Methodist Church In contrast to Roman Catholicism and Protestant denominations that came to America with the first settlers, American Methodism grew out of the First Great Awakening that swept through the colonies during the 1730s and 1740s. Because the Great Awakening separated rigorous religious tradition from spirituality and biblical truth, new groups of believers formed all over, each seeking greater understanding and fulfillment in its members' relationship with God. An outgrowth of the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, or Church of England, the first Methodist meeting was held in New York City, in the sail loft of a Manhattan rigging house. Five people attended this meeting, organized by Philip Embury.
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Two individuals who affected the establishment of this new denomination were John Wesley, an ordained Anglican priest, and George Whitefield, a dynamic preacher and Anglican evangelist. Arriving in the colonies during the 1730s, each developed an enthusiastic following, and people swarmed to hear them preach their transformational message. This asserted that all men and women were equal before God and thus did not require any kind of intermediary such as a priest or minister to stand between them and God or interpret the Bible. Indeed, coupled with the emerging egalitarianism that was developing during the years leading up to and following the American War for Independence, the Methodist message attracted hundreds, then thousands, of followers. While there were approximately 50 to 60 Methodist congregations in 1780, by 1820, there were more than 2,700. After 1820, that number multiplied dramatically, and approximately one of every thirty-six Americans declared himself or herself to be a Methodist. Francis Asbury, born in England in 1745, became the first Methodist bishop in America. During the Revolutionary War, he tried to remain neutral. But as he had ties to England, he eventually sided with the loyalists. He was able, however, to mediate many of the differences that were arising between the Northern and Southern Methodists. Traveling extensively, he crossed from one end of the country to the other many times. It is estimated that Asbury traveled more than 300, 000 miles in twenty-four years. When illness finally overtook him, he had to give up much of his ministry. Asbury died in 1816 at the age of 71. During the War for Independence, other Methodists also found it hard to remain neutral. John Wesley had urged preachers to refrain from taking a political stand, but that led many to view Methodists as Tories. The perception was unfortunate, since most Methodists believed in individual freedom of conscience and choice. Methodism also supported the establishment of missions. This outreach garnered new members among the middle class, the poor, and other overlooked populations all over America and abroad. Itinerant preachers traveled the countryside, inviting all to participate in lively camp meetings. The meetings became as much social events as religious ones, especially for those who lived in rural areas. Hymn singing took on great importance at these revivals, and several new hymnals were published, including three volumes by John Newton, whose best-known hymn is Amazing Grace. ? As a result of its democratic tenets and its bold style of worship, slaves and free African Americans flocked to the newly established church. Moreover, Methodists, like Baptists, readily appointed black preachers and incorporated black members into their congregations. John Marrant, the first African American missionary to successfully minister to the Native Americans, converted a number of the Cherokee and was ordained as a Methodist minister in London in May 1785. Another African American, Richard Allen, was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1760 and eagerly adopted Methodism at age 17. His master, also a Methodist, allowed Allen the opportunity to earn his freedom when he chose to become an itinerant preacher. Though he preached to white and blacks alike, racism was still a dividing issue, so he founded Bethel Church, a congregation of African Americans, in 1793. It wasn't long before other black congregations formed, and, in 1816, these congregations joined together to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Richard Allen served as its first bishop. The first Methodist Episcopal church in America was built in New York City in 1768 by Barbara Heck and her cousin, Philip Embury. A Wesleyan convert from Ireland, Embury had started preaching there a few years earlier. (Museum of the City of New York/Bridgeman Art Library) In 1780, the American Methodists, like the Quakers, declared that slavery was contrary to the laws of God, man, and nature. ? By 1785, the Methodist Church urged its members to free any slaves they owned. Of course, this declaration met with great resentment in the South, so that by 1800, the church withdrew its outspoken opposition. American Methodism also supported the practice of speaking in tongues, as well as belief in miracles and dreams. These mystical elements of Christianity had long been repressed in other sects and denominations, but they contributed greatly to the religious and spiritual revival that led to the establishment and growth of the Methodist Church. Gail L. Jenner See also: Bible; Christ and Christianity; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay); Document: On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield (1770). Bibliography Amos, Gary, and Richard Gardner. Never Before in History: America's Inspired Birth. Dallas, TX: Haughton, 1998. Wigger, John H. Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.