American Methodism: A Compact History
  • American Methodism: A Compact History
  • American Methodism: A Compact History

American Methodism: A Compact History

by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, Jean Miller Schmidt

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In this engaging and artful overview, Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, some of Methodism’s most respected teachers, give readers a vivid picture of soulful terrain of the Methodist experience in America.The authors highlight key themes and events that continue to shape the Church. Knowing their history, Methodists are better positioned,… See more details below


In this engaging and artful overview, Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, some of Methodism’s most respected teachers, give readers a vivid picture of soulful terrain of the Methodist experience in America.The authors highlight key themes and events that continue to shape the Church. Knowing their history, Methodists are better positioned, prepared, and inspired for faithful witness and holy living.

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American Methodism

A Compact History

By Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, Jean Miller Schmidt

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-6517-9


Revolutionary Methodism: 1769–84

Responding to pleas from the infant Methodist societies in North America (S 1768), John Wesley sent over successive pairs of itinerants. Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore came in 1769 (S 1769, 1771). Francis Asbury and Richard Wright followed in 1771, Thomas Rankin and George Shadford in 1773, and James Dempster and Martin Rodda in 1774. Preachers coming on their own included John King, Joseph Yearbry, and William Glendenning. Wesley's itinerants came to bring order to Pietist ferment.

Pilmore and Boardman

Joseph Pilmore, educated at Wesley's Kingswood School near Bristol, followed Wesley's precept and example by keeping a journal, as would Francis Asbury, Thomas Rankin, Thomas Coke, and other preachers. Landing October 22, Pilmore encountered Captain Webb, "a real Methodist," and discovered the Philadelphia society. Boardman, the senior of the two and Wesley's assistant for America, preached the next day, "on the call of Abraham to go forth into the Land of Canaan." Employing biblical self-images, Methodist itinerants imagined themselves as Abrahams or Pauls and so crafted their journals. A more accurate biblical type might have been Ezra or Nehemiah. Itinerants rebuilt walls, restored temples, and renewed covenants. Ezra and Nehemiah duties completed the Wesleyan system—preaching in the open air, itinerating on a planned basis, making and meeting appointments, inviting into connection all of any confession who would "flee the wrath to come," admitting the same as probationers, organizing classes, holding love feasts, maintaining the society's boundaries, establishing circuits, and cultivating good relations with the churches and their clergy. Implementing the Wesleyan system meant also discerning those who could serve in leadership—steward, class leader, exhorter, local preacher—and appointing them to these key local posts.

Two weeks after arriving, Pilmore "read and explained the Rules of the Society to a vast multitude of serious people." In late November, he cooperated with Webb in acquiring a shell of a building from the "Dutch Presbyterians" (German Reformed), St. George's (a UMC Heritage Landmark). Ten days later, Pilmore laid out the "Wesleyan" order to the Philadelphia society, distilling the General Rules into eight-point guidelines for the newly acquired property (H 16) and for "those of every Denomination who being truly convinced of sin, and the danger they are exposed to, earnestly desire to flee from the wrath to come."

In enumerating Methodist rules, insisting that "the Methodist Society was never designed to make a Separation from the Church of England or be looked upon as a Church," and referencing deeds and plan of settlement, Pilmore declared colonial uniformity with Methodist standards, connection to Wesley, submission to his ordering, and prohibition against (irregular) celebration of the sacraments by unordained preachers. The references (Society, Deeds, Plan) and their import—colonial compliance with organizational protocols determined at the 1763 Leeds conference—doubtless mystified some auditors. Pilmore specified that American Methodism would run according to the "Large Minutes," the compilation (or Discipline) Wesley had made of his conversations with his preachers in conference over matters of doctrine and discipline, copies of which each preacher, in full connection with Wesley, carried as an operational manual. The "Large Minutes" of 1763 included a "Model Deed" and trust clause, which required a pattern of ownership for Methodist properties obliging trustees to allow Wesley "and such other persons as he shall from time to time appoint, and at all times, during his natural life, and no other persons, to have and enjoy the free use and benefit of the said premises." It provided further "that the said persons preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley's Notes Upon the New Testament, and four volumes of Sermons."


Pilmore and Boardman endeavored, as did their missionary successors to make good on these commitments and bring Wesleyan order to colonial Methodism. They discovered, for instance, that the John Street property had been legally secured "essentially wrong," not on the plan of the "Model Deed," the trustees enjoying "absolute power" without "being accountable to any one ... contrary to the whole occonemy [economy] of the Methodists [and] ... likely to prove hurtful to the Work of God." They succeeded in persuading the trustees to "fix" the deed.

