2. The Methodism in America

The impetuous rise of the Methodist faith in the USA, although troubled by internal controversy, spread Christian principles widely throughout the territory, thanks to its itinerant preachers - who rode up to the most remote farms - and to the exciting gatherings during which new believers were converted to this denomination. Abram Still, father of the founder of osteopathy, was an orthodox physician. He became a Methodist pastor and sided with the abolitionist political faction and transmitted to his children the rigor and values of hisconfession.

In America, the Methodism became increasingly popular after the American Revolution and gradually detached itself from its British roots. In 1784, Wesley agreed to grant more freedom to the congregations, who could ordain new preachers with the faculty of administering the sacraments. It was so that the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) was founded as independent from the British Episcopal Church. It was presided by Francis Asbury for 45 years. Asbury was a tireless preacher who traveled more than 400,000 kilometers and gave 17,000 sermons. He would get up at four or five in the morning, pray for an hour before starting the day, and fast on Fridays. He never took an interest in earthly things, arguing that the Methodist preacher only needed a horse, a saddle, a bridle, a change of clothes, a pocket Bible, a hymn book, perhaps a watch, and, if necessary, a pair of glasses (Richey et al. 2012).

Among the Methodists, there was also controversy; one example is the establishment in 1792 of the Republican Methodist Church by James O’Kelly, an itinerant pastor born in Ireland. Anti-slavery, anti-British and anti-Episcopalian, veteran of the war against the British. O’Kelly resented the authority of the Methodist Episcopal Church and especially the power it had assumed to assign the itinerant pastors to a specific circuit even without their consent (Hempton 2005).

As many as 500,000 souls were converted to Methodism in 1830 (Richey et al. 2012). The Methodist Episcopal Church maintained the same rigidly organized structure established in Britain: an annual conference acted under the supervision of the bishops; the conference was above and controlled the various districts presided over by the elders; the districts were divided into circuits and societies controlled by itinerant preachers to whom groups formed by a dozen of people would refer (the classes). The classes in turn were headed by a local manager.

In a very young nation, with an exponentially increasing population and with a consumption of alcohol per capita close to twenty liters in the years between 1800 and 1830, the Methodism also conquered a middle class of merchants and ambitious artisans, with realistic expectations of improvement and development aimed at encouraging individual initiatives, optimism and innovation.

Although huge crowds would gather to attend the preachers’ sermons, not all listeners would then join the movement. The conversion, often characterized by an important vision or a powerful mystical experience occurred while praying was nevertheless a vocation that had to be maintained day by day. Whoever became a preacher had to give absolute priority to the church, also when it came to his own person and the family. The followers had to conform to the restrictive norms of the holy life – for example: “Be diligent. Never remain without doing anything. Never devote yourself to small things. Inactivity is incompatible with growth in grace” – and adapt to the mutual control that the members exercised towards each other. What is more, people had the obligation to participate in the weekly meetings of small groups, during which the leaders subjected to critical examination the spiritual and temporal works of each of the participants.

Women were an important pillar of Methodism, and their commitment was as fundamental as male commitment. It was not a coincidence that the female representation among the faithful stood between 57 and 66%. Although they were almost never allowed to preach, women were allowed to make exhortations (that is, to tell their religious experience). They would independently take care of establishing and maintaining Methodism in their communities. They organized activities like praying in public, calling meetings, chanting hymns or reading Wesley’s sermons aloud. In addition, the role of women, especially widows, was invaluable in offering hospitality, advice and support to young itinerant preachers: they would assume the role of their mother or older sister. The wealthiest women arranged meetings in their homes (Wigger 2001).

The itinerant Methodist preachers were enthusiastic about their role as missionaries, and felt the responsibility of evangelizing as many souls as they could, making the motto proverbial in the event of bad weather “There’s no one around today but the crows and the Methodist preachers.” Each pastor was assigned a circuit, which could normally be ridden on horseback in about six weeks, with the task of providing spiritual and medical assistance to residents. It was a rough and adventurous life, but thanks to the Methodist solidarity network, traveling ministers were often accommodated by families, even if it could happen that they had to sleep in the open (Wigger 2001).

