[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Chapter 2: Reforming the Continent and Spreading Scriptural Holiness)

I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In recent posts, I looked at the book’s Introduction and Chapter 1. Today’s post looks at Chapter 2 and reforming of the continent and the spread of scriptural holiness.’


From 1792-1816, Methodism wrestled with issues of identity. While the issues were many, and while they were wrestled with in a myriad of ways, to get a sense of the identity issues facing Methodism at this stage of her development, we need look no further than the Christmas Conference and the decision of the 1800 General Conference to ordain black local deacons.

The Christmas Conference

On December 24th, 1784, there was ‘a preachers-only assembly, effectively a constitutional convention known as the Christmas Conference.’1 The conference, held in Otterbein’s Lovely Lane Chapel, accomplished a great deal. Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes’ were edited and adapted, yielding the first Discipline. The group settled upon a new name, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

While these changes were important and noteworthy, it was the group’s ability to effectively forecast the future of religion in America that proved to be of greatest significance. Anticipating what was to come, the group resolved to embrace disestablishment, proposed an eventual break with European headquarters, and institute voluntarism.2 The break with European headquarters would not occur right away, however. In fact, in response to the proposal, the conference determined to ‘explicitly [concede] final authority to Wesley.’3 What is more, they would agree to accept ‘Wesley’s plan for the church, in principle if not in every detail.’4

At the same time, however, the body made some rather key decisions that would eventually lead to a uniquely North American Methodist experience. For instance, the conference resolve to make decisions by debate and majority rule. It was a decision that seemed rather minor, yet it effectively paved the way for future conferences to revise, alter, adapt and/or reject Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes.’ Additionally, the Christmas Conference determined to add ‘a rubric on U.S. political autonomy’ to the Articles of Religion,5 thus Americanizing the document. Furthermore,  the conference selected elders and provided for the election of superintendents––decisions that further evidenced the establishment of a more Americanized form of Methodism.

Issues of Race

Methodists remained staunch in their anti-slavery affirmation. However, with Methodism thriving in both the North and (slave-holding) South, things were anything but easy and clear-cut. For instance, while Methodists opposed slavery and confronted slaveowners, Methodists classes remained segregated. Additionally, black chapels were established and separate cemeteries established.6 In short, there was often a disconnect between stated Methodist values and reality.

Despite the disconnect, new African American leaders emerged. Consequently, the General Conference of 1800, ’empowered bishops to ordain Black local deacons.’7 On one hand, it was clearly a step forward. On the other, however, it was further evidence of the disconnect, because while the bishops were empowered to perform said ordinations, at the same time: 1) the Conference did not include a provision for this in the Discipline and, 2) the African American leaders were required to function under white elders. Eventually, this would lead some Black Methodists to split with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816.

The Spread of Scriptural Holiness

Alongside the many reforms of this period is an equally important development: the spread of scriptural holiness. While in some sense linked to matters of race and gender, the spread of scriptural holiness is inextricably linked to the development of the camp meeting. Camp meetings were not unique to Methodism, but they were adapted to Methodist life, for Methodism’s purposes. A clear example of this is the close association between camp meetings and the quarterly meetings of the Methodists. To wit, the authors note, ‘Once the camp meeting emerged and had the church’s blessing, routinely and for several decades, quarterly conferences across the whole church voted to hold one of their warm-weather sessions as a camp meeting.’8



  1.  Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 27.
  2. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 27.
  3.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  4.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  5.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  6.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 31.
  7. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 44.
  8.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 42. Incidentally, in 1802, Francis Asbury ‘directed Methodism’s leaders to establish camp meetings in connection with annual conferences (Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 42).’
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