Leonard Woolsey Bacon.

A history of American Christianity online

. (page 17 of 34)
Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 17 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

was to rest with him." ^ Questions of the utmost difficulty
and of vital importance arose in the first years of the
American itinerancy. They could not have been decided
so wisely for the country and the universal church if As-
bury, seeming to govern the ministry and membership of
the Society, had not studied to be governed by them. In
spite of the sturdy dictum of Wesley, " We are not repub-
licans, and do not intend to be," the salutary and necessary
change had already begun which was to accommodate his
institutes in practice, and eventually in form, to the habits
and requirements of a free people.

The center of gravity of the Methodist Society, begin-
ning at New York, moved rapidly southward. Boston
had been the metropolis of the Congregationalist churches ;
New York, of the Episcopahans ; Philadelphia, of the
Quakers and the Presbyterians; and Baltimore, latest and
southernmost of the large colonial cities, became, for a
time, the headquarters of Methodism. Accessions to the
Society in that region were more in number and stronger
in wealth and social influence than in more northern com-
munities. It was at Baltimore that Asbury fixed his resi-
dence — so far as a Methodist bishop, ranging the country
with incessant and untiring diligence, could be said to have
a fixed residence.

The record of the successive annual conferences of the
Methodists gives a gauge of their increase. At the first,
in 1773, at Philadelphia, there were reported 1 160 members
and 10 preachers, not one of these a native of America.

1 Dr. J. M. Buckley, " The Methodists," p. l8l.


At the second annual conference, in Philadelphia, there
were reported 2073 members and 17 preachers.

The third annual conference sat at Philadelphia in 1775,
simultaneously with the Continental Congress. It was the
beginning of the war. There were reported 3148 mem-
bers. Some of the foremost preachers had gone back to
England, unable to carry on their work without being
compelled to compromise their royalist principles. The
preachers reporting were 19. Of the membership nearly
2500 were south of Philadelphia — about eighty per cent.

At the fourth annual conference, at Baltimore, in 1776,
were reported 4921 members and 24 preachers.

At the fifth annual conference, in Harford County,
Maryland, were reported 6968 members and 36 preachers.
This was in the thick of the war. More of the leading
preachers, sympathizing with the royal cause, were going
home to England. The Methodists as a body were sub-
ject to not unreasonable suspicion of being disaffected to
the cause of independence. Their preachers were princi-
pally Englishmen with British sympathies. The whole
order was dominated and its property controlled by an
offensively outspoken Tory of the Dr. Johnson type.^ It
was natural enough that in their public work they should
be liable to annoyance, mob violence, and military arrest.
Even Asbury, a man of proved American sympathies,
found it necessary to retire for a time from public activity.

In these circumstances, it is no wonder that at the con-
ference of 1778, at Leesburg, Va., at which five circuits in
the most disturbed regions were unrepresented, there was
a decline in numbers. The members were fewer by 873 ;
the preachers fewer by 7.

But it is really wonderful that the next year (1779)

1 The attitude of Wesley toward the American cause is set forth with
judicial fairness by Dr. Buckley, pp. 158-168.


were reported extensive revivals in all parts not directly
affected by the war, and an increase of 2482 members and
49 preachers. The distribution of the membership was
very remarkable. At this time, and for many years after,
there was no organized Methodism in New England. New
York, being occupied by the invading army, sent no report.
Of the total reported membership of 8577, 140 are credited
to New Jersey, 179 to Pennsylvania, 795 to Delaware, and
900 to Maryland. Nearly all the remainder, about eighty
per cent, of the whole, was included in Virginia and North
Carolina. With the exception of 319 persons, the entire
reported membership of the Methodist societies lived south
of Mason and Dixon's line. The fact throws an honorable
Hght on some incidents of the early history of this great
order of preachers.

In the sixteen years from the meeting in Philip Em-
bury's house to the end of the War of Independence the
membership of the Methodist societies grew to about
12,000, served by about 70 itinerant preachers. It was a
very vital and active membership, including a large num-
ber of " local preachers" and exhorters. The societies
and classes were eflfectively organized and officered for
aggressive work ; and they were planted, for the most part,
in the regions most destitute of Christian institutions.

