HISTORY

of the

METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH

in the

United States of America

 

By Abel Stevens, LL.D.,

 


VOLUME I

The Planting of American Methodism

 

BOOK I CHAPTER II

RISE OF METHODISM IN MARYLAND

Robert Strawbridge Traces of him in Ireland His Character His Emigration to America His Methodistic Labors Richard Owen, the first native Methodist Preacher Watters' Eulogy on him Strawbridge's latter Years His Death and Funeral Asbury's Opinion of Him Original Humility of American Methodism

The Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, giving a "brief account of the rise of Methodism" in their preface to the Discipline, in 1790, say, after alluding to the labors of Embury, that "about the same time Robert Strawbridge, a local Preacher from Ireland, settled in Frederick county, in the state of Maryland, and preaching there, formed some Societies." Robert Strawbridge was born at Drumsnagh, near the river Shannon, in the county of Leitrim, Ireland. An ardent Hibernian [of or concerning Ireland, Oxford Dict. DVM], his zeal for religion provoked "such a storm of persecution" among his neighbors as induced him, not long after his conversion, to escape their opposition by removing from his native place to the county of Sligo, where "his labors were signally blessed of God through a considerable district." [1] He labored also in the county of Cavan, where, for many years, aged Methodists delighted to talk of his zeal and humble but heroic preaching, and "highly prized his piety and gifts." They " recognized him as a man of more than ordinary usefulness. He was very ardent and evangelical in his spirit." He subsequently preached in the county of Armagh, residing mostly at Tanderagee. He "sounded the alarm" through all that populous rural district. Terryhugan, mentioned by Wesley as the "mother-church of these parts," was "a place to which he often resorted, and among its lively Methodists, warm in their religious affections, he found many a heart that beat in unison with his own." His name remained embalmed in the memories of the latest Methodists of that generation in Terryhugan. One of their devoted young women became his wife, and emigrated with him to America, according to some accounts, in 1760, according to others in 1764 or 1765. [2]

Strawbridge, being an Irishman by nativity and education, if not by blood, had the characteristic traits of his countrymen: he was generous, energetic, fiery, versatile, somewhat intractable to authority, and probably improvident. In his various migrations he never bettered his temporal fortunes, but he never lost the warmth or buoyancy of his religious spirit. He came to America to secure a more competent livelihood "which object, however, he never accomplished" [3] and plunged at once, with his young wife, into the "backwoods;" for Frederick county, where he settled on "Sam's Creek," had but recently been reclaimed from the perils of savage invasion. He opened his house for preaching; formed in it a Methodist Society; and, not long after, built the "Log Meeting-house" on Sam's Creek, about a mile from his home. [4] He buried beneath its pulpit two of his children. It was a rude structure, twenty-two feet square, and, though long occupied, was never finished, but remained without windows, door, or floor. "The logs were sawed on one side for a doorway, and holes were made on the other three sides for windows."

He became virtually an itinerant, journeying to and fro in not only his own large county, (then comprehending three later counties,) but in Eastern Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia; preaching with an ardor and a fluency which surprised his hearers, and drew them in multitudes to his rustic assemblies. He seemed disposed literally to let the morrow, if not, indeed, the day, take care of itself. "During his life he was poor, and the family were often straitened for food; but he was a man of strong faith, and would say to them on leaving, 'Meat will be sent here today.' " His frequent calls to preach in distant parts of the country required so much of his time that his family were likely to suffer in his absence, so that it became a question with him "who will keep the wolf from my own door while I am abroad seeking after the lost sheep?" His neighbors, appreciating his generous zeal and self-sacrifice, agreed to take care of his little farm, gratuitously, in his absence.

The Sam's Creek Society, consisting at first of but twelve or fifteen persons, was a fountain of good influence to the county and the state. It early gave four or five Preachers to the Itinerancy. Strawbridge founded Methodism in Baltimore and Harford counties. The first Society in the former was formed by him at the house of Daniel Evans, near the city, and the first chapel of the county was erected by it. The first native Methodist Preacher of the continent, Richard Owen, was one of his converts in this county; a man who labored faithfully and successfully as a Local Preacher for some years, and who entered the itinerancy at last, and died in it. [6] He was long the most effective co-laborer of Strawbridge, traveling the country in all directions, founding Societies and opening the way for the coming itinerants. The first of the latter raised up in the colonies has recorded his simple but warm-hearted eulogy; giving nearly the only information we have of the man who must bear forever the peculiar pre-eminence of being the first native standard-bearer of the Methodistic movement in the Western hemisphere. "On my way home," writes William Watters, "I saw my old friend and fellow-laborer, Richard Owen, in Leesburg, dangerously ill, and it proved the last time of my seeing him, for in a few days he resigned his soul into the hands of his merciful God. He was the first American Methodist Preacher, though for many years he acted only as a Local Preacher. He was awakened under the preaching of Robert Strawbridge. He was a man of a respectable family, of good natural parts, and of considerable utterance. Though encumbered with a family, he often left wife and children, and a comfortable living, and went into many distant parts, before we had any Traveling Preachers among us, and without fee or reward freely published that Gospel to others which he had happily found to be the power of God unto his own salvation. After we had regular Circuit Preachers among us, he, as a Local Preacher, was ever ready to fill up a gap, and, by his continuing to go into neighborhoods where there was no preaching, he was often the means of opening the way for enlarging old or forming new circuits. Several years before his dissolution, after his children were grown up and able to attend to his family concerns, he gave himself entirely to the work of the ministry, and finished his course in Leesburg, Fairfax circuit, in the midst of many kind friends, but at some distance from his home. As his last labors were in the circuit where I lived, I had frequent opportunities of being in his company, both in public and in private, and had every reason to believe that he had kept himself unspotted from the world, and had the salvation of souls much at heart. I wish it was in my power to hold him up in his real character, as an example to our present race of Local Preachers. He was plain in his dress, plain in his manners, industrious and frugal; he bore a good part of the burden and heat of the day in the beginning of that work which has since so gloriously spread over this happy continent, and was as anxious be a general blessing to mankind as too many now are to get richer and make a show in the world. I shall need to make no apology for giving this short account of so worthy a man to any who knew him."

