Before you take that empty seat on a float in the July 4th parade, I’d like to point out a few things. The Declaration of Independence we’re remembering and the subsequent war which followed; John Wesley was against it. Not only did he oppose the war (back in England) but so did most of the Methodist preachers in colonial America. Our Methodist ancestors were distrusted, seen as Tories or Tory sympathizers in the grand struggle for liberty against the British oppressors. How can this be true? Methodists are pillars of countless American communities, purveyors of pot lucks and yard sales; that’s not us.
It is true. We were the people the Puritans warned you about. Methodists were circuit riding anti-war radicals. Unlike their Anglican colleagues, tied to a single parish, Methodists were suspect because they roamed the country side. Who knows what propaganda they might spread? Many of the Methodists were fresh of the boat. Who could trust an English immigrant direct from the mother country, said many second and third generation “Americans”? Methodists were victims of discrimination over immigration? (You know what that means don’t you? You really do have skin in the immigration debate and didn’t realize it.)
Methodists didn’t seem to keen on war or “oath taking”. In this way they bore some resemblance to the Quakers. Slaves could not take oaths. Taking an oath and swearing allegiance to the revolution and the new government was considered a privilege all free born whites should readily embrace. Not the Methodists. This made all Methodists (especially the men) persons of questionable character. In the all important mid-Atlantic colonies, vital to winning the revolution, the Methodists were viewed as an unstable, unreliable fifth column.
Here’s what they don’t tell you in Sunday School, Bible Studies, Sunday Mornings, or on the 4th of July: Methodists were one of the most persecuted groups of the entire revolutionary period. “Fined, imprisoned, beaten, and constantly threatened, Methodists – for both religious and military reasons Methodists were openly viewed as enemies of the (American) Revolution.”* Methodists were one of the first targets of the nascent American state. People hated us.
Francis Asbury believed his life to be in constant danger, not for spreading the gospel, but because he was a Methodist in revolutionary America. Other preachers (lay and ordained) such as William Wrenn, Jonathan Forrest, and Joseph Hartley were jailed during the war. Some were beaten to death and starved in custody. Today, we would call these war crimes. Tomorrow, will celebrate the event which put these men in jail with no questions asked. The event, which we usually celebrate as “good” no questions asked. Methodists went to jail to preach the Gospel inspite of American independence. It makes me think twice about the meaning of July 4th.
Witnesses tell us that Hartley spoke through his cell window to those who would gather for worship. His refusal to say an oath of allegiance and bear arms did not prevent him from preaching. Jail has never held back the Christian message.
Methodists rubbed the revolution wrong in other ways. The men, who wrote the Declaration of Independence and were so cautious about guaranteeing individual liberty to anyone but white people, were uncomfortable with men like Freeborn Garrettson. Garrettson, and others, preached anti-slavery abolitionist sermons during the Revolutionary War. In states like North and South Carolina, this was a direct challenge to the war effort. Slave revolts could not be allowed to undermining the continental war effort. Methodists were enemies of the nation. From the earliest days of the war, Methodist preaching undermined the institution of slavery. Colonial America believed it needed slavery while God preferred freedom for everyone. Methodism’s message was dangerous.
Oh, for the days when it was dangerous to be a Methodist!
When peace came, memories were long and people didn’t forget. The Methodists lingered and while no longer an obvious threat to national security, their values were seen to be incongruent with the dominant culture of the country forming around them. They made few friends by warning that excessive wealth was a bar to salvation and condemning the culture of the landed gentry.
To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims commercials, “we’ve come a long way, baby”. In the blink of an eye we became the Anglicans who despised us and the Baptists who arrested us. Wow. I don’t know Asbury’s original plan but I’m sure that wasn’t it.
So when you’re ready, I’ll be glad to talk any time about returning to the roots of Methodism in these United States of America. Be prepared, some may call it treason.
So what are you celebrating on July 4th? It has nothing to do with Methodism. Yet, it defined who we were and the people we became. I’m glad our ancestors had another point of view.
Richard Lowell Bryant
*Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770–1810 Lyerly, Cynthia Lynn: New York: Oxford University Press