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Contrary to the expectations of its founder, the Anglican priest John Wesley (1703–1791), Methodism developed into the most successful and most influential religious movement of nineteenth-century America. By 1820 a host of itinerant and local preachers—most notably Francis Asbury (1745–1816; "The Father of American Methodism"), Richard Allen (1760–1831), and "Crazy" Lorenzo Dow (1777–1834)—had converted some 250,000 individuals to the Methodist faith. Only twenty years later, Methodist membership totaled 900,000 and surged to roughly 1,500,000 in the mid-1850s when the various branches of the Methodist Church had consolidated their position as the fastest growing and largest religious denomination in the United States. Under the auspices of official Methodist presses such as the Methodist Book Concerns in Philadelphia (1789), New York (1804), Cincinnati (1820), and Nashville (1854) as well as the New York Methodist Tract Society (1817) and a number of independent publishers, this diverse and prolific community of believers produced religious letters, itinerant journals, tracts, church histories, sermons, hymnbooks, diaries, minutes, autobiographical conversion and slave narratives, magazines, and newspapers on an unprecedented scale. The seamless circulation of these increasingly political publications not only helped the Methodist Church as a whole to further fortify its religious stronghold but also gradually pulled an originally "otherworldly" and apolitical institution onto political turf. At the closing of the 1860s the Methodist Church had become so entrenched in worldly affairs that Ulysses S. Grant, eighteenth president of the United States, said in 1868 that he considered it one of the three great political parties (Hatch and Wigger, p. 309).

There are four reasons why the American Methodist Church rose to such popularity in a comparatively short period of time. On the political level, Methodism benefited from the First Amendment's "Establishment Clause," which barred Congress from promoting or prohibiting the exercise of religion and yielded greater tolerance of denominationalism. On the economic level, Methodism reaped the fruits of the industrial and market revolutions (1820–1860), which opened up new markets for devotional literatures in the American back-country, enhanced mass printing, spurred urbanization, and magnified class differences. Methodism's all-inclusiveness appealed to the underprivileged and uneducated classes. Unlike their Calvinist competitors, who believed in the preordained salvation of an "elect" few, the Methodist Church stressed universal salvation, accessible to all regardless of sex, ethnicity, or social standing. In accordance with their egalitarian "doctrine" (the theoretical guide to the faith's principal beliefs), Methodist itinerants, or "circuit riders" (preachers who toured the country on horseback or on foot), traveled long distances to preach to those who lacked the means or desire to attend church. The gospel they preached was plain, accessible to the unschooled and unchurched, and lenient enough to be enjoyable rather than taxing. The fourth feature of Methodism during its formative years was seeming consistency between the church's principles and actions. Until the 1830s, Methodist institutions employed the socially marginalized as lay preachers and exhorters: the African American Richard Allen (1760–1831), author of The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of Rev. Richard Allen (1833); the Pequot Indian William Apess (1798–1839), whose autobiographical conversion narrative, A Son of the Forest, appeared in 1829; the African American itinerants "Mrs. Cook" and "Sister Tilgham" (Juliann Jane Tilmann) of whom Jarena Lee, an African American exhorter, makes mention in her narrative of Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady (1836); Zilpha Elaw (c. 1790–?), who published her Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travels and Labours in 1846; Sarah Hinton of North Carolina, one of the earliest converts to Methodism (1780), who later helped establish a Methodist church in Washington, Beaufort County, North Carolina; and the New England native Nancy Towle (1796–1876), who published her diaries and letters in the Vicissitudes Illustrated, in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America (1832).


Co-opting the belief that any individual has the power and intellectual ability to choose or reject salvation freely, Methodist doctrine offered ethical regeneration to those who were willing to experience conversion. The conversion experience comprised three stages of salvation: "repentance," a stage in which believers acknowledged their sinfulness; "justification," which assured individuals that Christ had died to atone for their sins; and "sanctification," in which new converts gained certainty of their spiritual perfection.

Individual stages of this three-part model varied in form and intensity. Methodist spiritual autobiographies of later writers—including Augustus R. Green's

The Life of the Rev. Dandridge F. Davis, of the African M.E. Church (1850), Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), or Julia Foote's A Brand Plucked from the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch (1879)—tended to describe the conversion experience as mere moments of joy. Conversion narratives written during Methodism's formative period, however, equated their writers' conversions with the loss of chains and shackles and the gain of "perfect freedom"—that is, the achievement of both spiritual and social equality among believers.

