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Ruth H. Bloch
Our Brethren in North-America
The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800: The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture, by Dee E. Andrews, Princeton University Press, 2000, 367 pp.; $59.50
The title of Dee Andrews's superb account of early American Methodism, The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1760-1800, points to the central paradox of this religious history. The Methodists, reviled as Loyalists by the patriots in the mainstream of American evangelicalism in the 1760s and '70s, only tenuously established themselves in the midst of a Revolution they largely opposed. Yet in the wake of the British defeat, Methodism thrived in the early Republic, and by 1800 was poised to become in the largest denomination in the United States. Indeed, as Andrews puts it, nineteenth-century Methodism virtually became "America's church." How a tiny group of British missionaries navigated the rising tides of American nationalism and turned an unpromising beginning into a triumphal success is the story of her book.
There are many interrelated elements to her fascinating explanation. Andrews, like earlier historians, places great emphasis upon the flexibility and discipline of Methodism's unique organization. Methodism evolved from its origins as a movement within the Church of England. In enlisting itinerant and lay preachers free of the traditional duties and costs of parish priests, John Wesley drew from his experiences both as a missionary in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and as the leader of voluntary societies of clergy and laity in Britain.
Much of the tightly organized, top-down institutional structure of American Methodism was also owed to its English founder's indefatigable labors and dictatorial style. Beneath Wesley's overriding clerical authority were placed the leading American clergy, most notably Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, who in turn oversaw a growing number of settled local ministers and a cadre of licensed lay itinerants commissioned to ride circuits in areas without regular ...