Wesley Center Online

History of the Methodist Episcopal Church


The first General Conference — Lovely Lane Chapel — Wesley's Letter to the American Methodists — Coke and Asbury elected Superintendents or Bishops — Whatcoat's Account of the Proceedings — Coke's Sermon at the Consecration of Asbury — Character of the Conference — Preachers present — Were their Measures in accordance with Wesley's Intentions? —Expediency of the Episcopal Title of the New Church

On Friday, the 24th of December, [1] 1784, the apostolic little company rode from Perry Hall to Baltimore, and at ten o'clock A.M. began the first "General Conference," in the Lovely Lane Chapel. The latter was still a rude structure, and Coke commended gratefully the kindness of the people in furnishing a large stove, and backs to some of the seats, for the comfort of the Conference. [2]

Garrettson had sped his way over twelve hundred miles in six weeks, calling to Baltimore the itinerants, and preaching as he went, and had returned to find sixty present. Coke, on taking the chair, presented a letter from Wesley, dated Bristol, September 10th, 1784, and addressed "To Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury, and our Brethren in North America." It said that "by a very uncommon train of providences, many of the provinces of North America are totally disjoined from the British empire, and erected into independent states. The English government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical, many more than over the states of Holland. A civil authority is exercised over the them, partly by the Congress, partly by the state Assemblies. But no one either exercises or claims any ecclesiastical authority at all. In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these states desire my advice, and in compliance with their desire I have drawn up a little sketch. Lord King's Account of the Primitive Church convinced me, many years ago, that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain. For many years I have been importuned from time to time to exercise this right, by ordaining part of our traveling preachers. But I have still refused, not only for peace' sake, but because I was determined, as little as possible, to violate the established order of the national Church, to which I belonged. But the case is widely different between England and North America. Here there are bishops who have a legal jurisdiction. In America there are none, and but few parish ministers; so that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord's supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order and invade no man's right, by appointing and sending laborers into the harvest. 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."

In accordance with this document "it was agreed," says Asbury, "to form ourselves into an Episcopal Church, and to have superintendents, elders, and deacons." Asbury declined ordination to the superintendency, unless, in addition to the appointment of Wesley, his brethren should formally elect him to that office. [3] Coke and he were unanimously elected superintendents. Whatcoat's notes of the occasion, though brief, are more specific than any other contemporary document relating to it. He says: "On the 24th we rode to Baltimore; at ten o'clock we began our Conference, in which we agreed to form a Methodist Episcopal Church, in which the Liturgy (as presented by the Rev. John Wesley) should be read, and the sacraments be administered by a superintendent, elders, and deacons, who shall be ordained by a presbytery, using the Episcopal form, as prescribed in the Rev. Mr. Wesley's prayer book. Persons to be ordained are to be nominated by the superintendent, elected by the Conference, and ordained by imposition of the hands of the superintendent and elders; the superintendent has a negative voice." [4] He further states that on the second day of the session Asbury was ordained deacon by Coke, assisted by his presbyters, Vasey and Whatcoat; on Sunday, the third day, they ordained him elder; on Monday he was consecrated superintendent, his friend, Otterbein, of the German Church, assisting Coke and his elders in the rite. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were spent in enacting rules of Discipline, and the election of preachers to orders. On Friday several deacons were ordained; on Saturday, January 1st, 1785, the project of Abingdon College was considered; on Sunday, the 2d, twelve elders (previously ordained deacons) and one deacon were ordained; "and we ended," adds Whatcoat, "our Conference in great peace and unanimity."

