Lessons of Frontier Methodism

“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” (Isaiah 51:1-2)

In the midst of the ongoing numerical decline of United Methodism in the U.S., many bloggers, church growth consultants, denominational leaders, and historians are seeking answers that can help our church recapture “the glory years.” The problem is that many regard the 1950s as the glory years, when in fact our denomination’s greatest impact was felt in the early years of our nation.

From 1770-1820, Methodist membership grew from 0.01 percent of the population to 2.75 percent. “In 1775 Methodists constituted only 2 percent of the total church membership in America. By 1850 their share had increased to more than 34 percent,” reports Dr. John H. Wigger, professor of history at the University of Missouri. Historians estimate that the number of “constituents” or people who attended Methodist meetings who were not members was at least four times the membership and maybe as much as 12 times the membership!

Circuit RiderIn Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (Oxford University Press, 1998), Dr. Wigger provides a vivid description of early Methodism in America. He surveys important aspects of the way Methodists “reform[ed] the nation, particularly the church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Wigger points to the way that early Methodists were uniquely suited to reach an American populace that was eager to exploit their newly-won individual liberty and “get ahead” in life. “From the beginning, Methodist discipline was in harmony with the most cherished values of ordinary Americans,” he writes. “Methodism and American culture did more than develop in parallel, they were integrally linked,” he notes later.

We cannot recapture this unique historical and cultural moment. However, it is worthwhile to consider some aspects of early Methodist practice that might be translatable into our current cultural setting. Those practices might not be dressed in the same clothing as they were 200 years ago, but the essential elements have the potential to guide United Methodists today back to a fruitful path.

Evangelistic Zeal 

Wigger makes clear that the “culture of Methodism demanded individual initiative” on the part of both clergy (circuit riders) and laity. The church placed few barriers in the way of those wanting to start new churches or form new classes (small groups).

The New York local preacher James P. Horton walked his circuit, up to 40 miles per day. His practice was to stop “a dozen or twenty times at different houses along the road to sing a hymn, and pray in each, and sometimes give an exhortation to the people.” In New Jersey, Thomas Ware describes a fellow circuit rider’s approach: “His manner was, to let his horse take his own course, and on coming to a house, to inform the family that he had come to warn them and the people of their neighbourhood to prepare to meet their God.” After this introduction, Ware’s colleague would “announce when he would return to preach, carefully noting the date in his appointment book, and then would ask the often startled family to gather their neighbors for the event.”

Laity were heavily involved in these efforts, as well. William Watters reported on a situation in 1770’s Maryland, when there were only three Methodist preachers in the whole state. “The members of his society would often divide into ‘little bands’ and canvass nearby neighborhoods, singing, praying, reading scripture, and talking to whomever would listen,” reports Wigger. In 1801, a group of single young adults conducted a series of meetings in Saratoga and Montgomery counties, New York. By working a two-mile circuit inviting people to attend, they had amassed a crowd by the third day. “When a Methodist Itinerant preacher finally arrived on the scene, he was delighted to find 60 to 70 new converts ready to join the church.”

The point behind using circuit riders, and indeed the whole Methodist approach, was described by Francis Asbury as “resources from center to circumference.” The 1784 Book of Discipline captured this sentiment, “Our call is to save that which is lost. Now we cannot expect them to seek us. Therefore we should go and seek them. … The greatest Hindrance to this you are to expect from rich, or cowardly, or lazy Methodists” (emphasis original).

Today, it is a chargeable offense for a pastor to start a new church or even hold a religious service without going through the proper channels and obtaining multiple permissions (2012 Discipline, ¶ 341.4).

Uniquely Suited Clergy

The backbone of the Methodist system was the local preacher. He worked a full-time “secular” job while preaching in his home church. The pastoral care of the church was not an overwhelming responsibility because it was shared by the class leaders, exhorters, stewards, and other local preachers in the same community.

The travelling preacher (itinerant) was appointed by the bishop and would have responsibility for many local churches on his circuit. He would visit each church only once every few weeks, often not on a Sunday. Baptisms, weddings, and Holy Communion would wait until the travelling preacher arrived. He preached every day, met with class meetings (small groups), and led devotions for families whom he visited. The travelling preacher, working with the rest of the church’s leaders, would appoint the class leaders, exhorters, stewards, and local preachers. A person would normally rise from being a class member, to class leader, to exhorter, to local preacher, and finally to travelling preacher.

The unique characteristics of local and travelling preachers were:

• They came from the social classes they were trying to reach. They were like the people they ministered to, both in education and in social class.

• They usually experienced an emotional, time-specific conversion and a similar call to preach.

• They entered ministry despite the opposition of parents and other family members. They travelled 10-20 miles a day, staying mostly in people’s homes, and receiving little or no pay. (In other words, they were highly committed.)