The itinerant Methodist preachers were enthusiastic about their role as missionaries, and felt the responsibility of evangelizing as many souls as they could, making the motto proverbial in the event of bad weather “There’s no one around today but the crows and the Methodist preachers.” Each pastor was assigned a circuit, which could normally be ridden on horseback in about six weeks, with the task of providing spiritual and medical assistance to residents. It was a rough and adventurous life, but thanks to the Methodist solidarity network, traveling ministers were often accommodated by families, even if it could happen that they had to sleep in the open (Wigger 2001).

Besides devoting themselves to itinerant preaching and respecting the rules and daily hours allocated to prayer and reading of sacred texts, beginning in the early nineteenth century, the Methodist ministers tried to spread their doctrine to new souls by organizing large prayer gatherings, which were called camp meetings. They were a sort of religious festival that lasted several days and were held in summer camps especially set up according to very precise rules (Richey et al. 2012).

Everything would begin by raising a large circular fence, delimited by twigs, within which some tents were mounted. There was a central space, reserved for the worship of God, generally a little raised. The activities were regulated in a precise way: at dawn a representative would go around the camp, announcing with a trumpet the beginning of the songs and prayers that each participant would recite nearby their tent; a sunrise a minister would give a sermon followed by breakfast. The sermons resumed at 10 am, interspersed with religious songs, with breaks for lunch and dinner; after dinner, taking place at sunset, there were more sermons. The atmosphere of fervent worship was intensified by night lighting made of fires, lamps and candles. The last morning before departure, the ministers formed a procession and began to tour the camp. The faithful joined together and all together marched ordered into a column, until at a certain point the ministers stopped and sang a solemn farewell song: one by one the participants passed before the ministers, shaking their hands and saying goodbye.

Not all Methodists were in favor of this type of event, where people could not contain themselves and indulged in over the top behaviors that some found offensive. Others were in favor of these activities, which they considered propitious to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. After singing the songs, often adapted to melodies of old songs, many people in the audience were taken by a kind of frenzy and began to jump, dance, shout, agitate, Often throwing themselves to the ground to ask forgiveness or falling stunned in a sort of wonder or in the grip of convulsions. These phenomena were preparatory to experiences of conversion, sanctification and vocation (Taves 2007).

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, expressed clear condemnation of slavery in a 28-page volume entitled Thoughts on Slavery (Wesley 1774). This was one of the reasons why Methodism gained wide acclaim overseas even among black people. In addition, Methodist religion conveyed a message that was easy to understand and experience: it accepted intuitions, prophetic dreams and visions as divine messages, and, as said, admitted black people to the role of exhorters and preachers (Wigger 2001).

The abolitionist stance was embraced by the aforementioned Francis Asbury, one of the fathers of Methodism in America, sent to preach in the New World by John Wesley in 1771 and ordained bishop in 1784. However, in the post-revolutionary United States the issue of slavery proved inextricably linked to politics: in several southern states many white people were convinced of the need to maintain slavery to support the plantation-based economy. For this reason, abolitionist ideas were considered dangerous and subversive. White people often lived in fear of insurrection. Therefore, in several States, the Methodist pastors who stood for the emancipation of slaves were considered fanatics and sowers of discontent and discord…Keep reading

The increasing number of fleeing slaves and the existence of laws forcing non-racist states to return them to their rightful owners contributed to the strengthening of the legendary Underground Railroad. It was a capillary network of sympathetic people, including numerous Methodists, who from the early nineteenth century offered logistical support to help fleeing slaves reach Canada, where they would be safe.

