The History of the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. By ROBERT EMORY. Revised and brought down to 1856 by W. P. Strickland. 12010. New York. 1857.
John Wesley's Place in Church History. By R. DENNY URLIN. 8vo. London. 1870.
Fac-similes of Church Documents. Issued by the Historical Club of the American Church. 8vo. New York. 1874-1879.
WE have specially brought before us this year, in which is celebrated, March 2, the centenary of the death of the Rev. John Wesley, the relations between the American Church and Methodism. If we would form a correct idea as to the early history of these relations, we must needs study the story of John Wesley's life and labors. "The evidence is copious and various which attests the fact that Wesley, in instituting his society, which he thought of only as an evangelizing supplement to the Established Church, entertained no thought, intention, or wish to construct a Church,—that is to say, to govern a "spiritual polity which should stand by itself." So writes Isaac Taylor in well-weighed words, which seem none too strong, despite certain acts of the founder of Methodism, especially toward the end of his life, which one cannot but think inconsistent with such purpose.
The Large Minutes, being "Minutes of several conversations between the Rev. Mr. Wesley and others, from the year 1744 to the year 1789," containing the plans of discipline as practised in the Methodist connection during the life of Mr. Wesley, asks in Question 3: "What may we reasonably believe to be GOD'S design in raising up the people called Methodists?" and answers: "Not to form a new sect, but to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land."
It cannot be denied that throughout a great part of the eighteenth century the religious condition of England was most unsatisfactory. Both in the Church and among Dissenters there were those whose names ever will have honored memory. Beveridge and Patrick, Bull and Wilson, Butler and Berkeley, Seeker and Home, were men whose saintliness of character made them examples to the flock of CHRIST, of which, through their position and talents, they were leaders. Lardner and Doddridge and Watts can never be spoken of without reverence for their acquirements, piety, and zeal.
But despite all that these, and others like-minded, could do to promote the religious life of England, the age was one of spiritual coldness on the part of many, of unbelief and ungodliness on the part of yet more.
Toward the close of the seventeenth century, societies, fostered by such as Ken and Beveridge, were founded among the more fervent, for the deepening of the spiritual life, and for active co-operation in works of practical godliness. From such societies, those noble institutions, the "Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge," and that for the "Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts," took their rise. In 1712 ten confraternities of the kind mentioned, in the Diocese of Dublin, were under the special charge of its archbishop. It was not surprising, then, that John and Charles Wesley, with a few others like-minded, should, while at Oxford, form themselves into a little society for mutual edification,—a society nicknamed in derision the "Godly," the "Sacramentarian," the "Methodist Club." Most natural, too, was it that at a late date they should establish such societies among those who asked their help in the way of righteousness.
Let us hear John Wesley's account of the beginning of his special work:—
In November, 1738, two or three persons who desired to flee from the wrath to come, and then a few more, came to me in London, and desired me to advise and pray with them. I said, 'If you will meet me on Thursday night, I will help you as well as I can.' More and more then desired me to meet with them, till they were increased to many hundreds. The case was afterwards the same at Bristol, Kings-wood, Newcastle, and many other parts of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It may be observed the desire was on their part, not mine. My desire was to live and die in retirement, but I did not see that I could refuse them my help, and be guiltless before God.
About this time John and Charles Wesley began to preach throughout England, whenever the opportunity offered, in churches, in buildings hired or built for the purpose, and very often in the fields, where multitudes gathered to hear them. In this they considered they had a precedent. "We are not," said John Wesley, "the first itinerant preachers in England. Twelve were appointed by Queen Elizabeth to travel continually, in order to spread true religion throughout the kingdom." The irregularity of going from parish to parish, and from Diocese to Diocese, without license from the authorities, they could not but admit; but they considered that the emergency justified it, so large a part of the people were untaught in matters of religion, and, as they believed, these could only be reached by extraordinary means. Thomas Jackson, the biographer of Charles Wesley, tells us in his Life of the latter that the two brothers waited from time to time on the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury, soliciting their advice and sanction, and answering the reports and charges which were made to their disadvantage. These dignitaries were often at a loss how to proceed, not liking to sanction the irregularities of the brothers, nor to deal harshly with men whose intentions were pure, and whose Churchmanship was indisputable. As the nature of their work was also brought to the notice of other bishops, and none ever took measures to stop it, the Wesleys felt that they had tacit Episcopal sanction. In September, 1785, Charles Wesley wrote to his brother: "The Bishops . . . have let us alone, and left us to act just as we pleased, for these fifty years."
The author of John Wesley's Place in Church History tells us in that work: "It would not be correct to say that the Wesleys were," even in the early part of their career, "systematically excluded from the Churches. The truth was that the clergy generally regarded their movement in a doubtful rather than in a hostile spirit, while in many places great courtesy was shown them." At one time or another during the half-century of their public labors, twenty-five or thirty of the clergy took part openly with them in their work. Many more, we are told, "were not indifferent or unfriendly, but they declined the responsibility of taking part in a movement which the Bishops had not sanctioned, and the future relations of which toward the Church were daily becoming more uncertain."
Laymen were appointed by the Wesleys to take charge of their societies in their frequent absences, and one of these laymen, Thomas Maxfield by name, took it upon himself to preach. At first John Wesley was indignant, but finally sanctioned what had been done, and gradually raised up a band of lay preachers. "Let it be well observed," said he, in a sermon preached by him at Cork, May 4, 1789,—"let it be well observed on what terms we received these; namely, as prophets, not as priests. We received them wholly and solely to preach, not to administer the Sacraments."
