Roger Strawbridge brought the Methodist movement to America in 1760. He was a local Methodist preacher from Drumsna, Ireland who settled in Sam’s Creek, Maryland. Ireland had been a stronghold of the British Methodist movement.1
At Sam’s Creek, Strawbridge “started a revival” and “built a log-cabin church”.2 He formed a Methodist Society and began evangelizing. His ministry produced other Methodist Societies.
Philip Embury preached and started a Methodist Society in 1765.3 He was a lay leader4 from Ireland who had settled in New York. However, upon his arrival, he joined the Lutheran Church. At the urging of his cousin, Barbara Heck, he resumed preaching and started the society.5
Captain Thomas Webb6, a British army officer7 and veteran of Braddock’s army, preached in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1767.8 There he started Methodist Societies.9 He contacted John Wesley with news of what was happening in America [as a result of Methodist preaching] and requested help. At the [Methodist] Conference of 1769 [in Britain], Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor volunteered to go to America [to preach].
Francis Asbury came to America in 1771. He was a Methodist preacher from Handsworth near Birmingham10 who was devoted to “the principles of Wesleyan theology, ministry and organization”.11 He came to America in response to a second request for help. The other preachers Wesley had sent to America returned to Britain during the Revolutionary War. Only Asbury remained in America.12
The first Methodist Conference in America was held in Philadelphia in 1773. Thomas Rankin presided over the conference. Rankin had been appointed “superintendent of the entire work of Methodism in America”. About 1,160 Methodists attended the conference. Ten of those attendees were ministers.13
The Methodist Episcopal Church14 was organized in America at the Baltimore Christmas Conference of 1784. Francis Asbury and Richard Wright had been commissioned by Wesley to “effect the organization”. The Conference adopted the commission that read,
“We believe that God’s design in raising up the preachers called Methodists in America is to reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness over these lands”.15
Wesley had appointed Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as Superintendents in America. At the Baltimore Christmas Conference they were consecrated to the office of bishop. This established the Methodist Episcopal Church as a body separate from and independent of the Methodist movement in Britain.16
The afore-mentioned preachers of the Methodist movement in Britain brought Methodist doctrines to America. Captain Webb, who preached the first recorded Methodist sermon in the United States, preached sanctification and receiving the Holy Ghost. He preached,
“The words of the text were written by the Apostles after the act of justification had passed on them. But you see, my friends, this was not enough for them. They must receive the Holy Ghost after this. So must you. You must be sanctified. But you are not. You are only Christians in part. You have not received the Holy Ghost. I know it. I can feel your spirits hanging around me like so much dead flesh.”
Francis Asbury was also committed to the doctrine of holiness. He wrote in his Journal the only type of preaching that proved effective was that which “presses the use of means, and urges holiness of heart…I have found by secret search that I have not preached sanctification as I should have done. If I am restored, this shall be my theme more pointedly than ever.” The latter statement was written during an illness.17
The Methodist movement in America grew faster in Virginia than anywhere else in America. Its “stronghold” was Bath Parish in Brunswick County. Anglican rector Devereaux Jarratt was the parish’s pastor. He was in full cooperation with Methodist Societies in his parish. Robert Williams, a Methodist preacher, was the pastor of the societies. By 1776, Virginia contained one-half of all Methodists in America. “Prayer, praise and conversing about God” had replaced a lot of the “drunkenness, cursing, swearing and fighting” that had characterized Virginia before 1773.
From Virginia, the Methodist movement spread over the entire continent of North America. The movement appealed to the “poor and disinherited”. It promoted the idea that persons could attain [Christian] perfection in this life. The movement was a “heart religion” that “served the common man”. It was characterized by “warmth, feeling, experience and morality”. This “heart religion” as Wesley referred to it, was in contrast to religion characterized by rigid creeds, strict liturgy and “ironclad institutionalism”.
