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U.S. Methodists set course with nation 225 years ago

Artist Thomas Coke Ruckle drew this 
picture of the Lovely Lane Meeting House in Baltimore.
Artist Thomas Coke Ruckle drew this picture of the Lovely Lane Meeting House.
UMNS Photo courtesy of www.lovelylane.net.

A UMNS Report
By Elliott Wright and Kevin Nelson*
Jan. 8, 2010

John Wesley
John Wesley

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 Methodism.

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.

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.

Francis Asbury

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 America.

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.

'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.

Thomas Coke

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.

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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 newsdesk@umcom.org.

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