CHAPTER VII. PRIMITIVE METHODISM
At this conference, in October, 1804, I was sent as the junior preacher to Salt River and Shelbyville Circuits, which were joined together, Benjamin Lakin in charge, and William M'Kendree presiding elder.
The circuit was in the Kentucky District. It was a large six weeks' circuit, and extended from the rolling fork of Green River south, to the Ohio River north, and even crossed the Ohio into what was then called Clark's or the Illinois Grant, now in the eastern portion of Indiana State. We had a little Book Concern then in its infancy, struggling hard for existence. We had no Missionary Society; no Sunday-school Society; no Church papers; no Bible or Tract Societies; no colleges, seminaries, academies, or universities; all the efforts to get up colleges under the patronage of the Methodist Episcopal Church in these United States and Territories, were signal failures. We had no pewed churches, no choirs, no organs; in a word, we had no instrumental music in our churches anywhere. The Methodists in that early day dressed plain; attended their meetings faithfully, especially preaching, prayer and class meetings; they wore no jewelry, no ruffles; they would frequently walk three or four miles to class-meetings and home again, on Sundays; they would go thirty or forty miles to their quarterly meetings, and think it a glorious privilege to meet their presiding elder, and the rest of the preachers. They could, nearly every soul of them, sing our hymns and spiritual songs. They religiously kept the Sabbath day: many of them abstained from dram-drinking, not because the temperance reformation was ever heard of in that day, but because it was interdicted in the General Rules of our Discipline. The Methodists of that day stood up and faced their preacher when they sung; they kneeled down in the public congregation as well as elsewhere, when the preacher said, "Let us pray." There was no standing among the members in time of prayer, especially the abominable practice of sitting down during that exercise was unknown among early Methodists. Parents did not allow their children to go to balls or plays; they did not send them to dancing-schools; they generally fasted once a week, and almost universally on the Friday before each quarterly meeting. If the Methodists had dressed in the same "superfluity of naughtiness" then as they do now, there were very few even out of the Church that would have any confidence in their religion. But O, how have things changed for the worse in this educational age of the world! I do declare there was little or no necessity for preachers to say anything against fashionable and superfluous dressing in those primitive times of early Methodism; the very wicked themselves knew it was wrong, and spoke out against it in the members of the Church. The moment we saw members begin to trim in dress after the fashionable world, we all knew they would not hold out. Permit me here to give a few cases in confirmation of some things I have said.
This year, in my circuit, there lived a very wealthy, fashionable family. The good lady governess of this family attended a two days' meeting I held in the neighborhood. On Saturday, under preaching, the Lord reached her proud heart, and although, perhaps, she was the finest dressed lady in the congregation, when I invited mourners, she was the first that came and fell on her knees, praying aloud for mercy. It pleased God, before our meeting closed, to bless her with a sense of pardoning mercy, and she rose and shouted aloud for joy; she also joined the Church. When we closed the meeting, I gave out our love-feast for next morning at eight o'clock; not a word was said about dress. She went home, intending to come to love-feast next morning, but it occurred to her that all her superfluities ought to be laid aside now, and that she, as a Christian, for example's sake, ought to go in plain attire; but, alas! for her, she had not a plain dress in the world. Said she to herself, What shall I do? She immediately hunted up the plainest and most easily altered dress she had. To work at it she went; trimmed it and fixed it tolerably plain. To love-feast she came; and when she rose to speak, she told all about her trouble to get plainly attired to appear in love-feast as she thought she ought to. Take another case:
I traveled in the State of Ohio in 1806, and at a largely attended camp-meeting near New Lancaster, there was a great work of God going on; many were pleading for mercy; many were getting religion; and the wicked looked solemn and awful. The pulpit in the woods was a large stand; it would hold a dozen people, and I would not let the lookers-on crowd into it, but kept it clear that at any time I might occupy it for the purpose of giving directions to the congregation.
