The Failed Union Between the Methodist and Episcopal Churches

On May 17, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church announced a proposed framework for full communion between the two denominations. Perhaps the proposal will produce better results than the first efforts at reconciliation which took place in when both churches were very young. Within the first decade of Methodism’s existence as an independent church, two half-baked attempts at reunion with the Episcopal Church failed.

In the years prior to the Revolutionary War, Methodist societies in the American colonies still depended on Church of England clergy to perform the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Methodism was a movement, not a church. From the beginning, the relationship between the Methodists and the established church was often tense. In American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists, historian John Wigger characterizes the relationship like this:

From [Anglican] ministers’ points of view, Methodists were unlearned charlatans seeking to break down the basic foundations of church and society. They took people away from their work and challenged the authority of the clergy, which was based largely on their superior education. From the Methodist perspective, Anglican priests were mostly lazy hirelings, too much addicted to the pleasures of this world and too little concerned with the salvation of souls.

The social divide between Methodist preachers and priests in the Church of England was not only a matter of religion, it was a matter of class and education as well. The republican spirit sweeping America made people less willing to accept the leadership of religious, educational or political elites. Methodist preachers came from the ranks of self-educated farmers and craft-workers, not from the learned gentry.

Compared to the need, there were very few Church of England clergy in the Americas. Fewer still were on friendly terms with Methodist leaders. Once the war began, the situation became even worse. The Church of England closed the doors of many of its churches, and many of its clergy fled. With the exception of Francis Asbury, all of Wesley’s lay preachers returned to England as well. Asbury remained in the Americas, but his ability to travel was severely restricted by Revolutionary authorities.

The lack of both Anglican clergy and central Methodist oversight created a vacuum that Methodists in southern Virginia and North Carolina took upon themselves to fill. By 1779, they were ordaining their own clergy, and fomented a crisis within the Methodist movement. The act of ordination not only threatened Methodism’s relationship to the Anglican Church, it endangered the unity of the Methodist connection itself. Asbury wrote,

“I find the spirit of separation grows among them, and fear that it will generate malevolence, and evil speaking … they say, ‘We don’t want your unconverted ministers; the people will not receive them.’ I expect to turn out shortly among them, and fear a separation will be unavoidable.” (Quoted in Wigger)

One of Asbury’s first challenges was to persuade the southern contingent not to take such a drastic step without the approval of the wider Methodist connection.

The issue took a dramatic turn in September 1784 when John Wesley decided to ordain clergy for service among the American Methodists. Wesley explained the decision this way:

I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury to be joint superintendents over our brethren in North America. As also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey to act as elders among them, by baptizing and ministering the Lord’s supper. If any one will point out a more rational and scriptural way of feeding and guiding those poor sheep in the wilderness I will gladly embrace it. At present I cannot see any better method than that I have taken. It has indeed been proposed to desire the English bishops to ordain part of our preachers for America. But to this I object, 1. I desired the Bishop of London to ordain one only, but could not prevail; 2. If they consented, we know the slowness of their proceedings; but the matter admits of no delay; 3. If they would ordain them now they would likewise expect to govern them. And how grievously would this entangle us! 4. As our American brethren are now totally disentangled, both from the state and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again, either with the one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.”

And while Wesley described the schismatic ordinations simply as a practical necessity, American Methodists did not necessarily see it that way. Many American Methodists were itching to put their Anglican roots behind them. The differences between the two groups in matters of leadership, piety and worship were seemingly insurmountable. American Methodists, for example, never really accepted the abridged Anglican Book of Common Prayer Mr. Wesley sent with Dr. Coke for use in America. Methodists here preferred a more spontaneous, dynamic, “white hot” form of worship. Social, economic and educational differences continued to divide the two groups.

In December 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church came into existence at the “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore, and there weren’t a lot of tears shed over the tragic schism. Coke’s sermon at the founding conference was filled with invective aimed at the Anglicans. The Anglican church was “filled with the parasites and bottle companions of the rich and the great.” It was the church of drunkards and fornicators, and it clergy denied that believers could experience the witness of the Spirit. This, Coke declared, was “fundamental, yea, essentially necessary to constitute a child of God.” Coke continued, “We cannot be ignorant that they justify as innocent many of the criminal pleasures of the world—card playing, dancing, theatrical amusements, &c.—pleasures utterly inconsistent with union and communion with God.” (Quotes via Wigger)

At the same time, in 1784, the American remnants of the Church of England were just beginning to feel their way forward in the newly independent states. Samuel Seabury was elected in Connecticut as the first Episcopal bishop in 1783, and was consecrated by non-juring bishops in Scotland in November 1784. Bishops in England could not then legally consecrate a bishop who would not swear allegiance to the king. In 1786, the legal barriers to the consecration of American bishops was removed with the passage of the Consecration of Bishops Abroad Act, and in 1787 William White and Samuel Provost were ordained as bishops for Pennsylvania and New York respectively. The Protestant Episcopal Church was finally constituted as distinct religious body and separated from the Church of England in 1789.