Owen's temperament was congenial with that of Strawbridge. He clung to the hearty Irishman with tenacious affection, emulated his missionary activity, and at last followed him to the grave, preaching his funeral sermon to a "vast concourse," under a large walnut tree. "Richard Owen, the first Methodist Preacher raised up in America," says our best chronicler of these dim, early times, "was a Local Preacher in Baltimore Circuit. Although his name was printed in the Minutes, it is not said that he was received into the traveling connection until 1785. At the time of his death he had been preaching fifteen or sixteen years. Though he had charge of a large family, he traveled and preached much as a Local Preacher, in what was then the back settlements, when Methodism was in its infancy. He was a man of sound heart, plain address, good utterance, and solid judgment; and for the last two years of his life he gave himself up wholly to the work of saving souls." [7]

Several Preachers were rapidly raised up by Strawbridge in his travels in Baltimore and Harford counties: Sater Stephenson, Nathan Perigo, Richard Webster, and others; and many laymen, whose families have been identified with the whole subsequent progress of Methodism in their respective localities, [8] if not in the nation generally. We have frequent intimations of Strawbridge's labors and success in the early biographies of Methodism, but they are too vague to admit of any consecutive narration of his useful career. We discover him now penetrating into Pennsylvania, [9] and then arousing the population of the Eastern shore of Maryland; now bearing the standard into Baltimore, and then, with Owen, planting it successfully in Georgetown, on the Potomac, and in other places in Fairfax county, Virginia; and by the time that the regular itinerancy comes effectively into operation in Maryland, a band of Preachers, headed by such men as Watters, Gatch, Bowham, Haggerty, Durbin, Garrettson, seem to have been prepared, directly or indirectly through his instrumentality, for the more methodical prosecution of the great cause. At last we find his own name in the Minutes (in 1773 and 1775) as an itinerant. But it disappears unaccountably. It is probable that his Irish spirit could not brook the stern authority of Asbury and his British associates, especially the requirement which they and their party so stoutly enforced, that the administration of the sacraments by Methodist Preachers should be suspended. The Revolution, as we shall hereafter see, not only dissolved the English State Church in America, but drove out of the country most of the Anglican clergy; the Methodists who had resorted to their churches for the sacraments were therefore left without these means of grace. For months, and even years, many societies were destitute of them. A considerable party of the Preachers undertook to supply them, and a schism was imminent in the denomination. The Conference of 1773, unable to deter Strawbridge from a course which seemed to him justified by the clearest expediency, if not by moral necessity, allowed him to persist if he would do so under the direction of Rankin, Wesley's "Assistant," and practically the "Superintendent" of the Church; but Strawbridge declined this restriction. He seems to have become settled as Preacher to the Sam's Creek and Brush Forest Societies; the latter being in Harford county, and its chapel the second built in Maryland. We trace him at last to the upper part of Long Green, Baltimore county, where an opulent and generous public citizen, [10] who admired his character and sympathized with his poverty, gave him a farm, free of rent, for life. It was while residing here, "under the shadow of Hampton," his benefactor's mansion, that, in "one of his visiting rounds to his spiritual children, he was taken sick at the house of Joseph Wheeler, and died in great peace;" probably in the summer of 1781. Owen, as has been remarked, preached his funeral sermon in the open air, to a great throng, "under a tree at the northwest corner of the house." Among the concourse were a number of his old Christian neighbors, worshippers in the "Log Chapel," to whom he had been a Pastor in the wilderness; they bore him to the tomb, singing as they marched one of those rapturous lyrics with which Charles Wesley taught the primitive Methodists to triumph over the grave. He sleeps in an orchard of the friend at whose house he died one of his own converts under a tree, from the foot of which can be seen the great city which claims him as its Methodistic apostle, and which, ever since his day, has been pre-eminent among American communities for its Methodistic strength and zeal. [11]

