|U.S. Methodists set course with nation 225 years ago|
Artist Thomas Coke Ruckle drew this picture of the Lovely Lane Meeting
UMNS Photo courtesy of www.lovelylane.net.
A UMNS Report
By Elliott Wright and Kevin Nelson*
Jan. 8, 2010
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, the Methodist Episcopal Church, in what was
becoming the United States of America.
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. By the meeting’s adjournment on either Jan.
2 or 3, 1785, they had set an independent course for American
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
In Baltimore and for years afterward, the General Conference was
composed of preachers; lay participation and lay votes were far in the
future. Women would not engage in high-level decision making until well
into the 20th century.
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.
Virtually all Anglican clergy and many Methodist missionaries in the
colonies left with the revolution. After the war, few ministers were
authorized to provide the sacraments to anyone.
This concerned John Wesley, who in 1784 took matters into his own
hands and ordained two "elders” for America. Wesley laid his hands on an
Anglican priest, Thomas Coke, naming him "general superintendent" for
The three new arrivals met in November of that year with Francis
Asbury, one of the missionaries who had remained in the colonies. They
decided to convene the Christmas Conference.
The brethren gathered on Dec. 24 in Lovely Lane Chapel for long days
of discussion on the future of their movement in America.
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.
Asbury was to be a "co-superintendent" with Coke, but he 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 United States 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 mantle. Asbury was more
comfortable with the course of events than was Coke, who would travel
to and from the young United States over the following years.
Asbury 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.
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 Methodist Episcopal 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 U.S.
Methodist movements from the second decade of the 19th century.
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 also knew themselves to be in mission.
*Wright is an author and consultant to the United Methodist Board of
Global Ministries; Nelson is a board staff member.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Methodists mark defining moment in church history
Got a Methodist question? Go to Archives and History
Board of Global Ministries
Commission on Archives and History
will be moderated. Please see our Comment Policy
for more information.