Laymen had at times, under certain restrictions, been allowed to preach in the primitive Church, and the Church, of Rome had sanctioned the employment of lay preachers. Wesley felt that such were needful to carry on the work he and his brother had begun. Efficient help though they gave him, they were the cause of lifelong anxiety. He bade them think of themselves, not as ministers, but as "extraordinary messengers, designed ... to provoke the regular ministers to jealousy, and to supply their lack of service." But he adds, "How hard is it to abide there! Who does not wish to be a little higher?" In 1750 he wrote to an intimate friend: "I have not one preacher with me, and not six in England, whose wills are broken enough to serve me as sons in the Gospel." Southey tells us: "Many of his preachers . . . were discontented with the rank which they held in public opinion, thinking they were esteemed inferior to the Dissenting ministers, because they did not assume so much; they therefore urged him to take upon him the Episcopal office, and ordain them, that they might administer the Sacraments."
John Wesley states that several years after his society was formed, one of his preachers, at Norwich, yielded to the importunity of a few of the people, and baptized their children; but as soon as it was known, he was informed it must not be, unless he designed "to leave our connection. He promised to do it no more, and I suppose he kept his promise."
In September, 1756, Mr. Wesley wrote to a Mr. Norton: "Some of our preachers, who are not ordained, think it quite right to administer the LORD'S Supper, and believe it would do much good. I think it quite wrong, and believe it would do much hurt. Hereupon I say, ' I have no right over your conscience, nor you over mine;' therefore both you and I must follow our own conscience. You believe it is a duty to administer, and do so, and herein follow your own conscience. I verily believe it a sin, which consequently I dare not tolerate, and herein I follow mine. Yet this is no persecution were I to separate from our society those who practise what I believe to be contrary to the Word and destructive of the work of GOD." Shortly afterward Mr. Wesley wrote to a friend: "Neither J. E. nor any other Separatist can ever be expected to own prejudice or interest to be his motive; nevertheless I do, and must, blame every one of them for the act of separating." Methodist services seem to have been first held in America in 1766, by Philip Gushing, in New York, and by Robert Strawbridge, in Frederick County, Maryland. Both of these had been Methodist preachers in their native country, Ireland. In 1769 Mr. Wesley sent over Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, and appointed, in 1771, Francis Asbury, and two years later Thomas Rankin, to represent him in America. None of these were ordained, and all of them for many years, as would seem, confined themselves to such work as Mr. Wesley deemed laymen might undertake, except Robert Strawbridge, who as early as 1769, as would appear, without the semblance of an ordination, took it upon himself to administer the Sacraments. The Minutes of the first American Conference, held in Philadelphia m 1773, state that the following rules were unanimously agreed to:—
(i) Every preacher who acts in connection with Mr. Wesley and the brethren in America, is strictly to avoid administering the ordinance of baptism and the LORD'S Supper. (2) All the people among whom we labor, to be earnestly exhorted to attend their Church, and to receive the ordinance there, but in a particular manner to press the people in Maryland and Virginia to the observance of this Minute.
Jesse Lee says:—
The necessity of this Rule appeared in the conduct of Mr. Strawbridge, a local preacher, who had taken on him to administer the ordinance among the Methodists. . . . We were only a religious society and not a Church.
As it was known that Strawbridge would not obey the rule, a concession was made in his favor, the following resolution being adopted at the same Conference:—
That no preacher in our Connection shall be permitted to administer the ordinances, except Mr. Strawbridge, and he under the particular direction of the Assistant [meaning Thomas Rankin, the assistant to Mr. Wesley in the charge of the Methodist Society in America.]
But even this did not satisfy the impetuous Hibernian. Asbury says:—
I read a part of our Minutes to see if Brother Strawbridge would conform, but he appears to be inflexible. He would not administer the ordinance under our direction at all.
In 1779 some of the preachers in Virginia and North Carolina "concluded that if GOD had called them to preach, He had called them also to administer the ordinance of Baptism and the LORD'S Supper. They met together at the Conference held at the Broken Back Church this year, and after consulting together, the Conference chose a committee for the purpose of ordaining ministers. The committee thus chosen first ordained themselves, and then proceeded to set apart other preachers for the same purpose, that they might administer the holy ordinances." Asbury came out openly against the steps thus taken, "denying the authority by which the preachers acted, and declaring the ordination to which they had given existence invalid." The Conference in Baltimore, in 1780, "concluded that they did not look upon the Virginia preachers as Methodists in connection with Mr. Wesley; and that Conference neither could nor would consider them as such, unless they came back to their former standing." A compromise was adopted by which the Virginia preachers agreed, for a time at least, to conform their practice to that of those in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Mr. Asbury promising to write to Mr. Wesley and ask his advice as to the question at issue.
When free, communication between England and America was re-established at the close of the Revolutionary War, Mr. Asbury wrote to Mr. Wesley, giving an account of the work under his charge, and of the various obstacles he had met with. He spoke especially of the difficulty of receiving the Sacraments, those duly authorized to administer them being few and far between. Inconveniences there were, indeed, as to this, and felt by others no less than by the Methodists. There was good reason to believe that as the country settled down after the war, these inconveniences would be greatly lessened in a comparatively short time. Far more than half of the Methodists in America lived in Maryland and Virginia, in both which States there still remained a very considerable number of clergy. In Virginia, we are told that to meet the present emergency, and to "prevent so far as possible a renewal of the complaint of the want of Sacraments, some at least of the Episcopal clergy travelled over large circuits for the purpose of baptizing the children of Methodists and administering the Eucharist, and continued to do so until the final separation of the Methodists from the Church, without desiring or receiving for their services the smallest compensation."
Great as was in reality the temporary destitution of religious privileges in America, Mr. Wesley formed an exaggerated idea of it. Speaking of the American Methodists, he says: "Since the late Revolution in America, these have been in great distress. The clergy, having no sustenance, have been allowed, almost universally, to leave the country, and seek their food elsewhere. Hence those who had been members of the Church had none either to administer the LORD'S Supper or to baptize their children." And again: "For some hundred miles together, there is none either to baptize or to administer the LORD'S Supper."
