Read an Excerpt
The Methodist Experience in America Volume 1
By Russell E. Richey
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLaunching the Methodist Movements: 1760–68
Where does one start the story of United Methodism? With the formative experiences in the Susanna and Samuel Wesley home? Or with John and Charles Wesley in Georgia in the 1730s? Or with John's Aldersgate experience? Or with George Whitefield's American tours and the First Great Awakening? Or with competitive "spontaneous" beginnings in the 1760s through Robert Strawbridge in Maryland, through William Otterbein and Martin Boehm in the middle colonies, and through Barbara Heck, Philip Embury, and Thomas Webb in New York? Or with the roots of the several evangelical movements in Pietism?
The story of United Methodism requires a wide perspective. Pietism, because it underlay or affected the several Methodist movements, provides such a canvas, and William Otterbein (1726–1813) will first claim our attention, as he does in MEA I (Sources 1760). Pietism was a transatlantic, transconfessional, diffuse religious reform impulse that sought to sustain the authentic witness of the faith but that in so doing defined itself initially over against orthodoxy and later over against aspects of the Enlightenment. The faith so "preserved" differed. Pietist or Pietist-like assumptions, beliefs, mores, and communal structures typified the patterns of life and thought espoused by its Lutheran pioneers, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705) and August Hermann Francke (1663–1727); by the Moravians; by Roman Catholic Jansenists; by the Hasidic Jews; by late Puritanism; by British evangelicalism (Anglican and Presbyterian); and by the panoply of colonial revivalism. Diversely expressed, the movement named itself diversely. In the North American context it bore the identity of evangelicalism or revivalism.
Pietist and Pietist-like movements characteristically emphasized
experimental religion, locating the religious impulse in the heart (will and affections); both consciousness and expression of the heart's commitments (conversion and testimony); an obedient life, strict moral codes, and corporate discipline as appropriate expressions thereof; the accessibility of the biblical word and rule to the awakened lay spirit; growth in the faith through active devotions but also through education, educational programs, and literature, all adjusted to suit age, culture, and circumstance; the importance of a witness communally shared through prayer, Bible reading, hymns, and preaching; everyday life as a sacrament to be shaped and enlivened by a vibrant faith and expressed in holy living; and biblical doctrine or doctrines as the light by which all this activism stays on course.
(For expressions of such experimental religion in early Methodist movements, see Sources 1760, 1773, 1775a, 1780b, 1785a, 1785b, 1785c, 1787, 1789a, 1791b, 1791c, 1798 on class meetings, and 1800b.)
Pietist emphasis on doctrine proved insufficient, careless, or imprecise to the "scholastics" who were typically in positions of authority and viewed themselves as consolidators of the sixteenth-century reformations. Those in power complained as well that Pietists did not measure up to what tradition had expected in zeal for the ritual or sacramental life. Opponents, therefore, found the movement's slights as objectionable as its emphases.
Protestant Pietism shaped experimental religion around the conversion experience, understood not simply as a forensic alteration in one's status with God but as a discernible inner change. In this transformation one became a reborn Nicodemus, a recreation in Christ, whose character and life manifested a new identity in fruits of the Spirit. Pietism resourced those reborn and those seeking rebirth in small groups that encouraged members to make the Scripture normative for everyday life, that sheltered individuals and families from "the world," and that empowered them to counter its claims and demands. In and through such conventicles, little churches within the church, collegia pietatis, laity (male and female) gained voice and exercised leadership, a challenge and threat to public and religious conventions. Pietism drew such leadership into active missionary endeavor at home and abroad. It extended the gospel and invitation into Christian community to populations previously ignored or over previously insurmountable confessional barriers. And wherever it prospered, it challenged those who had settled for formal, notional, legal, or outward religiosity and repudiated the easy compromise that religion had made with status, wealth, power, display, and prerogative. Against such worldliness, Pietists invoked the witness of the prophets and the teaching of Jesus. In such worldliness, Pietism discerned the sin or sins that separated individuals from God. In particular, Pietism offered a prophetic critique of established, more priestly, and unregenerate forms of Christianity and leaders so characterized. Though it sought reform, it eschewed polemics and sought the widest possible unity among likeminded persons. The several resources that Pietism offered—new identity, community voluntarily created, a competitive missionary spirit, courage to persist despite society's disdain, willingness to forge new alliances—proved highly functional in the new American environment.
