Christmas honors the birth of Jesus Christ two millennia ago. But Providence has also employed subsequent Christmas days in historically powerful ways, not least of all in America.
The shape of American religion and culture owes much to events in Baltimore on Christmas 1784. The old established branches of the Church of England in America had largely collapsed in the wake of the Revolution. The rising new form of predominantly frontier religion was largely evangelical and pragmatically focused on reaching Americans who were beyond the reach of traditional churches.
Responding to the religious zeitgeist of the new nation, the ageing English evangelist John Wesley dispatched his protégé, the Rev. Thomas Coke, to organize a new denomination in America as its "superintendent." For 40 years Wesley has preached revival in Britain, gaining hundreds of thousands of "Methodist" converts to evangelical Christianity. An Anglican priest himself, Wesley never broke with the Church of England, and his British followers continued to worship in the established church, even as they built their own separate "preaching houses," charities, and spiritual formation "societies."
Recognizing the collapse of Anglicanism in the nascent United States, and his requests for the dispatch of an Anglican bishop to America having been rebuffed, Wesley reluctantly but shrewdly consented to the creation of a new Methodist Church in the former colonies. Coke crossed the Atlantic and informed Methodist circuit rider Francis Asbury that Wesley was appointing him as his "co-superintendent" of the new church. Savvy enough to recognize that Americans were not automatically going to recognize his appointment by a cleric in the old country, Asbury insisted on a conference of all Methodist preachers in America to elect him.
Messengers were dispatched to all 80 or so Methodist preachers up and down the Atlantic, coast, and 60 or so showed up in Baltimore, where they ordained Asbury and Coke on Christmas Day, 1784. Not adjourning until January 2, they also formally established the Methodist Episcopal Church during what would become known as the "Christmas Conference."
AT THIS POINT, there were only about 15,000 Methodists in America. Coke would not spend much time in the States after the Christmas Conference. But the ascetic and tireless Asbury devoted the next 30 years to riding his horse over 100,000 miles throughout America, primarily on the frontier, building Methodism into a church of over 200,000 members. For most of the 19th century, Methodism was America's largest church, and one out of every three Americans would have some tie to Methodism or its various ecclesial offshoots.
FROM THE START, Methodism was deeply American. At the Christmas Conference, the Methodists ratified as their doctrine Wesley's slight abridgement of the Church of England's 39 articles, while specifically acknowledging the authority of the new United States civil authority. Unlike Wesley, who opposed the American Revolution, Asbury, though himself a lifelong British citizen, refused to criticize the revolt, while declining to take up arms himself as a clergyman.
Immediately after the Christmas Conference, Asbury and Coke went on a preaching tour that culminated with a visit with George Washington at Mount Vernon in May, 1785. In his diary, Coke called Mt. Vernon "very elegant" and described the general as "quite the plain country gentleman and . . . a friend to mankind." After dinner, the two Methodist bishops "then opened to him the grand business on which we came, presenting to him our petition for the emancipation of the Negroes, and intreating his signature." Washington assured them of his agreement with the Methodist opposition to slavery but thought signing the petition would be improper. He said he would share his views with the Virginia Assembly if they were to consider slavery.
Washington invited Coke and Asbury to spend the night, but they politely declined, citing pressing church business elsewhere. The early Methodists were punctilious in being unimpressed by the trappings of power, and by maximizing their use of time. Coke and Asbury would meet Washington again, four years later, when they traveled to New York to offer Methodist support for the newly inaugurated president.
Methodism was perfectly adapted to early America, with its emphasis on personal faith, conversion, revival singing, and a pragmatic, semi-democratic church organization. It's insistence on the possibility of salvation for all, as opposed to the traditional Calvinist focus on the "elect," ensured its ascendance in the new democratic order. The Methodist north-south division over slavery in the 1840s, a rift not mended until the 1930s, signaled the coming Civil War.
LIKE THE REST of mainline Protestantism, Methodist elites set aside their evangelical roots and became theologically liberal in the early 20th century. Membership of the United Methodist Church, which is the largest Methodist denomination, peaked in 1964 at over 11 million, but has declined ever since. Southern Baptists passed the United Methodists as America's largest Protestant church in the early 1970s.
But whatever the fate of its modern institutional structures, Methodism irrevocably molded America, with its emphasis on populist religion and civic engagement. Evangelicals now comprise America's largest religious demographic, at about 100 million, and most of them in style and theology can be linked in some way to early Methodist revivalism.
It all traces back to a chapel in Baltimore, on Christmas, 222 years ago, when five dozen mostly young preachers, and two Anglican priests, voted to embrace the new American, democratic experiment, organize a denomination, and take the Gospel to the frontier.
Mark D. Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy.