Wesleyan Wisdom: Some reflections on early American Methodism

Bishop Peter Weaver has written that in preparing the Episcopal Address for the 2012 General Conference, he read the first Donald HaynesEpiscopal Address, delivered by Bishop William McKendree 200 years ago. When I began writing the Wesleyan Wisdom column, I was advised to “go light on history,” but as Professor George Santayana of Harvard said in the 1930s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Another reason I must indulge you in some history of the early 19th century is the importance of precedent, and still another is a peek at the human side of giants like Bishops Asbury, Soule and McKendree.

Bishop Thomas Coke technically presided over the 1804 General Conference since he was “senior bishop,” though he had been removed from appointment-making in 1797 because Bishop Asbury insisted that he knew the territory better, which was true. In 1804 Coke left America for the last time. The General Conference voted in 1808 that he could not resume the duties and stature of a bishop in American Methodism unless he were invited to do so. Coke served two terms as president of the Wesleyan Conference in England, and later went to India as a self-supported missionary. He died at sea and was buried in the Indian Ocean in 1814.

Bishop Richard Whatcoat was elected to the episcopacy in 1800 to assist Bishop Asbury and died July 5, 1806 at age 62. Asbury wrote in November 1806, “Father Whatcoat, after thirteen weeks’ illness—gravel, stone, dysentery combined, died a martyr to pain in all patience and resignation to the will of God. May we, like him, if we live long, live well, and die like him.”

Prior to 1808 any ordained Elder could attend General Conference and be seated as a delegate. Since the Philadelphia and Baltimore annual conferences had two-thirds of the delegates at the General Conference of 1804, the connection realized a need for reducing the conference to elected clergy delegates; so the General Conference of 1808 convened in Baltimore on May 6 and adopted a formula for a “delegated conference.”

This conference is most famous for providing Methodism with its first constitution. The famous “Restrictive Rules” were adopted, two of which we note here. The first:

The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.

Before the Articles of Religion were adopted, General Conference in 1804 had changed the wording of loyalty to the United States by adding the word “Constitution” to replace the older “Act of Confederation,” which had been in effect since 1784. Writing in 1867 just after the Civil War, Abel Stevens reminded his readers, “It was in such circumstances that the Methodist Episcopal Church took its stand for the National Constitution. After the adoption of that Constitution, Methodism never doubted the sovereign nationality of the republic, and never had the unstatesmanlike folly to recognize any State right of secession. . . .”

Interestingly, though many people have said the church’s constitution was patterned after the nation’s, that is not correct. In the U.S. Constitution, only stated powers are given to the federal government with all other powers left to the states. The General Conference, however, was granted all powers except those prohibited by the General Rules! As for the “established standards of doctrine,” all have agreed this means Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, but lack of specificity has elicited much debate about what we believe!

Another Restrictive Rule of continuing importance regards the episcopacy:

They shall not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendency.

Until 1939, bishops were elected to serve wherever in the connection they were needed and appointed. Jurisdictions were the product of compromise between the southern and northern branches of episcopal Methodism in 1939.

The final momentous action of the 1808 GC was the election of William McKendree as bishop, to provide help for the aging Bishop Asbury. McKendree was elected on May 12, 1808 by 95 votes out of 128.

The first delegated General Conference convened in old John Street Church in New York on May 1, 1812. Bishop McKendree reported 190,000 members, 2,000 local preachers and 700 traveling preachers in all seventeen U.S. states and several territories. Membership had doubled in four years! There were two debates: one over electing Presiding Elders rather than the bishop appointing them; the other over whether to ordain local preachers where the official services of an Elder might be necessary. The motion to elect Presiding Elders failed and would be subsequently debated until 1828 when the reform movement bolted to form the Methodist Protestant Church. However, the motion to ordain local deacons to the order of Elder passed.

On the fourth day of the 1812 conference, Bishop McKendree, definitely the “junior” in age and influence to Bishop Asbury, delivered what we know as the first Episcopal Address—to the surprise, dismay, and disdain of Asbury.