Parallel with the course of the gospel, we trace in every
period the course of those antichristian influences with
which the gospel is in conflict. The system of slavery
must continue, through many sorrowful years, to be in view
from the line of our studies. We shall know it by the
unceasing protest made against it in the name of the Lord.
The arguments of John Woolman and Anthony Benezet
were sustained by the yearly meetings of the Friends. At
Newport, the chief center of the African slave-trade, the


two Congiegational pastors, Samuel Hopkins, the theolo-
gian, and the erudite Ezra Stiles, afterward president of
Yale College, mutually opposed in theology and contrasted
at every point of natural character, were at one in boldly
opposing the business by which their parishioners had been
enriched.^ The deepening of the conflict for political lib-
erty pointed the application of the golden rule in the case
of the slaves. The antislavery literature of the period in-
cludes a printed sermon that had been preached by the
distinguished Dr. Levi Hart " to the corporation of free-
men " of his native town of Farmington, Conn., at their
autumnal town-meeting in 1774; and the poem on " Slav-
ery," published in 1775 by that fine character, Aaron
Cleveland,^ of Norwich, hatter, poet, legislator, and minis-
ter of the gospel. Among the Presbyterians of New Jer-
sey, the father of Dr. Ashbel Green took the extreme
ground which was taken by Dr. Hopkins's church in i 784,
that no person holding a slave should be permitted to re-
main in the communion of the church.^ In 1774 the first
society in the world for the abolition of slavery was organ-
ized among the Friends in Pennsylvania, to be followed
by others, making a continuous series of abohtion socie-
ties from New England to Maryland and Virginia. But
the great antislavery society of the period in question was

1 A full account of Hopkins's long- sustained activity against both slav-
ery and the slave-trade is given in Park's " Memoir of Hopkins," pp. 114-
157. His sermons on the subject began in 1770. His monumental " Dia-
logue Concerning the Slavery of the Africans, with an Address to Slave-
holders," was published in 1776. For additional information as to the anti-
slavery attitude of the church at this period, and especially that of Stiles, see
review of " The Minister's Wooing," by L. Bacon (" New Englander," vol.
xviii., p. 145).

2 I have not been able to find a copy of this poem, the character of which,
however, is well known. The son of Aaron Cleveland, William, was a
silversmith at Norwich, among whose grandsons may be named President
Grover Cleveland, and Aaron Cleveland Cox, later known as Bishop Arthur
Cleveland Coxe.

3 Dr. A. Green's Life of his father, in " Monthly Christian Advocate,"


the Methodist Society. Laboring through the War of In-
dependence mainly in the Southern States, it publicly de-
clared, in the conference of 1 780, " that slavery is contrary
to the laws of God, man, and nature, and hurtful to soci-
ety ; contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure reli-
gion, and doing that which we would not that others should
do to us and ours." The discipline of the body of itiner-
ants was conducted rigorously in accordance with this dec-

It must not be supposed that the instances here cited
represent exceptions to the general course of opinion in
the church of those times. They are simply expressions
of the universal judgment of those whose attention had
been seriously fixed upon the subject. There appears no
evidence of the existence of a contrary sentiment. The
first beginnings of a party in the church in opposition to
the common judgment of the Christian conscience on the
subject of slavery are to be referred to a comparatively
very recent date.

Another of the great conflicts of the modern church was
impending. But it was only to prophetic minds in the
middle of the eighteenth century that it was visible in the
greatness of its proportions. The vice of drunkenness,
which Isaiah had denounced in Samaria and Paul had de-
nounced at Ephesus, was growing insensibly, since the in-
troduction of distilled liquors as a common beverage, to a
fatal prevalence. The trustees of the charitable colony of
Georgia, consciously laying the foundations of many gen-
erations, endeavored to provide for the welfare of the
nascent State by forbidding at once the importation of
negro slaves and of spirituous liquors ; but the salutary
interdict was soon nullified in the interest of the crops and
of the trade with the Indians. Dr. Hopkins " inculcated,
at a very early day, the duty of entire abstinence from


intoxicating liquids as a beverage." ^ But, as in the con-
flict with slavery, so in this conflict, the priority of leader-
ship belongs easily to Wesley and his itinerants. The
conference of 1783 declared against permitting the con-
verts " to make spirituous liquors, sell and drink them in
drams," as " wrong in its nature and consequences." To
this course they were committed long in advance by the
" General Rules " set forth by the two Wesleys in May,
1743, for the guidance of the " United Societies." 2

