Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part First. The English Church in the Colonies

Chapter XVI. The Methodists

The first American sect; its origin; Methodists the first "Ritualists"; the Wesleys in Georgia; Wesley as a parish priest; Wesley and the Moravians; Wesley's "conversion"; desperate state of Religion in England; the Methodist purpose; Whitefield the preacher and Wesley the organizer; Methodism comes to America; still within the Church; the Methodist "Bishops"; the loss by separation.

We come now to notice the first of American born sects. Heretofore the successive waves of immigration which we have traced, each carried its own type of religion, and threw it down as a deposit. These successive deposits constitute the primary ecclesiastical stratification of American life. Methodism shows itself not as an additional stratum, but as a great geological "fault" or break. As a sect it was organized and began its independent life here. Its growth and spread has probably been more rapid than that of any religious organization within the Christian era. It was launched from the deck of the Church of England. In its first stages its growth was from those who had always called themselves the Church's members. It was built, equipped, and manned by the Church's officers and crew. When it parted from her it bore away a multitude of her company. Methodism began its course in America at precisely that juncture when Episcopacy was at its lowest point, both in efficiency and in the goodwill of the people; at the time when the Church's hands were tied most rigidly by the bonds which bound her to the English state. While she was fettered and impotent, Methodism came, "a system energetic, migratory, itinerant, extempore, like the population itself," [Stevens: History of American Methodism, p. 22.] fitted itself at once to the new condition of things, and started immediately upon its extraordinary growth.

What, then, was Methodism? What is it? How has it affected the Church in America?

To answer the first of these questions, as in the case of Quakerism, the life and spirit of its founder must be examined.

In 1729 thoughtful men in England were seriously alarmed at what seemed likely to prove a permanent eclipse of faith. [Churchman's Life of Wesley, p. 14.] It appeared as though the power of evil were about to triumph. The light of the Reformation, as they looked back upon it, seemed to them to have been only the flaring up of the torch before going out into darkness. Here and there the godly men who saw the evil of the day drew together in little groups to plan and pray for better things. These little societies were jeered at as "Holy Clubs," " Sacramentarians," the "righteous." [Ib. p. 15.] Such a club existed at Oxford. Half a dozen fellows and undergraduates composed it. Its leading spirits were Charles and John Wesley, two clergymen of the Church of England. The purpose of the club was the revival of spiritual life in the Church. To this end they observed with the utmost punctiliousness all the Church's rules and precepts. They were all Ritualists. ["The Oxford Methodists, up to the time of their general dispersion, were all Church of England Ritualists." Tyerman: The Oxford Methodists, p. 5.] They were circumspect in life, studious, charitable, earnest-minded. Every morning and evening they spent an hour in private prayer. They communicated at Christ Church once a week. Every Wednesday and Friday they fasted till three o'clock. [Tyerman: The Oxford Methodists, pp. vi, 66.] They believed and taught the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist; used the mixed chalice; the eastward position; held to apostolic succession; baptism by immersion; prayers for the dead; and something which looked like invocation of Saints. They dreamed of a revival of the primitive Church as it was in the days of the fathers. For their punctiliousness they were dubbed "Methodists." The masterful character of John Wesley quickly came to dominate the others. Except for his connection with this Church revival it would probably have been forgotten long ago. The ecclesiasticism of it left its impress upon one side of Wesley's character which it retained all his life; but his following attached itself to him upon another side, which was later to be developed.

When Oglethorpe had marshalled his motley colony for Georgia, he secured Charles Wesley for its chaplain. His brother John determined to go along as a missionary to the Indians in the neighborhood of the new plantation. He was commissioned by the S. P. G. for the work. The expedition to which he was attached landed at Savannah in 1736. The work among the Indians was quickly found to be impracticable, and no serious effort seems to have been made to pursue it. In its default, Wesley became the minister in charge of Christ Church, Savannah. There he began at once to carry into practice his pronounced ideas of church order and discipline. He multiplied services; emphasized the fast and feast days of the Church; refused to allow parents to stand, and insisted that none but communicants could be sponsors; insisted upon baptism by immersion as being the primitive mode; repelled from the Holy Communion all who had not been baptized by an episcopally ordained minister; insisted upon making priestly inquisition into the lives of all who offered to come to the Lord's Table. No place more ill adapted to his rubrical rigor could have been found than the Georgia colony was. He quickly estranged his people by his malapropos zeal. From estrangement, the feeling against him soon passed into active hostility. This was carried to its summit by Wesley's folly in connection with a young woman of his parish. He became enamoured of a Miss Hopke, declared his love, was kindly received, and believed that Miss Hopke had promised to marry him. She, however, thought differently, and married another man. Wesley, instead of pocketing his chagrin like a man, chose to bear himself in the matter like a priest. If he was not the young lady's husband, he was at any rate her spiritual pastor and master. In this latter capacity he determined to discipline her for the affront which she had put upon him as a man. He excommunicated her for the double dealing which he alleged and believed she had been guilty of in the affair. His conduct in the premises was more than the Savannah people, already irritated against him, could endure. Miss Hopke's uncle, Mr. Causten, a rich and prominent citizen, and a hot-tempered and vindictive man, took up her quarrel, and led the popular anger against Wesley. The storm was too fierce to stand against. Wesley was compelled to flee. In company with a single friend, he escaped through the swamps, lost his way, lay down exhausted, was resuscitated by the exhibition of a piece of gingerbread which his friend had fortunately carried with him, made his way, more dead than alive, to Beaufort, and sailed away to England.

On his way out to Georgia there had chanced to be a little band of Moravians on the same ship with him. Wesley had been deeply impressed with the manner and spirit of their religious life. They had seemed to possess a secret of spiritual peace which he had not. They invited him, if ever he should have the opportunity, to visit the home of their Church at Hernhutt. When he went back to England, having failed to do his work among the Indians, and more than failed with the Savannah whites, disappointed and discredited, he made the intended visit. He found the Moravians to be of his spiritual kin. They recommended him to the friendship of one of their own members, Peter Böhler, then living in London. The mystical, Moravian idea that the religious life is in its essence the consciousness of God's presence in the soul, was not unfamiliar to Wesley. He had striven to realize this communion through Sacraments and observances while he belonged to the "Holy Club." His intimate association with that nonjurimig Churchman, William Law, had fixed the same idea deeper in his mind. [Tyerman: Life of Wesley, vol. i. p. 88.] But through his intercourse with Böhler [Stevens: History of American Methodism, p. 27.] he was led to that great experience which is the key not only to Wesley's work and character, but also to that great fabric which he builded. He records that on the 24th of May, 1738, while reading Luther's Introduction to the Romans, he was suddenly "converted." He had been for more than a dozen years a priest and preacher, a missionary and a pastor, but, according to the judgment which he ever afterward adhered to, he had never been a Christian. The absolute necessity of conscious "conversion" became from that time the centre of his system. "By it," he says, "I mean an inward impression of the soul whereby the Spirit of God immediately and directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God." [Ib. p. 192.] He was not the first who believed and taught the same thing, but he was the first who had the power of sustained enthusiasm, the faculty of managing men, the genius for organization, which were able to build up about this central tenet a mighty ecclesiastical empire.