Bishop Holland McTyeire’s History of Methodism (1876) notes that Bishop Asbury had been trained in the English Wesleyan school where sessions were not conducted very strictly by parliamentary rules. The book then quotes the journal of a man who attended the conference:

“McKendree’s address was read in Conference but as it was a new thing the aged Bishop (Asbury) rose to his feet immediately after the paper was read and addressed the junior bishop to the following effect: ‘I have something to say to you before the Conference.’ The junior also rose to his feet, and they stood face to face. Bishop Asbury went on to say, ‘This is a new thing. I never did business in this way and why is this new thing introduced?’ The junior bishop promptly replied: ‘You are our father, we are your sons; you never have had the need of it. I am only a brother, and have need of it.’ Bishop Asbury said no more, but sat down with a smile on his face. The scene is now before me. I believe the Bishops have pursued the plan ever since.”

It was Bishop Asbury’s final General Conference. His last annual conference was in Lebanon, Tenn., in October 1815. (Annual conferences were set by the bishops at a time when they could be in that area.) During the winter and spring of 1816, his appearance was described as more like a skeleton than a man. He traveled by carriage because he could no longer sit astride a horse, but he still traveled and actually preached in Richmond, Va. on March 24 of that year. He had to stop often to catch his breath, but preached for an hour on Romans 9:28. It was his last public testimony.

Pressing on to speak at the 1816 General Conference, Asbury got as far as Spotsylvania Court House and the home of his old friend, George Arnold. They wanted to call a physician but he objected. On Sunday morning, March 31, he asked the Arnold family to come into his room for worship. The Rev. J.W. Bond preached from Revelation 21. Bond asked the bishop if he felt the Lord Jesus Christ to be precious and the dying patriarch raised both hands. Then he breathed his last.

At General Conference, Bishop McKendree preached during a funeral service and the members of the conference walked behind the coffin to Eutaw Street Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore where Asbury was buried under the pulpit platform. Forty years later his remains were moved to Mt. Olivet Cemetery.

Asbury’s vision and energy was to American Methodism what John Wesley was to British Methodism, but he had a vastly different vision for polity. He was perhaps the most widely known man in the United States, receiving his mail addressed simply, “Bishop Asbury, America.” He traveled on horseback, sometimes on wilderness trails, totaling enough mileage every five years to go around the world. He averaged preaching or exhorting once a day from age 17 until his death at 71. He presided over 234 annual conferences and ordained about 4,000 clergy.

A statue of Asbury at 16th and Mt. Pleasant Streets in Washington, D.C., shows him mounted on horseback. The figure wears a broad-brimmed hat and high-collared cape pulled up to the neck for protection from foul weather. His boots and the horse’s legs are covered in mud. His eyes burn with intensity, vision and focus like those of an Old Testament prophet—looking beyond the elements and foreboding mountains because he sees a new nation, a mission field not yet brought to Christ, lost and dispossessed people awaiting the gospel of Arminian grace.

In dedictating the statue in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge, a Congregationalist, said:

“A great lesson has been taught us by this holy life. It was because of what Bishop Asbury and his associates preached . . . that our country has developed so much freedom and contributed so much to the civilization of the world. . . . How many temples of worship dot our landscape; how many institutions of learning, some of them rejoicing in the name of Wesley, all trace the inspiration of their existence to the sacrifice and service of this lone circuit rider! He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.”

In his first year in America, Asbury wrote, “. . . I am fixed to the Methodist plan, and do what I do faithfully as to God.” He was authoritarian to the core. Had he been more flexible for worshipping in German, the Evangelical and Brethren Churches might never have been separately formed. Had he been more courageous as a prophet, the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches might never have seen independence as necessary in 1816 and 1820. Had he been more open to democratic reform, Bishop Joshua Soule might not have created a climate that drove the Methodist Protestants to separate in 1828. The blessings of Asbury’s legacy are immeasurable and literally incredible, but as one of his successors, Bishop Bevel Jones, often said of people, “Your strength has become your weakness.”

As it was in 1812 when the first Episcopal Address was given, so it is now. Our forebears did not have need of the “new things” to which God is calling us in 2012. And yet God heard them then, and even now hears “God’s people cry.

Let us say, “Here I am Lord. . . .”


Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference and the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com


Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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