Methodism, while totally egalitarian in theory, proved less so in practice. Methodist leaders such as Francis Asbury, James O. Andrew, Lovick Pierce, Allen Turner, Augustus Longstreet, William J. Parks, W. J. Sasnett, and Samuel Anthony were initially willing to bend the rather rigid laws of their discipline to propagate the gospel in America. Suffering from a distressing shortage of qualified ministers, they temporarily employed African American and Native American men and women as "exhorters." Exhorting, unlike preaching, was a private and informal gathering of groups of seekers during which an exhorter would relate personal stories with a moral in order to motivate listeners to do good. Uncle Tom, the shining example of Methodist virtue in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), occasionally acts as one such exhorter. Only in exceptionally rare cases and during a relatively short period of time were minorities and women—such as Nancy Towle or Jarena Lee—promoted to the position of preacher within the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) or the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).

Following Francis Asbury's death in 1816 and the redirection of Methodism's missionary zeal toward the emerging conservative middle class, the church's apparent egalitarian fervor abated. After a series of struggles against the "spiritual despotism" of church authorities, African Methodists under the leadership of Richard Allen, Daniel Coker, and James Champion submitted their resignation to preclude public expulsion from the MEC. In 1816 the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded in Philadelphia and Richard Allen was ordained as its first African American bishop. One year later the AME published its Doctrine and Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1817). In 1822 the African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation (AME Zion) in New York followed the example set by the AME six years earlier; they segregated from the MEC and nominated James Varick as their bishop.

Yet not only slaves and free blacks deliberately left the MEC over the question of social equality. After he was denied ordination by the MEC in 1829, the Methodist exhorter and prayer leader William Apess joined the Protestant Methodist Church, a unified body of New England Methodist splinter groups that agreed to ordain him the very same year. Similarly at odds with egalitarian American Methodist doctrine was the treatment of Nancy Towle, who, despite Lorenzo Dow's open advocation of equal rights for females in his preface to her autobiography, was barred from the pulpit in 1836. In 1842 Orange Scott (1800–1847), a northern abolitionist who bemoaned the backwardness of the MEC toward slavery, split with the church and established a religious periodical, the True Wesleyan (1843), to accentuate the institution's double standards. Much of the mid-nineteenth-century literature written by, for, or about Methodists can be read as a disillusioned response to the growing awareness of the discrepancy between MEC doctrine and discipline. William Apess was one of the first to hint at the disparity between Methodist doctrine and its discipline or "course of conduct" in A Son of the Forest (1829). Only three years later, Jarena Lee (1783–?) joined him in his criticism as she differentiated between good Christians and those "wicked" ones who supported slavery. In a similar vein, Frederick Douglass's Narrative (1845) contrasts Christianity "proper" with the Christianity of the United States. From his description American Christianity emerges as southern barbarity cloaked in the "religion" of the South, in which "Negro-breakers" serve as Methodist class leaders. Douglass (1818–1895) directed his criticism directly at the South because the MEC discipline of the southern states differed from that of the northern states and Virginia in one important point: the former included an article that favored slavery and the latter did not. Echoing Douglass, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents condemns the sophistry of the South, which allowed white southern Methodists to be both slaveholders and class leaders who snickered at the plight of their human "property." In the end, Jacobs (1813–1897) inverts the traditional spiritual hierarchy by accusing American Christians of being heathens themselves. Herman Melville (1819–1891) made this very point first in his anti-flogging narrative White-Jacket (1850) and, one year later, in his most celebrated novel, Moby-Dick (1851). "After all," Melville's White-Jacket muses, reflecting on the missionary efforts of American Christianity, "all those maxims which . . . we busily teach the heathen, we Christians ourselves disregard" (p. 324). Or, as Moby-Dick's famous Father Mapple, whom Melville modeled after the Methodist minister Father Taylor from Boston, warns us, "woe to him who . . . while preaching to others is himself a cast-away" (p. 53).


While many were disillusioned and sought to attack or reform MEC discipline, others agreed with and even advocated its righteousness and egalitarian nature. The most heated, enduring, and politically decisive debate that erupted between the two camps (reformers and defenders of southern Methodist discipline) filled the pages of more than thirty denominational magazines and newspapers in mid-nineteenth-century America. Despite its dislike for controversy and its presumptive political neutrality, the Methodist Review (1818–1828)—later titled the Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review (1830–1840), the Methodist Quarterly Review (1841–1884), and the Methodist Review (1885–)—inadvertently sided with the North as it defended the principles of "free will" and all-inclusive, "unconditional election" that the southern version of the MEC discipline sought to redefine. The journal's egalitarian attitude and opposition to slavery was voiced most clearly between 1856 and 1884, under the editorial leadership of Daniel D. Whedon (1808–1885). Whedon was a staunch opponent of slavery who saw the Methodist Quarterly Review, which sold roughly one million copies annually in its peak years, as an "antislavery organ of an anti-slavery church based on an antislavery discipline" (Sweet, p. 301).