The session was a jubilee to the Methodists of Baltimore and its vicinity. Coke preached every day at noon, two of his discourses being especially on the ministerial office, and afterward published; there was preaching, by other members of the body, every morning and evening; Otterbein's Church, and the Methodist chapels in the town and at the Point, were occupied by them. Coke says: "Our Conference continued ten days. I admire the American preachers. We had nearly sixty of them present; the whole number is eighty-one. They are indeed a body of devoted, disinterested men, but most of them young. The spirit in which they conducted themselves, in choosing the elders, was most pleasing. I believe they acted without being at all influenced by friendship, resentment, or prejudice, both in choosing and rejecting. The Lord was peculiarly present while I was preaching my two pastoral sermons. On one of the weekdays, at noon, I made a collection toward assisting our brethren who are going to Nova Scotia; and our friends generously contributed fifty pounds currency — thirty pounds sterling."

Coke's sermon at the Episcopal consecration of Asbury produced a vivid impression, and presents some eloquent passages. After describing the true bishop it thus concludes: "O thou lover of souls, who willest not the death of a sinner, have pity on the world. Remember Calvary. Hear the pleading Intercessor, and raise up men after thine own heart, full of the Holy Ghost, full of love, and full of zeal. Guide them by thy Spirit, accompany them with thine omnipotence, that they may tread the kingdom of Satan under their feet, and build up thy glorious Church. You may now perceive the dreadful effects of raising immoral or unconverted men to the government of the Church. The baneful influence of their example is so extensive that the skill and cruelty of devils can hardly fabricate a greater curse than an irreligious bishop. But thou, O man of God, follow after righteousness, godliness, patience, and meekness. Be an example to the believers in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Keep that which is committed to thy trust. Be not ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, but a partaker of the afflictions of the Gospel according to the power of God. Endure hardships as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Do the work of an evangelist, and make full proof of thy ministry, and thy God will open to thee a wide door, which all thy enemies shall not be able to shut. He will carry his Gospel by thee from sea to sea, and from one end of the continent to another. O thou who art the Holy One and the True, consecrate this thy servant with the fire of divine love; separate him for thy glorious purpose, make him a star in thine own right hand, and fulfill in him and by him the good pleasure of thy goodness."

Watters says that Wesley's plan was adopted "in a regular formal manner, with not one dissenting voice." Black, from Nova Scotia, gazed upon the scene with admiration. "Perhaps," he says, "such a number of holy, zealous, godly men never before met together in Maryland, perhaps not on the continent of America."

It is now too late to identify all the preachers who constituted this important Conference. We are certain of the presence of Thomas Coke, LL.D., Francis Asbury, Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, Freeborn Garrettson, William Gill, Reuben Ellis, Le Roy Cole, Richard Ivey, James O'Kelly, John Haggerty, Nelson Reed, James O. Cromwell, Jeremiah Lambert, John Dickins, William Glendenning, Francis Poythress, Joseph Everett, William Black of N. S., William Phoebus, and Thomas Ware. It has been supposed, from their standing, and the proximity of their circuits, that the following also were present: Edward Dromgoole, Caleb B. Pedicord, Thomas S. Chew, Joseph Cromwell, John Major, Philip Cox, Samuel Rowe, William Partridge, Thomas Foster, George Mair, Samuel Dudley, Adam Cloud, Michael Ellis, James White, Jonathan Forrest, Joseph Wyatt, Philip Bruce, John Magary, William Thomas, John Baldwin, Woolman Hickson, Thomas Haskins, Ira Ellis, John Easter, Peter Moriarty, Enoch Matson, Lemuel Green, Thomas Curtis, William Jessup, Wilson Lee, Thomas Jackson, James Riggin, William Ringold, Isaac Smith, Matthew Greentree, William Lynch, Thomas Bowen, Moses Park, William Cannon, and Richard Swift. [5]