Mr. Wesley, had in early life imbibed the opinion that "bishops and presbyters were the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain." For years he had been importuned from time to time to put this opinion into practice, by ordaining some of the travelling preachers, who aspired to a higher station; but he always had refused. A strong pressure was now brought to bear upon him to assume powers which his Church did not recognize as belonging to his office. At the Conference held at Leeds in July, 1784, a plan was proposed in private to a few clergymen attending the Conference, that "Mr. Wesley should ordain one or two preachers for the societies in America. But the clergymen opposed it. Mr. Fletcher was consulted by letter, who advised that a bishop should be prevailed on, if possible, to ordain them, and then Mr. Wesley might appoint them to such offices in the societies as he thought proper, and give them letters testimonial of the appointment he had given them."
After considerable wavering, and much persuasion, he finally resolved to "ordain" two of his preachers who had offered to go to America, and to send Dr. Coke across the Atlantic as his representative, with such powers as he would give him, to follow his example, in "ordaining" a few men chosen out of his preachers there. Wesley's Journal, under date of Bristol, Sept. 1, 1784, contains the following entry: "Being now clear in my own mind, I took a step I had long weighed in my mind, and appointed Mr. Whatcoat and Mr. Vasey to go and serve the desolate sheep in America." On the same or the following day, he "set apart as a superintendent, by the imposition of hands and prayer, . . . Thomas Coke, Doctor of Civil Law, a presbyter of the Church of England," but of this no mention appears in the Journal. May we not think that the reason why the one act was mentioned, and not the other, was because he considered the latter one of much less moment than the former,—the one an act of ordination; the other, one of simple benediction? Without entering into the question whether he had the power to raise Coke to a higher office than he himself held, as a presbyter in the Church, there is nothing in the whole history of the case to imply that he had the slightest thought or wish to so elevate one who had been, and was to continue to be, subordinate to himself. Coke was sent out to act as joint superintendent, with Asbury, over persons who "desire to continue under my [that is, Wesley's] care, and still adhere to the doctrines and discipline of the Church of England." And in Wesley's celebrated letter to Asbury, rebuking the latter for assuming the title of bishop, Wesley says: " There is indeed a wide difference between the relation wherein you stand to the Americans, and the relation wherein I stand to all the Methodists. You are the elder brother of the American Methodists; I am, under GOD, the father of the whole family. Therefore I naturally care for you all, in a manner no other person can do. Therefore I naturally provide for you all, for the supplies which Dr. Coke provides for you, he could not provide were it not for me,—were it not that I not only permit him to collect, but support him in so doing."
In a letter written long before, Mr. Wesley points out that laying on of hands did not necessarily mean ordination: "That the seven deacons were ordained, even to that office, cannot be denied. But when Paul and Barnabas were separated for the work to which they were called, this was not ordaining them. S. Paul was ordained long before, and that 'not of men nor by men.' It was only inducting them to the province for which our LORD had appointed them from the beginning. For this end the Prophets and teachers fasted and prayed, and laid their hands upon them,—a rite which was used, not in ordination, but in blessing, and on many other occasions."
And Dr. Coke, in a letter written a few weeks before the occurrence in question, and when Mr. Wesley was wavering, urges Wesley to lay his hands upon him, not so much, if indeed at all, for the conveyance of any spiritual power, as because, to use Coke's words: " An authority formally received from you will (I am conscious of it) be fully admitted by the people, and my exercising the office of ordination without that formal authority may be disputed, if there be any opposition on any other account."
Wesley's ordination of Whatcoat and Vasey, and his laying on of hands upon Coke, with whatever intent, were acts done in his own chamber in Bristol, and with the utmost secrecy. "I was then in Bristol," writes Charles Wesley, "at his elbow, yet he never gave me the least hint of his intention. How was he surprised into so rash an action?" It seems to have been some time before what was done was generally known in England, and when it was, Wesley's best friends were of one mind in their surprise and disapproval, and in their conviction that he had acted under ill advice. Charles Wesley wrote: "After we having continued friends for above seventy years, and fellow-laborers for above fifty, can anything but death part us? I can scarcely yet believe that in his eighty-second year, my brother, my old intimate friend and companion, should have assumed the Episcopal character, ordained elders, consecrated a bishop, and sent him to ordain the lay preachers in America. . . . Lord Mansfield told me last year that ordination was separation. This my brother does not and will not see, or that he has renounced the principles and practice of his whole life, that he has acted contrary to all his declarations, protestations, and writings, robbed his friends of their boasting, realized the Nag's Head ordination, and left an indelible blot on his name."
As has already been said, there seems no reason, from anything Mr. Wesley said or wrote, to conclude that he attempted to make Dr. Coke a bishop, or that he thought of him, after Sept. 2, 1784, as other than a presbyter, subordinate to himself. But when Charles Wesley and others spoke of his act as one of would-be bishop-making, John Wesley preferred to let the charge pass without either admission, denial, or adequate explanation. He was never averse to taking responsibility, and, conscious, as would seem, that his act was at least liable to be criticised, he would not disarm criticism as to himself by throwing the blame, even where he might justly do so, upon others.
Dr. Whitehead, the physician and one of the literary executors of John Wesley, and the person chosen to preach the sermon at his funeral, says: "An old preacher, writing to his friend, delivers his opinion to the following purpose: 'I wish they had been asleep when they began this business of ordination. It is neither Episcopal nor Presbyterian, but a mere hodge-podge of inconsistencies, though it must be allowed that Mr. Wesley acted under the influence of others, yet he had some reasons for the step he took, which at the moment appeared to him to justify it. Perhaps they may not appear in the same light to others, and probably would not to himself had he not been biassed by persuasion."
Alexander Knox, who knew Wesley well, and had a high regard for him, writes: "When advancing years made him not less infirm of purpose than of frame, the ascendency of those to whom he was partial could not fail to mislead him, when they were inclined, by their own views, to exert a warping influence. . . . Nothing, surely, could have evinced pure weakness of mind more clearly than the strange business of making Coke a bishop. That Dr. C. urged Mr. Wesley to this proceeding, I know with certainty from the Doctor himself; and full acquaintance with the well-meaning but very inconsiderate man makes me feel that Mr. Wesley could scarcely have had a more unfortunate adviser. ... In one of my first interviews with Mr. Wesley after the occurrences in question, I thought it right to disclose to him my whole mind upon the subject, and from the manner in which he heard me, and from what he said in reply, I saw clearly that he felt himself in a vortex of difficulties, and that in the steps he had taken, the yielding to what he thought pressing exigencies, he nevertheless had done violence to undissembled and rooted feeling."
