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, Chapter 1 & Chapter 2. Today’s post looks at Chapter 3, the years 1816-1850s, and the role of print in Methodism’s efforts to nuture congregants, train preachers, etc.
Nathan Bangs & the journey of Methodism from side street to main street
The year 1816 was significant for American Methodism. Francis Asbury died on his way to General Conference. The Methodist historian Nathan Bangs, who eulogized the recently deceased Asbury, provided ‘counsel and leadership [that] guided the church.’ It was counsel, in the eyes of many, that led to a ‘softening of discipline, embrace of the world, compromise of fundamental Wesleyan practices and precepts, abandonment of the evangelistic mission to society’s marginalized, and loss of Methodism’s prophetic nerve.’ It’s an assessment that not everyone agrees with, but one thing is undeniable: under Bangs’ leadership Methodism aspired toward ‘respectability, progress, recognition, and refinement.’ In short, Methodism was moving ‘from side street to main street and toward inclusion in the Protestant establishment.’
Methodist publishing: tracts, Sunday School literature & Advocates
A (more) respectable Methodism necessitated a different approach to educating both the clergy and laity. Enter the burgeoning publishing arm of the Methodist movement. Again, Bangs played an important role when, as as book agent, he ‘transformed what had been essentially a distributing operation for British reprints and official denominational publications into a full-fledged publishing house capable of its own printing and binding.’ It was a development that would make it possible for Methodists to produce and distribute their own: Sunday School curriculum, tracts, and books of children and youth. While the significance of these developments should not be understated, in many respects they were not quite as significant as the rise of the Methodist paper, the Western Christian Advocate, which quickly became the most successful and widely read paper in its region. Less than a decade later, there were six Advocates, which,
…competed with one another, with Baptist and other denominational voices, and with the secular press. They covered national and world events, scientific developments, medical remedies, farming information, obituaries, and everything Wesleyan, in short, any and everything that would appeal to Methodists as citizens and saints and sustaining a connection-wide textual community.
In short, the Methodist papers made it possible for Methodist doctrine to make its way into homes across North America.
Pastoring: new expectations, parsonages & education
As Methodism moved to main street, its new address necessitated a reconceptualizing of pastoral life and ministry. It is a reconceptualization that can be seen in three key arenas: expectations, living arrangements and growing educational expectations. We’ll look briefly at each.
As has already been stated, the influence and impact of Nathan Bangs, during this season of Methodism’s growth and expansion, was significant. As Methodism moved from side street to main street, she gained an address. Quite literally. Methodism, whose initial success was largely tied her itinerant preachers, found herself setting up shop and occupying towns and cities. As itinerancy waned, the movement became more established. Establishment meant providing more services and accouterments–Sunday School, weekly worship, regular observance of the sacrament, etc.–things that itinerant preachers had not previously had to worry about. Things that had, until this time, been left to other churches.
As Methodism became established, Bangs advocated that houses were necessary. A house of worship, where Methodists could meet together was necessary and a house for the preacher and his family were also needed. Methodists would heed his plea and by the 1830s, Bangs was able to report that significant progress had been made regarding these items. By 1856, the General Conference made it mandatory for ‘conferences to report on the number and value of church buildings and parsonages.’ Clearly, change was afoot.
An itinerant preacher meant that many of the duties that we now refer to as ‘pastoral duties/responsibilities’ were initially tended to by the class leader. As Methodists purchased property, constructed houses of worship and as pastors and their families settled in parsonages that would change. Many of the responsibilities previously relegated to the class leader were assumed by pastors and their wives. There were two primary reasons for the shift: 1) the class leader, increasingly, had less time that they could devote to such concerns and, 2) in setting up a home, the preacher and his wife, were stationary and able to devote themselves wholly to ministry.
Cokesbury College was a failure. While Cokesbury’s failure could have resulted in paralysis, instead it seemed to serve as a catalyst for further educational ventures. Over a two year period (1817-1819), Methodists would establish as many schools. In all, by the time of the Civil War, some two hundred schools had been established. Many would close their doors, but approximately thirty have survived and continue to flourish.
While the recently established colleges served the wider world by providing a broad education, the colleges served the Methodist movement by training her leaders. The men’s colleges, in particular, became the training ground for ministry–with as many as a third of a college’s graduates entering ministry in the Methodist church. In so doing, Methodism now had a ‘formal training alternative to the Course of Study.’ While, the Course of Study would remain the norm, the newly established colleges helped to give shape to what would become ‘the Wesleyan ideal of a scholar pastor.’
Later, ‘in the Civil War era, Methodism began to think seriously about formalizing its program for ministerial education through the establishment of (post-baccalaureate) theological seminaries.’ Not everyone appreciated this trend. Some, like Peter Cartwright, thought that on-the-ground training–i.e., ‘brush college’–provided the best training and formation for the Methodist preacher. Despite objections, it is clear that, increasingly, there were growing expectations regarding the education and formation of the pastor.
Nurture: Sunday School, missionary societies & the Tuesday Meeting
As pastors and their wives increasingly assumed the duties and responsibilities of the class leader, the class meeting no longer served as the primary vehicle for spiritual formation in Methodism. Eventually, the class meeting would be replaced by Sunday School, missionary societies, the Tuesday Meeting, and the like.
Sunday Schools had initially concerned themselves with education––providing ‘basic literary outreach to children of slaves, servants, the poor, and working folk.’ Increasingly, Sunday Schools devoted themselves to the spiritual formation and instruction of its members’ children.
Missionary societies proved to be a place of empowerment for women. In these societies, women often took the lead. They would raise funds that would make missions work possible, correspond with missionaries, and promote missions to the congregation.
The Tuesday Meeting
Established by two sisters, Sarah Lankford and Phoebe Palmer, the Tuesday Meeting (for the Promotion of Holiness) revived ‘American Methodism’s perfectionist emphasis, create a space for women to speak publicly… stimulate the revival of 1857-58, and result in the formation of a number of holiness denominations.’ In short, ‘the practices of the Tuesday Meeting established a new template for religious life, one that stimulated an entire holiness movement.’