Pietism provided a new way of life for its adherents and motivation to tackle society's ills. It spoke of corruption, of power, of authority, of legitimacy. By identifying the corrupt—the luxury of gentility or laxness of clergy—it broke social conventions of deference and passive obedience. It did not, however, weave these elements of social critique into a program for systemic reform or a theory of new world order or a vision of the godly state or even of the church as an anticipation thereof. Such a civil or societal theology, as offered by Puritans and other Calvinists, had brought chaos to Europe. Pietists, though highly communal on a local level and creatively productive of new ecclesial institutions, would work their transformations from the bottom up rather than the top down. Renewal would start with the conversion experience rather than parliamentary act, with a conventicle rather than a reform program, with missionary outreach rather than armed insurrection.
That beginning point for change has earned for Pietism labels of individualistic, moralistic, and otherworldly. And certainly by contrast to Puritanism, Pietism offered a social ethic unwedded to a theory of the state and strategies for reform. Yet some who felt Pietism's denunciation of worldliness found it radically transformative. Others experienced it as socially revolutionary. Many denounced it as tasteless. Where it prevailed, Pietism had the capacity to shape society and culture. The transmission of this culture then became a communal and preeminently a family project, permitting and requiring vital roles for women as well as men. In the eighteenth and particularly in the nineteenth century, women involved themselves on behalf of revival—within families, nurturing the piety of spouse, children, and servants; in congregations, through prayer groups and Sunday schools; and outward into community, nation, and world through mission, benevolent, and reform societies. Pietism lowered the gateway into ministry and raised the expectations of laity, thereby drawing women as well as men, blacks as well as whites into public witness, lay preaching, and eventually formal ministry.
Pietism made religion a communal endeavor. And when it wedded itself to republicanism—which offered a rather more civil and systemic theory of corruption, of power, of authority, of legitimacy—Pietism readily took up the agenda of Puritanism. It would Christianize America and the world, albeit with the procedure of conversion and revival. But this wedding, achieved during the Second Great Awakening and through the emergence of popular denominations, and the ambivalences and tensions it produced lie ahead. At this point, we look at the entry of Methodist forms of Pietism into the New World.
Pietism came into American life through many channels. One collective identification of these diverse channels was subsequently termed the First Great Awakening, a several-decade effervescence of heart religion, revived discipline, revivalistic preaching, and mass conversions, successively disturbing the religious status quo in the middle, New England, and southern colonies. Though such activity brought ministers from various confessions or denominations into local or regional prominence, the actors who achieved transcolony reputations were Jonathan Edwards (1703–58) and George Whitefield (1714–70). The latter, by his six evangelistic tours, 1738–70, gave the seaboard colonies a good exposure to Calvinistic Pietism and Calvinistic Methodism. He popularized and legitimated patterns of extemporaneous, expressive, open-air preaching. He showed the power of itinerant evangelists to stir conversions among diverse peoples and across confessional lines. He made theatrical revivalism the prototypical American religious style. He pioneered in promotion, self-promotion, and use of the press, all for evangelistic purpose. And Whitefield gave Methodism its first American hearing (Sources 1768). Many who found their way into the Wesleyan orbit had been affected by Whitefield's preaching. Some of his converts provided key leadership to early classes and societies, notably Edward Evans and James Emerson in Philadelphia. And Whitefield issued an early call to John Wesley to send itinerants.
Whitefield's role and salience as Methodism's colonial herald contrast with those of the Wesleys, John and Charles, whose efforts in Georgia (1736–37) left little in the way of continuing Methodist influence and some considerable embarrassment. The Georgia episode evidenced more of the Wesleys' Anglo-Catholic piety than of their Pietism. Only after his return from Georgia, it should be noted, did John become involved with the Moravian-led Fetter Lane Society, undergo his Aldersgate experience, and make his visit to the Moravian headquarters at Herrnhut. The Georgia mission left its enduring and important effect in John Wesley's own development. It established for Wesley and within Methodism concern for the well-being and evangelization of Native Americans and African Americans. And it came to belong to the longer story of American Methodism through its literary placement in the Wesley saga as "the second rise of Methodism." By other routes the leaven of Pietism and the Methodist versions thereof came to the colonies.
Otterbein and Boehm
William Otterbein belonged to a family of pastor-theologians steeped in the German Reformed tradition and the Pietism of their native Herborn. Confessional, churchly, apologetic, orthodox, covenantal, and christocentric, Herborn Pietists grounded the religious life in doctrine and Scripture as read through the Heidelberg Catechism. This sixteenth-century ecumenical, pastoral, personal compilation guided Herborn Pietists to a life lived in the Spirit. It mapped the spiritual life as a pathway, ladder, or series of steps toward salvation and as followed under and directed by covenant. Herborn kept its counsel understandable, attainable, and practical, and accented the Christian's ability to live a holy life.
