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The Christmas Gift: A New Church

The American colonies were a problem to England. The American colonies were a problem to John Wesley as well.

One area of difficulty was political. It was known that John Wesley supported the right of Parliament to tax the colonies. In a pamphlet titled A Calm Address to Our American Colonies, Wesley held that the colonies had “ceded to the King and Parliament, the power of disposing, without their consent, … their lives, liberties and properties.” Holding such a belief alienated those striving for independence from England. Francis Asbury served a transitional role. In a letter he stated his belief Americans would establish a free and independent nation and that he felt bound in affection to too many Americans to depart the colonies as most preachers sent by Wesley already had done. That allegiance to a people, coupled with the patience and sincerity of Methodists under persecution, may have been what led to a reduction in opposition to the Methodist faith.

The second area of difficulty – a spiritual crisis to John Wesley – was the lack of an ordained clergy to provide baptism and communion to the American followers of Methodism. Wesley had sought to have clergy ordained by Anglican bishops for work in America, but in the colonies even Anglican preachers had returned to England or gone north to Canada with the coming of war. Ordination between preachers in the southern colonies, as an attempt to provide the sacraments, did not win the approval of northern preachers. The southern preachers were thought to have left Methodism. Francis Asbury, with the support of the northern preachers, met with southern dissidents in Manakintown, Virginia. A compromise was reached at the Virginia meeting: it was decided to suspend the practice of administering the sacraments, on the condition that Francis Asbury would write to John Wesley for guidance.

Four years later, John Wesley offered a solution. Reading Lord Peter King’s Account of the Primitive Church, Wesley was convinced that bishops and presbyters (ordained ministers) are of the same order and have equal rights to ordain, especially in an emergency situation. Wesley was also convinced that America constituted an emergency situation due to the absence of Anglican bishops to baptize, offer communion, or ordain (Wesley’s previous answer). Additionally, America had gained political independence and its own civil authority; but “no one,” Wesley said, “either exercises or claims ecclesiastical authority.” On the morning of September 1, 1784, John Wesley, assisted by Thomas Coke and James Creighton (both Anglican priests), ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as deacons. The next day Whatcoat and Vasey were ordained as elders. Thomas Coke was set apart by Wesley, acting with the assistance of Creighton and Whatcoat, to serve as a “superintendent,” functioning as a bishop for American work. Coke, Whatcoat, and Vasey sailed to America. John Wesley’s certificate of ordination setting Thomas Coke apart as superintendent is considered the basic document on which Methodist ordination rests.

A letter to “Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury, and our Brethren in America” included the appointment of Dr. Coke and Mr. Asbury as joint superintendents over the Methodist brethren in North America. After landing in New York, Coke, Whatcoat, and Vasey stopped at St. George’s Church in Philadelphia, publicly announcing their commission and revealing Wesley’s plan for American Methodist churches. The three then went to Barratt’s Chapel in Delaware, where Francis Asbury joined in their work. A meeting of preachers was called. Perhaps three-quarters of the preachers summoned responded for this Christmas Conference of 1784, held at Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. Two African American preachers, Harry Hosier and Richard Allen, it is thought, attended.

Francis Asbury, along with Thomas Coke, refused to accept John Wesley’s appointment as superintendent without election by those assembled at the conference. Coke and Asbury interpreted “superintendent” to mean more than mere supervision. Both men were not only unanimously elected, but were soon called bishops by the majority of the assembled preachers, much to the displeasure of John Wesley. Francis Asbury invited Philip William Otterbein to assist in ordination.

A book of discipline outlining General Rules for a new church, along with John Wesley’s twenty-four-article abridgment of the Thirty-Nine Anglican Articles of Religion (part of Wesley’s prayerbook The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, brought by Coke from England), was adopted.

A motion to stamp out slavery was passed at this Christmas Conference. The motion reflected both Wesley’s and Coke’s opposition to slavery. However, the rule proved short-lived when to pacify southern Methodists individual conferences were allowed to decide on the slavery issue.

Most importantly, it was at this Christmas Conference of 1784 that the Methodist movement was organized into an independent church, the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, with the purpose “to reform the continent and to spread scriptural holiness through these lands.”

Roughly a dozen persons became elders through ordination; fourteen became deacons. The former had authority to administer the sacraments of baptism and communion and all other rites of the church; the latter, the deacons, could baptize in the absence of an elder, assist elders with communion, and officiate at weddings and funerals. Francis Asbury was elected to supervise circuit-riding preachers. Ten elders remained in the thirteen colonies, serving the colonies and the western territories, and visiting the circuits every three months to preach and administer the sacraments. American Methodism had its own ordained pastors with the authority to administer the sacraments at last.

Although the Christmas Conference accepted Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, it was in practice set aside. Many preachers felt they could pray better with their eyes closed, not open, the latter being required to read ritual prayers. The frontier environment called for an extemporaneous outflow from the heart, not a book. The word “liturgy” was dropped. The General Conference of 1792 eliminated Wesley’s prescribed book of worship. Instead, a short section on “Sacramental Services” (later called “The Ritual”) was placed in the back of the Book of Discipline. It included an order for the ordaining of ministers. On the path of being reformed within an American setting, the Methodist movement had become the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.