A letter addressed to the English Conference, in 1793, by the trustees of the principal Methodist chapels in London and Bristol, some of these trustees being persons long most intimate with Mr. Wesley, says: "Although Mr. Wesley, by dint of importunity, towards the close of his life, was persuaded to ordain a few of his preachers for America and Scotland, he by no means intended to make it general."
It is certainly no discredit to Mr. Wesley to suppose that at his advanced age his judgment might not be so strong as it had been, but as it has been denied that such was the case, it may be well to call to mind certain occurrences of several years previous, which are fully narrated in Whitehead's Life of Wesley, from which we quote in the following summary:—
A lay preacher at Bath was very insubordinate to Mr. Wesley, and declared that 'his rights and those of the other lay preachers had been infringed upon, and that he would not suffer the clergy to ride over their heads.' Mr. Wesley went over to Bath, and at a meeting of the preachers informed that person that he 'could not receive him as one of his preachers until he was of another mind.' But others of the preachers took sides with this one, and as the Conference drew near, Mr. Wesley, says Dr. Whitehead, was evidently intimidated, and wrote to his brother Charles to accompany him to Bristol, where it was to be held. Mr. Charles had carefully watched all the proceedings in this affair, and was highly displeased both at them and at his brother's timidity. He answered as follows: 'My reasons against accepting your invitation to the Conference are: (1) I can do no good; (2) I can prevent no evil; (3) I am afraid of being a partaker in other men's sins, or of countenancing them by my presence; (4) I am afraid of myself; you know I cannot command my temper, and you have not courage to stand by me; (5) I cannot trust your resolution, unless you act with a vigor that is not in you; conclamatum est, our affairs are past hope. I am not sure they will not prevail on you to ordain them.' Charles Wesley's forebodings were in part realized, and Dr. Whitehead thus comments on the result: 'The preachers prevailed, and Mr. Wesley gave way; and from this Conference to the time of his death, I believe his authority was gradually on the decline. Mr. Wesley knew how to yield and preserve an appearance of authority in cases where he saw resistance would be useless, or productive of confusion.'
In regard to ordinations for America, Mr. Wesley and some of the others concerned approached the matter from different standpoints. He deprecated separation from the Church; they desired it. He gave such commission as he could to Whatcoat and Vasey, and encouraged, or directed Dr. Coke to follow his example, because of the exaggerated idea he had of the fewness of clergy in America, and fearing lest such scarcity should long continue. There were others, however, whose anxiety was to bring about the organization of the Methodists in America into a separate body, before the American Church, which they justly recognized as "the same Church, though altered in its name," which had been known before the Revolution as the "Church of England," could complete its organization and occupy this land. It was not unknown, to some at least of those, what prompt steps were taken to this end so soon as peace was restored.
Dr. Coke, in his letter to Bishop Seabury, May 14, 1791, confessed: "Being educated a member of the Church of England from my earliest infancy, ... I was almost a bigot in its favor when I first joined that great and good man, Mr. John Wesley, which is fourteen years ago [that is, in 1777]. For four or five years after my union with Mr. Wesley, I remained fixed in my attachment to the Church of England, but afterward for many reasons which It would be tedious and useless to mention, I changed my sentiments and promoted a separation from it, so far as my influence reached." And in his sermon before the Conference at Baltimore, December, 1784, Dr. Coke, after speaking of the reasons for separating from the Church in America, still known as the Church of England, asks: "Why, then, did you not separate before?" and gives this answer to the question: "It has long been the desire of the majority of the preachers and people. But they submitted to the superior judgment of Mr. Wesley."
Such being the views of Dr. Coke and "the majority of the preachers and people," it is not to be wondered at that at the Conference over which he presided on his arrival in Baltimore, it was "unanimously agreed that circumstances made it expedient for the Methodist societies in America to become a separate body from the Church of England, of which until then they had been considered as members."
A sermon preached at this Conference by Dr. Coke shows how different was the spirit of Coke and of some of those associated with him from that inculcated by the founder of Methodism. In the Large Minutes, edition of 1789, it is asked in Question 46, "Nay, but is it not our duty to separate from the Church, considering the wickedness both of the clergy and the people?" and the answer is given: "We conceive not, (i.) Because both the priests and the people were full as wicked in the Jewish Church and yet it was not the duty of the holy Israelites to separate from them; (2.) Neither did our LORD command His disciples to separate from them, He rather commanded the contrary; (3.) Hence it is clear that could not be the meaning of S. Paul's words, 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate.'" Then follows Question 47, "But what reasons are there why we should not separate from the Church?" with this answer, "Among others, those that were printed above twenty years ago, entitled 'Reasons against a Separation from the Church of England.' "In the sermon in question, Dr. Coke says: "But are you not schismatic, by your separation from the Church? A Christian Church is a body of professors who hold the fundamentals of the Christian religion in doctrine and practice. But we are not ignorant, we cannot be ignorant, that the chief part of the clergy and the members of the Church of England (so called) do either tacitly or explicitly deny the doctrine of justification by faith, the knowledge of salvation by the remission of sins, and the witness of the SPIRIT OF GOD,—points which we esteem most fundamental, yea, essentially necessary, to constitute a child of GOD. We are not, we cannot be ignorant, that they justify as innocent many of the criminal pleasures of the world,—card-playing, theatrical amusements, etc., pleasures utterly inconsistent with union and communion with GOD. And although we admire their Liturgy, and are determined to retain it, with a few alterations, we cannot, we will not, hold connection with them till the HOLY SPIRIT OF GOD has made them see and feel the evil of the practices, and the importance of the doctrines, mentioned above. And for this schism, if it must have the name, we are cheerfully ready to answer at the bar of GOD."
