Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Dark Salvation: Methodism Comes to America

As I spoke to my mother on the telephone this week, I shared with her some of the history of the Methodist circuit riders. She told me of a time when I was just a small child when Stroudsburg United Methodist Church had celebrated an anniversary of the denomination with an historical visit by a circuit rider.
What made you want to research the church's history, she asked.
Being raised in the United Methodist Church, I had never been taught the history of Methodism . . . not even in Confirmation classes. So, what would make me want to search for its formation in America when my research is focused on African American family and local history?

On our last visit with my husband's cousins following the 2009 George Family Reunion, Cousin Hattie said,
We were always Methodists. . . .

 Hattie is gone now. . . and I honor her memory by keeping my promise to tell the story.

CHAPTER III: Methodism Comes to America

When early local church histories are sketchy due to a lack of documents and living witnesses, we must go back further, to the origins in America. From this we can gain insight from well-documented narratives and diaries of ministers and lay leaders, and imagine how it might have played out in our particular locality.

The time frame is approximately one hundred years prior to the founding of the African American Episcopal Zion Church South of the County.

In 1760 a group of persons from Ireland arrived in New York City. They were of German descent, their ancestors having fled Germany a century before to escape religious persecution . . . . In the group . . . were two persons who were to play a large part in planting Methodism in America. One was Philip Embury, who had been a Methodist class leader and local preacher in Ireland, and the other was Barabara Heck, Embury's cousin . . . . Embury's home soon became too small for the numbers that attended. A room was rented, but after a year they undertook to build a "meeting house." Contributions were solicited. In the list of contributors there are the names of several Negro slaves . . . . The Society started in Embury's house eventually became the John Street Church in New York City, known as the mother church of Methodism. By 1795 there were 155 black members . . . . it was from this group of blacks that some members withdrew in 1801 to organize the African Chapel which eventually became the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion denomination (Richardson, pp. 36-37).
When missionary Francis Asbury arrived in America there were 600 Methodists in the colonies. Two years later there were 1,600. Three years after this in 1776, at the outbreak of the American Revolution, there were 4,921; in 1786, 20,689; and in 1800 there were 63,958. In 1771 there were ten traveling preachers; in 1800 there were nearly two hundred. The growth was neither automatic nor easy. It was due to tireless, sacrificial labors of the preachers . . . . These men at first were ordinary laymen, some of them poorly educated . . . . They preached in homes and churches, "meeting houses" or open fields. They preached on crowded streets or by country lanes; on jailhouse steps or, as in the case of Asbury, from a hangman's gallows after a public hanging. They preached to receptive crowds or in spite of attacks by brutal, violent mobs. They did this with little thought of personal safety or reward (pp. 37-38).
The chapter borrows freely from Abel Stevens' histories of the MEC, and the dramatic first-hand accounts of inter-racial worship illustrate the true spirit of Galatians 3:28: 

There is neither Jew nor Greek, 
there is neither bond nor free, 
there is neither male nor female: 
for ye are all one in Christ Jesus (KJV).

It was not until nearly a century later, following the invention of the cotton gin at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the severe Negro Codes began to deepen and broaden the racial dividing line in places of worship. The discontent which arose in the souls of blacks was largely what caused them to desire an end to segregation in the House of God, and to establish separate places of worship.

For additional reading:
Abel Stevens, History of the Religious Movement of the 18th Century (1858).
Abel Stevens, History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1866).
W. J. Walls, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (1974).

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