The American Revolutionary War presented a number of problems for the Methodist movement in America. The anti-British sentiment held by most Americans caused a significant drop in popularity and membership in the Methodist church, especially in the north. The pastors had been asked by Wesley to remain neutral in the conflict and to be peacemakers however possible. Unfortunately, this pacifism was regarded as being almost as bad as a Tory itself. This "if you're not with us you're against us" attitude caused all the pastors Wesley had sent over to return to England, all that is except for Francis Asbury1. Asbury didn't want to abandon the Americans. He saw desertion as "an eternal dishonour to the Methodists" and was able to stall the return to England of a few pastors with his loyalty to the cause2. Eventually only Asbury remained however, and it was pivotal that he did. Although he was prevented by the feelings at the time from preaching as openly as he would have liked, Asbury continued to aid and direct the growth and developement of the young church as ably as he could. In at least one instance he was able to prevent a major schism that would have ripped the church apart.
The Methodists believed, among other things, that the Sacraments such as baptism and Holy Communion could only be administered by ordained pastors. Because Methodism was not its own church but only a movement within the Church of England however, only the Church of England could ordain the pastors needed to administer the Sacraments and so consequentially the only pastors able to do so came from England. When the American Revolution broke out all the ordained pastors went back to England and there was no one left who could rightfully administer the Sacraments, Francis Asbury having not yet been ordained at the time3. In England John Wesley was slowly drawing to the conclusion that he could ordain pastors himself, but this was still a whiles off and no one in America was quite sure how to deal with the problem.
It was under these conditions that two annual conferences were held in 1779. One of them was an "irregular" session that met in Delaware at Asbury's sanctuary. This conference was made up of the northern pastors and placed Asbury as the general assistant in America4. The problems arose with the "regular" meeting that took place in Virginia. Asbury was not present at the conference or quite likely what was decided would have never been ratified. What the conference decided to do was to take the question of ordination into their own hands. A group of pastors ordained each other and the conference gave them the authority to administer the Sacraments. This represented a clean break with Wesley's Methodism on two counts, ordination by committee and the authorization given to those ordained to administer the Sacraments. When Asbury heard what the conference had decided he traveled to Virginia and convinced the pastors there to delay their decision until a letter could be sent to John Wesley and his opinion obtained5. In this way Asbury was able to keep the movement from splitting during an already trying time in its history.
Despite the general mood against Methodism during the War, Asbury was able to sustain and even increase his influence within the American conference. This would serve him in good stead after the War when interest from the British Conference was renewed.
|Early Methodism in America|
|Asbury's Early Life|
|Asbury before the Revolutionary War|
|Asbury during the Revolutionary War|
|Asbury after the Revolutionary War|
|Return to HIS338 Student Webpages|
1Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley
and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 259
2Frank Baker, From Wesley to Asbury (Durham: Duke University Press, 1976), 98
3Richard P. Heizenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 286
4James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 3
5James E. Kirby, Russell E. Richen, Kenneth E. Rowe, The Methodists Student Edition (Westport, London: Praeger,1998), 4