Even if these railing accusations were as just as they are in reality grossly unfair, the argument, such as it is, based upon them, finds full answer in a sermon of John Wesley's. "Suppose," said he, "you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the Word of GOD forbids, or omitting something which the Word of GOD positively commands, if this were the case (but, blessed be GOD, it is not!) you ought, to separate from the Church of England. . . . Suppose the Church or Society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scriptures forbid, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate without any such necessity, I am justly chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evil consequent upon that separation. I have spoken the more explicitly upon this head, because it is so little understood, because so many of those who profess much religion,—nay, and really enjoy a measure of it,—have not the least conception of this matter, nor imagine such a separation to be any sin at all. They leave a Christian Society with as much unconcern, as they go out of one room into another. They give occasion to all this mischief, and wipe their mouths, and say they have done no evil. Whereas they are justly chargeable before GOD and man, both with an action which is evil in itself, and with all the evil consequences which may be expected to follow, to themselves, to their brethren, and to the world."
In the American Minutes for 1787 occur these words:—
We are thoroughly convinced that the Church of England, to which we have been united, is deficient in several of the most important parts of Christian discipline, and that (a few ministers and members excepted) it has lost the life and form of religion. We are not ignorant of the spirit and design it has discovered in Europe, of rising to pre-eminence and worldly dignities, by virtue of a national establishment, and by the most servile devotion to the will of temporal governors; and we fear the same spirit will lead the same Church in these United States (though altered in its name) to similar designs and attempts, if the number and strength of its members will ever afford a possibility of success, and particularly to obtain a national establishment, which we cordially abhor as the great bane of truth and holiness, and consequently the greatest impediment in the world to the progress of vital Christianity. For these reasons, we have thought it our duty to form ourselves into an independent Church.
Let us turn now to the Large Minutes, being "Minutes of several conversations between the Rev. Mr. Wesley and others, from the year 1744 to the year 1789," containing the plans of discipline as practised in the Methodist connection during the life of Mr. Wesley. Here we find it asked in Question 45: "But are we not Dissenters?" and the following answer gives: "No. Although we call sinners to repentance in all places of GOD'S dominion, and although we frequently use extemporary prayer, and unite together in a religious society, yet we are not Dissenters in the only sense which our Law acknowledges; namely, those who renounce the service of the Church. We do not, we dare not separate from it. We are not seceders, nor do we bear any resemblance to them. We set out upon quite opposite principles. The seceders laid the very foundations of their work in judging and condemning others; we laid the foundation of our work in judging and condemning ourselves. They began everywhere with showing their hearers how fallen the Church and ministers are; we began everywhere with showing our hearers how fallen they are themselves. What they do in America, or what their Minutes say on this subject, is nothing to us. We will keep in the good old way."
Mr. Wesley appears to have thought the lack of clergy in America greater even than it was, and to have been ignorant of the steps taken to supply the wants. Leading Churchmen were very prompt in this matter. Seabury had sailed for England to obtain consecration, and the Maryland clergy had met to take the preliminary steps for their organization, even before the definitive treaty of peace was signed in September, 1783. Churchmen in other parts of the land were not slow to follow so good example. Two young men went to England to obtain ordination at the hands of the Bishop of London, which was willingly accorded them when the legal difficulties in the way of the Bishop's action were removed by an Act of Parliament which was readily passed. If there were delays in Seabury's case, yet the Scottish Bishops had promised him consecration in case there were difficulties in the way of the English Episcopate conferring such a gift, months before Wesley laid hands on Coke; and not many days later than that they fulfilled their promise.
Mr. Wesley, in connection with sending Coke, Whatcoat, and Vasey to America, said: "It has indeed been proposed to desire the English Bishops to ordain part of our preachers for America. But to this I object: (I) I desired the Bishop of London to ordain only one, but could not prevail; (2) If they consented, we know the slowness of their proceedings, but the matter admits of no delay; (3) If they would ordain them now, they would likewise expect to govern them. And how grievously would this entangle us." May we not remark, as to this, that now that America was an independent country, the English Bishops might well think it became them to ordain clergy for America at the request of American Churchmen, and not on the motion of an English presbyter, however eminent? Mr. Wesley says he had desired the Bishop of London to ordain only one, and could not prevail. We have two brief records, apparently referring to this case, one in a letter of the Rev. Dr. Andrews to the Rev. William Smith, D.D., mentioning that Dr. Coke told him that "when one of their preachers had an inclination to come over to this country, with Lord Cornwallis' army, under the character of a chaplain, Mr. Wesley could not prevail on the Bishop of London to ordain him;" the other a letter of Mr. Wesley to Bishop Lowth (then of London), finding fault with the latter for not ordaining a person confessedly uneducated,—a letter by no means calculated to lead the Bishop to suppose that he had erred in his prior judgment, or to at all incline him to reverse it.
As for the "slowness of proceedings" on the part of English bishops, is it not simple justice to those on whom responsibility is laid that they should have time to examine a matter in all its bearings before taking action? And are there not many instances of terrible disasters, alike in civil, military, and ecclesiastical affairs, where those in authority, yielding to impulse, or impelled by popular clamor, have gone forward without being sure they were right? As for English bishops expecting to govern those whom they might ordain for America after it had become independent, when did they, and how could they, make such a claim?
Mr. Wesley took the measures that he did in regard to America at the persuasion of others, and under a very considerable misapprehension as to the facts of the case, which he believed demanded and justified such extraordinary measures. The celebrated Jones, of Nayland, states that a friend of his had the opportunity, in the last year of Mr. Wesley's life, of asking Mr. Wesley the grounds of his action in the matter of Coke, Whatcoat, and Vasey, and was told that "so soon as we had made peace with America and had allowed them their independence, . . . the societies fell to work to increase their several parties, and the Anabaptists, in particular, were carrying all before them. Something therefore was to be done without loss of time for his poor people, as he called them, in America, and he had therefore taken the step in question in the hope of preventing further disorder." Alexander Knox says that it appears to have been the wish and hope of Mr. Wesley "by partial compliance ... to arrest a revolutionary progress."
