Icon (Close Menu)

Methodists and Anglicans: Zeal and patience

By Mark Michael

Zeal and patience are virtues of the kingdom, the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work among those who bear the name of Christ and strive together to do his will. He who moved from town to town proclaiming the immediacy of the kingdom also learned to bear with the slow of heart, revealing what they were able to receive. The apostles were commissioned to work wonders and preach with power, but also to forgive sins and celebrate sacraments. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” Jesus commanded them (Mark 16:15), but also “wait in the city until the Holy Ghost has come upon you” (Lk. 24:49).

In his poem “Zeal and Patience,” John Henry Newman meditated on the place of the two virtues in the life of St. Paul. His ardent urgency propelled him and his gospel across the known world, until a prison cell kept him fixed in place. He who called himself “the Lord’s prisoner” came at length, Newman surmised, to find a new kind of fellowship with the one who first compelled him to preach:

Lord! who Thy thousand years dost wait
To work the thousandth part
Of Thy vast plan, for us create
With zeal a patient heart. (Verses on Various Occasions, 164)

Zeal and patience belong together, but they stand in tension in the long story of God’s people. Prophets are zealous; religious movements burn with white-hot intensity. Zeal births charismatic leaders, and drives creativity in methods and flexibility in structures. Yet priests are patient; churches bring order and discipline. Patience preserves continuity with the past, plans carefully for eventualities and establishes systems to safeguard against dangers. Without the check of patience, zeal degenerates into haste, petulance, and schism. Without the fire of zeal, patience falls into indolence, complacency, and spiritual death.

Last month, the Episcopal and United Methodist bishops who lead the bilateral dialogue between the two churches issued a letter commending A Gift to the World: Co-Laborers for the Healing of Brokenness, a draft proposal for full communion. The proposal builds on several decades of ecumenical discussion aimed at healing a division that dates back to 1784. “The needs and concerns of the post-Revolutionary missional context,” as A Gift to the World calls it, gave rise to two solutions that, as yet, remain incompatible. Each is directly associated with a dynamic figure who definitively shaped his church’s future story: John Wesley, the prophet, a man of zeal; and Samuel Seabury, the priest, a man of patience.

The healing of this particular brokenness within Christ’s divided body requires an honesty about these features, one that may be obscured by the painstakingly generous language of the ecumenical diplomats. This long division of our two churches was not inevitable at the outset, nor was its persistence necessary. We have been growing toward each other for many decades now — Methodists learning a churchman’s patience and Episcopalians (not least under Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s leadership) yearning for a rekindled zeal. But we may not be close enough yet for this decisive step, as some important questions remain without clear answers.

Methodism began, of course, as a religious movement within transatlantic Anglicanism. While it faced stiff opposition from many within the English hierarchy, it was generally more warmly received on these shores. The pre-war rectors of Christ Church, Philadelphia, and Trinity Church, New York, then the most prominent Anglican churches in the Colonies, were friends of the movement, and some priests, like Virginia’s Deveraux Jarrett, devoted great energy to establishing new Methodist societies. Laymen had much more power in American parish life, a factor that often translated into more freedom for voluntary religious societies.

Still, before the Revolution, Methodism was more a curiosity than a potent force in American religious life. Americans clearly had a taste for revivalist preaching, but Wesley sent over just a few trained lay preachers in the 1770s, and all of them but one, Francis Asbury, returned to England at the outbreak of hostilities.

The Revolution created a crisis of leadership and finance for American Anglicanism. State subsidies were stripped away in places where the church had been established by law, and the majority of Anglican clergy fled or were forced out, unwilling to break their loyalty oaths. The church was held in low esteem in a society suspicious of anything English. Perhaps more than half of all parishes ceased to function and those closest to the frontier, where the population was moving rapidly, were usually among the first to fold.