Like his five brothers and father, William studied at the Reformed university at Herborn, a nursery of Pietism, where recognition of his abilities earned him a teaching role as tutor. He passed ordination examinations, subscribed to the Reformed confessions, and was ordained (1749). He served for three years in Germany, demonstrating early his ability as a teacher, preacher, and pastor. His organizing of Bible and prayer groups earned Otterbein a formal reprimand from authorities for holding such "divisive" conventicles. He then responded to the plea for ministers made by Michael Schlatter (1716–90), leader of the Pennsylvania (Reformed) Coetus (synod or conference) and on a recruitment mission for pastors. In 1752, Otterbein aligned with Coetus and became pastor in the important Reformed community of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. There he found himself amidst the religious ferment through which churchly and Pietist groups emerged to give stability and direction to the Dutch and German settlements in the middle colonies. Otterbein served in Lancaster (1752–58) and Tulpehocken, Pennsylvania (1758–60); Frederick, Maryland (1760–65); York, Pennsylvania (1765–74); and Baltimore, Maryland (1774–1813), but consistently itinerated to preach to German communities in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Maryland, while continuing to play leadership roles within the Coetus (which was related to the Amsterdam Classis). Otterbein exercised "episcopal-like" leadership among the Pietist Germans comparable, argues J. Steven O'Malley, to that provided by Theodorus Frelinghuysen for the Dutch—that of identifying, nurturing, ordering, and deploying like-minded preachers.
In 1755 Otterbein experienced "a more perfect consciousness of salvation in Christ" (conversion experience) and redoubled his efforts to hold himself and his congregants to a covenanted and disciplined life through prayer and Bible groups. Otterbein's evangelical Pietist convictions radiate through the little gospel he preached in 1760 in Germantown before the Coetus (Sources 1760). In it, Otterbein detailed the human plight of sin and death, the good news of Christ's victory through the cross, the imperative of human response to God's gracious atoning act and of inner struggling to permit the Spirit to destroy the Satan within, the possibility of reaching assurance of one's new standing, and the life of holiness that Christ-in-us thereby makes possible and necessary. His call for repentance and summing up of the Christian way as one of "denial, inward renewal, and holiness" made clear to hearers and readers that Otterbein taught Reformed doctrine that eschewed hyper-Calvinist notions of predestination and made a significant place for human volition and responsibility. The same effort and discipline, insisted Otterbein, should inform the corporate life of the Christian community, much needed amidst the moral confusion characteristic of new communities. He therefore made provision in the churches with which he worked for small prayer, for Bible study groups, for the collegia pietatis, for the catechizing and schooling of children, and for a covenant to order the entire community. An example of the latter is "The Constitution and Ordinances of The Evangelical Reformed Church of Baltimore" (Sources 1785b).
During Otterbein's ministry in York and on one of his itinerations, he attended a "great meeting" near Neffsville in Lancaster County. The event, perhaps in 1767, a several-day ingathering, anticipatory of the later camp meetings, had been common in the colonial German community since the early 1720s (the site was Long's Barn, a UMC Heritage Landmark). The leader at this event was Martin Boehm (1725–1812), a Mennonite preacher whose evangelistic style, personal religious experience, and insistence on assurance resembled those of Otterbein. After hearing Boehm, Otterbein embraced him, announcing, "Wir sind Bruder!" Thus began an association that would eventuate in the United Brethren in Christ.
Boehm, a Swiss-German Mennonite, had been selected by lot as preacher in the late 1750s and made bishop in 1761 by his Lancaster County congregation. A farmer, Boehm received his training, not in the university like Otterbein, but through the traditioning of the Mennonite community. Believer's baptism, opposition to oaths and violence, a life lived out of the New Testament, and personal assurance through the Spirit defined Boehm. Like Otterbein, he itinerated, responding to pleas from Mennonite communities in Pennsylvania and Virginia. His evangelistic efforts yielded "revival" among the Mennonites but also controversy. Sometime in the late 1770s a Mennonite conference excommunicated him. Among its findings were "sins" of association and of insufficient stress on the sacraments. Boehm had wandered into patterns of expansive revivalism unsettling to more traditional Mennonites. Boehm's example and influence drew colleagues as well as adherents, and the movement gravitated into increasing contact with those of Otterbein and of early Methodism.
The further association of the communities around Otterbein and Boehm into protodenominational and denominational organization we will cover in chapter 4, but here we exhibit through the following historical statement from its Discipline the United Brethren's understanding of its beginnings.
Excerpted from The Methodist Experience in America Volume 1 by Russell E. Richey Copyright © 2010 by The United Methodist Publishing House. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.