Amazingly, then, just as American Methodists were about to separate themselves permanently from their Anglican brethren in 1784, a pair of Anglican clergymen attempted to bring the two disorganized groups back together under one umbrella. Wigger writes:

Indeed, two Baltimore Episcopal clergymen, John Andrews, rector of St. Thomas’s and St. James’s parishes in Baltimore County, and William West, rector of St. Paul’s Church in town, hurriedly arranged a meeting with Coke just prior to the Christmas Conference to propose a plan for consolidating the Methodist and Episcopal churches. On December 31, 1784, Andrews wrote to William Smith, Maryland’s leading Episcopal clergyman, describing the outcome of this meeting. “At the appointed hour, which was six in the evening, he [Coke] did not fail to attend us; and brought with him Mr. Goff [Gough] and Mr. Asbury.” While they drank tea, Coke “was full of vivacity and entertained us with a number of little anecdotes not disagreeably.” “At length” Andrews and West revealed their plan, suggesting that Coke could be consecrated a bishop in the new, consolidated church. He was, after all, an Oxford-educated priest of the Church of England and would trail large numbers of new members in his wake. While they plied Coke with this offer, Andrews and West essentially ignored Asbury. They assumed that Coke was the only person of consequence in the room, confirming for Asbury how misguided their proposal was. The clergymen were prepared to accept Coke as their equal, but past experience and their present conduct indicated that the same wouldn’t be true for the rest of the Methodist preachers. According to Andrews, Asbury told them “that the difference between us lay not so much in doctrines and forms of worship as in experience and practice. He complained that the Methodists had always been treated by us, with abundance of contempt; and that for his own part, tho’ he had travelled over all parts of this Continent, there were but four clergymen of our Church from whom he had received any civilities.” Not willing to give up so easily, and again overlooking Asbury, Andrews went to see Coke a day or two later to renew the offer. Coke, of course, had no instructions from Wesley to consider any sort of consolidation and told Andrews so.

Asbury strongly objected to the plan because it would leave almost all of the uncultured, working-class, informally educated Methodist preachers out of the picture. And given the Anglican resistance to the outbreaks of Methodist “enthusiasm”, the merger would surely throw a wet blanket over the fires of Methodist revival that were breaking out all over, especially in the mid-south.

The proposed merger of 1784 never moved any further than a meeting over tea. In 1791, Dr. Coke revived the idea and then it was his turn to take the first step. Again, Wigger writes:

Even as the [1791] Virginia conference sat, Coke was launching a new intrigue. On April 24, without telling Asbury, Coke wrote a letter to Bishop William White of the Protestant Episcopal Church (the former Church of England in America) proposing reconciliation between the Episcopal and Methodist churches in America. Coke and Asbury were traveling together at the time, so there is no doubt that Coke deliberately kept the letter secret. What sort of mandate Coke thought he had for this is difficult to imagine, at least from the American perspective, other than a sense that the Methodists should never have separated from the church of his youth in the first place. Still, Coke, ever the visionary, pressed his case. He began by reminding White that he had been “brought up in the Church of England, & have been ordained a Presbyter of that Church,” but “thro’ a Variety of Causes and Incidents,” had lost his first love. Consequently, for a time he had become “exceedingly biased” against the Church, and had therefore likely gone “further in the separation of our Church in America than Mr. Wesley … did intend.” In other words, the creation of an independent American church had been a mistake, one that he and Wesley would now gladly take back if they could. But why should the Episcopal Church want them back? Here Coke stressed the size of American Methodism, which could count “above 60,000 Adults” (actual membership in 1791 stood at 63,269 whites and 12,884 blacks). Moreover, this was only the tip of the iceberg with regards to Methodism’s real audience, according to Coke. Adding in the nonmembers who “constantly” attended Methodist meetings and the children of members and sympathizers brought the total “which form our Congregations in these states” to 750,000, a ratio of more than twelve adherents for every one member. …

Hence, reunion offered Episcopalians the opportunity to instantly and vastly increase the size of their church. There were of course obstacles in the way. To begin with, the current Methodist preachers would never give up their ordinations. Since none of the American preachers had a classical education, they would be suspicious that even if the current Episcopal bishops dropped the requirement that ministers demonstrate proficiency in “learned Languages,” (primarily Latin and Greek) their successors might not. The obvious solution was to have a “Methodist” bishop included in the unified Episcopal structure, and Coke clearly had himself in mind. But the greatest obstacle to reunification was Asbury, “whose Influence is very capital,” and who “will not easily comply; nay, I know he will be exceedingly averse to it,” Coke wrote. He assured White that Wesley fully supported a reunion and “would use his Influence to the utmost … to accomplish that (to us) very desirable Object.” Coke closed the letter by imploring White to keep their correspondence secret until they could meet in person. At this point he probably believed that Asbury would have to be forced out for his plan to succeed, …

A delay in Philadelphia allowed [Coke] to have tea three times with Bishop White, whose response to Coke’s proposal was better than he had dared hope, to the point of suggesting that the Episcopalians might be willing to ordain Asbury a bishop along with Coke. Encouraged by White’s response, Coke wrote to Protestant Episcopal Bishop Samuel Seabury of Connecticut on May 14, 1791, confessing that although he had earlier “promoted separation from” the Church of England, “within these two years I am come back again: my Love for the Church of England has returned.” After repeating many of the same arguments from his earlier letter to White, Coke concluded by suggesting that if the Episcopal church “would consent to yr Consecration of Mr. Asbury and me as Bishops of the Methodist Society in the Protestant Episcopal Church in these United States,” and give assurances that there would always be a “regular supply” of Methodist bishops, then “all other mutual stipulations would soon be settled.” All of this was conjecture on Coke’s part, and he had to admit to Seabury that “I do not fully know Mr. Asbury’s mind on the subject. I have my fears in respect to his sentiments: and if he do not accede to the Union, it will not take place so completely as I could wish.” Unfortunately for Coke, Seabury was more of a High Churchman than White; he and other leading Episcopalians weren’t about to agree to these terms. It would be some time before Coke realized just how badly he had miscalculated.

And thus ended the first efforts at reunion between Methodists and their Episcopal brethren. Better luck this time, brothers and sisters.