Whedon's antislavery activism was surpassed by Boston's Zion's Herald (1823) and by perhaps its most militant contributor, the Vermont preacher Orange Scott. Scott, an avid reader of William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist paper The Liberator, who called for the immediate release of all slaves and separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1842. He later edited the American Wesleyan Observer, an antislavery newspaper based in Lowell, Massachusetts. A number of smaller Methodist journals supported Whedon's and Scott's cause, including the Wesleyan Repository (1821), founded by the New Jersey layman William S. Stockton, and the Richmond Christian Advocate (1832).

After the MEC's breakup over the question of "discipline" in the Methodist Episcopal Church, North (MEC), and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (MECS), in 1844, southern responses to critics and reformers of their discipline grew increasingly hostile. In reaction to Scott's attacks on slavery and the Methodist discipline of the southern states, Nathan Bangs (1778–1862), a church elder, editor of the Christian Advocate and Journal (1827), and future editor of the Methodist Quarterly Review, initially did little more than close his journal to the discussion of abolition. A few years later, however, William Wightman, editor of the Southern Christian Advocate (1837) at Charleston, openly condemned northern activism and the antislavery movement after the schism of 1844. Indicative of his agenda, Wightman offered to print the proslavery and pro–southern discipline "Letters on the Epistle of Paul to Philemon" written by Augustus Longstreet (1790–1870), a conservative Methodist church elder, in 1845. After that, the journal continued to back the southern cause. Similarly supportive of MECS creeds was the Southern Review (1867–1879), an intellectual and literary journal edited by Albert Taylor Bledsoe (1809–1877) and William Hand Browne (1828–1912) that intended to defend the position of the MECS by explaining its theology. Yet the journal's personal attacks on Daniel D. Whedon hindered rather than advanced its cause. The Methodist Advocate of Atlanta; the Army and Navy Herald, founded by the Macon Methodist J. R. Harp; and the radical Texas Christian Advocate (which went as far as to justify the 1860 Texas lynching of the Reverend Anthony Bewley) presented local sounding boards for MECS views.

Clearly, white Americans dominated periodical production in the antebellum period and the mid-1860s. In the years following the Civil War, however, it was the African American press that thrived. The rapidly growing AME founded several church journals including the New Orleans Advocate, later the Southwestern Christian Advocate at New Orleans (1866); the Living Epistle (1876); the Christian Standard and Home Journal (1867); the Free Methodist Journal (1868); and the A.M.E. Church Review (1884). The African Zion Church, which quadrupled the number of its adherents between 1866 and 1868 from 42,000 to over 164,000, issued its first congregational periodical, the Star of Zion, in 1867. It was not until mid-March of 1870 that L. C. Matlack in the Central Christian Advocate called for the reconciliation of the reformists and defenders, whose ardent struggle over the meaning of spiritual and social equality had not only exposed the covert conservatism of church authorities but also led to the diversification and democratization of Methodist faiths.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; Calvinism; Evangelicals; Protestantism; Religion; Religious Magazines


Primary Works

Apess, William. A Son of the Forest and Other Writings. 1829. Edited by Barry O'Connell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. New York: Dover, 1995.

Jacobs, Harriet A. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. 1861. Edited by Lydia Maria Child. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. 1851. Edited by Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. New York: Norton, 2002.

Melville, Herman. White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-ofWar. 1850. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin. 1852. Edited by Elizabeth Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994.

Towle, Nancy. Vicissitudes Illustrated, in the Experience of Nancy Towle, in Europe and America. Charleston, S.C.: J. L. Burges, 1832.

Secondary Works

Andrews, Dee E. The Methodists and RevolutionaryAmerica, 1760–1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Andrews, William L., ed. Sisters of the Spirit: Three BlackWomen's Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Hatch, Nathan O., and John H. Wigger, eds. Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture. Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood, 2001.

Heyrman, Christine Leigh. Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. New York: Knopf, 1997.

Lambert, Frank. "Pedlar in Divinity": George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737–1770. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.

Mathews, Donald G. Religion in the Old South. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines. 5 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1938–1968.

Noll, Mark A. America's God: From Jonathan Edwards toAbraham Lincoln. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Owen, Christopher H., ed. The Sacred Flame of Love:Methodism and Society in Nineteenth-Century Georgia. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1998.

Sweet, William Warren. Methodism in American History. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1953.

Merit Kaschig

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