Wesley's appointees faced three large challenges. The ecclesiastical challenge was how to stay within the Church of England and, in general, how to sustain the Methodist commitment, as Pilmore explained it, not "to make divisions ... or promote a Schism but to gather together in one the people of God that are scattered abroad, and revive spiritual religion." A second challenge, essentially theological, was how to advance Methodist doctrines, particularly those of free grace and free will, in a context where "rigid predestinarians" took pains to keep their families and servants from hearing the Methodist gospel. The third, a social challenge, was how to negotiate the social and class structure of American society and especially to make space among the Methodists and in a slaveholding context for the many "poor Affricans" who proved "obedient to the faith." Pilmore established the leadership imperatives: sustain Wesley's commitment to remain within the Church of England; do battle with the Calvinists; build a biracial fellowship (S 1769, 1771).

Wesley's next appointees, Francis Asbury and Richard Wright, arrived in late 1771. Asbury had explored his intentions on shipboard: "Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others so to do. In America there has been a work of God." He then needed only to participate in God's ordering. With a mandate from God, not just Wesley, Asbury would lead and direct, notwithstanding whoever else might be humanly so delegated. Though not officially in charge, Asbury judged defective the order that Boardman and Pilmore had achieved. The societies in New York and Philadelphia did not sufficiently heed Methodist discipline, and Boardman and Pilmore did not sufficiently heed the Methodist preacher's self-discipline—itinerancy. They were content "to be shut up in the cities." He exclaimed, "I have not yet the thing which I seek—a circulation of preachers, to avoid partiality and popularity."

Complaining about his colleagues' urban captivity, Asbury itinerated around New York—Westchester, Long Island, and Staten Island. By March 1772 Asbury was "much comforted" and "well pleased" when the preachers gathered in Philadelphia and Board-man appointed himself to Boston, Pilmore to Virginia, Wright to New York, and Asbury to Philadelphia. Pilmore itinerated as far south as Savannah, traveling with Robert Williams, encountering Methodist preachers John King and Robert Strawbridge, and preaching to communities already taking Methodist shape. Williams, Jesse Lee reported, would attend Anglican service, then "standing on a stump, block, or log" begin "to sing, pray, and then preach to hundreds of people." Their collective efforts "awakened" many souls and gathered the converts to the Methodist cause, according to Lee (H 68n6). With the ordering of the appointments in conference, itineration on a continental scale, and connecting of the several spontaneous initiatives, the preachers had the blueprints for American Methodism.

On his tour, Pilmore labored for a biracial fellowship, continuing to honor the Wesleyan commitments to remain within the church and do battle with the Calvinists. The biracial struggle intensified as Pilmore worked south and dealt more extensively with the gentility and slave owners. Pilmore proved effective in starting societies. His heart lay there and not in constant itineration: "Frequent changes amongst gospel preachers, may keep up the spirits of some kinds of people, but is never likely to promote the spirit of the Gospel nor increase true religion" (H 568n8).


Asbury, on the other hand, modeled itinerancy, establishing an effective continental strategy. From the start, he also exhibited a remarkable capacity to understand the North American situation, to connect with its peoples, to speak in colloquial language, and to adapt as the unfolding political crisis brought revolution. He employed contextually apt terms, such as power and liberty, words with multiple signification to speak of the divine agency at work. Both captured the feeling with which Asbury preached AND the effect of preaching on hearers. By liberty, or freedom, its frequent substitute, and by power, Asbury described a new order of reality, a new dominion, a new society. Fundamentally, liberty had to do with Arminian freedom, with prevenient grace, with universal atonement, with offers to flee the wrath to come. But it also had something to say about slavery, about the standing of all persons before God and about the quality of human community. So in slaveholding Maryland in November 1772, Asbury reported:

Lord's day, 8. We had a very melting time indeed, while I preached to about two hundred souls, from Rom. vi, 17, 18. We had also many people at Richard Webster's while I preached, with liberty in my soul, from 1 Cor. iv, 20: "The kingdom of God is not in word, but in power." This day I have been free from evil, happy, and joyful in my God. At the widow Bonds' there many people, both black and white, rich and poor, who were all exhorted to seek the Lord while he may be found. Some of the young women of this family are serious and thoughtful.

At another point, he noted: "I had liberty and love in preaching at five, and this day feltpower to live to God." For a Sunday, he noted, "Preached with power in the morning, and spoke freely to a large congregation in the evening. My soul is blest with peace and love to God." Freedom, order, and love indeed belonged together. And when they cohered, Methodism offered the colonies a taste of the kingdom (H 568nn10–11).

In these several entries Asbury captured much of early Methodism. It would be a biracial (S 1769, 1771), highly emotional, affective, and expressive (S 1780b), family-based community of love (S 1775a). It would engage the religious sensibilities of women, widows like Phoebe Bond, who would be termed mothers in Israel (S 1775a, 1785c, 1787). It would empower as leaders young men, like William Watters, then itinerating with Robert Williams. And it would unite male and female, rich and poor, black and white into one people through its structures of class, society, and circuit. They would travel together toward the kingdom, a community of love and affect (melting, happy, joyful), with liberty in the soul and its own sense of power.

