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Revival and Growth (1817–1843)

The Second Great Awakening was the dominant religious development among Protestants in America during the first half of the nineteenth century. Through revivals and camp meetings, sinners experienced conversion. Circuit-riding preachers and lay pastors knit them into a connection. This style of Christian faith and discipline was very agreeable to Methodists, United Brethren, and Evangelicals who favored its emphasis on the experiential. The memberships of these churches increased dramatically, as did the number of preachers serving them.

Preachers and laity were expected to be seriously committed to both the faith and mission. Preachers were to possess a sound conversion and divine calling, as well as to demonstrate gifts and skills for fruitful ministry. The financial benefits were meager. The general membership’s commitment was exhibited in their willingness to submit to the discipline of their churches. Methodists, for example, were strictly guided by the General Rules adopted at the Christmas Conference of 1784 and still included in United Methodism’s Book of Discipline. They were urged to avoid evil, do good, and use the means of grace supplied by God. Those who did not adhere to the Discipline were to be removed from membership.

The structure of Methodist, United Brethren, and Evangelical Association churches allowed them to function in ways to support, consolidate, and expand their ministries. Local classes could spring up wherever a few women and men were gathered under the direction of a class leader. The itinerant preacher, who had a circuit of appointments under his care, visited regularly. This system served the diverse needs of city, town, or frontier outpost. The churches could go to the people wherever they settled. Annual conferences under episcopal leadership provided the mechanism for admitting and ordaining clergy, appointing itinerant preachers to their churches, and supplying them with mutual support. General Conferences, meeting quadrennially, proved sufficient to set the main course for the church, including the creation of the Discipline by which it was governed.

The Methodist Book Concern, organized in 1789, was the first church publishing house in America. The Evangelical Association and United Brethren also authorized the formation of publishing agencies in the early nineteenth century. From these presses came a succession of hymnals, Disciplines, newspapers, tracts, and magazines. Profits were usually designated for the support and welfare of retired and indigent preachers and their families.

The founding period was not without serious problems, especially for the Methodists. Conflict between Methodism’s structure and values and American cultural norms (especially over episcopacy, race, and slavery) sometimes led to schism. In 1792, James O’Kelly founded the Republican Methodists to reduce the authority of bishops. Richard Allen (1760-1831), an emancipated slave and Methodist preacher who was mistreated because of his race, left the church and in 1816 organized The African Methodist Episcopal Church. For similar reasons, The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church was begun in 1821. In 1830, about 5,000 preachers and laypeople left the denomination because it would not grant representation to the laity or permit the election of presiding elders (district superintendents). This new body was called The Methodist Protestant Church, which in 1939 united with The Methodist Episcopal Church and The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, to become The Methodist Church. In 1843, abolitionist preachers Orange Scott and Luther Lee formed the Wesleyan Methodist Church over Methodism’s weakening prohibition against slaveholding.

Even with these tensions, Methodism spread to new cultures and overseas. African American Methodist preacher, John Stewart, began an unauthorized mission to the Wyandot Indians in Ohio in 1815, which was adopted by the Ohio Conference in 1819. Another African American preacher, Daniel Coker, who had been ordained by Asbury and participated in the organizing conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was among the eighty-eight emigrants who sailed to Africa in 1820, assisted by the American Colonization Society. While still at sea he organized a church. The group landed in what is today Liberia. Missionary work in Africa was carried out mainly by lay people until 1833, when Melville Beveridge Cox became the first missionary of the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed to Liberia.

Other institutions also developed. By 1841, Methodists, Evangelicals, and United Brethren had all begun denominational missionary societies. Sunday schools were encouraged in every place where they could be started and maintained. Interest in education was also evident in the establishment of secondary schools and colleges. By 1845, each had instituted courses of study for their preachers to ensure that they had a basic knowledge of the Bible, theology, and pastoral ministry.

From The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church - 2016. Copyright 2016 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Used by permission.