[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Chapter 1: Revolutionary Methodism)

I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In a recent post, I looked at the book’s Introduction. Today’s post looks at Chapter 1 and what the authors refer to as ‘Revolutionary Methodism.’

An attempt to bring order

The era of Revolutionary Methodism (1769-1784) was characterized by growing pains and adaptation, as Wesleyan-Methodism sought to (re)define its identity within the North American context. Methodist societies had already been established. However, at this point, these societies were still in their infancy. As infants in need of solid food, in 1768, the societies pleaded with Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, to send itinerants. The following year, Wesley would send the first of the pairs of itinerants, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, with the intent of bringing ‘order to Pietist ferment.’1

While Pilmore and Boardman would bring some order to the societies of Philadelphia and New York, respectively, the societies ‘did not sufficiently heed Methodist discipline.’ Furthermore, the pair ‘did not sufficiently heed the Methodist preachers’ self-discipline––itinerancy.’2

The itinerant ideal & the hallmarks of early American Methodism

The pair that followed in 1771, Francis Asbury and Richard Wright sought to restore itinerancy as the ideal. Asbury, in particular, succeeded in this regard. His success, in large part, stemmed from his ‘remarkable capacity to understand the North American situation, connect with its people, to speak in colloquial language, and to adapt as the unfolding political crisis brought revolution.’3 In short, Asbury was beginning to translate Methodism for the emerging North American context.4

In translating Methodism for the North American context, Asbury helped early Methodist envision and strive for a movement of God that was biracial; emotional, affective and expressive; a family-based; engaged the religious sensibilities of men and women alike; empowered young men to lead; and disparate groups into one people through its multitiered structure.5

During this time, Asbury and the people called Methodists organized into conferences. Quarterly conferences would eventually ‘become a great spiritual festival, the center really of Methodism’s liturgical life.’6 While preaching and love-feasts were part of conference life, the assembled would also discuss matters of polity. One of the foremost issues on everyone’s mind had to do with the sacramental life of Methodists. Specifically, could unordained Methodist preachers administer sacraments. It was a question with far reaching implications. How that question was answered would have profound implications regarding such things as: ‘the nature and structure of the movement, its relationship to the Church of England, the authority of Wesley, the duty of preachers, and the meaning of connection.’7 When Francis Asbury was asked that question, in December of 1772, he conceded, as Boardman had already, at the quarterly meeting, made allowance for unordained Methodist preachers to administer the sacraments. In so doing, Asbury, Boardman, and others effectively set in motion a process to contextualize Methodism (which to this point was quite British) to the North American context.

Debates regarding slavery would further hasten the process.8 But, in many respects, it was the American Revolution and the colonies’ rejection of the British monarchy and aristocracy that would really propel things forward.

The conferences of 1777-1779

By the late 1770’s Anglicanism was on the verge of collapse. American Methodists heard the death knell and, consequently, during the conferences of 1777 and 1778 found themselves debating whether or not to separate from the church. Furthermore, ‘the conference contemplated a future without Wesley-appointed preachers and laid the groundwork for authority exercised through committee in presbyterian fashion.’9 Change, it seemed, was on the horizon.

In 1779, two conferences took place. The first was held in Kent County, Delaware,––i.e., ‘The Delaware Gathering’––and the second, at Fluvanna. At the Kent County conference (where the preachers of the north assembled), Francis Asbury was affirmed as ‘General Assistant in America.’10 In short, the Kent County conference, ratified and reaffirmed Wesley’s decision to appoint Asbury and, in so doing, they affirmed Wesley’s authority over the movement. At Fluvanna, those assembled ‘recognized the Episcopal Establishment as dissolved.’11 In so doing, those who were assembled, in essence, resolved to become dissenters. Furthermore, ‘a committee created through election by the preachers, took the authority that had been bested in Wesley or his general assistant.’12

The two conferences effectively divided the church along the lines of north and south. The northern party remained Anglican and loyal to Wesley, while the southern party resolved to redefine itself.13

Two Superintendents

In 1784, John Wesley appointed Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to serve as joint superintendents over the North American Methodists. Coke was equipped with an outline for a new church, from Wesley. It was a church that would be constructed on a foundation that had been prepared and put into place by Asbury.

 

Footnotes

  1. Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 9. In reality, the ‘Pietist ferment’ was just one many challenges. It was far from the greatest challenge, however. The authors cite three, more pressing, challenges: 1) how to remain within the Church of England; 2) how to advice Methodist doctrines in what was primarily a predestinarian context, in which people ‘took pains to keep their families and servants from hearing the Methodist gospel;’ and, 3) how to navigate the social and class structures of North America, particularly in the South (Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 10).
  2. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 11.
  3.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 11.
  4. I say ’emerging’ because Asbury proved to be quite forward-thinking. He had the foresight to see and address very early issues of race, gender, etc.
  5. See: Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 12.
  6.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 13.
  7. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 13.
  8. See: Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 21-22.
  9.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 19.
  10.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 19.
  11.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 20.
  12.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History,20.
  13.  Asbury and the northern conference would ultimately prevail.
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