Liberty and order belonged together. In September 1772 Asbury carried the New York society through a series of queries and answers—not unlike those of Wesley's conferences—designed to offer the Methodist freedom through preaching but to safeguard the society's experience of God's power and its own efforts to live in love through the Wesleyan rules barring the unqualified and unruly. And so, when Asbury received a letter from Mr. Wesley, it required first "a strict attention to discipline," then appointing him "to act as assistant." Wesley also directed that Asbury rein in Robert Williams and enjoin him not to print more books without consent. At the same time Asbury received word of his appointment (from Boardman) to Maryland for the winter.


In December 1772, exercising his role as assistant, Asbury convened a quarterly meeting, the body in the Wesleyan system charged with oversight of a circuit, the first for which records remain. Meeting at Joseph Presbury's, Gunpowder Neck, on the western shore of Maryland, it defined business with six questions. After standard queries such as "What are our collections?" and "How are the preachers stationed?" the conference asked, "Will the people be contented without our administering the sacrament?" The question posed issues of unity and authority for the little movement and specifically whether the inertias of Methodism's spontaneous beginnings or the imperatives of Wesleyan order would prevail. Should the Robert Strawbridge cohort, the planters of American Methodism, set policy, ordain themselves, and connive sacramental authority? Or should the Wesleyan principle of not separating, so zealously preached by Pilmore, Williams, and others, prevail? Pilmore and Williams were even then deeper in Anglican territory, farther south, reassuring church people of their commitments and cultivating clerical support. The evangelical Anglican priest Devereux Jarratt, whose influence radiated out from his parish in Bath, Virginia, became an early and important ally. Jarratt concluded from Williams and Methodist literature that "he that left the church, left the Methodists." Pilmore, who frequently preached this adage, believed it so deeply that after leaving the colonies, he eventually took orders and returned as an Episcopal priest.

Jarratt was one of several Anglican priests who interested themselves in and supported Methodist efforts. Later Asbury identified three others as especially friendly and helpful: Charles Pettigrew of North Carolina, later bishop of that diocese; Samuel Magaw of Dover and then Philadelphia; and Uzel Ogden of New Jersey (H 568n12). All attended Methodist quarterly meetings and welcomed Methodists to the (Anglican) sacrament.

Under the question about the sacraments then lay a complex of other issues having to do with the nature and structure of the movement, its relation to the Church of England, the authority of Wesley, the duty of the preachers, and the meaning of connection. Asbury's answer to the question whether the unordained preachers should administer the sacraments indicated a divided house and divergent policy: "I told them I would not agree to it at that time, and insisted on our abiding by our rules. But Mr. Boardman had given them their way at the quarterly meeting held here before, and I was obliged to connive at some things for the sake of peace" (H 568n3).

For the quarterly conference to take up the sacraments question and resolve it in this fashion was, in a sense, presumptuous. It presumed that it had the authority to legislate. Thus began the process by which the conference achieved supremacy in Methodist polity and Methodist polity itself emerged. This early quarterly meeting exhibited two other important features. Asbury reported, "Many people attended, and several friends came many miles." Quarterly conferences would quickly become a great spiritual festival, the center really of Methodism's liturgical life (including eventually its sacramental life), the gathering that most clearly and fully exhibited Methodist community to a wider public. Already as Jesse Lee reported, the Anglican priest and Methodist sympathizer Jarratt "would frequently preach, meet the classes, hold love-feasts, and administer the Lord's supper among them."

The second development is indicated in Asbury's concluding judgment: "Great love subsisted among us in this meeting, and we parted in peace." Similarly for the next quarterly meeting (conference), in late March, Asbury reported that Strawbridge preached, "All was settled in the most amicable manner," and "The whole ended in great peace." The temper and quality of the preachers' life together in conference became increasingly important. In conferences, the Methodist people and especially the Methodist preachers would establish the bonds of their unity.


Asbury functioned as assistant only half a year, displaced by Thomas Rankin, who arrived in June 1773, with the new title "general assistant." Asbury greeted Rankin's appearance with the notation, "To my great comfort arrived Mr. Rankin," a generous judgment, given the later tension between the two men. More to the point Asbury observed, "He will not be admired as a preacher. But as a disciplinarian, he will fill his place" (H 568n15). Rankin came with the confidence of Wesley and a mandate. He had had prior experience in the colonies, had a decade of experience as itinerant, had been made assistant and superintendent successively of four circuits, and had served as a riding companion to Wesley. Lest his oral instructions to Rankin be unclear, Wesley followed them with a letter in late 1773 full of admonition and heady counsel on discipline. In particular, Wesley demanded that Rankin terminate improper class leaders. More good would have been accomplished, insisted Wesley, had "Brother Boardman and Pilmoor continued genuine Methodists both in doctrine and discipline. It is your part to supply what was wanting in them. Therefore are you sent. Let Brother Shadford, Asbury, and you go on hand in hand, and who can stand against you? Why, you are enough, trusting in Him that loves you, to overturn America" (H 568n16).


Excerpted from American Methodism by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, Jean Miller Schmidt. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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