September 2020

Johnny Cordell

History Leaves of the Methodist Tree

Compiled by Johnny Cordell

September 2020

American Methodists soon redefined sacred space. By 1785, only 60 Methodist chapels had been purchased or built, but there were more than 800 recognized preaching places. Meetings were held in homes, courthouses, schoolhouses, the meeting houses of other denominations, barns, or in the open. Benjamin Paddock regularly preached in a dry goods store, likewise, Robert R. Roberts once preached in a tavern, though not without difficulty. Halfway through Roberts’ discourse, a drunkard in the audience awoke, calling out, “Landlord, give me a grog!” When Roberts protested granting the man’s request, the tavern owner replied, “Mr. Roberts, you appear to be doing well; I would thank you to mind your own business, and I will mine.” Early Methodist sermons emphasized the practical, the immediate, and the dramatic. “People love the preacher who makes them feel good,” observed Methodist preacher Thomas Ware. The typical circuit rider preached from a basic set of Scripture texts embellished with anecdotes and analogies from everyday life. The few expository skills he used were largely gleamed from the sermons of colleagues. But he also learned to preach with what the itinerant Henry Smith referred to as an irresistible “Holy ‘knock’-em-down’ power.” Nothing would have been more anathema to Methodist itinerants than the dispassionate readings of a prepared sermon. They preached extemporaneously, without notes or manuscripts. As Bishop Asbury once urged one of his preachers, “Feel for the power; feel for the power, brother.” Circuit riders were both familiar and frightening, homespun heralds of a gospel that was attuned to everyday life yet unsettling in its larger implications. This approach led to one contemporary to call early Methodism “a boiling hot religion.” The preaching of John A. Granade is an extreme but telling example. As a young man Granade became “perfectly reckless,” rambling through Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee before settling in South Carolina to teach school. Distress over his spiritual condition, he made his way to Tennessee where for two years he was plagued by “voices” and tormenting “whispers.” Day and night, through snow and rain, during the winter and spring of 1797- 1798, Granade wandered about the woods “howling, praying, and roaring, in such a manner that he was generally reputed to be crazy.” Throughout the western states he was known as the “wild man.” Finally converted at a camp meeting, Granade immediately channeled his spiritual energy into preaching. “ I would sing a song or pray or exhort a few minutes.” Granade later recalled, “and the fire would break out among the people, and the slain of the Lord everywhere were many.” Crowds began to follow him from place to place, “singing and shouting all along the road.” At one meeting, so many people fainted and “lay in such heaps that it was feared they would suffocate.” The typical circuit rider was a young, single man who hailed from an artisan background, who himself had already moved several times from one village or town to the next, but whose life had been abruptly transformed by a dramatic conversion. Before turning to preaching Bishop Asbury had been a blacksmith, and most of the other preachers had been carpenters, shoemakers, hatters, tanners, millers, shopkeepers, school teachers, sailors, and so on. In most cases, the only distinction between a Methodist preacher and his audience was which side of the pulpit each was on. Almost all of the early circuit riders had anything more than a common school education. In many areas, the pace of settlement simply outran the resources of the older denominations. In 1770 the territories that would eventually become Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee contained only about 40,000 people of European or African descent. By 1810, the combined population of these same regions was over 1 million. In many of these rapidly growing regions, the Methodist held the only religious services for miles around. I began this two-part article with circuit rider Jacob Young and will conclude with him also. Once after Young had preached, a man began shouting at the top of his voice comparing him to the great 18th century evangelist George Whitefield. Recalled Young, “I thought I was one of the happiest mortals that breathed vital air.” And so were the many families Young ministered to – those for whom Methodism became a pillar of their lives.

Source: John H. Wigger, Christianity Today, Issue 45

Next month’s question: During times of disaster, what organization is usually the first to respond with resources and volunteers?