Methodists in Early Virginia


Methodists had only a small presence in Virginia at the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783), but by the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865) they had become, along with the Baptists, one of the state’s dominant denominations. Organized at the University of Oxford in the 1730s by John Wesley and a group of fellow students, Methodism came to Virginia in the mid-1700s. Robert Williams arrived in the colony in 1772 and soon formed Virginia’s first Methodist circuit. The Brunswick Circuit, as it was called, hosted major revivals in 1775–1776, a time in which the colony’s Methodist population almost doubled. Following John Wesley’s lead, many Methodists were antislavery and, during the Revolution, loyal to the British government. In 1784, the group formed its own national church, the American Methodist Episcopal Church, and a second major revival occurred in Virginia from 1785 until 1788. Thousands of converts were won over by the promise of forgiveness of sins and a style of worship that emphasized trances, dreams, visions, and bodily movement. By the time of the Second Great Awakening, the Methodists, although still hosting revivals in Virginia, had become more politically and socially mainstream. Their presence transformed Virginia religion, however, by helping to usher in an era free from state-sponsored religion.


John Wesley Preaching On His Fathers Grave

The Methodists began as a reform movement within the Church of England. The movement’s key leader, John Wesley, began to organize the Methodists at Oxford in the 1730s with a group of students disparagingly called the “Holy Club.” Among these intense students were Wesley’s brother Charles, and George Whitefield, soon to become the greatest evangelist of the Great Awakening in Britain and America. John Wesley struggled to find assurance of salvation until a famous church meeting in London on May 24, 1738, when, as he wrote in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins.” Wesley soon proved to be a master religious entrepreneur, developing the Methodists’ vast system of chapels and lay preachers.

A Methodist

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

The Revd. Francis Asbury

The American Revolution hampered the growth of many denominations in America, but none more so than the Methodists. This was primarily because the Methodists became identified with Loyalism. John Wesley condemned the American rebellion, and many of the Methodist preachers in America did not sympathize with the patriot cause either. Some of the Methodists’ most effective itinerants returned to England during the war, and even Francis Asbury, who remained in America, had to go into hiding in Delaware to evade patriot depredations.

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.”

Methodist Evangelical Fervor

Part of the Methodists’ appeal was their clear focus on the gospel of the new birth, the evangelical message that all people were sinners but could find forgiveness through the grace of Christ. But the Methodists’ style and theology also intensified trends within the broader evangelical movement. For instance, early Methodists commonly emphasized fervent religious experiences, including trances, revelatory dreams, visions, and a variety of involuntary bodily motions and shaking. Critics called the Methodists “enthusiasts” because of these phenomena, but to participants, the experiences confirmed the power of God operating in their lives. In addition, Methodists saw the moment of conversion as a wrenching transformation that led almost immediately to assurance of salvation, while critics suggested that such assurance was not so easily obtained. Finally, the Methodists argued against longtime Calvinist teachings such as predestination, or the idea that God alone chose those who would be saved from hell. Beginning with John Wesley, the Methodists argued that people had the power to choose salvation themselves. Salvation still came by God’s grace, but the Methodists taught that God did not condemn people to hell without giving them the opportunity to accept forgiveness through Christ.

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

Camp Meeting of the Methodists in N. America

By the end of the eighteenth century, Virginia’s Methodists stood poised for another burst of growth associated with what historians call the Second Great Awakening. The early stages of these new revivals were centered in Kentucky and Tennessee, but many of the leaders and participants in the revivals there had moved from Virginia or other southeastern states. Thus, Virginia proved to be a seedbed for Methodist and evangelical awakenings on the frontier, but the Methodists in Virginia also continued to experience their own revivals, especially between 1803 and 1805. During this era, the Virginia Methodists perfected the “camp meeting,” a relatively new revival setting inaugurated in Kentucky and Tennessee, in which people would come from the surrounding regions to camp on the grounds of a church for several days at a time. These spiritual festivals became both social occasions and times of intense piety that often ran late into the evenings. Less expressive Christians, including some of the Baptists and Presbyterians, mocked the camp meetings as uncouth, and in Virginia these events became almost exclusively associated with the Methodists.

Camp Meeting Plan

As America’s Methodist population grew—from 1,000 adherents in 1770 to 250,000 in 1820—the Church’s tactics became more polite and refined. The Church also slowly downplayed antislavery and asserted that slave owning was a matter of conscience between a person and God. But the rise of the Methodists had radically transformed the nature of Virginia religion, helping to break the Anglican hold on the state and making Virginia into an evangelical stronghold.

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.
One of the first licensed Methodist preachers, Robert Williams, arrives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Francis Asbury, the future bishop of the American Methodist Episcopal Church, comes to America, beginning what will become a forty-five-year American ministry.
Robert Williams, one of the first licensed Methodist preachers, moves from Pennsylvania to Virginia.
Methodist preacher Robert Williams begins to work with Devereux Jarratt in south-central Virginia.
Robert Williams organizes the Brunswick Circuit (first organized as the Petersburg Circuit), the first Methodist preaching circuit in Virginia.
The first major Methodist awakening in Virginia takes place. During this time, Virginia's population of Methodists nearly doubles.
A second major Methodist revival engulfs Virginia.
The American Methodist Episcopal Church formally separates from the Church of England and forms the American Methodist Church.
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APA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. Methodists in Early Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/methodists-in-early-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. "Methodists in Early Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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