There were two young ladies, sisters, lately from Baltimore, or somewhere down east. They had been provided for on the ground in the tent of a very religious sister of theirs. They were very fashionably dressed; I think they must have had, in rings, earrings, bracelets, gold chains, lockets, etc., at least one or two hundred dollars' worth of jewelry about their persons. The altar was crowded to overflowing with mourners; and these young ladies were very solemn. They met me at the stand, and asked permission to sit down inside it. I told them that if they would promise me to pray to God for religion, they might take a seat there. They were too deeply affected to be idle lookers-on; and when I got them seated in the stand, I called them, and urged them to pray; and I called others to my aid. They became deeply engaged; and about midnight they were both powerfully converted. They rose to their feet, and gave some very triumphant shouts; and then very deliberately took off their gold chains, earrings, lockets, etc., and handed them to me, saying, "We have no more use for these idols. If religion is the glorious, good thing you have represented it to be, it throws these idols into eternal shade."
Take still another case in point. In 1810, when I was traveling in West Tennessee, at a camp-meeting I was holding there was a great revival in progress. At that time, it was customary for gentlemen of fashion to wear ruffed shirts. There was a wealthy gentleman thus attired at our meeting, and he was brought under strong conviction. I led him to the altar with the mourners; and he was much engaged. But it seemed there was something he would not give up. I was praying by his side, and talking to him, when all on a sudden he stood erect on his knees, and with his hands he deliberately opened his shirt bosom, took hold of his ruffles, tore them off, and threw them down in the straw; and in less than two minutes God blessed his soul, and he sprang to his feet, loudly praising God.
I state these cases to show that unless the heart is desperately hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, there is a solemn conviction on all minds that fashionable frivolities are all contrary to the humble spirit of our Saviour; but idolatry is dreadfully deceptive, and we must remember that no idolater hath any inheritance in the kingdom of God. Let the Methodists take care.
We had at this early day no course of study prescribed, as at present; but William M'Kendree, afterward bishop, but then my presiding elder, directed me to a proper course of reading and study. He selected books for me, both literary and theological; and every quarterly visit he made, he examined into my progress, and corrected my errors, if I had fallen into any. He delighted to instruct me in English grammar.
Brother Lakin had charge of the circuit. My business was to preach, meet the classes, visit the society and the sick, and then to my books and study; and I say that I am more indebted to Bishop M'Kendree for my little attainments in literature and divinity, than to any other man on earth. And I believe that if presiding elders would do their duty by young men in this way, it would be more advantageous than all the colleges and Biblical institutes in the land; for they then could learn and practice every day.
Suppose, now, Mr. Wesley had been obliged to wait for a literary and theologically trained band of preachers before he moved in the glorious work of his day, what would Methodism have been in the Wesleyan connection to-day? Suppose the Methodist Episcopal Church in these United States had been under the necessity of waiting for men thus qualified, what would her condition have been at this time? In despite of all John Wesley's prejudices, he providentially saw that to accomplish the glorious work for which God had raised him up, he must yield to the superior wisdom of Jehovah, and send out his "lay preachers" to wake up a slumbering world. If Bishop Asbury had waited for this choice literary band of preachers, infidelity would have swept these United States from one end to the other.
Methodism in Europe this day would have been as a thousand to one, if the Wesleyans had stood by the old land-marks of John Wesley: but no; they must introduce pews, literary institutions and theological institutes, till a plain, old-fashioned preacher, such as one of Mr. Wesley's "lay preachers," would be scouted, and not allowed to occupy one of their pulpits. Some of the best and most useful men that were ever called of God to plant Methodism in this happy republic were among the early pioneer preachers, east, west, north, and south; and especially in our mighty West. We have no such preachers now as some of the first ones who were sent out to Kentucky and Tennessee.
The Presbyterians, and other Calvinistic branches of the Protestant Church, used to contend for an educated ministry, for pews, for instrumental music, for a congregational or stated salaried ministry. The Methodists universally opposed these ideas; and the illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire, (the American world at least,) while they were lighting their matches!
Methodist preachers were called by literary gentlemen illiterate, ignorant babblers. I recollect once to have come across one of these Latin and Greek scholars, a regular graduate in theology. In order to bring me into contempt in a public company he addressed me in Greek. In my younger days I had learned considerable of German. I listened to him as if I understood it all, and then replied in Dutch. This he knew nothing about, neither did he understand Hebrew. He concluded that I had answered him in Hebrew, and immediately caved in, and stated to the company that I was the first educated Methodist preacher he ever saw.
