A Church Caught in the Middle

1776 marked the year of American succession from the British Empire. 1814 marked the end of the American War of 1812. This thirty-eight year period of political tension was also a foundational era for the North America Methodist work. The American and British political tensions from 1776 – 1814 might have caused a significant impact on Methodist missions in North America.

The British Methodists had diminishing influence on the American Methodists at the turn of the 19th century. Both American and British Methodists influenced the British North American provinces, leaving the Methodist Church caught in the middle of an international political crisis. In the late 18th century, North America was growing with political tension. The American Declaration of Independence and subsequent war set the stage for a turning point that would have residual effects for more than a century.

The American Revolution provided a fertile foundation for the expansion of American Methodism, even while John Wesley himself espoused a strong Loyalist perspective. Initially cautious about the crown’s response to American political uprising, Wesley later discouraged the American Revolution. In a letter sent in June 1775 to Lord Dartmouth, John Wesley wrote:

“All my prejudices are against the Americans… And yet, in spite of all my rooted prejudice, I cannot avoid thinking (if I think at all) that an oppressed people asked for nothing more than their legal rights, and that in the most modest and inoffensive manner which the nature of the thing would allow.”[1]

In this correspondence with the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Wesley pleaded for a case why military action should not be taken against the growing tension of the American colonies. Wesley’s letter seems to indicate a great amount of concern about the logistical complications of military action. Just three months later, Wesley issues a mournful admonition to Americans:

“Have pity upon your mother country… O let us follow after peace! Let us put away our sins; the real ground of all our calamities! Which never will or can be thoroughly removed, till we fear God and honour the king.”[2]

American Methodists saw significant challenge during the American Revolution because of their connection with the Church of England. In 1784, when American Methodists organized as the Methodist Episcopal Church, a new chapter could begin for significant growth in the frontier of the new American nation. After the war ended, many Americans who still remained loyal to the crown relocated to the existing provinces in British North America, which currently make up Canada.

For several decades following the American Revolution, significant political tension remained among the American and British governments. During this time, Methodism flourished in the United States and to a lesser extent in the rest of British North America. The American War of 1812 brought new challenges to the work of Methodist missionaries by essentially closing the borders between both political realms. In regards to this war, American Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury believed:

“…there is no mercy in war, and hence we must expect much suffering on our frontier settlements…”[3]

Asbury seemed to believe that this war was a providential act of God in response to the sins of the United States.[4] What further complicates the Methodist reality during the American Revolution was John Wesley’s interpretation of Paul’s words to the Roman church:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” — Romans 13:1, NRSV

Wesley reflects on this passage in his explanatory notes with a very strong perspective in favor of government authority—likely taking into account his own reality as a subject of the British monarchy:

“…the supreme powers… are all from God, who constituted all in general, and permits each in particular by his providence… they are God’s deputies or vicegerents and consequently, their authority being, in effect, his, demands our conscientious obedience.” [5]

John Wesley was a Tory and an ardent supporter of the British monarchy. Where there was a challenge between John Wesley and Francis Asbury was their seemingly varied perspectives on divine providence. On on hand, Francis Asbury believed that the American Revolution was a providential act of God for the sins of the nation. On the other hand, John Wesley held to the view that God had appointed the monarchy. Furthermore, while Asbury engaged with the political leaders of the United States, Wesley was suspicious of democracy.[6]

During research, it became apparent as to how different American and British Methodism had become from each other. I began to ponder the differentials contributing to these distinctive pathways and it became more clear that politics might have played a significant role in this process. Was it the national political tension of the new American government the leaders of the Methodist movement, or was it the people of the churches? The simple answer is that it might be “yes” to all of the above.

The answer might be found with a unique intersection of both forms of Methodism: the provinces of British North America. I was intrigued with how both American and British Methodists were sending missionaries to various parts of what is modern-day Canada. Both the American and British Methodist missionaries likely had very different perspectives on the American Revolution. The politics of the American Revolution certainly created challenges. One of the greatest challenges was that American missionaries could not enter Canada. Nathan Bangs was sent to Canada, but the War of 1812 “cut off all friendly discourse between the Canadas and the United States.”[8] Thus, Bangs was unable to continue his mission to Canada. Other missionaries refused to travel in the midst of the war, as tension was great between both nations.

I believe that the political ramifications had a lasting effect on the missionary work of Methodists. The Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States forged its own path in 1784, while British Wesley Methodist churches in Canada remained part of the British Methodists until 1855. In 1828, the American Methodist connection to the Canadians was severed with the Canadian Conference leaving the U.S. Methodist Episcopal Church.[7] The Methodist Church had truly become a church caught in the middle of an international political quandary. While Methodist missions continued in Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, it had quickly become a fractured church, due to it not being able remain stuck in the middle.

[1] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-letters-of-john-wesley/wesleys-letters-1775/
[2] http://consource.org/document/a-calm-address-to-our-american-colonies-by-john-wesley-1775/
[3] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/bangs/history2.ii.iii.ii.html
[4] Ibid.
[5] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/john-wesleys-notes-on-the-bible/notes-on-st-pauls-epistle-to-the-romans/#c5579
[6] https://www.academia.edu/3587352/Will_the_Real_John_Wesley_Please_Stand_Up_
[7] https://books.google.com/books?id=s8QRAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA822#v=onepage&q&f=false
[8] https://books.google.com/books?id=4TVfAAAAcAAJ&pg=PA200#v=onepage&q&f=false

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