The condition of society which he confronted was one which would have appalled a man not sustained by a profound belief in God's presence with him. At the middle of the eighteenth century, England touched, probably, the lowest moral and religious point in her history. During more than a century she had been steadily drained of her most vigorous life. The Puritan emigration had carried away tens of thousands of her children whose religion, if hard and gloomy, was at any rate real. The deportation of the Quakers had emptied England of enthusiasm. The old Elizabethan Churchmanship was withdrawn into the secluded haunts of the nonjurors. The most virile and wholesome of her children had long since gone to the New World. What was left was inert, conventional, weak, helpless, like a depleted system, to resist the inroads of miasma. The miasma had already risen in the form of the cold and barren deism winch then possessed the popular mind. Shaftesbury, Bolingbroke, Hume, and Tyndal were the teachers who had the public ear. The sordid, debauching reign of the Georges had been established, and its results had begun to show. The moralities, the very decencies of life, were forgotten. Blasphemy became the mark of a gentleman. [Hore: Eighteen Centuries of the Church in England, p. 455.] To "swear like a lord " was the height of the commoner's ambition. New and strange oaths showed a fertile wit. Gambling was the serious business of the court, and the unconcealed recreation of the people. Hogarth shows the fine gentleman meditating suicide after being ruined at play, and the street gamins playing at chuck-farthing on the flat tombstones of St. Paul's Churchyard. Gin was invented, and the street signs announced unblushingly, that the passerby could get "drunk for a penny, drunk, with clean straw, for twopence." The lubricity of the age matched its frivolity. Most of its literature is now, happily, unreadable. Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne have not been able even by their genius to rescue it from its dirt. In a literature where Tom Jones, Peregrine Pickle, Roderick Random, and Tristram Shandy are the best, what must the worst be? Montesquieu says of the English of that day, "They have no religion." The age's own judgment of itself appears in the proposal of a parliamentary bill, offered half in jest and wholly in earnest, "that the word not should be struck out where it occurs in the Commandments, and inserted in the Creeds!"

Church abuses kept pace with civil ones. A few rich and favored clergy monopolized the livings, and left the mass of the clergy to eke out a miserable livelihood by questionable services to godless patrons, [Abbey and Overton: Church of England in the Eighteenth Century, vol. ii. p. 16.] or as "Fleet parsons." [Ib. ii. p. 19] The clergy were held in popular contempt, and were content to be so. [Ib. ii. p. 20.] A mitre was schemed for, bribed for, begged for, without sense of shame. [Ib. ii. p. 26.] When obtained it was prized for the earthly honor it brought, and not for the duty it entailed. Bishops visited their dioceses when it comported with their more serious duties at court. A Welsh bishop who held his see for years never saw it in his life. Confirmations, infrequently held, brought together the young people from miles around for a debauch. Thackeray violates no probabilities when he presents the Bishop of Bath and Wells bowing and smirking in the pump room before the painted, patched, and powdered old Duchess of Yarmouth, the king's mistress. [The Virginiams.] What was not probable in a church in which the man who "wept over a dead donkey and left his own mother to starve," received preferment for his "Sentimental Traveller"? The Church in that century had great men, great scholars, great bishops, but they pursued their work and lived their lives apart from the people. Warburton, Wake, Bull, Butler, Waterland, and Sherlock have left their mark upon the generations since, but failed to redeem the one in which they lived. [Abbey and Overton: vol. ii. p. 54.] This was the England which the newly converted Wesley and his coworker Whitefield confronted. What could be done with it? How could it be brought to a sense of God and to righteousness of life?

The purpose they set before themselves was a simple one. It was not to introduce any machinery of moral education or scheme of reformation, but to bring each individual soul into conscious intercourse with God. No project was ever conceived which appeared more Quixotic. But they set about the task, and measurably accomplished it. They began with the most unpromising. They preached to the drunkards, swearers, and harlots of Drury Lane, to the brutalized tin miners of Cornwall, to the keelmen at Newcastle, to the begrimed colliers in Kingswood and Staffordshire. About Whitefield especially the people crowded by the thousand. Five, ten, twenty, thirty thousand people in a single congregation listened to his marvellous voice. He preached all afternoon, and the people refused to disperse when darkness fell. A friend "held a torch beside him, so that he could see his Bible, and he preached all night; when day broke, ten thousand people were standing and kneeling about him." The "converted" were quickly numbered by the thousand. Charles Wesley, the sweet singer, set their deep emotions to hymns. John Wesley, the born organizer and administrator, gathered together the isolated individuals, set them in "classes," set over each class a "leader," selected earnest and fluent men, and sent them out to travel over "circuits," as Wickliff had done centuries before with his "poor preachers." He at once became the head and centre of the movement, and remained so till it broke out of his hands in America.