Of the personal appearance and character of the members it has been said that nothing arrested the attention of Dr. Coke more, as he looked over the assembly for the first time, than the generally youthful aspect of the preachers, though most of them, he says, bore the marks of severe toil and hard usage. Some of them had suffered imprisonment for conscience' sake, and others the maltreatment of their persons by infuriated mobs. "Leaving out Asbury and his English brethren, Whatcoat and Vasey, who were yet in the prime of life, the American preachers had still about them the prestige of a vigorous manhood. Few, if any of them, would now be called old men. Dromgoole, who joined the Conference in 1774, had traveled but ten years, and sat as senior among his brethren. John Cooper and William Glendenning were one year later, and then Francis Poythress and Freeborn Garrettson, who entered the Conference in 1776. After this we see the names of eleven, including John Dickins and Caleb B. Pedicord, who joined in 1777, and for 1778 and 1779 eight more. These fourteen preachers, with Dr. Coke, Bishop Asbury, Richard Whatcoat, and Thomas Vasey, in all eighteen, constituted properly what might be called the age of the Conference, being men of experience, and well acquainted with the workings of Methodism. A few others had traveled four years, some three; a considerable number two years, and others even not more than ten months. Thus a large proportion of the members of that great council were young men, young, at least, in the work of the ministry; but many of them, doubtless, had old heads on young shoulders. With such master-spirits as Coke and Asbury, Whatcoat, Dromgoole, Poythress, Garrettson, and Dickins to direct and influence their deliberations, nothing was likely to be done, was done, but what was best for the whole Church. Their work of ten days has been before us for three fourths of a century, and speaks for itself; will continue to speak in all coming time as presenting one of the wisest and fairest monuments of human arrangement for the good of the race. The secret of their success was their oneness of spirit. Like the disciples in the Jerusalem chamber, 'they were all of one heart and of one mind.' Whoever looks at the system of rules or of government devised and sent forth by the General Conference of 1784 must concede to it a 'wholesidedness,' and unselfishness both as it regards the preachers themselves and the people under their care. Casting aside all precedents as unauthoritative in Church government, and looking to the examples of Christ and his apostles, they went straight on in the work of planning and executing, knowing at the time the obloquy and scorn with which they would be assailed from every quarter; and now that men have grown wiser in spite of themselves, the Methodists can look up in conscious manhood while pointing to the result, and say, 'Behold what God hath wrought.' " [6]

In compliance with the call from Nova Scotia, Garrettson and James O. Cromwell were ordained elders for that province. Jeremiah Lambert was ordained to the same office for Antigua, in the West Indies. For the United States the elders were John Tunnell, William Gill, Le Roy Cole, Nelson Reed, John Haggerty, Reuben Ellis, Richard Ivey, Henry Willis, James O'Kelly, and Beverly Allen. Tunnell, Willis, and Allen were not present, but received ordination after the session. John Dickins, Ignatius Pigman, and Caleb Boyer were chosen deacons. Boyer and Pigman were ordained in June following at the Conference in Baltimore.

Were these extraordinary proceedings in accordance with the intentions of Wesley? The question has been gravely asked, but never by any recognized Methodist authority on either side of the Atlantic. "Churchmen" have contended that Wesley designed merely to provide, for a temporary exigency in his American Societies, by an anomalous commission, vested in Coke and his associates; that his acts at Bristol were not considered by him "ordinations," and that Coke and Asbury transcended his designs in forming the "Methodist Episcopal Church." The historical facts of the case are so palpable and demonstrative that it is astonishing any such suspicion could for a moment be entertained. Wesley believed in the scriptural parity of bishops and presbyters, and the essential right of the latter to ordain. In his preparatory consultation with Coke he stated, as we have seen, this opinion, and referred to the ancient Alexandrian Church as presenting an example of it; and in his letter, by Coke, to the American Conference, he cites, in vindication of his proceedings, Lord King's "Primitive Church" as proving it; expressly using the word "ordination," and justifying his acts at Bristol "ordinations." Coke was already a presbyter of the Church of England; to what was he now ordained then, by Wesley, if not to the only remaining office of bishop? Wesley precluded his brother, Charles Wesley, from the Bristol proceedings, because of his well-known prelatical prejudices; why such a precaution if these proceedings were merely what "Churchmen" allege them to have been? Presbyters were summoned to take part in these proceedings, according "to the usages of the Church of England" in ordinations; why, if they were not ordinations? Whatcoat and Vasey were consecrated by two separate acts, on two successive days, as deacons and elders; why these distinct ceremonies if they were merely endued with a nondescript commission? Would not one suffice if there were no reference to some established usage? and where is there any such usage in the Christian Church, aside from ordination? Wesley prepared, printed, and sent by Coke a Ritual, containing the forms of the English Church for the ordinations of bishops, presbyters, and deacons, to be used by the new American Church in its ministerial consecrations; why, if he designed no ordinations, no Episcopal regimen in the new Church? and why put them in permanent printed form if they were not designed to be permanent provisions? He changed the name of bishop to superintendent, of presbyter to elder, (synonymous titles in both instances,) but retained the name of deacon; why, if the change were not solely to avoid the adventitious and pretentious associations of the higher titles, while retaining their essential significance and the humbler title unchanged? [7]