While parochial Anglicanism was floundering, Methodism began growing rapidly, especially in the frontier regions of the mid-South, where few parishes had even been planted before the war began. More than 3,000 people joined Methodist societies in North Carolina in the first four years of the 1780s, when there were only four functional Anglican parishes in the entire state, huddled along the coast. When Wesley wrote, in a famous 1784 letter to “Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury, and Our Brethren in North America” of souls newly converted but situated “so that for some hundred miles together there is none either to baptize or to administer the Lord’s supper,” he was speaking unchallengeable truth, though his parallel claim that there were “neither any parish ministers” was a prevarication at best.

Wesley’s solution to the pastoral crisis was a characteristically zealous one. Prayer and careful study had convinced him nearly 40 years earlier that a priest might, in extreme circumstances, assume the power of a “scriptural episcopus,” a single leader charged with the power to ordain, to establish canonical discipline, and to draft authoritative liturgy. Wesley believed that the pastoral crisis in America could only be solved by transforming his zealous movement into an independent church. God had given such an opening, and waiting for another solution would waste precious time.

Wesley was bolstered in this conviction by the providential fact of American political independence. He had been a firm opponent of the rebellion, and in his 1784 letter, he described the postbellum situation as occurring “by a very uncommon train of providences.” But this political rupture seemed to also, for him, give space for (or even to require) an ecclesial break. A new freedom was present in this new land. Like many others before him, Wesley looked upon the new republic (with its hundreds of existing Anglican churches, some more than a century old) as an untouched field ripe for harvest. Such a pristine land demanded a primitive solution, the Jerusalem church of Acts refounded, with centuries of history set aside.

Wesley believed he had waited long enough. He professed great admiration for the Church of England in his letter, calling it “the best constituted National Church in the world.” But he had lost confidence in Anglican methods for meeting the evangelistic challenge before his preachers in America. The cautious Bishop of London had refused to ordain one of his preachers four years earlier because he lacked a university degree. Wesley also harbored doubts about how suitable prayer-book liturgy would be for the semi-literate backwoodsmen swarming into Methodist societies.

He laid out his rationale for bold new steps in a section of his letter that deserves quoting at length if only because its particular line of reasoning has been so influential in subsequent American Protestantism:

 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 only one, 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.

As Wesley sent off his letter, and Thomas Coke with it to come to America with the purpose of ordaining his preachers, another Anglican priest was also travelling about Britain. Samuel Seabury, bishop-elect of Connecticut, was pursuing a different potential solution to American Anglicanism’s pastoral crisis, one he believed to be essential to “follow[ing] the Scriptures and the Primitive Church.” Seabury was in search of three bishops who would consecrate him, so that episcopacy might be carried back to his native land.

Seabury’s zeal in pursuit of his cause cannot be doubted, but he was above all a patient man. For nearly a year and a half, he met with a number of English bishops to plead his case, some of them multiple times. Like Wesley, he was rather woodenly rebuffed by Robert Lowth, the Bishop of London, who could not imagine the prospect of consecrating a bishop who lacked a warrant from the Connecticut state legislature. Some of Seabury’s countrymen were using their personal contacts to work against his case, including the bishop-elect of Maryland, William Smith, who distrusted Seabury because he had been a loyalist. Deeply frustrated by delays and inconclusive answers, Seabury wrote to a fellow Connecticut clergyman, “I shall be at my wits’ end. … This is certainly the worst country in the world to do business in” (Letter to Abraham Jarvis).

Eventually, the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church agreed to interview him. Seabury’s letter to them is strikingly reminiscent of Wesley’s, invoking the providential significance of the moment and rejoicing in the opportunity to secure a church order that was, in Wesley’s words, “disentangled … from the English hierarchy”:

I apply to the good bishops of Scotland, and I hope I shall not apply in vain. If they consent to impart the episcopal succession to the Church in Connecticut they will, I think, do a great work and the blessings of thousands will attend them. … [P]erhaps for this cause … God’s Providence has supported them and continued their succession under various and great difficulties, that a free, valid and purely ecclesiastical episcopacy may from the pass into the western world.” (“Letter to Scottish Bishops,” Aug. 31, 1784)

Seabury’s patience was rewarded when three Scottish bishops consecrated him at Aberdeen on Nov. 14, 1784. Ironically, on exactly the same day, in a Methodist meetinghouse in Delaware, Thomas Coke had his first meeting with Francis Asbury to discuss Wesley’s plan for establishing a Methodist church and ordaining its first ministers. That meeting would set in motion a process that would end in their joint ordination as the first Methodist superintendents (later bishops) at the famous “Christmas Conference” in Baltimore just six weeks later.