It spread in his own lifetime to Scotland, Ireland, the West Indies, France, and to America.

Why did not the Church, to which all the Methodist leaders belonged, take it up and thank God for it? This question has been often asked. The answer is to be found in its central principle of conscious conversion. No bishop or priest could join in the Methodist movement without either openly declaring that he had had the emotional experience demanded as a condition precedent,--a declaration which the majority of Christian men cannot honestly make,--or else openly confessing that he had till that time been outside of the very kingdom of God,--a confession which still fewer will admit. [The whole attitude of the Church towards Methodism is set out with most admirable candor and intelligence by Abbey: English Church and Bishops in the Eighteenth Century, vol. i. pp. 288­291.]

The movement reached America in 1767. In that year the first Methodist society was collected in New York. [McMaster: History of the People of United States, vol. i. p. 56.] The "Great Awakening," which was then at its greatest activity, had prepared the way for it. Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley were at one as to the nature of personal religion; but Edwards was a philosopher, while Wesley was pre-eminently an organizer and a man of affairs. His Methodist machinery took up and moulded the converts of the Edwards movement.

But Methodism had a relation to Episcopacy which the "Great Awakening" had not. Whitefield, who represented Wesley here, was a priest of the Church. Those whom he baptized were made thereby members of the Church of England. The Methodist societies used the Book of Common Prayer in their services, and their people all looked to the Church for the administration of the Sacraments. [Stevens: History of American Methodism, p. 75.] Up to this point Methodism was simply a society within the Church. If the Church here had been organized, and possessed bishops who could have ordained ministers fast enough to keep pace with the rapidly multiplying Methodist societies, they would in all probability have remained within her boundaries. Wesley besought Lowth, Bishop of London, to ordain at least two priests who could administer the Sacraments to American Methodists. It is doubtful if any single action of a bishop has ever been more fruitful for evil than his refusal. At the opening of the Revolutionary War the Wesleyans had increased to "more than eighty travelling preachers, many local preachers, hundreds of class leaders and exhorters, thousands of members, and ten thousands of regular hearers." [Stevens: p. 181.] These all considered themselves to be within the Church, and were so considered both by Wesley and the clergy here. [Ib. p. 75.] But the great spreading branch grew too heavy to be sustained by the slender stem of the American Church. When Wesley despaired of securing clergy from the Bishop of London, in whose jurisdiction the American Methodists were, he sent Coke and Asbury to take oversight of them as "superintendents." When they came they saw the situation more clearly than their patriarch could see it from beyond the sea. He had constructed a Frankenstein machine, which he was not able single-handed to control. The superintendents were not restrained by the same high Churchmanship which Wesley had always retained side by side with his enthusiasm. They assumed the functions and titles of bishops, organized the scattered societies into the compact empire which Methodism still is, cut the strained ligature which bound it to the Church, started the new sect upon its independent way, and made a new rent in the garment of the Lord. They led out of the Church in America probably one hundred thousand souls. Wesley sat at home and sent out adjurations and anathemas after his recreant superintendents, but it was too late. Their action was irretrievable. By his laying the whole weight of the Christian system upon a single point, he had destroyed the "proportion of the Faith." The portion of the Church which depended from that point broke away by its own weight.

The loss has been unspeakable to both sections. The Church in America lost the most active part of its membership at the very time when it was about to need them most. Methodism lost the balanced order, the ethical strenuousness, the broad liberality and wholesome reasonableness, which have through good and evil been the possession of the Church.

Project Canterbury