Jesse Lee, a Virginia Methodist preacher, brought Methodist doctrines to New England. New England Calvinists sternly opposed it. One Congregationalist minister commented,
“They are constantly mingling with the people, and enter into all their feelings, wishes and wants; and their discourses are on the level with the capacity of their hearers, and addressed to their understanding and feelings, and produce a thrilling effect, while our discourses shoot over their heads and they remain unaffected…They reach a large class of people that we do not. The ignorant, the drunken, the profane, listen to their homespun, but zealous…discourses…”18
New England was a Calvinist stronghold. Most Protestants who colonized North America in the seventeenth century were Calvinists. In particular, Scottish and Dutch colonists organized Presbyterian and Reformed churches in America. Modified Calvinists who came to America, in particular, Separatists an English Puritans also had great influence.19 George Whitefield came to New England in September 1740. His six-week preaching tour “resulted in the most general awakening the American colonies had yet experienced”.20 Prior to Whitefield’s coming, Jonathan Edwards brought revival to Northampton, Massachusetts in 1735. Edwards was also a Calvinist.21
However, Calvinistic revivalism “made only a limited appeal”. It was aristocratic. Methodist preaching was democratic.22 John Calvin “had a very low opinion of the common man”. His “spiritual children” [Calvinists] shared his views on this matter. “Early New England fathers” made it their business to see to it that only “the ‘elect’, the chosen of God, controlled in both church and state”.23
When Jesse Lee brought Methodist doctrine to New England, he penetrated a Calvinist stronghold. This was something the Methodist movement in Britain had failed to do. It had not been able to “gain much ground” in Scotland,24 another Calvinist stronghold.25
In America, Methodists led the way for independence of worship and forms of worship. The “volatile and emotional style” of Methodist worship appealed to frontiersmen. Methodist preachers penetrated the frontier preaching “fire and brimstone” and urging converts to “go on to perfection”.26
As the Methodist movement moved South and West, itinerant Methodist preachers carried the Methodist Book Concern. Established in 1789, Methodist preachers carried this Christian literature in their saddlebags. Methodist Book Concern “followed the ‘march’ of the American empire South and West”.27
Edward Dromgoole, Benjamin Lakin and James Gilruth preached holiness in Ohio. John Haggerty preached sanctification in Maryland. In 1805, Dromgoole’s preaching also resulted in the sanctification of the majority of 1500-2000 Methodists in Georgia. Peter Cartwright preached holiness in Illinois.28
General Conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church, held quadrennially, “set the main course for the church”.29 During the Methodist General Conferences of 1824 and 1832, “urgent calls were given” to emphasize holiness. Methodist bishops stated, “If Methodists give up the doctrine of entire sanctification or suffer it to become a dead letter, we are a fallen people.” Methodist doctrine began to permeate the nation through literature and “the lecture platform”.
In 1839, Timothy Merritt founded The Guide to Christian Perfection in Boston. This was the “first periodical in America devoted exclusively to holiness doctrine”. This periodical’s name was later changed to The Guide to Holiness.30
Phoebe Palmer became a leading proponent of holiness between 1835 and 1839. After being sanctified in 1835, she preached instantaneous sanctification by Holy Ghost baptism. She held Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness. Sarah A. Lankford, Phoebe’s sister, had previously conducted these meetings. Phoebe became the leader of these meetings around 1839.
Methodist bishops and pastors sat under Phoebe’s ministry. Methodist bishops to whom she ministered include Edmund S. James, Leonidas L. Hamline, Jesse T. Peck and Matthew Simpson. Phoebe was also an “advocate of [women’s] right to minister”.31 In 1865, Phoebe and her husband, physician Walter Palmer, purchased The Guide to Holiness. Their publication ministry influenced the Methodist Episcopal Church and other American Protestants.
Between 1832 and 1840, Methodist pastors and theologians studied John Wesley’s writings. By 1840, the Methodist Episcopal Church was flooded with teaching on Christian perfection. Concerning this Vinson Synan wrote, “By 1840 perfectionism was becoming one of the central themes of American social, intellectual and religious life.” However, the preaching of Christian perfection in America was not confined to the Methodist Episcopal Church.32
Charles G. Finney began preaching entire sanctification in 1836. After studying Christian doctrine, he became convinced “entire sanctification was possible in this life”. This study included John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection. To Finney and other Oberlin College faculty members such as Asa Mahan, “’perfection’ meant perfect trust and consecration, the experience of ‘the fullness of the love of Christ’”.33
Finney was an ordained Presbyterian missionary, but from his conversion had “rejected the Calvinistic doctrine of Predestination”. Eventually, much to the consternation of Calvinists, his ministry approximated Methodist theology. Concerning Methodist ministry and ministers, Finney stated,
“Look at the Methodists. Many of their ministers are unlearned, in the common sense of the term, many of them taken right from the shop or the farm, and yet they have gathered congregations…and won souls everywhere. Wherever the Methodists have gone, their plain, pointed and simple, but warm and animated mode of preaching has always gathered large assemblies or won so many souls. Now are we to be told that we must pursue the same old, formal mode of doing things, amidst all these changes?…It is impossible that the public mind should be held by such preaching. We must have exciting, powerful preaching, or the devil will have the people, except what the Methodists can save….Many ministers are finding it out already, that a Methodist preacher, without the advantages of a liberal education, will draw a congregation around him which a Presbyterian minister, with perhaps ten times as much learning, cannot equal, because he has not the earnest manner of the other, and does not pour out fire upon his hearers when he preaches.”34
Finney’s ministry “left…scores of young men ‘emancipated from sin and Calvinism and overflowing with benevolence for unsaved mankind’”.35
William E. Boardman also preached sanctification to non-Methodists. Boardman was a Presbyterian who published his teaching in 1858 in The Higher Christian Life.36 Boardman and Robert Pearsall Smith helped to establish meetings that became the Keswick movement.37 Keswickian sanctification is an “act of faith distinct from but usually coincident with regeneration”. It “develops throughout the Christian life” and “provides for victory over temptation and sin”, but does not result in the eradication of tendencies to sin”.38
A. B. Earle professed sanctification and published his testimony in The Rest of Faith. Earle was the leading Baptist evangelist [of that time]. The Rest of Faith became a bestseller.39
In his article, “European Pietist Roots of Pentecostalism”40 D. D. Bundy states prominent evangelists and theologians of this time period such as Phoebe Palmer, Charles G. Finney, Asa Mahan, James Caughey, Orange Scott and Thomas Upham were influenced by the writings of John Fletcher as much as or more than the writings of John Wesley.41 John Fletcher (1729-1785) was an Anglican clergyman and an Assistant to Wesley in the British Methodist movement. He devoted part of his time to itinerate preaching for Wesley.42 He was Wesley’s “theologian”. Fletcher was the first to “describe the process of sanctification” and its “accompanying assurance of spiritual well-being” as the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”. Fletcher’s theology reflected the same Pietan beliefs that influenced Wesley. Fletcher emphasized spiritual changes that characterized regeneration, “lifestyle” and “Christian responsibility for relief work and social reform”.43
During the twenty years before the Civil War, the “crusade” for Christian perfection grew in America.44 Pietan rooted Wesleyan-Fletcher theology developed in 1) the Methodist Episcopal Church 2) “perfectionistic” revivals 3) non-Methodist denominations. The development of Wesleyan-Fletcher theology in non-Methodist churches in America has been referred to as the “[Arminianizing] of America”45 Americans revolted against Calvinism that had “dominated American religious thought for a century”.46 By products of the “crusade” for Christian perfection were reform movements such as women’s rights, prohibition, anti-masonry and the abolition of slavery.47
William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of Liberator, an abolitionist journal48 “fathered” the abolition of slavery movement. In New England, the movement found its greatest support among Methodists and Baptists. It had large followings in “rural towns and countryside where revivalistic churches had their greatest strength”.
Garrison was a social radical whose abolitionist efforts were inspired by the spirit but not the form of Christian perfection.49 He considered Christianity an object of attack and evicted evangelicals from the American Antislavery Society. Garrison championed the “destruction of sinful governments of church and state” that permitted evils such as slavery to exist.50
Theodore Dwight Weld, a convert and ardent follower of Charles G. Finney, created an abolition of slavery “impulse” that eventually eclipsed that of Garrison. Weld began discussing the abolition of slavery among students at Lane Theological Seminary of Cincinnati, Ohio. These efforts had begun as a result of a promise made by Weld to Lewis Tappan.51 Lewis and his brother Arthur Tappan had also been influenced by Finney.52 The Tappan brothers and William Lloyd Garrison had started the American Antislavery Society in Philadelphia, December 1833.53
Discussion among students was successful and resulted in the conversion of the entire student body “to the cause”. The students opened schools, reading rooms and libraries for African-Americans in the Cincinnati area. The “mingling of Lane students” with African-Americans resulted in “ugly rumors” that motivated [Lane] trustees to abolish the “student abolition society”.
Undaunted, the students withdrew from the seminary and rented a house in which to hold classes. Asa Mahan, an abolitionist and a professor of theology [at Lane] was enlisted to conduct the classes. “Eventually, the majority of the Lane rebels” migrated to Oberlin College. Asa Mahan became the college’s first president.
The students had agreed to attend Oberlin only if Charles G. Finney “be brought to the school as professor of Theology”.54 Finney came to Oberlin as professor of theology in 1836. “When he came, he brought with him a great tent in which to hold meetings…at the top of the center pole supporting the tent was a larger streamer upon which was written…HOLINESS TO THE LORD”.55
Finney preached a gospel that encouraged “work as well as [belief]”. This resulted in a “mighty influence toward reform”. His converts “became active participants in every forward movement of their time”. “His solution to slavery was to convert the [slave-holder]”. His students “who went forth from Oberlin” carried “the Finney method” of “anti-slavery evangelism”.56
In the Methodist Episcopal Church, a division occurred over slavery.57 The church “reflected a national ethos because it was a church with a membership that was not limited to region, class or race”. In the Church, tension grew “over the question of slavery”.58
Southerners defended slavery. Southern Methodist preachers used Biblical scriptures to defend their pro-slavery position. To southerners, slavery was an “indispensable institution” because “cotton could not be raised without slave labor”. The invention of the cotton gin in 1792 had made possible growing “short staple cotton” in the South. This produced a southern “economic revolution” that increased the value of slaves.
Meanwhile, the abolitionist movement was growing in the North. Orange Scott, a New England Conference member, “subscribed for a hundred copies of the Liberator and had them sent to members of the New England Conference”. He also financially supported Zion’s Herald’s column discussion on slavery. In 1834, LeRoy Sunderland presided over the first Methodist Anti-Slavery Society in New York City. Anti-slavery societies were also formed in the New England and New Hampshire Conferences in 1834 and 1835. This opened Methodist pulpits to abolitionists.59
John Wesley had been “an ardent opponent of slavery”.60 Days before his death, he wrote to William Wilberforce, a British abolitionist, encouraging him in his fight to abolish slavery in England. The letter also contained Wesley’s sentiments about slavery in America. Wesley wrote,
“Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that exercrable villany, which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all men together stronger than God? O be not weary in well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it…”61
Wilberforce and two other British abolitionists, Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharpe were friends of Wesley.
Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke also bitterly opposed slavery. Coke was even indicted by a grand jury for “anti-slavery activity”. In April 1785, he was almost physically harmed by a Virginia mob for openly denouncing slavery. Asbury was more cautious in his public statements.62
However, the General Conference of Methodist Episcopal Church “put aside” the issue of slavery until 1844.63 One of the ways it managed to do this was by allowing bishops and presiding elders to refuse to “put [forth] a question” that they deemed unrelated to “the proper business of [the] Annual or Quarterly Conference”. This practice was confirmed by the passing of a resolution at the 1840 General Conference.