An incident of the times immediately preceding the War
of Independence requires to be noted in this place, not as
being of great importance in itself, but as characteristic of
the condition of the country and prophetic of changes that
were about to take place. During the decade from 1 76b
to 1775 the national body of the Presbyterians — the now
reunited synod of New York and Philadelphia — and the
General Association of the Congregational pastors of Con-
necticut met together by their representatives in annual
convention to take counsel over a grave peril that seemed
to be impending. A petition had been urgently pressed,
in behalf of the American Episcopalians, for the establish-
ment of bishops in the colonies under the authority of the
Church of England. The reasons for this measure were
obvious and weighty ; and the protestations of those who
promoted it, that they sought no advantage before the
law over their fellow- Christians, were doubtless sincere.
Nevertheless, the fear that the bringing in of Church of
England bishops would involve the bringing in of many
of those mischiefs of the English church establishment
which neither they nor their fathers had been able to bear
was a perfectly reasonable fear both to the Puritans of
New England and to the Presbyterians from Ireland, It

1 Park, " Memoir of Hopkins," p. 1 12.

2 Buckley, "The Methodists," Appendix, pp. 688, 689.


was difficult for these, and it would have been even more
difficult for the new dignitaries, in colonial days, to under-
stand how bishops could be anything but lord bishops.
The fear of such results was not confined to ecclesiastics.
The movement was felt by the colonial statesmen to be
dangerously akin to other British encroachments on colo-
nial rights. The Massachusetts Assembly instructed its
agent in London strenuously to oppose it. In Virginia,
the Episcopalian clergy themselves at first refused to con-
cur in the petition for bishops ; and when at last the con-
currence was voted, it was in the face of a formal protest
of four of the clergy, for which they received a vote of
thanks from the House of Burgesses.^

The alliance thus occasioned between the national
synod of the Presbyterian Church and the Congregation-
alist clergy of the httle colony of Connecticut seems Hke a
disproportioned one. And so it was indeed ; for the
Connecticut General Association was by far the larger
and stronger body of the two. By and by the dispropor-
tion was inverted, and the alliance continued, with notable

1 See Tiffany, " Protestant Episcopal Church," pp. 267-278, where the
subject is treated fully and with characteristic fairness.



Seven years of war left the American people exhausted,
impoverished, disorganized, conscious of having come into
possession of a national existence, and stirred with anxious
searchings of heart over the question what new institutions
should succeed to those overthrown in the struggle for

Like questions pervaded the commonwealth of American
Christians through all its divisions. The interconfessional
divisions of the body ecclesiastic were about to prove
themselves a more effectual bar to union than the political
and territorial divisions of the body politic. The religious
divisions were nearly equal in number to the poHtical.
Naming them in the order in which they had settled
themselves on the soil of the new nation, they were as fol-
lows : I. The Protestant Episcopalians; 2. The Reformed
Dutch; 3. The Congregationalists ; 4. The Roman Catho-
lics; 5. The Friends; 6. The Baptists; 7. The Presbyteri-
ans; 8. The Methodists; to which must be added three
sects which up to this time had almost exclusively to do
with the German language and the German immigrant
population, to wit, 9. The German Reformed; 10. The
Lutherans; 11. The Moravians. Some of these, as the
Congregationalists and the Baptists, were of so simple and


elastic a polity, so self-adaptive to whatever new environ-
ment, as to require no effort to adjust themselves. Others,
as the Dutch and the Presbyterians, had alread}- organized
themselves as independent of foreign spiritual jurisdiction.
Others still, as the German Reformed, the Moravians, and
the Quakers, were content to remain for years to come in
a relation of subordination to foreign centers of organiza-
tion. But there were three communions, of great pro-
spective importance, which found it necessary to address
themselves to the task of reorganization to suit the changed
political conditions. These were the Episcopalians, the
Catholics, and the Methodists.