As we have seen, the steps taken by Mr. Wesley in behalf of the American Methodists soon produced the result which might have been looked for, but which he seems not to have anticipated, and to have deeply regretted. Hampson says: "From the writings and professions of Mr. Wesley during thirty or forty years, from his known predilection for the Church of England, and above all, from his own declaration, it is certain that the steps taken towards a separation were in some degree involuntary. He often said he was forced into them." "We have only to add that sometime before his death, Mr. Wesley repented of the steps he had taken, and did all he could to counteract what he plainly perceived, an increasing tendency towards a final separation." And we have, in the celebrated letter of Dr. Coke to Bishop White, April 24, 1791, unimpeachable testimony to the like effect. In this letter Dr. Coke says: "I was brought up in the Church of England, and have been ordained a presbyter of that Church. For many years I was prejudiced, even, I think, to bigotry, in favor of it; but through a variety of causes or incidents, to mention which would be tedious and useless, my mind was exceedingly biassed on the other side of the question. In consequence of this, I am not sure but that I went farther in the separation of our Church in America than Mr. Wesley, from whom I received my commission, did intend. He did indeed solemnly invest me, as far as he had the right so to do, with Episcopal authority, but did not intend, I think, that an entire separation should take place. He, being pressed by our friends on this side the water for ministers to administer the Sacraments to them (there being very few clergy of the Church of England then in the States), went farther, I am sure, than he would have gone if he had foreseen some events which followed. And this I am certain of,—that he is now sorry for the separation."
Though the greater part of the Methodists in America were pleased when their "Society" took the name of a "Church," this was not the case with all. One of the two preachers first sent to America by Wesley, in 1769, Joseph Pilmore, was one of the first persons ordained by the first American Bishop. Thomas Vasey, one of those on whom Wesley laid hands in his chamber at Bristol, sought valid orders from Bishop White almost immediately on the arrival of the latter, clothed with the Episcopate, in this country. And it is worthy of note that in neither of these was there any change of feeling as regards the Methodism of earlier days, when it was content to be a society within the Church, and these were not the only, though they were the most prominent, of the Methodist preachers ordained by the earlier Bishops of the American Church.
When Dr. Coke came to America, in 1784, his purposes were not generally known. This appears plainly from a paragraph in his letter to Bishop White, from which we have already quoted, in which he says: "I am not sure whether I have not also offended you, sir, by accepting of one of the offers made me by you and Dr. Magaw, of the use of your churches, about six years ago, on my first visit to Philadelphia, without informing you of our plan of separation from the Church of England. If I did offend, as I doubt I did, ... I sincerely beg your and Dr. Magaw's pardon. I'll endeavor to amend. But, alas! I am a frail, weak creature.
This being the case, there was no opportunity of expostulating against the division he was creating before it took place. But at the first opportunity, the then Rector of S. Paul's, Baltimore, the Rev. Dr. West, invited Dr. Coke and Mr. Asbury to spend the evening with him at his residence, and discuss the questions at issue. An account of this conference is given in a letter of the Rev. Dr. Andrews to the Rev. Wm. Smith, D. D.,1 from which we make a few extracts: "We could not think," said one of the clergymen, " so unfavorably of the gentlemen who were at the head of that society as to suppose they would insist on separating from us merely for the sake of separating, or cherish in their hearts so unkind a spirit as would not suffer them, even in doing the very same things that we do, to have any satisfaction without doing them in a different manner; that the plan of Church government which we had instituted in this State was a very simple, and, as we trusted, a very rational plan; that it was to be exercised by a Convention, consisting of an equal number of laity and clergy, and having for their president a bishop, elected by the whole body of the clergy; that such an Episcopacy, at the same time that it possessed all the powers requisite for spiritual purposes, would not, on any occasion, or to any person, be either dangerous or burdensome. . . . What occasion, then, could there be for a separation from us on the score of government? And, as to articles of faith and worship, they already agreed with us." Dr. West said that "in his opinion, the only material point to which it concerned us at present to inquire was simply this,—was the plan upon which the Methodists were now proceeding to act irrevocably fixed?" No satisfactory answers were given by Dr. Coke or Mr. Asbury to these questions. In the same letter Dr. Andrews says: "A day or two after, I took the liberty to wait on Dr. Coke at his lodgings. I expressed the wish that they could be induced to give rise to their orders in a regular manner, and this, I observed, they might do, and yet still continue to manage their own affairs, and remain as distinct a body from us as they might think proper. If they did not esteem it unlawful to connect the succession, I contended that it was their duty to connect it. Dr. Coke did not hesitate to acknowledge that it would be more consistent indeed, and more regular to connect the succession. But it was now too late to think of these things, when their plans were already adopted, and in part even executed; that he himself had received ordination agreeably to the new system, and conferred it on others. . . . Thus," continues Dr. Andrews, "ended our negotiation, which served no other purpose than to discover to us that the minds of these gentlemen are not wholly free from resentment, and it is a point which among them is indispensably necessary, that Mr. Wesley be the first link of the chain upon which their Church is suspended."
Where personal feeling was allowed to have a controlling influence in a matter of this kind, where leading men desired and planned for a separation, and many ready to be led by them were such as Mr. Wesley described in words already quoted, "as having no idea that a separation, on insufficient ground, was any sin at all, who leave a Christian society with as much unconcern as they go out of one room into another,"—that a division should take place was a foregone conclusion.
Meantime, the Church in America went on to complete its organization. Its first bishop was consecrated in Aberdeen, Scotland, Nov. 14, 1784. A writer in The Northern Christian Advocate of August 29, 1849, tells us that Dr. Seabury, while in England, became well acquainted with John Wesley. Charles Wesley, in his letter of April 28, 1785, to Dr. Chandler, speaking of Bishop Seabury, says: "You know I had the happiness to converse with that truly Apostolical man, who is esteemed by all that know him as much as by you and me. He told me he looked upon the Methodists in America as sound members of the Church, and was ready to ordain any of their preachers whom he should find duly qualified. His ordination would be indeed genuine, valid, and Episcopal."
