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Service Marks 225th Anniversary of a Defining Moment in Methodist History

by Elliott Wright

Barratt's Chapel.
Barratt's Chapel in Frederic, Delaware, is the oldest Methodist Church in the United States originally built as a church.
Image by: Elliott Wright
Source: GBGM Administration
Historical drawings of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury.

Frederica, Delaware, Nov. 11, 2009--On a bright November Sunday, 125 United Methodists gathered to thank and praise God at the spot where, 225 years earlier, events converged to shape the course of American Methodism.

The setting then and now was Barratt's Chapel at Frederic, Delaware, the oldest Methodist Church in the United States originally built as a church. The 2009 observance on November 8 marked an occasion on November 14, 1784 that pointed the way toward forming a distinct denomination in a lineage that has became The United Methodist Church.

Bishop Peggy A. Johnson of the Philadelphia Area preached at the special service commemorating a meeting between two early leaders, Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, who together laid the organizational foundations and gave Methodism in the US its strong emphasis on mission. Asbury is considered the "father of American Methodism" and Coke the "father of Methodist missions."

Bishop Johnson compared the historic Asbury-Coke meeting to the stones gathered by the Israelites in Joshua 4, as symbols to remind their children of God's providence in bringing them into a promised land. "We need to tell the story of Jesus and those who have been rocks of our faith to the children," she said.

A Historical Meeting

Phillip Barratt, a farmer, built Barratt's Chapel in 1780 as a meeting place for Methodists scattered across Delaware and that part of Maryland on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. The chapel underwent various changes in its first 70 years, but today remains much as it looked in the 1840s.

A star on the floor represents the traditional spot when, on that November Sunday in 1784, Asbury and Coke greeted one another following the first service of Holy Communion ever celebrated under Methodist auspices in the Americas. This act represented the separation of Methodists in the former British colonies from the Church of England (Anglican).

Coke was coming to the new nation as the representative of Methodist founder John Wesley; Asbury had been in America since 1771, having come as one of the first Methodist missionaries, also sent by Wesley. They were to be joint "general superintendents" appointed by Wesley, but Asbury had the idea that the leadership choices should be voted on by an assembly of the American lay preachers.

That day at Barratt's Chapel they decided to follow Asbury's vision and call a conference of the preachers for December 24 in Baltimore. That Christmas Conference, which lasted into early January, marks the official beginning of the Methodism Episcopal Church, the earliest forerunner to The United Methodist Church. The denomination began and has continued as a mission movement.

On that day 225 years ago, Coke and Asbury also agreed that they would work together to start a college in the States to train clergy and laity. Cokesbury College opened in Abingdon, Maryland the next year, but did not survive a disastrous fire a few years later.

The Anniversary Observance

Barratt's Chapel, even with its balcony, seems small today, rather rustic, with straight, hard benches, and an organ pumped by foot. In the late 18th century it was considered quite expansive and often hosted hundreds of worshippers, often gathered outside, at special events, such as the quarterly conference meeting on November 14, 1784. Coke wrote in his journal that he served communion that day to five or six hundred people.

The service commemorating the Coke-Asbury meeting on November 8, 2009 was not so large, but was filled with a sense of Methodist "connection" and the strains of familiar hymns accompanied by both the organ, played by Bishop Johnson, and a piano. The 20-voice choir of St. Paul United Methodist Church in nearby Milford sang with conviction.

"Jesus, United by Thy Grace," a hymn by Charles Wesley, who labored with his brother John in founding Methodist, was a fitting conclusion to the observation.

The anniversary service was organized by the Commission on Archives and History of the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference, one of two regional conferences in the Philadelphia Episcopal Area. Barratt's Chapel is today a shrine maintained by the commission. It is a Heritage Landmark of the denomination and is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Asbury and Coke

The meeting of Asbury and Coke 225 years ago at Barratt's was a defining moment for Methodism in the context of what was happening in Great Britain and what was then the Confederate States of America.

Methodism began to arrive in Britain's American colonies in the late 1760s; at the time Wesley sent Asbury and the other early missionaries, there were fewer than 500 Methodists in all of the colonies. Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Coke, a clergyman of the Church of England, had become a leader in the network of Methodist "societies." Those societies, on both sides of the Atlantic, were still considered to be within the Anglican fold, and depended on Anglican clergy to administer the sacraments.

After the Revolutionary War broke out in 1776, most Anglican clergy, being Loyalists, left the colonists, meaning that access to the sacraments for Anglicans and Methodists was limited. By the end of the war in 1783, the other seven missionaries who came with Asbury were also gone.

During the war, Methodist societies continued to exist and multiply, entirely under the leadership of lay preachers, and Asbury was recognized as their leader. Asbury was active during the war, but was at times limited in his mobility. He became a citizen of the state of Delaware and for two years found sanctuary in the home of a Kent County judge who was Methodist. When possible during that period, Asbury and the lay preachers would meet in Baltimore to maintain their "connection."

Once hostilities were over, Wesley was asked to take steps to provide ordained clergy for the new nation, especially since Church of England bishops showed no inclination to dispatch clergy to the former colonies. In a dramatic move in early 1784, Wesley ordained clergy for England, Scotland, and America in a break with Anglican tradition. The two new presbyters sent to the States were Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vesey.

Wesley also "laid hands" on Coke--although he was already a clergyman of the Church of England--naming him as "general superintendent" in America. This act was later taken to mean that Wesley had consecrated Coke as bishop. Coke was instructed to ordain Asbury, then still a lay preacher, who was to be his co-general superintendent.

Before arriving at Barratt's, Coke had worked his way down from New York, preaching at many places, but he had not yet consecrated Holy Communion in the States.

A Sacramental First

Asbury was surprised that Holy Communion was celebrated that day at Barratt's; perhaps unaware that Wesley had ordained Richard Whatcoat, who accompanied Coke. The occasion was a quarterly conference of the lay pastors in the area, the Eastern Shore being prime territory for the Methodist movement. That the meeting was set for Barratt's, even though the chapel was in the woods, was not surprising because of its size and location.

Coke, Wesley, and 11 preachers ate Sunday dinner at the home of Phillip Barratt's widow--the prosperous farmer had died two weeks earlier--about a mile from the chapel. Following the meal, Asbury and Coke retired from the others to discuss the future of their movement in the new country. They agreed to the idea of calling a general conference in Baltimore at Christmas for the lay preachers across the States to convene.

The 11 preachers present agreed to the plan and one of them, a youth named Freeborn Garrison, was dispatched to make a huge circuit carrying the news of the forthcoming Christmas Conference. At that event in Baltimore, Coke and others ordained Asbury; both Coke and Asbury were elected as general superintendents, a designation formally changed to "bishop" by the General Conference of 1787.

Of the two men who met at Barratt's on November 14, 1774, Asbury would exert the greatest influence on the future of Methodism in the US; Coke would point Methodism in England and the States toward the great work of worldwide mission.

(This is the first in a series of articles on the founding and missionary thrust of Methodism in the United States. Future entries will deal with the Christmas Conference, the careers of Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke, and the roles of women and racial groups in early mission outreach.)

Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.


Date posted: Nov 12, 2009