The scattered allusions to Strawbridge in our early records are nearly all favorable to his Christian character, his apostolic zeal, his tireless labors, his self-sacrifice, his hearty Irish fervor. He was of "medium size, of dark complexion, black hair, had a sweet voice, and was an excellent singer." Garrettson describes him as a good converser. "Mr. Strawbridge," remarks that Methodist veteran, "came to the house of a gentleman, near where I lived, to stay all night; I had never heard him preach, but as I had a great desire to be in company with a person who had caused so much talk in the country, I went over and sat and heard him converse till nearly midnight, and when I retired it was with these thoughts: I have never spent a few hours more agreeably in my life. He spent most of the time in explaining Scripture and in giving interesting anecdotes." [12]

Asbury's prejudice against Strawbridge, for his Hibernian [Irish DVM] independence, in the sacramental controversy, continued to the last. "He is no more," wrote the great but rigorous bishop, "he is no more; upon the whole I am inclined to think the Lord took him away in judgment because he was in a way to do hurt to his cause, and that he saved him in mercy because from his deathbed conversation he appears to have had hope in his end." [13] Owen, who knew him better, and loved him as a son, had no such equivocal opinion of his end. He proclaimed, as his text, over the coffin of the devoted though headstrong evangelist, "I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them."

Thus did Methodism begin simultaneously, or nearly so, in the north and in the middle of the opening continent. Its first two chapels were befittingly humble; their very humbleness being not only an adaptation to its peculiar mission among the poor, but giving, by contrast with the grandeur of its still advancing results, a peculiar moral sublimity, a divine attestation to the great cause of which they were the first monuments. Each was in its lowly sphere an evangelical Pharos [lighthouse, Oxford Dict. DVM], shedding out a pure though modest light, the rays of which extended, blended, and brightened, till they streamed, a divine illumination, over the whole heavens of the nation, and fell in scattered radiance, like the light of the morning, on many of the ends of the earth. And, judging from the present prospect, he may not be an extravagant prophet who should venture to predict that "Wesley Chapel" of New York, and the "Log Chapel" of Maryland, shall yet assume a purer and a sublimer glory in Christian history than the splendid structures of St. Paul, St. Peter, and St. Sophia. For still is it true, and will be to the end, that "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence."

ENDNOTES

1 MS. letter of John Shillington, Esq., of Ireland, in the possession of the author.

2 Ibid. Mr. Shillington, the best Irish authority in the Methodist history and antiquities of his country, says, "not earlier than 1764, not later than 1765." The Rev. Dr. Hamilton (Meth. Quart. Rev., 1856, p. 485) supposed he had sufficient proof of the arrival of Strawbridge in America in the year of Embury's emigration, (1760,) but on examining Mr. Shillington's letter writes me, "that, after all, Mr. S. may be right, and, as he is still going on with his investigations, the difference will soon, it is to be hoped, be finally settled." Dr. Roberts argues for the earlier date, and also for the claim of Strawbridge to priority as founder of American Methodism, Dr. Hamilton agreeing with him in the latter opinion. Lednum (chap. 1) follows the authority of Hamilton and Roberts. For the other side of the question see Wakeley, chaps. 17, 18, 19. The impartial student of early Methodist history will find it expedient to waive the decision of the question till further researches shall afford him more data. I shall hold my text subject to any revision which such researches may hereafter justify.

3 Hamilton.

4 Not Pipe Creek, as usually stated. William Fort, in Christ. Advocate, 1844.

5 Gatch's Memoir, by Judge McLean, p. 24. Cincinnati, 1854.

6 Life of Watters, p. 108. Alexandria, 1806. Watters himself was the first native Itinerant, but not the first native Preacher.

7 Lednum.

8 Thomas Bond, of Harford county, was one of his converts. His sons, Rev. John Wesley Bond (the traveling companion of Bishop Asbury) and Dr. Thomas E. Bond, as also his grandsons, have been prominent in the Methodist community.

9 The venerable Henry Boehm, (one of Asbury's traveling companions,) heard him preach at his father's house in Lancaster county, about 1779.

10 Captain Charles Ridgely.

11 Dr. Hamilton in the Meth. Quart. Rev., 1856. Lednum also gives nearly all our scanty knowledge of Strawbridge. "Rise of Meth. in America," chap. 1.

12 "Perhaps one of them," adds Garrettson, "would do to relate here:

'A congregation came together at a certain place, and a gentleman who was hearing thought the Preacher had directed his whole sermon to him, and retired home after the service in disgust. However he concluded he would hear him once more, and hid himself behind the people, so that the Preacher should not see him. It was the old story: his character was delineated. The Preacher happened to take his text from Isaiah, 'And a man shall be as a hiding place ' etc. In the midst of the sermon he cried out, 'Sinner, come from your scouting hole!' The poor fellow came forward, looked the Preacher in the face, and said, 'You are a wizard, and the devil is in you. I will hear you no more!' " Bangs' Life of Garrettson, p. 25. New York, 1839.

13 Journals, Sept. 3, 1781. A local reference in this entry shows that it relates to Strawbridge. Asbury's great military soul could pardon almost any offense but insubordination to authority. Not only Strawbridge's persistence in the administration of the sacraments, but his continued charge of the Sam's Creek and Brush Forest congregations, displeased the Bishop.

 


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