The Rev. Dr. White, going to England for consecration, took with him letters of introduction to both John and Charles Wesley. By the latter he was warmly received, and was given by him a copy of "Reasons against a Separation from the Church of England, by John Wesley, A. M., printed in the year 1758." To this copy Bishop White afterward affixed the following memorandum: "When the Rev. Charles Wesley put this pamphlet into my hands, he remarked: 'These twelve Reasons, issued twenty-eight years ago, against separating from the Church of England, are equally applicable to what has been lately done in America/ meaning under the superintendency of Dr. Coke."
Bishop White did not meet John Wesley. In regard to this the Bishop says, in his Memoirs of the Church, that he, "when in England, entertained a desire of seeing the late Mr. John Wesley, with a view of stating to him some circumstances of which he might be misinformed in reference to a design then lately adopted, of withdrawing the Methodist Societies in America from the communion of the Episcopal Church. Under this idea there was obtained a letter to him from the Rev. Mr. Pilmore, which the author left at the house of Mr. Wesley, when he was from home, but no notice was taken of it. Before the author's departure, intending to go on a certain day into the city, he sent that gentleman a letter by the penny post, expressing that he would on the same day stop at his house, if convenient to him. An answer was received, and is still in possession, the purport of which is that Mr. Wesley was then engaged in a periodical duty of an examination of his Society, but that in the case of a stay of a week or two, he would derive pleasure from the interview proposed. As the stay was only ten days after, and the latter part of the time was taken up by the business of the consecration, and in returning visits, there was no renewal of the proposal of our interview, especially as doubts were entertained of the delicacy of doing so, the resting of an hour's conversation on the event of a stay of a fortnight longer having very much the appearance of a declining of the visit. This may have arisen from the supposition that the object was to impugn a measure hastily adopted by Mr. Wesley, and not intended to be relinquished."
Mr. Wesley always showed an indisposition to enter into a full discussion of the steps he had taken with regard to America. The expostulations and arguments of his brother Charles as to this matter he had tried to parry, rather than to answer. And so it was when others questioned the course he pursued. May we not fairly suppose that Mr. Wesley's indisposition to discuss these matters of so great concern to both, with Bishop White, was because he was at a loss what to say or how to act; that what he had done had produced results very different from what he had anticipated, and that he felt that matters had passed, to a great degree, beyond his control?
In the case at Bath in 1780, he had, in the judgment of some who knew him well, yielded to others, and preserved an appearance of authority. So it appears to have been in this case, that his power in America was by this time little more than an apparent one. But when, in April, 1791, Dr. Coke wrote his celebrated letter to Bishop White, whether he did this at the instance of Mr. Wesley or not, he doubtless well knew the sentiments of the founder of Methodism. In this letter Dr. Coke after admitting, in words we have quoted on a previous page, that he had perhaps gone beyond his instruction, says of Mr. Wesley: "He went farther, I am sure, than he would have gone if he had foreseen some events which followed; and this I am certain of,—that he is now sorry for the separation. But what can be done for a reunion which I much wish for, and to accomplish which Mr. Wesley, I have no doubt, would use his influence to the utmost? My interest, also, is not small, and both his and mine would readily, and to the utmost, be used to accomplish that (to us) very desirable object, if a readiness was shewn by the Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church to reunite."
Bishop White gives the following account of Dr. Coke's letter, of his answer to it, and of several interviews consequent thereupon:—
In the spring of the year 1791, the author received from that gentleman [Dr. Coke] a letter containing a plan of what he considered an union of the Methodistical Society with the Episcopal Church. The plan was, in substance, that all the Methodist ministers at that time in connection were to receive Episcopal ordination, as also those who should come forward in future within the connection, such ministers to remain under the government of the then superintendent and their successors. . . . Dr. Coke's letter was answered by the author, with the reserve which seemed incumbent on one who was incompetent to decide with effect on the proposal made. It happened that Dr. Coke, before he received the answer to his letter, hearing of the decease of Mr. Wesley, the news of which had reached America during the short interval between the dates of the two letters, set off immediately from Baltimore for Philadelphia, to take his passage for England. On reaching this city, and calling on Dr. Magaw, he was much disappointed on hearing of the early answer, lest it should fall into the hands of his colleague, Mr. Asbury. He visited the author, in company with Dr. Magaw, and speaking of the above incident, said that although he hoped Mr. Asbury would not open the letter, yet he might do so on the supposition that it related to their joint concerns. The conversation was general, and nothing passed that gave any ground of expectation of a reunion on the principle of consolidation, or any other principle than that of continuing of the Methodists, a distinct body and self-governed. In short, there was held out only the terms of the letter, in which there does not seem to be contemplated any change in the relation of the Episcopal Church to that Society, except the giving them access to the Episcopal congregation, while there was sufficient security provided to prevent the clergy of the latter from having access to the congregations of the Methodists. At least, it is here supposed that these things would have been unavoidably the result. The author saw Dr. Coke twice after this, once by appointment at Dr. Magaw's, where nothing material passed, and again at the author's house, where Dr. Coke read a letter which he had written to Bishop Seabury, similar to that which he had written to the author. ... In this conversation he said that Mr. Asbury had opened his letter, but he had heard nothing from him on the subject. With this interview all intercourse ended. Dr. Coke soon afterwards embarked for England, and was reported to have had an interview with Mr. Asbury somewhere down the river on his journey to the ship. The author avoided speaking of the subject until the Convention of 1792, and then mentioned it only to the Bishops, towards whom there was understood to be a latitude. . . . The determination was accepted not to hinder any good which might possibly accrue hereafter, although it was perceived that this could not be on the terms proposed.