Orange Scott then “proposed the formation of a church organization advocating anti-slavery, anti-intemperance and anti-everything wrong”. This proposition resulted in a November 1842 convention at which a decision was made to withdraw from Methodist Episcopal Church. Reasons for this withdrawal included 1) “Methodist Episcopal Church [had] no rule forbidding slaveholding by private members; and by declaring that slaveholding is in harmony with the Golden Rule, and by allowing Annual Conferences to say that it is not a moral wrong, makes itself responsible for slavery”. 2) “The government of the church is aristocratic”. 3) The church’s “attitude toward dissenting brethren [was] uncharitable”. Following this decision, Wesleyan Methodist Church of New York and New England was formed in May 1843.64
In the 1844 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a conflict arose between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions of the church. The major conflict concerned James O. Andrew, one of five bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Andrew had inherited slaves by marriage and, therefore, was a slave owner.65 He lived in Georgia. At that time, according to Georgia law, a slave owner could not free his slaves. The General Conference of 1844 asked Andrew to “desist from the exercise of his office”66 “so long as he could not, or would not, free his slaves”.
Plan of Separation facilitated the organization of a separate “ecclesiastical structure”.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, South was formed in May 1845 in Louisville, Kentucky. Its first conference was held in Petersburg, Virginia in 1846. After the separation, the Methodist Episcopal Church contained northern Methodists.69
Phoebe Palmer, the “titular head” of the Christian perfection crusade, did not become involved in the abolitionist movement. This was because Methodist Episcopal Church leaders became suspicious of reformers’ and abolitionists’ loyalty to the church as a result of the 1843-44 split of the church. However, her holiness teaching fueled the faith of abolitionists in New England and upper New York.70
The abolition of slavery reform movement paralleled the “crusade” for Christian perfection. “Sanctified Christians” believed slavery to be “a blot on society and the Church”.71 In addition to Charles G. Finney, Asa Mahan and Orange Scott, such Christians included Daniel Wise, William Hosmer and Edward Thompson.
Daniel Wise edited Zion’s Herald of Boston in 1852. He believed “…’political action is moral action’ because the Lord expects our every act to be holy; to withdraw from politics is to encourage the growth of evil in the world.” Wise, along with William Hosmer, was “the conscious of Methodism”.72
William Hosmer edited The Northern Christian Advocate of upper New York prior to 1856. He considered slavery to be contrary to improvement, purity, equality and God’s law of love. He believed “holiness or moral purity is one of the most essential principles of the gospel, but slavery is a violation of that right”. He also believed within Christianity, princes, peasants, masters and servants are on a “common plane”. “Men [have] no right to make a constitution which [sanctions] human bondage. If they [do] the believer’s duty [is] to defy it.” The law “must harmonize with the law of God or be set at naught by all upright men”. The church’s mission is “to establish the kingdom of God on earth by the banishment of unrighteousness and the introduction of universal holiness. Where slavery exists, Christianity is “a religion without holiness” and produces “gospel progress without gospel morals”. It sanctions and perpetuates “vices…it was designed to remove”.73
Edward Thompson was president of Ohio Wesleyan University in 1857. He denounced the argument that southern Christians “should retain their slaves in obedience to state laws forbidding manumission”. He believed [because of this argument], “…Christian doctrine is liable to be perverted and Christian practice lowered by the Church….He is not an innovator, but a restorer of the Gospel, who applies it to the sins of the times. The soft and slippered Christianity which disturbs no one, is not the Christianity of Christ, who brought upon himself persecution and revilings wherever he went, or of Paul, who turned the world upside down.”74
The “crusade” for Christian perfection climaxed in a 1858 revival.75 The revival “gave impetus” to the “concerns” of Pietism.76 The revival started in New York City and spread over the majority of the Northeast. Concerning this revival Vinson Synan wrote, “Southern states were largely untouched by this revival...The slave-holding South never felt its impact.”
Southern churches had abandoned Christian perfection “long before 1858”. Between 1830 and the beginning of the Civil War, southern theology supported and defended slavery. “Perfectionism was barely discernable”.77
Bitterness existed between northern and southern Methodists “in the years leading to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860”. “Each church claimed divine sanction for its region”.78 The northern Methodist churches were “openly anti-slavery in practice”. The southern Methodist churches espoused and defended slavery. Christian perfection had become a “dead letter” in these churches. They were a “fallen people”.79
The abolition of slavery reform movement was a part of a drive to perfect American society.80 Such thought and practice eventually erupted into a military conflict that was the Civil War.81 This was a by-product of the Christian perfection movement in America.82