It could have been otherwise. Seabury had met with Charles Wesley during his time in London, and he had agreed to ordain Methodist preachers upon his return to America if he found them suitable candidates for the ministry. There’s no evidence that Seabury also met with John Wesley (or that, if he had, Wesley would have trusted that he would find success in his quest). But Charles Wesley found Seabury’s plan quite promising, and would scold his brother’s impatience in a letter to an American priest the following year:

Had they had patience a little longer, they would have seen a Real Primitive Bishop in America duly consecrated by three Scotch Bishops, who had their consecration from the English Bishops, and are acknowledged by them as the same as themselves. There is therefore not the least difference betwixt the members of Bishop Seabury’s Church, and the members of the Church of England.

You know I had the happiness to converse with that truly apostolical man, who is esteemed by all that know him as much as by you and me. He told me he looked upon the Methodists of America as sound members of the Church, and was ready to ordain any of the Preachers whom he should find duly qualified. His ordinations would be indeed genuine, valid and Episcopal. (“Letter to Thomas Bradbury Chandler”)

Two Anglican priests in Maryland, John Andrew and William West, even met with Coke and Asbury during the Christmas Conference to suggest they pull back from forming a separate church. Acting on the assurances of their bishop-elect, William Smith, they promised the Methodists a high degree of autonomy, should their preachers consent to accept ordination by Smith. Their form of episcopacy would not be “either dangerous or burdensome,” and “could not be said to entangle men more than Mr. Wesley’s Episcopacy entangled them” (“Letter to William Smith”)[1].

Coke and Asbury replied that such an address “had not been forseen [sic] nor expected,” and recounted the hostility they encountered, often by Anglican clergymen on both sides of the Atlantic. Coke, who had inveighed against the moral laxity of Anglican clergymen in his sermon at the conference a day or two earlier, may well have been reluctant to associate with Smith, whose episcopal election would eventually fail to receive the required consents from General Convention because he was a notorious drunkard. Moreover, they could not act without approval from Wesley, and their course had already been set by the Conference’s actions.

Coke’s final word on the matter was a thoroughly unevangelical and fatalistic proverb of Aesop’s. Andrew’s letter notes how Coke replied

that for his own part he was inclined to think that our two Churches might not improperly be compared to a couple of earthen basons set afloat in a current of water, which so long as they should continue to float in two parallel lines, would float securely: but the moment they began to converge were in danger of destroying each other.[2]

Coke would eventually regret his words, and make overtures to Seabury several years later about a plan for uniting the two churches. Seabury kept his word to Charles Wesley, and would eventually lay hands on two of the Methodists that Coke had ordained at the Christmas Conference. But Coke’s latter letter went unanswered, and despite a few tentative schemes in the decades around the turn of the 19th century, the “couple of earthen basons” have remained apart, even as they are carried along toward a common destiny.

Look out for my second part next week, dealing with different questions related to Anglican and Methodist approaches to creeds, the Lord’s Supper, and much else.


[1] Quoted in Emora T. Brannon, “Episcopal Overtures to Coke and Asbury during the Christmas Conference, 1784,” Methodist History 14.3 (April 1976), pp. 203-12, at 209.

[2] Ibid., p. 210.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Two Decades of Daily Devotions, and Still Going

With the launch of TLC's new website, you can now subscribe to Covenant, receiving it every day right in your...

From the Archives: A Blind Man’s Pentecost

As this week after the Pentecost draws to its close, I present a final archival reflection on the...

From the Archives: A Third Article Reflection

In the wake of Holy Spirit's coming at Pentecost, I have turned to our archives to present various...

From the Archives: The Sound and the Spirit

In the wake of Pentecost, I'm dipping into our storied archive, presenting reflections upon the third person of...