The American Minutes, published a few months after the Baltimore General Conference, declared that "following the counsels of Mr. John Wesley, who recommended the Episcopal mode of Church government," the Conference had formed "an Episcopal Church." These Minutes were, soon afterward, under the eye of Wesley, and in 1786 the American Discipline, with similar declarations, was reprinted, with the Liturgy prepared by Wesley, in London and under Wesley's care, but be never demurred at their language. [8] By July Coke himself was again in England, attending Wesley's Conference, and reporting his American proceedings; Charles Wesley attacked him and "his Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore." He defended himself through the press by asserting that "he had done nothing but under the direction of Mr. Wesley;" and the latter declared to his brother, "I believe Dr. Coke as free from ambition as from covetousness. He has done nothing rashly that I know." For four years the title "superintendent" was used by the American Methodists instead of that of "bishop," but the latter had been inserted in their Minutes, which say that "following the counsel of Mr. John Wesley, who recommended the Episcopal mode of government, we thought it best to become an Episcopal Church, making the Episcopal office elective, and the elected superintendent, or bishop, amenable to the body of ministers and preachers." The title was thus inserted in the very first Minutes issued after the Christmas Conference, issued in the year in which that Conference closed, and but a few months after its adjournment. [9] Wesley never objected to this incidental use of it. When, however, [8] the superintendents began personally to be called bishops, he wrote a letter to Asbury emphatically objecting to its use as a personal title. Upon this letter has been founded most of the misconstructions of his design in the organization of the American Church. It is, however, indisputably clear that it was not to their Episcopal function, but their personal Episcopal title that he objected; he wished not to see, associated with the function, the pretentious ecclesiastical dignities which had become identified with it in the High-Church fables and follies of his age. May it not then be asserted, as I have ventured to affirm, in the discussion of this subject in another work, that, looking at this series of arguments, the American Methodists will be acquitted of presumption when they assume that they may here make a triumphant stand, surrounded by evidence superabundant and impregnable. The ecclesiastical system under which it has pleased God to give them and their families spiritual shelter and fellowship with his saints, and whose efficiency has surprised the Christian world, is not, as their opponents would represent, an imposition of their preachers, and contrary to the wishes of Wesley, but was legitimately received from his hands as the providential founder of Methodism. If Wesley's strong repugnance to the mere name of bishop had been expressed, before its adoption by the American Church, it would probably not have been adopted. Still, the American Church was now a separate organization, and was at perfect liberty to dissent from Wesley on a matter of mere expediency. The Church thought it had good reasons to use the name. The American Methodists were mostly of English origin. The people of their country among whom Methodism was most successful were either from England or of immediate English descent, and had been educated to consider Episcopacy a wholesome and an apostolical government of the Church. They approved and had the office, why not, then, have the name? especially as, without the name, the office itself would be liable to lose, in the eyes of the people, its peculiar character, and thereby fail in that appeal to their long established opinions which Methodism had a right, both from principle and expediency, to make? The English Establishment having been dissolved in this country, and the Protestant Episcopalians not being yet organized on an independent basis, and the episcopal organization of the Methodists having preceded that of the Protestant Episcopalians, the Methodist Church had a clear right to present itself to the American public as competent to aid in supplying the place of the abolished Establishment, having the same essential principles without its peculiar defects. And may not the fact of the assumption of an episcopal character, nominally as well as really, by the American Methodists, be considered providential? Episcopacy, both in America and England, has reached an excess of presumption and arrogance. The moderate party, once declared by Bishop White, of the Protestant Episcopal Church, to include a large majority of American Episcopalians, [10] has nearly disappeared. Was it not providential, under these circumstances, that a body of Christians should appear, exceeding every other in success, and nominally and practically bearing an Episcopal character, without any of its presumptuous pretensions? Amid the uncharitable assumptions of prelatical Episcopalians, the Methodist Episcopal Church stands forth a monument of the laborious and simple Episcopacy of the early ages; its success, as well as its humility, contrasting it with its more pretentious but feebler sister. It has thus practically vindicated Episcopacy as an expedient form of ecclesiastical government, and assuredly it needs vindication in these days. Such, then, is the evidence which should, with all men of self-respectful candor, conclude decisively the question of Wesley's design and agency in the organization of American



