American Methodist Anniversary


American Methodist Anniversary: From Baltimore into the Life Blood of a Nation

by Elliott Wright and Kevin Nelson

They rode from Baltimore in the first few days of 1785, around 60 mostly young preachers infused with missionary zeal and moving confidently into the lifeblood of a new nation. Over the previous nine days, they had organized the first national Protestant denomination in what was becoming--but was not quite yet--the United States of America.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, the forerunner of The United Methodist Church, came into being 225 years ago, at an event that adjourned on either January 2 or 3, 1785 (reports vary). The First "General Conference," beginning on the previous Christmas Eve, had set an independent course for American Methodism.

Sixty-four of 84 Methodist preachers in the former British colonies attended the "Christmas Conference" at the Lovely Lane Chapel, a small church long since relocated. They arrived as lay leaders of "Methodist societies," formally within the Church of England; when they left Baltimore, a dozen had been ordained as clergy. Their number would grow to 678 in 1813, when the Methodists numbered 214,307.

With an emphasis on God's free grace and human free will, Methodism was uniquely suited to the emerging democratic country. The Methodist Episcopal Church was the largest American Protestant church for decades and exerted a powerful influence on the national character. It set the standard for a correspondence between personal and social holiness--a vision linking individual responsibility, social religion, and public morality.

Celebrations of the 225th anniversary of the Christmas Conference were scattered this year, perhaps ironic at a time when The United Methodist Church in the US is seeking its way into the future as a dynamic force. The West Virginia Annual Conference did organize for the birthday, holding a conference observance on December 12. Some West Virginia districts marked the occasion. The Baltimore Washington Annual Conference had observed the anniversary at its 2009 session last summer. The Desert Southwest Annual Conference also commemorated the date.

Pointing the Course

For the church itself, the Christmas Conference set precedents and pointed courses that continue today in United Methodist polity and practice. Examples include:

  • The basic tenets of Methodism as set forth by founder John Wesley remain inviolate; these are found in the Articles of Religion (an adaptation by Wesley of the Thirty Articles of Anglicanism), Wesley's Standard Sermons, and Notes on the New Testament.
  • All candidates for ordination are elected and church policy decisions made by majority vote; leaders, such as bishops, are also elected.
  • The business of the geographical conferences is organized around a series of questions (later dropped for General Conferences but in effect for annual conferences).
  • Economic provisions are made for retired preachers and their dependents ("widows" and "orphans" in those days.)
  • The church makes rules for the conduct of clergy, including how they spend their time and organize their ministries.
  • Methodism is missionary in its heart and soul.

In Baltimore and for years afterward, the General Conference was composed of preachers; lay participation and lay votes were far in the future. And while especially responsive to Methodist theology, women would not engage in high-level decision making until well into the 20th century.

Background of the Christmas Conference

The impact of the Christmas Conference can hardly be understood apart from the political context, including the revolution of the colonies against British rule. It was part of a sorting out of American Methodism's relations with its own British roots.

Methodism emerged within the Church of England through the preaching of John Wesley and others in 18th century England. It flourished through "societies" that provided opportunities for religious education, spiritual development, and mutual ethical correction. It reflected a deep concern for the poor and neglected.

Sacramental observances remained in Anglican parishes. While a trajectory from separation from Anglicism can be tracked, it would be late in the life of Wesley before steps toward separation would be taken (he died in 1791).

Methodists found their way to North America in the 1760s, and in 1771 Wesley sent a small group of missionaries to the colonies. In 1773, there were 10 Methodist preachers and l,160 members of societies, mostly in the mid-Atlantic states and New York.

Virtually all Anglican clergy and many of the Methodist missionaries left with the revolution; after the war, few ministers were authorized to provide the sacraments to anyone. This concerned Wesley, who in 1784 took matters into his own hands and ordained two "elders" (or presbyters) for America and laid his hands on an Anglican priest, Dr. Thomas Coke, naming him "general superintendent" for America.

The three new arrivals rendezvoused in November of that year with Francis Asbury, one of the missionaries who had remained in the colonies, emerging as the leader of a growing group of lay preachers. Following the agenda of Asbury, the decision was made on November 14 at a gathering at Barratt's Chapel, in Delaware, to convene a conference of all the preachers in Baltimore in six weeks.