• They had no formal education in the ministry. Instead, they followed an apprenticeship model, learning by doing under the guidance of more experienced leaders. In addition, they engaged in an intentional, systematic reading program that broadened their knowledge of Scripture and theology. The Methodist way was “to study and preach and preach and study, from day to day.”

“We do not despise learning,” observed the itinerant preacher Thomas Ware, “on the contrary we hold it to be desirable. But we do not deem it an essential qualification of a gospel minister. Grace, rather than human learning, qualifies a man to preach.”

• They formed a collegial community of love and support with their fellow preachers.

• They preached for a response in the vernacular language of the people, rather than expound learned discourses on the finer points of Scripture, theology, or life.

In a time when small churches struggle to afford a full-time pastor, we may need to give greater consideration to local preachers who hold full-time jobs and serve the congregation in addition, with leadership shared among several local preachers and small group leaders in a congregation. In a time when going away to seminary often draws a person out of their social class and background, making them appear distant or irrelevant to congregations, we may need to emphasize a more hands-on approach to equipping for ministry, with learning interspersed with apprenticeship. And we may need to focus on spiritual qualifications more than human credentials in elevating persons to leadership.

A System of Discipleship

Our current Book of Discipline reminds us, “Wesley insisted, however, that evangelical faith should manifest itself in evangelical living. … Wesley rejected undue reliance upon these rules. Discipline was not church law; it was a way of discipleship” (¶ 102, pp. 52-53). Early American Methodism put in place a system for discipling it members to enable them to live out their faith.

As others have noted, the heart of this system was the class meeting. Led by laypersons, class meetings consisted of 20-30 people (some classes had as many as 90), who gathered weekly for several hours of sharing and prayer. “Class-meetings assisted me in various ways,” testified James Jenkins from South Carolina. “Here I was drilled and instructed, warned and comforted; and so fond was I of them, that I would rather miss hearing an ordinary sermon than neglect my class.”

The purpose of the class meeting was spiritual transformation. Members were not so much concerned with studying the Bible or understanding doctrine. Instead, they were asked pointed questions about their spiritual lives, accompanied by advice, encouragement, reproof, and prayer. In some ways, it could be compared to an AA meeting for the soul. Members were required to attend and they were expected to be open and honest about their successes and failures in putting their faith into practice. As such, the class meeting was the first place where “disorderly walkers” were dealt with – people who violated the General Rules by such things as neglecting daily family worship, cursing, Sabbath breaking, or even sexual immorality. These people were admonished, counseled, prayed for, and sometimes disciplined by exclusion from the class meeting (and therefore from church), either for a set time or permanently.

When it was suggested that easing the rules might result in people thronging to the church, the itinerant preacher Thomas Morris replied, “Perhaps they would. That is what we are afraid of, and what we aim to prevent; for then persons without piety, without religious principle even, would readily avail themselves of the influence arising from Church membership, because cheap; it would require but little sacrifice of worldly pleasure; there would be but few crosses to bear, or duties to perform. The church is of little use to such members,’ concluded Morris, ‘and they are of no use to it.”

This whole mindset conceives of discipleship as a life of disciplined exercise of the means of grace and conforming to the commands of Christ in everyday life. Essential to such discipleship is accountability and a means of both encouraging and enforcing the high expectations of the Christian life. When prominent members of the church, such as class leaders, exhorters, or local preachers transgressed, their cases were heard by their fellow church leaders at the quarterly conference. Here, too, discipline could entail demotion from a leadership position, suspension, or even expulsion from the church.

“From the beginning, upholding Wesleyan standards of discipline constituted one of the cornerstones of American Methodism,” writes Wigger. In July 1774, Thomas Rankin, one of John Wesley’s first assistants sent to monitor the growth of the colonial church, noted “I am more and more convinced that unless the whole plan of our discipline is closely attended to, we can never see the work nor the fruit of our labours, as we would desire.”

“The uniformity of Methodist discipline gave the movement a cohesiveness unknown to any other large-scale religious movement of the time,” states Wigger. “Unless the discipline of the church is enforced,” wrote Bishop Francis Asbury in defense of his actions, “what sincere person would ever join a society, amongst whom they saw ungodliness connived at?”

United Methodism today lacks cohesiveness because there is no “uniformity of Methodist discipline.” We cannot even agree on what a disciple of Jesus Christ is, let alone how to make one. Our forbearers knew no such confusion or hesitation. This argues for a “high expectation” church, one that offers many supports and requires a life of discipleship. Such a system of discipleship, argues Wigger, “formed a necessary foundation for growth” in the early American period, and I believe it can do so again today.

Much more could be gleaned from Wigger’s entrancing look at a different kind of Methodism, one that is vibrant, alive, powerful, and expanding. As he helps the voices of those who have gone before us speak, may we hear and prayerfully implement “the Methodist way” in our time and place.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.


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