In one respect all the various orders of churches were
alike. They had all suffered from the waste and damage
of war. Pastors and missionaries had been driven from
their cures, congregations had been scattered, houses of
worship had been desecrated or destroyed. The Episco-
I palian and Methodist ministers were generally Tories, and

' their churches, and in some instances their persons, were

not spared by the patriots. The Friends and the Mora-
vians, principled against taking active part in warfare, were
exposed to aggressions from both sides. All other sects
were safely presumed to be in earnest sympathy with the
cause of independence, which many of their pastors actively
served as chaplains or as combatants, or in other ways ;
wherever the British troops held the ground, their churches
were the object of spite. Nor were these the chief losses
by the war. More grievous still were the death of the
strong men and the young men of the churches, the de-
moralization of camp life, and, as the war advanced, the
infection of the current fashions of unbelief from the offi-
cers both of the French and of the British armies. The
prevalent diathesis of the American church in all its sects
was one of spiritual torpor, from which, however, it soon


began to be aroused as the grave exigencies of the situa-
tion disclosed themselves.

Perhaps no one of the Christian organizations of Amer-
ica came out of the war in a more forlorn condition than
the Episcopalians. This condition was thus described by-
Bishop White, in an official charge to his clergy at Phila-
delphia in 1832 :

" The congregations of our communion throughout the
United States were approaching annihilation. Although
within this city three Episcopal clergymen were resident
and officiating, the churches over the rest of the State had
become deprived of their clergy during the war, either by
death or by departure for England. In the Eastern States,
with two or three exceptions, there was a cessation of the
exercises of the pulpit, owing to the necessary disuse of
the prayers for the former civil rulers. In Maryland and
Virginia, where the church had enjoyed civil establishments,
on the ceasing of these, the incumbents of the parishes,
almost without exception, ceased to officiate. Farther
south the condition of the church was not better, to say
the least." ^

This extreme feebleness of Episcopalianism in the sev-
eral States conspired with the tendencies of the time in
civil affairs to induce upon the new organization a charac-
ter not at all conformed to the ideal of episcopal govern-
ment. Instead of establishing as the unit of organization
the bishop in every principal town, governing his diocese
at the head of his clergy with some measure of authority,
it was almost a necessity of the time to constitute dioceses
as big as kingdoms, and then to take security against ex-

1 Quoted in Tiffany, p. 289, note. The extreme depression of the Prot-
estant Episcopal and (as will soon appear) of the Roman Catholic Church,
at this point of time, emphasizes all the more the great advances made by
both these communions from this time forward.


cess of power in the diocesan by overslaughing his author-
ity through exorbitant powers conferred upon a periodical
mixed synod, legislating for a whole continent, even in
matters confessedly variable and unessential. In the later
evolution of the system, this superior limitation of the
bishop's powers is supplemented from below by magnify-
ing the authority of representative bodies, diocesan and
parochial, until the work of the bishop is reduced as nearly
as possible to the merely " ministerial " performance of
certain assigned functions according to prescribed direc-
tions. Concerning this frame of government it is to be
remarked : i. That it was quite consciously and confessedly
devised for the government of a sect, with the full and
fraternal understanding that other " rehgious denomina-
tions of Christians " (to use the favorite American euphe-
mism) " were left at full and equal liberty to model and
organize their respective churches " to suit themselves.^

2. That, judged according to its professed purpose, it has
proved itself a practically good and effective government.

3. That it is in no proper sense of the word an episcopal
government, but rather a classical and synodical govern-
ment, according to the common type of the American
church constitutions of the period.'