In 1832, the Methodist Conference decided to put aside the issue of slavery, arguing that it was not a matter of religious competence but a matter of politics. Questions remained, however, as to whether slaves had the right of freedom of worship and whether it was acceptable for many Southern Methodists to own unfree labor. Therefore, the abolitionist movement became a crusade, joined by people considered fanatical and subversive, which, nevertheless, experienced considerable expansion, fueled by the lack of concrete measures in favor of a gradual abolition of slavery. The proliferation of pamphlets, booklets, and magazines that spread these ideas caused serious concern in the southern states, which feared slave uprisings.

The MEC General Conference held in 1836 in Cincinnati recommended prudence and wisdom and reiterated its firm opposition to modern abolitionism, declaring to have no intention of interfering in the civil and political relationship between the owner and the slave in the states of the Union where this relationship existed and was regulated by law (Morris-Chapman 2019). This stance was also shared by leading representatives of other religious denominations, including Baptists, Quakers (who were against violence), Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics (Mathews 2015). It was a conservative attitude, based on the idea that people of color, although worthy of charity, were still alien to American society. There was also a desire to maintain the missions that converted slaves and society for the sake of colonization and social order.

The ranks of abolitionists, however, continued to grow, giving rise to increasingly violent internal discussions. Within the Methodists three factions formed: conservative Northerners who hoped to maintain the Church unity, a minority of Northern abolitionists, and Southern Methodists. The General Conference held in Baltimore in 1840 confirmed the Methodists’ reluctance to meddle in political issues, urging members of the congregation to focus on the teaching of a life devoted to morality and holiness. The abolitionist faction began to lose hope that the MEC would ever take a stand against slavery, and, in later years, many of its representatives abandoned it.

In the occasion of the General Conference held in New York in May 1844, the debate on slavery became unavoidable and extremely heated: in particular, it was discussed whether a Southern Methodist bishop should be allowed to maintain his office even though he owned slaves. The response to this issue was negative, with 110 votes against 69. At this point, the separation of the Methodist Episcopal Church into two parts, one in the North and one in the South, became inevitable. The schism was formalized in May 1845, with the secession of the Southern Methodists into the Southern Methodist Episcopalian Church, MECS.

The Southern Methodists argued that it was necessary to “give Caesar what was Caesar’s” and they were proud of their position, respectful of the law and institutions, aligned with the Scriptures and promoting peace. They also would not miss any chance to attack the abolitionists, accusing them of being “German socialists” and “politicized pastors” aiming at breaking down all Churches (Purifoy 1966).

By the end of 1830, the MEC had already sent the Reverend Thomas Johnson to Kansas to establish a mission for the Shawnee Indians in that territory. The following year, the Baptist Mission was founded and so was the Quaker Mission but in 1837. In theory, the three denominations had the same objective; nevertheless, they soon started competing for the conversion of the souls. Thomas Johnson had excellent administrative skills, a great sense of business, and a remarkable ambition. He founded and ran a school with attached handicraft workshops, the Shawnee Manual Labor School, gaining the approval of the Methodist commission in 1838. He then secured the support of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and convinced the Shawnee chiefs of the need for such institute. The school occupied about two thousand acres, located half a mile west of the Missouri border along the Santa Fe railway. With its three large brick buildings that served as schools/dormitories and numerous other facilities and laboratories, the Shawnee Manual Labor School reached hundreds of students, surpassing by far all other missions…Keep reading

Although early American Methodists had argued that their kingdom “was not of this world,” trying in this way to keep themselves away from the temporal power, it had proved impossible for them to ignore various issues of public morality, such as alcoholism, controversies related to the economic development, the immigration of a large number of Catholics, territorial expansion and slavery. The mingling with politics was also due to the size of the Methodist congregation, which made it an important pool of votes.From an organizational point of view, politicians learned a lot from the Methodists, especially about strategies to reach a large audience, arouse and maintain their interest and solicit their enthusiasm. Many political candidates used the same places as for the camp meetings to organize gatherings of three or four days. In these occasions, they would also adopt the model involving the chanting of hymns in alternation with political rallies. The Manichaean tones of this type of propaganda left little room for compromise and for the search for a common consensus (Cawardine 2000).

