History of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States of America

by ABEL STEVENS, LL. D., Author of “ The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century called Methodism,” etc. Volumes I. and II. New York: Carleton & Porter.
THE history of a religious denomination is in itself a matter of no small importance. Taken in connection with other ecclesiastical bodies as a portion of the data in estimating the national development, it is still more valuable. In the churches inhere almost exclusively the sources of influence available for the moral culture of the people. The pulpit, the pastorate, and the various other ecclesiastical appliances are potent in effects which cannot be produced by other causes. The higher educational institutions are under the direction of the religious bodies ; while our common schools, though properly excluding sectarian influence, are yet indirectly and not improperly affected by the religious character of the community. Not only does the man who undertakes to write history, while ignoring the religious element, give us an incompetent and false representation, but no one can become a respectable student of history who does not carefully consider the religious development of society as proceeding under the guidance of the several denominational bodies.
Up to about the period of the Revolution the principal religious establishments in this country were the Puritans, occupying practically the whole field in New England, the Presbyterians preponderating in the Middle Colonies, and the Episcopalians in the South. There were other elements, as the Quakers and the Baptists. The former, though not without a considerable influence in shaping the national character, were less marked in their effect. The latter, though already an important body and destined to become still more so, and though in fervor and aggressiveness subsequently approximating the Methodists, were as yet so little distinct from the Puritans that we may regard them as substantially one with the latter.
Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism were then, as they have been ever since, conservative in their character and tendencies. Puritanism was radical in its views and sentiments, yet lacking that diffusive propagandist power inhering in conventional bodies. Methodism, coming in, supplied this lack, and at the same time appealed to vast masses which had not before been reached by religious influences. An argument might be found here, were any needed, in support of the voluntary system of religious establishments, as more perfectly adapting themselves to the various wants and peculiarities of the different classes of people. Suggestions also arise concerning the equilibrium so necessary in a free government, for the proper settlement of moral, social, and political questions,—an equilibrium between the conservative and progressive tendencies, which is far more likely to be attained when left free from any direction by the state.
The present year completes a full century since the first Methodist societies were formed in this country. The name of a church was not assumed till some years later. It had been about thirty years since the commencement of the remarkable religious movement in England, under the Wesleys and Whitefield. It was introduced here by some Irish immigrants of German ancestry. Missionaries were very soon sent over from England, and in no long time native preachers were raised up. The time was propitious and the field promising for the success of the simple, cheap, and every way available appliances of the new religious agency. The rapidly increasing and widely scattering population could not be adequately supplied by any of the ecclesiastical bodies which operated only through settled pastorates. These new propagandists, confined to no locality, but going everywhere with their off-hand discourse, their eagerness “to preach the word” to congregations of any size, of any character, and in any place, with their rude, but vigorous style of oratory, and direct, outspoken address, attracted and affected whole communities to an extraordinary degree. It is true, they were not always treated with much deference, and sometimes they were the objects of abuse and violence, in which their lives were imperilled. But still they pursued their way through the wilderness, seeking the lost sheep. An anecdote illustrates the persistency of this class of preachers, and also the grim humor with which, in spite of themselves, they sometimes invested their rather startling announcements. In those early days there was one Richmond Nolley, a preacher in the new Southern country. He was a man of great zeal, energy, and courage, and omitted no opportunity of doing good to persons of any color or condition in whatever obscure corner he could find them. On one occasion, while travelling, he came upon a fresh wagon-track, and following it, he discovered an emigrant family, who had just reached the spot where they intended to make their home. The man, who was putting out his team, saw at once by the bearing and costume of the stranger what his calling was, and exclaimed, —
“ What! another Methodist preacher ! I quit Virginia to get out of the way of them, and went to a new settlement in Georgia, where I thought I should be quite beyond their reach ; but they got my wife and daughter into the church. Then, in this late purchase, Choctaw Corner, I found a piece of good land, and was sure I should have some peace of the preachers ; but here is one before my wagon is unloaded.”
“My friend,” said Nolley, “if you go to heaven, you ’ll find Methodist preachers there; and if to hell, I’m afraid you ’ll find some there ; and you see how it is in this world. So you had better make terms with us and be at peace.”
Dr. Stevens, who has acquired some celebrity by his excellent history of the Wesleyan movement in England, has displayed in the present volume the same marked abilities which made his previous work so popular. There is not only evidence of laborious and conscientious diligence in gathering up, sometimes from almost inaccessible sources, the requisite materials, but the skill displayed in their arrangement and treatment, so as to make the narrative an absorbingly attractive one, is eminently praiseworthy. As a history, the work is not only creditable in a denominational and ecclesiastical point of view, but it is a valuable contribution to our national literature.
Much of this success doubtless may be attributable to the nature of the subject; for it is not easy to conceive of any movement, and especially a religious one, in which the melodramatic, mingled here and there with both the tragic and comic, forms so large a natural element. There was a new country, a rude society, daring adventures, great perils, marvellous escapes, terrible hardships, the stern, harsh realities of pioneer life, grand and unexpected successes, all which, seen from the distance of the present, have a romantic coloring, and produce an exhilarating effect. Any ordinary ability would have made a readable story out of such materials ; but to make a history worthy of the name required the hand of a master.
There is something, perhaps, rather fanciful in the coincidence or parallel which the author would make out between the enterprise of John Wesley and that of James Watt. Yet it is not devoid of interest. While the one, toiling in poverty and obscurity, was preparing an invention which should incalculably multiply industrial productiveness and give a mightier impulse to modern civilization than any other material element, the other, incurring the opprobrium of his ecclesiastical order, and regarded as a reprehensible agitator and fanatic, was inaugurating a movement which should prove one of the most extraordinary and far-reaching of any in modern times ; and both these agencies — the one employing a mighty material force in the interest of society, the other setting in operation vast moral energies for the uplifting of the masses — were to have their grandest results in the New World.
Dr. Stevens is especially happy in his sketches of character ; only, possibly, in indulging too much his inclination for this sort of writing, he repeats himself, and in the recurrence of pet phrases wearies the reader. Yet some of these are very good. The description of Francis Asburey, the “ Pioneer Bishop," is one not often excelled. He was one of the early missionaries sent over by Wesley, and became the great leader in the work and the principal organizer of the ecclesiastical machinery. He was the first bishop ordained in the country, — and a very unique and remarkable bishop he was. There was for him no splendid palace, no magnificent cathedral, no princely income. His salary was sixty-four dollars a year, his diocese a whole continent, to visit which he must find his way without roads, through almost illimitable woods, over nearly inaccessible mountains, floundering through swamps, wading or swimming vast rivers, scorched by hot suns, bitten by winter frosts, drenched with pitiless rains, smothered by driving snows, and often in divers dangers of death. His travelling equipage was not a chariot and four, but saddlebags and one. Often sick and suffering, he seldom allowed himself to be detained from his appointments. He went wherever he sent his preachers, and shared with them all the toils and privations incident to the work. He annually made the tour of the States, travelling never less than five thousand, and often more than six thousand, miles a year. He usually preached once every day, and three times on Sunday. A man, of course, of little literary culture, yet he possessed great good sense, a genial spirit, and large ability as an organizer. To him more than other men the denomination owes its early efficiency and extraordinary success.
The two volumes before us embrace a period of scarcely twenty-five years, — the period, as the author terms it, of the “ Planting and Training ” of the church. .Several other volumes will be required to complete the history. But the future volumes can hardly be of so much general interest as these already published.