Rural Roots of United Methodism
Methodism’s roots in the United States go back to circuit riders who traveled hundreds of miles to serve frontier towns. Hear the stories of those early church trailblazers through their letters home.
(Historical music: "Old Country Church")
These old country churches. Where would today’s United Methodists be without them?
In fact, the very essence of the church…the denomination’s connectional system… sprang from these prolific rural roots. It was actually quite revolutionary.
The American Revolution was in its infancy when Methodism took its first steps on the continent…usually on the back of a horse.
(Dramatic reading from Francis Asbury's notes) “If I can only be instrumental in the conversion of one soul in travelling round the continent, I’ll travel round till I die.”
In 1771, Francis Asbury answered founder John Wesley’s call to bring the Gospel to America’s untamed frontier. For 45 years, the premier bishop of American Methodism travelled the back country from Maine to Georgia.
Thousands of miles.
Through treacherous conditions.
Shunned by those who did not want to hear about God.
But, along the way, Asbury saved souls…planted parishes…and mobilized ministers.
October 14th, 1803, Francis Asbury wrote:
“What a road we have passed! Certainly the worst on the whole continent, even in the best weather. Yet, bad as it was, there were four or five hundred crossing the rude hills while we were. We must take care to send preachers after these people.”
And, Asbury sent saddlebag sermonizers across the land. You see, in the late 1700s, 96 percent of America was rural. The travelling preachers camped out, many times without fire or food, armed sparingly with a musket, their pocket Bible, and hymnal.
Peter Cartwright, 1856:
“It is true we could not, many of us, conjugate a verb or parse a sentence, and murdered the King’s English almost every lick. But there was a Divine unction attended in the word preached, and thousands fell under the mighty power of God.”
This is where Methodism’s connectional system was born. These circuit riders served many rural communities over hundreds of miserable, muddy miles.
Dale Patterson, General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church: “In some case they might have only seen the pastor four times a year, which is where we get the origin of that concept of the old quarterly conference. The pastor would bring news (so the churches would hear) about what was going on with other churches in the circuit. The pastor would be bringing books. (The pastor would be bringing) newspapers – our church newspapers, (our communication). (And so) those churches became connected through the pastor.”
But with each haggard hoof beat, adversity lurked in the shadows. Bandits, broken bones, hunger…and sometimes…persistent, debilitating loneliness.
Freeborn Garrettson, 1824:
“I am severely buffeted by the enemy and a gloomy melancholy hangs over me, which is not easy to shake off…”
It was difficult for the wives, as well.
Catherine Garrettson, 1828:
“Though my dearest friend was often away his punctuality in writing made his absence less tedious. There was a continual conflict in my own mind so that I dared not make the least opposition to his visiting the churches for this was his element and in this he was blessed and made a blessing to others. And I now thank my God that I never pained his feelings on this account. I gloried in the success with which his labors were crowned. If I did wrong in anything respecting his travels it was that I did not fully give my approbation to itinerate with him.”
The pay was a pittance.
In 1861, H.D. Fisher wrote:
“Our sole remaining funds in cash were three old fashioned copper cents. It was three months till quarterly meeting and we were among strangers. Furthermore, our larder was illy supplied with the necessaries of life.”
But despite the many hardships, when the preacher came to town, the sacrifice paid off…because, the “radical hospitality” that so many United Methodist congregations often aspire to today came naturally to country folk.
They opened their homes, shared their meals…and some even pieced a quilt or two for their beloved preachers.The growth of the Methodist church mirrored the growth of the United States.
At the intersection of “backwoods” and “boondocks,” simple sanctuaries began to emerge.
If disaster struck…the church was so fundamental to their identity, communities rallied to rebuild.
And, where there were no buildings? Well, the Methodists perfected countryside camp meetings, as a way of winning more souls to Christ.
Dale Patterson: "Very early on, we became a church that was spread across the country, mostly small community churches."
Districts and conferences matured. The worship, educational, and administrative structures that are evident in today’s United Methodist Church began to evolve.
Among the slaves working the plantation fields, Methodist preachers sowed the seeds of faith. Shortly before the Civil War, the new church divided down geographical lines. Methodist itinerate preachers served both armies on the battlefield.
And, after emancipation, the church helped to create trade schools, colleges, medical institutions and a seminary for former slaves.
When Congress passed the Homestead Act of 1864, Methodist missionaries followed the masses across the new frontier, staking a claim on the righteous.
In 1868, General Ulysses S. Grant even remarked:
“The United States possesses three great parties, ‘The Republican, the Democratic, and the Methodist Church.’”
“The California miners are a hardy, muscular, powerful class of men possessing literally an extraordinary development of hope, faith and patience and a corresponding power of endurance.”--William Taylor
By 1875, the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church was supporting more than 3,000 missionaries- most in Western Territories. They found their flocks in lumber camps…or boom towns…laying rails…or mining riches.
Missionary William Taylor described the laity in terms that could also have just as accurately described itinerant preachers:
“The California miners are a hardy, muscular, powerful class of men possessing literally an extraordinary development of hope, faith and patience and a corresponding power of endurance."
Even if it was just a sod-walled sanctuary, the frontier church became the unifying center of the community. Often, it was the fortitude of immigrants that solidified Methodism in the primitive prairie. Swedes, Italians, Germans, Japanese and Chinese...
…all were welcome to share in God’s good grace, and it was even preached in their native tongue.
Dale Patterson: “It was a way of saying “Welcome to the new country” and “welcome to the new church,” but a church that accepts you in your own language.”
By the turn of the century, the Methodist Church was the predominant Protestant denomination. Two churches were being built every day. Steeples dotted the countryside.
And, decades after the death of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley’s dictate to serve the poor continued to resonate in the hearts of country preachers.
Like the Reverend Hiram Frakes, who cultivated his parish among moonshiners and miners in the backwoods of Kentucky. “Parson Frakes” rode into Bell County in 1925. Because he donned fancy, store-bought clothes, some thought he was a “revenuer.” Prohibition was in full force but the mountain-folk lived by their own law.
Still, over the course of 40 years, Parson Frakes won hearts and souls in these Cumberland Mountains. He established a church, a school, and a post office on land donated by a moonshiner. It became known as Henderson Settlement – named after Bill Henderson, the moonshiner, and Theodore Henderson, the resident Methodist bishop. And, it was the embodiment of Methodism’s call to put faith into action.
In 1975, the Reverend Ross Mars wrote of the legendary preacher:
“Hiram had no children of his own, yet he said he raised 5,000. Asked how many made good, he answered ‘All of them.’ Some of them became doctors, teachers, dentists, professors, army officers and nurses.”
So while some may consider them nothing more than rural relics, these Methodist churches have pedigree. Today’s congregations can trace their lineage to the saddle sore…the forging faithful…and the abiding believers who traversed the worn path to the old country church.
Learn more about the history of Methodism.
Photos courtesy of the General Commission on Archives and History (GCAH).
This video was first published on February 3, 2011.