In Kansas, the abolitionist Methodists, coming from the free states, worked to spread ideas and knowledge throughout the population. Determined to fight for freedom, they clashed with the pro-slavery faction, equally determined to drive them away. Several episodes of violence arose, symptomatic of the sizeable tension: an MEC preacher on his way to Kansas City was intercepted by some men who poured alcohol into his throat and threatened to kill him. Some Southern outlaws raided one of the elders in the South Kansas District and took away all of his goods, including his horses. In Missouri, supervisory committees were formed against abolitionist preachers: Southerners would break into quarterly meetings, block camp meetings, sermons, and expel the preachers from the state. The stronger it was the position of the Northern Methodists against slavery on one hand and against slave owners on the other – who they wanted to expel from the MEC – the more tenser the situation would become. A young minister of the Northern congregation was forced to descend from the pulpit and, in light clothing, sent back to Iowa on horseback, where he died shortly afterwards. Another reverend had his mouth filled and his head smeared with pitch before being left under the scorching sun. A third one was shot to death (Cawardine 2000).

In 1858 and the following year the annual conferences of the Northern Methodist Church (MEC) passed some resolutions against slavery, so the Southern Methodists belonging to the MECS (which had split from the MEC in 1844) felt fully entitled to chase the “abolitionist emissaries” away from their territories.

Internal unrest within the Methodist community mirrored the political situation: the term Bloody Kansas was coined to indicate the bloody pre-Civil War episodes that persisted along the border between Kansas and Missouri from 1854 to 1859, causing significant material damage and loss of life. Dr. A.T. Still actively participated in the clashes, siding with James Henry Lane and John Brown in the repeated guerrilla actions and punitive expeditions between the pro- and anti- slavery factions (Gevitz factions 2019).

In 1859 John Brown attempted to start a revolt in Virginia, creating a growing fear of insurrection in the Southern states. In the summer of 1860 in Texas, an angry mob captured and hanged Anthony Bewely, a modest and peaceful MEC reverend who had been preaching for thirty years. According to some, the fact that the Southern Methodists did not strongly condemn the murder is indicative of how the MECS could no longer distinguish between those Northern Methodists who were abolitionist fanatics and those who were antislavery constitutionalists and supporters of the social order. However, it should be noted that the MEC General Conference, held in Buffalo in May 1860, had amended the chapter on slavery, declaring it contrary to the laws of God and nature, exacerbating the atmosphere even further.

Bewely’s lynching had occurred shortly before the elections would take place, and many Methodists sided with Lincoln not only for political calculation but for Christian duty. On the wave of moral indignation, they wanted: freedom for the slaves, the end of acts of terror against faithfull men like Bewley and a new direction to the Union. The Southern Methodists implicitly defended the apolitical values of early Methodism by refraining from getting involved in political questions. Instead they worked to protect the moral and socio-economic basis of the Southern settlements (Cawardine 2000).
The exacerbation of such a situation ultimately resulted in the American Civil War (1861-1865).

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Currents of thought and major events in America at Still's time

3. Bibliography of the chapter on methodism

This page is a collection of bibliographical sources related to the current of thought of Methodism: from John Wesley, founder of Methodism in England, to the most recent publications related to its evolution in the United States of America and beyond.


1. Life of John Wesley and the origin of Methodism

The Methodist movement was initiated by John Wesley during the first decades of the eighteenth century in England. He was first an Anglican pastor and later became the English theologian who founded this religious denomination. Wesley introduced rigorous rites of devotion and sound theological principles, arguing that grace could thus be obtained even during earthly life. The doctrine was accompanied by daily practice aimed at doing good deeds, with a focus on the health of the faithful: ministers had to cure not only the soul but also the body of the faithful. To this end, Wesley wrote a small book describing simple medical remedies for everyone.




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