In the previous article, I have written detailed the important aspects of the “New Light” movements to the pioneers and preachers who migrated with the never ending desire to move to a better location for their families, beliefs and develop a sense of unfettered community among the Presbyterian and Baptists. The Methodist was among this group of emerging colonists who carved a significant swath in the colonial consciousness. This great awakening occurred in the years preceding the American Revolution and coincided with the Methodist Revival in England. Calvinism was the preeminent religious theology even among the Baptist, Presbyterian and the Church of England during this time. Even the new immigrants fleeing persecution among the Scots and French Huguenots spread the Calvinist doctrine.
Calvinists reached a “tipping point” as the need for missions arose; meaning that if one was “God’s elect” why would one risk life and limb to spread the Gospel? Migrations brought about the cultural change going from a tight knit village where there was a local priest to a frontier setting where the building didn’t work. This caused much i”immorality” in the new communities as many children were being born out of wedlock and the “old light” ideas were ever increasingly rejected. In the colonies, the idea of the day was to reduce church to a Sunday episode to debate Calvinism. The effect of this was to disenfranchise the common man and woman, as it had no relevance to their every day life in the wilderness.
In England an event happened oh so quietly, but it shook the theology of Calvinism to its core. George Whitefield, John (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) in 1729 formed a league known as Methodists. Methodist derives it meaning from the word methodical. That is to say the Wesley’s were methodical users of the “Book of Common Prayer”. Other than the King James Version of the Holy Bible and Shakespeare nothing has done more to spread the English language to so many than the “Book of Common Prayer”. The early Methodist wrote about importance of the vernacular liturgy. T. S. Elliot said, “Great prose may only be written by people with great convictions.” The Wesley’s believed that justification by faith was the path away from Calvinism. The Wesley’s were tenacious in the use of the “Book of Common Prayer”. Wesley sensed the change as well from the tight knit villages to the unsettled frontier. The Anglican Church, as well as, the Episcopal Church, then as today has become more entangled with its internal disputes than the souls of its members. History does repeat itself.
John Wesley signed up with General James Oglethorpe’s new colony of Georgia. He took with him his wife, brother, Charles and his “new light” ideas of weekly sharing in the “Lord’s Supper, visiting prisoners, and teaching poor children. Wesley wanted to shape Christian living by following the worship and sacraments of the Church of England. He also conducted small group Methodist ideas by avoiding evil of every kind such a keeping the Sunday holy, drunkenness, buying and selling slaves, smuggling and fighting. The Wesley’s stayed two years and the work the Native Americans were disbanded.
Methodism began to emerge in the colonies as converts crossed the Atlantic. An early important preacher was Robert Strawbridge (1732-1781). Barbara Heck and Philip Embury began in Philadelphia. They took what they had learned from Methodist Preachers in England. They later sent to Wesley for help and guidance and asked for trained ministers to be sent.
Wesley sent Francis Asbury who arrived in 1771. Asbury was a natural and a gifted preacher. He grew the Methodist movement immensely. Keep in mind that Asbury is still an Anglican. He admonished his followers to adhere to the “Book of Common Prayer” and its tenets. With the advent of the “Declaration of Independence” and our American Revolution many Church of England priests returned to England. The war left many Methodist believers without a church. War brings ethical problems for many believers of any sect or religion. Among the Methodist, Wesley felt the rebellion was unjustified. It was not until 1784 that he could support the idea of the revolution. Francis Asbury hid between 1778-1780 because of conscience. The American born proselytizers of Methodism had a different take: They supported the idea of American independence. Most Methodists were pacifists they would serve but without a gun causing many to be jailed for their beliefs.
Jacob Albright who was born near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in 1759 was a Hessian drummer boy in the American Revolution. Albright, a practicing devout Lutheran, had a child to die in the dysentery epidemic and was moved by the preaching and attended Methodist groups. In 1796, Albright began preaching to the German-speaking people. This was the beginning of the evangelical movement among the Methodist.
The oldest surviving Methodist Church in America is Barratt’s Chapel (1780) in New Kent Delaware. It is considered to be the “cradle of Methodism” due to events in 1784. Peace had occurred and Coke came to preach there. During the sermon Asbury arrived and they embraced there. This meeting organized the ideas for the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
The Methodist Episcopal Church was founded formally in Baltimore, Maryland in 1784 with Frances Asbury (1745-1816) and Thomas Coke (1747-1814) the first Methodist Bishop.
There were no Anglican priests to give communion or baptize. There were no ordination systems. Methodist preachers would ordain one another. Asbury felt that if he could offer communion he had the right to ordain.
Wesley’s seeds planted founded the provided the impetus for the modern Methodist Church with the Armenian Doctrine has flourished worldwide. 1968 formed the United Methodist Church by a union of the Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren Church. Today, it is the second largest protestant church after the Southern Baptist Convention and the third largest Christian denomination.
Image: Old Stone Church, Timber Ridge, Rockbridge County, Virginia. Building/structure dates: 1756. First building in 1746 was logs. (Calvinist) Present church in stone, severly plain with a puncheon floor and high backed narrow pews. Later building modernized, present mullioned windows added. | Library of Congress