Dee E. Andrews. The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000. xv + 367 pp. $62.50 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-00958-2.
Reviewed by Richard D. Shiels (Department of History, The Ohio State University)
Published on H-SHEAR (January, 2002)
More New Light on Early American Methodism
More New Light on Early American Methodism
For nearly a decade Nathan Hatch has been alerting the profession about "the scholarly neglect of American Methodism." The Methodists and Revolutionary America is the latest addition to a surprising number of fine studies that have appeared over that period. This book is both important and impressive. It is exhaustively researched and elegantly written. It is all the more important because of the wealth of other studies that have appeared in recent years.
Hatch initiated a new line of inquiry on the relationship of Methodism to American culture. His Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) won numerous awards including the SHEAR prize for the best book published in 1989 on the Early American Republic. John Wigger, who studied with Hatch at Notre Dame, added Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997). Cynthia Lynn Lyerly contributed Methodism and the Southern Mind, 1770-1810 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). These are all fine books. Together they present the Methodists as harbingers of a new force in American religion in the generation following the American Revolution. Like four other groups Hatch's book discusses (Baptists, Black Baptists, Christians and Mormons) the Methodists were popular and democratic. Their leaders were not college-educated elites as was true in the Anglican, Congregational or Presbyterian churches, but were often farmboys with little formal education. They spoke (and sang) the language of the people. At the same time they challenged the social order by converting large numbers of women, youth and African-Americans. They even condemned the institution of slavery, albeit briefly. For Hatch early American Methodism was in part a product of the American Revolution; for all three of them it seems revolutionary.
Christine Leigh Heyrman, Rachel Klein and Stephanie McCurry have written from a different perspective and drawn different conclusions. None of their books are primarily about Methodism; only Heyrman's is primarily about religion. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), Heyrman's latest book, focuses on the rise of evangelicalism in the South. In it she treats Baptists and evangelical Presbyterians as well as Methodists- but her sources are best for the Methodists. She gives greater attention than Hatch, Wigger or Lyerly to the years after 1800 when Methodism had already begun to change. Klein's Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry 1760-1808 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990) and McCurry's Masters of Small Worlds: Yoeman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995) each discuss religion in a single chapter.
Methodism appears far less liberating or revolutionary in these three studies. As a church they repealed any early anti-slavery policies in the 1790s. In the decades following 1800, circut riders (all men) shifted their attention to a male audience and embraced repressive expectations for women. In short, Methodism sanctified slavery and patriarchy in the South. Heyrman believes that Methodist leaders decided to do so deliberately in order to win converts and argues that evangelicalism swept the South only after that development.
Dee Andrews began work on her book even before any of these other studies appeared. The issues that divide Hatch from Heyrman had not yet arisen. She did not set out to ask whether early American Methodism was democratic or repressive. Instead she asks, "How American was early American Methodism?" She cannot be identified with either side in the ongoing conversation among historians, but of course her work corrects both sides and deepens our understanding of Methodism and American culture.
Andrews agrees with Hatch that sometime in the early nineteenth century Methodism "became the American religion" (p. 5). Her book, however, is largely about the eighteenth century, when Methodism was a British import. Whereas Hatch begins his book with a chapter on the social and cultural impact of the American Revolution, Andrews opens with a discussion of the missionary interests of John Wesley's mother. Early chapters trace the rise of Methodism from Wesley's childhood, education at Oxford and missionary efforts in Georgia in the 1730s. What Andrews wants to explain is how a British missionary movement became America's dominant denomination. The Revolution, she believes, is only part of the story.
This book qualifies The Democratization of American Christianity. Hatch argued that American Methodism "veered sharply away from the course of British Methodism" in the period he studies, roughly 1780 to 1830. It did so in part because American Methodists were able to avoid class conflict. Andrews has uncovered class tensions within the movement however. In Philadelphia, for example, the tensions between the merchant elite and the laboring rank and file led to schism and the formation of two separate Methodist churches by 1800. All across the country Methodist circuit riders were drawn largely from the working class, but Andrews is less inclined than Hatch to credit the Methodists with democratization. Methodist polity was highly centralized and hierarchical. Francis Asbury, the first Bishop, ruled the movement from the top down. Further, there was a "strong ideological effort to elevate the preachers above their striving followers," she argues (p. 222).
Finally, they were not all Jeffersonians. The political affiliation of American Methodists varied from state to state, depending upon what was best for the group in each locale. Hence, they were Democratic Republicans fighting for disestablishment in Federalist New England, but voted Federalist in Delaware where no church was legally established and their numbers were higher. The point is that while the movement was inevitably subject to all the tensions of American culture, it had at its core a British concept of the gospel. What made a convert a Methodist was not class standing, political leaning or commitment to egalitarianism but adherence to John Wesley's understanding of religious experience.