In a letter to the Rev. Simon Wilmer, Bishop White says,—
The general outlines of Dr. Coke's plan were a reordination of the Methodist ministers, and their continuing under the superintendence then existing, and in the practice of their peculiar institutions. There was also suggested by him a propriety, but not a condition made, of admitting to the Episcopacy himself and the gentleman associated with him in the superintendence of the Methodist Societies.
Dr. Coke wrote a letter to Mr. Asbury, dated near Leeds, Feb. 2, 1808, in which, after saying that he had heard there had been a paper war about a letter written by him in 1791 to Bishop White, he states that when he wrote that letter he believed that the proposed union would be most desirable, as it would much enlarge our field of action, and that myriads would in consequence of it attend our ministry who were then much prejudiced against us. He goes on to say: "I never applied to the Convention for reconsecration. I never intended that either you or I should give up our Episcopal ordination. My proposal secured our discipline in all points."
It having been questioned by a Methodist writer whether Bishop White did not misunderstand Dr. Coke as to the consecration of himself and Mr. Asbury, and Dr. Coke's letter to Mr. Asbury, just quoted, though not a contradiction in terms, seeming to cast some doubt upon it, it may be as well to cite Dr. Coke's letter to Bishop Seabury, dated May 14, 1791, in which he says,—
Now on a reunion taking place, our Ministers, both Elders and Deacons, would expect to have, and ought to have, the same authority they have at present, of administering the ordinances according to the respective power already invested in them. For this purpose, I well know they must submit to a reordination, which I believe might easily be brought about, if every other hindrance was removed out of the way. . . . Mr. Asbury, our Resident Superintendent, is a great and good man. He possesses, and justly, the esteem of most of the Preachers and most of the People. Now if the General Convention of the Clergy consented that he should be consecrated a Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in the supposition of a reunion, a very capital hindrance would be removed out of the way. Again, I love the Methodists in America, and could not think of leaving them entirely, whatever might happen in Europe. The Preachers and People also love me. Many of them have a peculiar regard for me. But I could not with propriety visit the American Methodists, possessing in our Church on this side the water an office inferior to that of Mr. Asbury. But if the two houses of the Convention of the Clergy would consent to the Consecration of Mr. Asbury and me as Bishops of the Methodist Society in the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States (or by any other title, if that were not proper), on the supposition of the reunion of the two Churches, under proper mutual stipulations, and engage that the Methodist Society should have a regular supply on the death of their Bishops, and so ad perpetuum, the grand difficulty in respect to the Preachers would be removed,—they would have the same men to confide in whom they have at present, and all other mutual stipulations would soon be settled.
In his letter to Bishop White, already so often referred to, Dr. Coke, after speaking of some difficulties in the way, had said: "My desire of a reunion is so sincere that these difficulties made me tremble; and yet something must be done before the death of Mr. Wesley, otherwise I shall despair of success." Though he seems not to have realized all the difficulties in the way of carrying out his plan, his desire was doubtless a real one; and after he had learned of the death of Mr. Wesley, he addressed the letter to Bishop Seabury already referred to, embodying the proposals he had made to Bishop White, and in even more distinct form. In that letter, Dr. Coke tells, as we have already mentioned, of his early and long-continued attachment to the Church of England, and that later he had changed his sentiments, and so far as his influence reached, promoted a separation from it. Then he goes on to say:—
Within these two years, I am come back again; my love for the Church of England has returned; I think I am attached to it on a ground much more rational, and "consequently much less likely to be shaken, than formerly. When I was fully convinced of my error in the steps I took to bring about a separation from the Church of England in Europe, I delivered before a congregation of about three thousand people, in our largest chapel in Dublin, on a Sunday evening after preaching, an exhortation which in fact amounted to a recantation of my error. Some time afterward, I repeated the same in our largest chapels in London, and in several other parts of England and Ireland; and I have reason to believe that my proceedings in this respect have given a death-blow to all hopes of a separation which may exist in the minds of any in those kingdoms. On the same principles, I most cordially wish for a reunion of the Protestant Episcopal and the Methodist Churches in these States. The object is of vast magnitude.
What answer was given by Bishop Seabury we are not informed. Doubtless he saw, as did Bishop White, that desirable as union was, "this could not be on the terms proposed" by Dr. Coke, and that there was no proof that even such terms would be acceptable to the majority of those with whom he was associated.
Had Dr. Coke possessed as much of steadiness as he did of zeal, he would not, under the temporary influence of principles which he came to see were erroneous, so "far as his influence reached, have promoted a separation" of those who took him for a leader from the Church. Mr. Wesley's influence and his combined might well "have given a death-blow to all hopes of a separation" which some might have cherished; but his influence was at a critical time thrown into the wrong scale. Many thousands, baptized in the Church, separated themselves, in consequence of his teachings and acts, from their spiritual mother. When he came, to an extent, to realize his error, it was too late to undo its consequences. So much easier it is to cause separation than to bring about unity between those who have been dissevered.
Though Dr. Coke seemed so in earnest at the time, he appears not to have greatly grieved over the failure of his project, or to have been inclined to favor any such modifications in it as would have made its realization practicable. Indeed, in his letter to Mr. Asbury, of Feb. 2, 1808, he says: "I now see that the failure of my plan, which was laid down from the purest motives, was for the best." Five years later this restless man seems again to have changed his mind, offering again, on a certain condition, to "return most fully and faithfully into the bosom of the Established Church, and to do everything in my [his] power to promote its interests." The condition was that he should be appointed Bishop of India, in which case he would not only do all he could to promote the interests of the Church, but would submit to all such restrictions in the fulfilment of his office as the Government and the bench of bishops at home should think necessary. The mitre he so persistently sought was not given him; and his promise to "return faithfully and fully into the bosom of the Church," being conditional on such grant, was not fulfilled. "No pent-up Utica" could confine the energies of such a man. Panting for new fields for their exercise, he sailed, as superintendent of Methodist missions in India, for that distant land which he was destined never to see. For on the voyage thither, "after life's fitful fever," the mortal remains of that restless man were laid to rest beneath the wave of ocean.