciable impetus was given to Methodist evangelism by the arrival of Francis Asbury in 1771. So large was Wesley's confidence in the ability and devotion of this disciple that he appointed him the next year, though but twenty-seven years of age, to the oversight of the American societies. In 1773 he was relieved of this office by the arrival of Thomas Rankin; but in a few years he resumed the leadership which was to serve as a prominent factor in the ecclesiastical history of this country.
Before the close of the Revolutionary War, the societies in America were regarded as an adjunct of the Episcopal or Established Church. This was their theoretical position; but practically they held a very loose relation to the Establishment. Most of the Episcopal clergy had no sympathy with the Methodist preachers, and reckoned them antagonists rather than allies. One distinguished exception, nevertheless, may be noted. The Virginian clergyman, Devereux Jarratt, emulated the revival zeal of the Methodists, and gladly employed their services in his neighborhood, at least for a time. "He was the first," says Asbury, "to receive our despised preachers, when, strangers and unfriended, he took them to his house, and had societies formed in his perish. Some of his people became traveling and local preachers amongst us." 1 Journal, April 19, 1801.
The dates given above may serve to indicate that at the time when American Methodism was planted, the storm-cloud of the Revolution was already ascending the horizon. So great a political crisis naturally was a source of no small embarrassment. The foremost of the Methodist preachers were fresh from England, acting under the orders of John Wesley, and uncertain of the length of their stay in the country. They had therefore but a moderate incentive to ally themselves with the cause of the colonies. Asbury, it is true, showed early an aptitude to become Americanized, and was not without sympathy with the struggle for independence. The majority of the Methodist laity shared in the patriotic ardor of their countrymen. But the English preachers in general, while they observed in most instances a prudent reserve, were not ready to renounce their relation with the mother country. Unavoidably their position exposed them to much suspicion, and this was increased by the imprudence of Wesley in publishing a tract against the political demands of the colonies (1775). Wesley, it is true, acted in a manner as the advocate of the colonies. Near the time that the tract was published, he sent a communication to the ministers of State (June, 1775), wherein he warned them that the attempt to settle American affairs by coercion would probably end in failure. But very little, if any, account was made of this, and the item that was blazoned abroad was Wesley's disparagement of the colonial cause. The result could not be otherwise than unfavorable to the interests of Methodism in America Asbury soon found himself deserted by all his English co-laborers, and for an interval was subject to some restraint. Advance was checked by these great difficulties. Nevertheless, there was not a complete standstill, and the Methodist societies at the end of the Revolutionary War were able to exhibit a considerable increase. The number of members in 1784 was 14,988. Of these the great majority were in the South. Only 1,607 were north of Mason and Dixon's line.
The independence of the country, while it did not necessarily separate the societies from Wesley's leadership, left them quite beyond the pale of the Church of England. It lay, to be sure, in their option to seek an association with the Episcopal churches which became organized into the Protestant Episcopal Church. But there was no adequate motive for overtures in that direction. They were practically aliens from the Episcopal body, and had no reason to think that union could be obtained, except upon obnoxious terms. Moreover, the national crisis had served to beget an inclination to independence. The retirement of the English laborers from the field had left the control to native Americans, who had no share in Wesley's attachment to the Establishment, and only a qualified attachment to his person. In 1779 the Conference held in Virginia virtually declared for an independent status by providing for the administration of the sacraments in the societies. Earnest entreaty and the interests of unity caused indeed that this provision should be placed in abeyance for the time being. Still it was a clear token that the societies were advancing to an irrepressible demand for proper church organization. Wesley was therefore recognizing the inevitable when, in 1784, he sent over a scheme of government and the agents who should put it into execution. As noticed in another connection, these agents were Thomas Coke, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey,- the first holding the rank of superintendent, and commissioned to ordain Asbury to the same; the others prepared to exercise the functions of elders.
In the explanatory letter which Wesley sent with his representatives, he used this language: "As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and the English hierarchy we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free." Evidently this language implies complete ecclesiastical independence. There is no hint of any sort of organic connection with any other religious communion. Wesley, if he knew how to use the English language, must have designed at that time full independence, not indeed of himself in his personal capacity, but of the Anglican and every other ecclesiastical organization.
The intent of Wesley has of course only a biographical significance. Whatever parts of his proposals were accepted became of constitutional force, not because he had proposed them, but because they were accepted by the Methodist preachers in America acting as a legislative body. The Christmas Conference of 1784 was the primary source of constitutional authority. The members of this Conference, it is true, voted to regard themselves as still sons of Wesley, and to give heed to his commands. But this was a voluntary expression of courtesy and dutifulness. It was not regarded as a contract proper; and in fact the concession was withdrawn three years later, when there seemed to be some hazard of an inconvenient interference from abroad.