Similarly Andrews qualifies Christine Heyrman's argument that Methodism did not attract a significant portion of the population until its leaders embraced patriarchy and slavery. Her book supplements Heyrman's work on the South with material drawn from Methodist societies in Baltimore, New York and Philadelphia. What she finds suggests that early Methodism must have seemed liberating to large numbers of women. Women led class meetings more often than men in Wesley's Foundery Chapel in London in the 1740s. While the same was never true in America, women constituted the majority of Methodist converts here as well. Women of diverse ethnic backgrounds joined Methodist societies while they were yet young and single. They joined in the company of other women. Those who joined as married women did so with their sisters and mothers; husbands were much less likely to join. The preachers did not glorify married life but spoke of marriage as dangerous for the life of the spirit. "Methodist women were entering a unique social world, one in which female association predominated, separate from patriarchal family structures and community ties alike," Andrews writes. Methodism provided "a Protestant version of a Catholic sisterhood." (p.115) Here women "found their place apart from the claims of family loyalty" (p. 117).
Yet it can be said that these women "had exchanged one form of patriarchy for another: [going] from obeying their fathers' dictates to those of the Methodist Episcopal Church clergy" (p. 118). There was almost no place for women preachers in these Methodist societies--far fewer places than in the Methodist societies in England. Furthermore, the male leadership was "masculinized" in nineteenth century camp meetings. Whereas earlier preachers had rejected aggressive,competitive, violent behavior for a more gentle, perhaps feminine persona, preachers in camp meetings did not. Soon Methodist men and women alike began striving for gentility and adopted the norms of middle class society. None of this would surprise Heyrman, but Andrews rejects the argument that Methodist leaders deliberately changed their message to appeal to men or even the argument that their success depended upon the change. Rather "Methodist militancy appears to have increased alongside Methodist popularity rather than before it" (p. 229).
Finally, what about the relationship of Methodism to slavery and racism? Heyrman believes that retreat from an early critique of slavery was necessary for Methodist growth just as much as a retreat from countercultural ideas on gender. Andrews documents the initial anti-slavery position and its demise as official policy of the Methodist Church. She begins once again with Wesley. Interestingly, Wesley owed his anti-slavery sentiments to the American Quaker Anthony Benezet. Wesely made his views known by publishing Thoughts on Slavery in 1774. His American followers embraced anti-slavery first in a conference in Baltimore six years later. The minutes of that conference declare slavery "contrary to the laws of God, man and nature, and hurtful to society, contrary to the dictates of conscience and pure religion and doing that which we would not want others do to us and ours" (p. 125). The first discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, published in 1785, echoed these words and the church circulated a petition that year asking for the aboliton of slavery by legislative action in the State of Virginia. Public reaction was so great that the petition was dropped and the discipline's section on slavery was suspended within six months.
However the church did not retreat from its anti-slavery teachings overnight. Slavery was condemned by its general conference in 1796 and there were efforts to approve a stronger condemnatin in 1800. In 1804, in the aftermath of Gabriel's Rebellion, the church published two versions of its discipline: one for Virginia and the northern states with a condemnation of slavery and another for the rest of the South without it. Andrews provides these details and then argues that there is more to consider than the official pronouncements of the denomination. Freeborn Garrettson and many other Southerners freed their slaves after joining the church. "The Methodist manumission records in the lower Middle Atlantic states...is impressive," (p. 130) she concludes. Up north, Jacob Baker and others joined anti-slavery societies as well as Methodist churches.
But of course the Methodist church was not an anti-slavery society. Andrews presents it as essentially a missionary society. Methodists were the most successful--and perhaps the most committed--missionaries to slaves and free blacks. Twenty-one percent of America's Methodists were African-Americans in 1800. These included slaves, servants, artisans and others. The vast majority, based upon the records for the cities Andrews studies, were women. From the beginning most Methodist classes, societies and churches were segregated by race. Consequently some African-Americans were given leadership positions. Harry Hosier became something of a celebrity travelling throughout the country with Garrettson and other white preachers, exhorting crowds of both races after the official preaching was done by his white companion. Richard Allen became a preacher and the founder of one of two African-American Methodist denominations. "The Methodist Church all too quickly jettisoned its anti-slavery militancy," Andrews concludes, "but black followers applied its message of liberation to their own condition.... A viable African-American alternative (emerged) within the movement" (p. 124).
Hence the relationship of Methodism to American culture in this period was complex. How could it not be? The culture itself was experiencing fundamental changes which varied from one place to the next. Many American farm boys were becoming circuit riders and speaking for a movement begun by an English Tory who was opposed to slavery. Converts came from all social classes, two races and a broad range of ethnic backgrounds. Most of the converts were women, but the leadership was male. With all of this diversity, what defined Methodism was a common understanding of religious experience and a polity unlike that of any other denomination. Both of these defining characteristics it inherited from John Wesley.
. Nathan Hatch, "The Puzzle of American Methodism," Church History 63 (1994), 175-189.
. Other recent studies which are not discussed in this review include Russell Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); Russell Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, Perspectives on American Methodism: Interpretive Essays (Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 1993); A. Gregory Schneider, The Way of the Cross Leads Home: The Domestication of American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993); and Nathan O. Hatch and John Wigger, eds. Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture (Nashville, Tennessee: Kingswood Books, 2001).
. Hatch, Democratization, 6-7.
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Richard D. Shiels. Review of Andrews, Dee E., The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture.
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