The objections which only a few years before had with-
stood the importation into the colonies of lord bishops,
with the English common and canon law at their backs,
vanished entirely before the proposal for the harmless
functionaries provided for in the new constitution. John
Adams himself, a leader of the former opposition, now, as
American minister in London, did his best to secure for

1 Preface to the American " Book of Common Prayer," 1789.

2 See the critical observations of Dr. McConnell, ' ' H istory of the American
Episcopal Church," pp. 264-276. The polity of this church seems to have
suffered for want of a States' Rights and Strict Construction party. The
centrifugal force has been overbalanced by the centripetal.


Bishops-elect White and Provoost the coveted consecra-
tion from English bishops. The only hindrance now to
this long-desired boon was in the supercilious dilatoriness
of the English prelates and of the civil authorities to whom
they were subordinate. They were evidently in a sulky
temper over the overwhelming defeat of the British arms.
If it had been in their power to blockade effectively the
channels of sacramental grace, there is no sign that they
would have consented to the American petition. Happily
there were other courses open. i. There was the recourse
to presbyterial ordination, an expedient sanctioned, when
necessary, by the authority of "the judicious Hooker,"
and actually recommended, if the case should require, by
the Rev. William White, soon to be consecrated as one of
the first American bishops. 2. Already for more than a
half-century the Moravian episcopate had been present and
most apostolically active in America. 3. The Lutheran
Episcopal churches of Denmark and Sweden were fully
competent and known to be not unwilling to confer the
episcopal succession on the American candidates. 4. There
were the Scotch nonjuring bishops, outlawed for political
reasons from communion with the English church, who
were tending their " persecuted remnant " of a flock in
Scotland. Theirs was a not less valid succession than those
of their better-provided English brethren, and fully as hon-
orable a history. It was due to the separate initiative of
the Episcopalian ministers of Connecticut, and to the per-
sistence of their bishop-elect, Samuel Seabury, that the
deadlock imposed by the Englishmen was broken. In-
heriting the Puritan spirit, which sought 2i jus divinum in
all church questions, they were men of deeper convictions
and " higher " principles than their more southern brethren.
In advance of the plans for national organization, without
conferring with flesh and blood, they had met and acted,


and their candidate for consecration was in London urging
his claims, before the ministers in the Middle States had
any knowledge of what was doing. After a year of costly
and vexatious delay in London, finding no progress made
and no hope of any, he proceeded to Aberdeen and was
consecrated bishop November 14, 1 784. It was more than
two years longer before the English bishops succeeded in
finding a way to do what their unrecognized Scotch breth-
ren had done with small demur. But they did find it.
So long as the Americans seemed dependent on English
consecration they could not get it. When at last it was
made quite plain that they could and would do without it
if necessary, they were more than welcome to it. Dr.
White for Pennsylvania, and Dr. Provoost for New York,
were consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the
chapel of Lambeth Palace, February 4, 1 787. Dr. Griffith,
elected for Virginia, failed to be present ; in all that
great diocese there was not interest enough felt in the
matter to raise the money to pay his passage to England
and back.

The American Episcopal Church was at last in a condi-
tion to live. Some formidable dangers of division arising
from the double derivation of the episcopate were happily
averted by the tact and statesmanship of Bishop White,
and liturgical changes incidental to the reconstitution of
the church were made, on the whole with cautious judg-
ment and good taste, and successfully introduced. But
for many years the church lived only a languishing life.
Bishop Provoost of New York, after fourteen years of ser-
vice, demitted his functions in 1801, discouraged about
the continuance of the church. He " thought it would
die out with the old colonial families." ' The large pros-
perity of this church dates only from the second decade of

1 Tiffany, pp. 385-399-


this century. It is the more notable for the brief time in
which so much has been accompHshed.

The difficulties in the way of the organization of the
Catholic Church for the United States were not less seri-
ous, and were overcome with equal success, but not with-
out a prolonged struggle against opposition from within.
It is not easy for us, in view either of the antecedent or of
the subsequent history, to realize the extreme feebleness
of American CathoHcism at the birth of our nation. Ac-
cording to an official " Relation on the State of Religion in
the United States," presented by the prefect apostolic in

Online LibraryLeonard Woolsey BaconA history of American Christianity → online text (page 17 of 34)