While an episcopal organization was undoubtedly contemplated, the highest officials were at first called simply superintendents, and the term "episcopal" was attached to the organization. "It was agreed," says Asbury, "to form ourselves into an episcopal church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons." 1 Journal, Dec. 18, 1784. But in the course of a few years the episcopal title was carried over to the chief officers, -- an eminently consistent procedure, inasmuch as the church was entitled to be called episcopal only because it had bishops. The change of name involved no change of conception; and continuously the conception was free from the infection of prelatical notions. Wesley, influenced doubtless by the complications of his position in England, was not pleased with the change of name. But the scheme which he had proposed really contemplated a more emphatic type of episcopal authority, a more autocratic relation of the superintendent to the preachers, than that which in fact was admitted.
1 Thomas ware testifies that one reason for cancelling, in 1787, the declaration of submission to Wesley was the evident preference of Wesley to have matters decided by the superintendents rather than by vote of Conference. (John Atkinson, Centennial History of American Methodism, p. 66.)
Some prominent features in the present constitution of the Methodist body were not considered in the Christmas Conference of 1784. No specific mention was made of presiding elders, and the office was not instituted except in germ. It required, however, but a brief interval for its development. A number of the ministers were ordained elders; and naturally they were intrusted with a certain oversight of the junior ministers on a circuit, as well as with the administration of the sacraments. The number of elders being limited, there was a demand for them to administer the sacraments on more than one circuit. Accordingly, the whole field came to be divided into districts, and the function of the presiding elder was outlined with tolerable distinctness. The office was recognized by the General Conference of 1792. For a time there was no determinate scheme of Conferences. Definite boundaries were first assigned to the Annual Conferences in 1796, and the General Conference first took the character of a delegated body in 1812. A special anomaly in the early Methodist constitution was the lack of any provision for the co-operation of laymen with the ministers in the higher councils of the Church. While the Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church included lay representatives, a Methodist Conference was a purely ministerial body. The arrangement, however, seems not to have provoked comment. Wesley's practice had not been such as naturally to bring the subject of lay representation into view.
The Conference of 1784 considered a project for denominational education. Three years later Cokesbury College was opened at Abingdon, Maryland. The building having been destroyed by fire in 1795, Baltimore was made the site of the college, where it was soon visited again with the fiery ordeal. Such a cumulation of misfortune could hardly fail to put a check for a season upon the enterprise of collegiate education.
From the time of its organization into a distinct communion, Methodism rapidly advanced. Its class system and its itinerancy gave it a special adaptation to pioneer work. The one feature enabled it easily to plant the nucleus of a church in the midst of a meagre settlement, and the other qualified it to reach with marked rapidity every quarter that was in need of gospel privileges. Within six years from the first General Conference it had more than trebled its numbers. In 1792 its membership was reckoned at 65,980. The O'Kelly schism,
1 The immediate cause of O'Relly's disaffection was the rejection of his proposition to limit the appointing power of the bishop, by allowing a right of appeal to the Conference. The party of O'Relly at first took the name of "Republican Methodists," later that of the "Christian Church."which occurred in that year, checked progress for an interval, but a rapid increase was again manifest after a few years.
No small portion of this advance was due to Bishop Asbury. In mental fertility he was not the equal of John Wesley. But in devotion and industry he was not at all his inferior, and in faculty for administration he was scarcely second.
1 Coke wrote: "I exceedingly reverence Mr. Asbury; he has so much wisdom and consideration, so much meekness and love; and under all this, though hardly to be perceived, so much command and authority." (Journal, Nov. 14, 1784.)The American field he understood vastly better than did Wesley, and he managed its interests with almost uniform discretion. By example and by counsel, through a long period of years, he nurtured a truly militant spirit in the ranks of the Methodist ministers. Under his direction they were marshaled into effective co-operation. The impress of his hand may be seen more or less in the vigor and precision which have characterized the forward march of Methodism ever since his day.
Among the coadjutors of Asbury an eminent place belongs to Jesse Lee. Of good presence and gentlemanly bearing, an adept in repartee, dowered with thorough self-command and courage, sympathetic and persuasive in discourse, he was well qualified for the self-imposed task of planting Arminian Methodism in New England. Before his invasion, this reputed stronghold of Puritan orthodoxy had been avoided by the Methodist itinerants. Boardman had indeed made a brief visit to Boston in 1772. But no one followed up his effort, and all visible result had faded away. The regions beyond the borders of New England were sooner cultivated, a successful work baring been undertaken in Nova Scotia by Freeborn Garrettson (1785-1787). Two years after the return of Garrettson, or in 1789, Lee began his evangelistic tour in New England. The next summer he introduced himself to Boston in the historic sermon on the common. In 1791 the first house dedicated to Methodist worship in New England was built at Lynn. Lee was often reminded that he had left Southern hospitality behind, and moved some degrees toward the north pole. Still, he appreciated the good qualities of the people, contented himself with the reflection that he was better received than could have been expected, and pressed forward with a sunny pertinacity.