One of the young preachers, Freeborn Garrettson, was sent to round up the brethren, who duly gathered on December 24 in Lovely Lane Chapel, Baltimore, for long days of discussion on the future of their movement in America. For this occasion, backs had been added to the pews and a stove installed in the small meeting house.

The Christmas Conference was by no means the first gathering of American Methodist preachers. As far back as 1773, "the preachers in connection with the Rev. Mr. John Wesley" had met in clusters, often annually, usually under the chairmanship of Francis Asbury. In Baltimore, Asbury knew virtually all the men, but those from far separated places did not know one another. They found strong consensus in a shared evangelical faith.

"Wesley's Plan"

An initial item on the agenda was what has gone down in history as "Wesley's Plan" for the American church, although the document he sent via Coke is more like a general description of the Americans' situation than a clear organizational blueprint.

Wesley did call for the ordination of Asbury by Coke and the two other elders from England, Richard Whatcoat and George Vesey, and for the ordination of others. Asbury was to be a "co-superintendent" with Coke. However, Asbury declined to be ordained unless the conference elected him, as quickly happened.

Asbury was ordained deacon and elder on successive days and was then anointed a "general superintendent" in a service in which a local German Protestant pastor, Philip Ottenbein, joined in the laying on of hands. Otterbein was a founder in the US of what would become the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which in 1968 joined with The Methodist Church to form The United Methodist Church.

It was inevitable that the Methodist societies and the American preachers would seek distance both from the Church in England and, in a structural sense, from the Wesley organizational mantel. Asbury was more comfortable with the course of events than was Coke, who would travel to and from the young US over the following years.

Asbury had become thoroughly Americanized and had a strong affinity with democratic processes, which he happened to be a master at influencing. He had a decidedly unappreciative view of earlier Anglican treatments of Methodism and did not want to remain in that fold.

Asbury was not only a seminal American religious leader but also figured prominently in US nation-building, so much so that historian John Wigger calls him an "American saint," in a civic as well as religious sense, in a recent biography.

In keeping with the sentiment of John Wesley, the Christmas Conference adopted a strong resolution opposing slavery and projecting plans for emancipation. Unfortunately, the measure exerted limited influence in the southern states, and the ME Church would be torn asunder by the issue two generations later. There would be outreach to free Africans in the north (and some among slaves in the south), but discrimination would lead to separate black and white US Methodist movements from the second decade of the 19th century.

The Missionary Push in Baltimore

Early American Methodism, even before the Christmas Conference, was missionary in spirit and objective, as documented by the late historian Wade Crawford Barclay. Asbury arrived in the colonies as a missionary and never laid the role aside as he became organizer and administrator.

The preachers who left Baltimore for their circuits in early January 1785 knew themselves to be in mission. The early literature of the church often identifies the early clergy as itinerating missionaries in the expanding United States.

In Baltimore in 1784, the first tentative steps were taken toward what would later be called "foreign missions." Preachers were assigned to work in Antigua in the West Indies and Nova Scotia. James Lambert, the man appointed to Antigua, died before he could depart for the island; Freeborn Garrettson and James O. Cromwell arrived in Nova Scotia, which already had a small Methodist community.

These measures were taken primarily at the urging of Thomas Coke, who was vitally interested in international mission work and would himself serve as a missionary in the West Indies and later die while on his way to serve in India under British sponsorship.

The US-linked efforts in Nova Scotia would last for less than three years; Garrettson and Cromwell both returned to the US. Historians speculate that part of the reason was that Canada was still under British rule, making church life there different from that in the nation to the south. But Methodism would become well-planted in Nova Scotia.

Wherever their destinations, those 60 or so preachers who rode from Baltimore as the year 1785 opened went to missionize. Professor Dee E. Andrews, writing in The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800 (2000) notes that the Christmas Conference supplied ordination, a much needed ingredient, to what was "first and foremost a popular missionary movement."

(This is the second in a series of articles on the founding and missionary push of Methodism in the United States. Future entries will deal with the careers of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, and the roles of women and racial groups in early mission outreach.)

Elliott Wright is an author and consultant to the General Board of Global Ministries; Kevin Nelson is a staff member of the board.