1 Not the 25th, as Bangs (Hist., i, 157) and Wakeley (Lost Chapters, 304) say; nor the 27th, as Lee Hist., 94) says. Lee, however, followed the published Minutes, which, in their very title, give the date as the 27th. (See them in Emory's Hist. of the Dis., p. 26.) The reader has already been often reminded of the errata of our early official documents. For the present correction compare Coke's certificate of Asbury's ordination, (Bangs, i, 157,) Coke's Journal, (p. 23,) Asbury's Journal, (i, 486,) and especially Whatcoat's Journal, (p. 21.) Coke says expressly, "On Christmas eve we opened our Conference," meaning, however, not so much the evening as the day preceding Christmas. It was called the "Christmas Conference" because it extended through the "Christmas week."

2 Dr. Hamilton: letter to the author.

3 Lee, p. 94.

4 Mems., p. 21. There are no official record, or Minutes of this Conference except the preliminary reference to it in the Minutes of 1785, and the Discipline, as published after the Conference. The latter is given entire in Emory's Hist. of the Dis., p. 25. New York. 1844.

5 Lednum, p. 413.

6 Dr. Hamilton to the author.

7 The title of the Form for Superintendents in the Ritual is "The Form of Ordaining of a Superintendent."

In 1789, about two years before the death of Wesley, the American Minutes declared that "in the year 1784 the Rev. John Wesley determined, at the intercession of multitudes of his spiritual children on this continent, to ordain ministers for America. Preferring the Episcopal mode of Church government, he set apart Thomas Coke for the Episcopal office, and having delivered to him letters of Episcopal orders, directed him to set apart Francis Asbury for the same Episcopal office, in consequence of which the said Francis Asbury was solemnly set apart for the said Episcopal office." Evidently, then, Wesley had not disapproved the language of the previous Minutes, now more than four years before the public.

9 Minutes, etc., i, p.22.

10 Case of the Prot. Epis. Church in the United States, etc., p. 25.

Text scanned and proofread by Rev. & Mrs. Duane V. Maxey
Holiness Data Ministry
P. O. Box 482
Coeur D' Alene, WA 99208

HTML conversion by Paul Leclerc and George Lyons
Copyright 2000 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology
of Northwest Nazarene University,
Nampa, Idaho 83686.

Text may be freely used for personal or scholarly purposes, provided this notice is left intact.
This text may not be redistributed in any for-profit form or mirrored at any other website without the expressed, written consent of the Wesley Center.

If you have any questions regarding these files, please contact the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.