I do not wish to undervalue education, but really I have seen so many of these educated preachers who forcibly reminded me of lettuce growing under the shade of a peach-tree, or like a gosling that had got the straddles by wading in the dew, that I turn away sick and faint. Now this educated ministry and theological training are no longer an experiment. Other denominations have tried them, and they have proved a perfect failure; and is it not strange that Methodist preachers will try to gather up these antiquated systems, when enlightened Presbyterians and Congregationalists have acknowledged that the Methodist plan is the best in the world, and try to improve, as they say, our system, alleging that our educational institutions have created a necessity for theological institutes? Verily we have fallen on evil times. Is it possible that now, when we abound in education, that we need Biblical instruction more than when we had no education, or very little? Surely if we ever needed Bible instruction, it was when we could derive no benefit from literary institutions. This is my common-sense view of the subject.
I awfully fear for our beloved Methodism. Multiply colleges, universities, seminaries, and academies; multiply our agencies, and editorships, and fill them all with our best and most efficient preachers, and you localize the ministry and secularize them too; then farewell to itinerancy; and when this fails we plunge right into Congregationalism, and stop precisely where all other denominations started. I greatly desire to see all the interests of the Methodist Church promoted, and when all our presidents, professors, editors, and agents shall be laymen, and our ministers follow their appropriate calling, namely, preach the Gospel to a dying world; and if they will not fall into the traveling ranks and be men of one work, let them locate, for it is certain as long as they fill these offices and agencies, it is like a man undertaking to ride a race with the reins of his horse's bridle tied to a stump. Every man who fills these offices and agencies, and retains a membership in the traveling connection, is a clog to the itinerant wheels, and must, ere long, stop the traveling car; and when that takes place farewell to Methodism.
Is it not manifest that the employing so many of our preachers in these agencies and professorships is one of the great causes why we have such a scarcity of preachers to fill the regular work? Moreover, these presidents, professors, agents, and editors get a greater amount of pay, and get it more certainly too, than a traveling preacher, who has to breast every storm, and often falls very far short of his disciplinary allowance. Here is a great temptation to those who are qualified to fill those high offices to seek them, and give up the regular work of preaching and trying to save souls. And is it not manifest to every candid observer that very few of those young men who believe they are called of God to preach the Gospel, and are persuaded to go to a college or a Biblical institute, the better to qualify them for the great work of the ministry, ever go into the regular traveling ministry? The reason is plainly this: having quieted their consciences with the flattering unction of obtaining a sanctified education, while they have neglected the duty of regularly preaching Jesus to dying sinners, their moral sensibilities are blunted, and they see an opening prospect of getting better pay as teachers in high schools or other institutions of learning, and from the prospect of gain they are easily persuaded that they can meet their moral obligations in disseminating sanctified learning. Thus, as sure as a leaden ball tends to the earth in obedience to the laws of gravity, just so sure our present modus operandi tends to a congregational ministry. And if this course is pursued a little longer, the Methodist Church will bid a long, long farewell to her beloved itinerancy, to which we, under God, owe almost everything that is intrinsically valuable in Methodism.
It is said that the young men who are studying in the Biblical Institute at Concord, which is patronized by all the New-England Conferences, spend their evenings, and especially their Sabbaths, in the surrounding villages, lecturing and preaching, to the great satisfaction and edification of the Churches, and their brethren give them something to aid in their support while they are prosecuting their studies. But who is so hoodwinked or cable towed by prejudice as not to see that this very course is well calculated to sap the foundation of the itinerancy and supplant the regularly appointed pastor, or supersede his labors, and will finally end in a settled ministry. But I must resume the narrative.
Our conference this fall, 1805, was held at Cole's Meeting-house, Scott County, Kentucky. Bishop Asbury, in consequence of affliction, failed to be with us, and the Conference elected William M'Kendree president. Six more preachers were admitted on trial. The number of traveling preachers was thirty-eight. Our membership numbered 11,877; and our increase in members was 2,277.