Although the Wesleyan movement remained focused on Britain and Ireland for its first twenty years, Methodist immigrants began to appear in America early in the 1760s. One of the first licensed Methodist preachers, Robert Williams, arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1769. The most influential Methodist organizer in America, Francis Asbury, began what would become a forty-five-year American ministry in 1771. Williams moved to Virginia in 1772 and capitalized on a growing revivalist movement within the Anglican church there. This spiritual fervor had begun through the work of Anglican parson Devereux Jarratt of Bath Parish, who himself had experienced conversion through the ministry of evangelical Presbyterians. Jarratt and Williams began preaching together in south-central Virginia in 1773, and in 1774 Williams formed the first Methodist circuit in Virginia, the Brunswick Circuit—originally the Petersburg Circuit—which extended south from Petersburg.
By 1775 a major Methodist-Anglican revival commenced in Williams's circuit. Even during the early stages of the American Revolution, the Methodists witnessed emotional church meetings full of penitents calling out for God's mercy. One Methodist itinerant, Thomas Rankin, wrote of meetings where "hundreds fell to the ground, and the house seemed to shake with the presence of God." These assemblies included not just whites, but also throngs of African Americans, many of whom may have been attracted by Wesley's stance against slavery. Because of the 1775–1776 revival, the number of Methodists in Virginia grew from about 2,600 to 4,400 in a year. Williams died in 1775, before he could see the full fruit of his labors, but he had successfully established an enduring Methodist presence in Virginia.
Creation of Church
Methodism in America began to flourish again almost immediately after the American Revolution ended in 1783. This new growth resulted in part from the cessation of active hostility toward Loyalists, but more important for the Methodists' long-term prospects, it grew out of the establishment of an independent American Methodist Episcopal Church. The Methodists in England technically remained within the Church of England until 1795, but in 1784 Wesley gave permission for the American pastors to ordain their own ministers, which represented a critical break with their British past. The creation of the American Methodist Episcopal Church formally transpired at a 1784 Christmas conference in Baltimore, and it gave the movement an unprecedented flexibility to adjust to circumstances in America. The separate national church established a foundation for a season of growth unmatched in American religious history.
Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke were named the first bishops of the American church, and their leadership supplied firm direction to the Methodists that nicely complemented the itinerant system, in which Methodist preachers could traverse the backcountry in search of converts with little concern for formal denominational procedures. The Methodists (along with Baptists and Presbyterians) began to see another major revival in 1785, which peaked in 1787–1788. Thousands attended meetings in Virginia in July 1787, sometimes with hundreds converting in the space of a day or two. Again, the meetings saw both blacks and whites in attendance. One observer recorded seeing "numbers of saints in ecstasies, others crying for mercy, scores lying with their eyes set in their heads, the use of their powers suspended, and the whole congregation in agitation."
The Methodists also pushed the boundaries of antislavery activism further than other evangelical groups. In 1784, the denomination went so far as to demand that church members emancipate their slaves or face excommunication, but this controversial policy was abandoned within months. Nevertheless, Methodists convinced many individual white members in Virginia and other southern states to emancipate their bound laborers.
Second Great Awakening
May 24, 1738 - John Wesley experiences conversion at a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street, London. He will go on to organize his fellow Methodist students at the University of Oxford and become one of the movement's most important leaders.
1769 - One of the first licensed Methodist preachers, Robert Williams, arrives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
1771 - Francis Asbury, the future bishop of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, comes to America, beginning what will become a forty-five-year American ministry.
1772 - Robert Williams, one of the first licensed Methodist preachers, moves from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
1773 - Methodist preacher Robert Williams begins to work with Devereux Jarratt in south-central Virginia.
1774 - Robert Williams organizes the Brunswick Circuit (first organized as the Petersburg Circuit), the first Methodist preaching circuit in Virginia.
1775–1776 - The first major Methodist awakening in Virginia takes place. During this time, Virginia's population of Methodists nearly doubles.
1785–1788 - A second major Methodist revival engulfs Virginia.
1795 - The American Methodist Episcopal Church formally separates from the Church of England and forms the American Methodist Church.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Kidd, T. S. Methodists in Early Virginia. (2012, September 20). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Methodists_in_Early_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas S. "Methodists in Early Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 20 Sep. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 2, 2011 | Last modified: September 20, 2012
Contributed by Thomas S. Kidd, an associate professor of history at Baylor University.