Francis Asbury and Methodism in Lewes/ Evangelist George Whitefield/ Methodism in Lewes
Bishop Francis Asbury
Evangelist George Whitefield
Evangelist George Whitefield
Lewes Methodists Recall Historic Visit by Clergyman
by Hazel D. Brittingham
It was in mid-August of 1739 that the ship Elizabeth set sail from England enroute to the New World. On board was the Rev. George Whitefield, age 24 and already well known for his art of enthusiastic oratory and for field preaching that had attracted throngs of people to hear him in his native land. Born in Gloucester, England, he had entered Oxford University at age 18 where he joined Charles and John Wesley, and others, in the Holy Club. Its members were noted for their austerities and good works among the needy. Their disciplined approach to the expression of their religious faith earned the label of "Methodist."
When the youthful evangelist arrived off of Cape Henlopen, he was on his second trip to the colonies and had recently received his priests orders in the Anglican Church. His journal tells that the ship reached "Lewis Town" in Pennsylvania on October 30, after 11 weeks at sea. At the time, current-day Delaware was known as The Three Lower Counties (of Pennsylvania) on the Delaware River. Before setting off for his destination of Philadelphia, by land, Whitefield agreed to remain in the village overnight and deliver a sermon the next day.
Speaking from the pulpit of the Anglicans (St. Peters Church), a privilege extended by the rector, the Rev. William Becket, Whitefield addressed a gathering of persons of varying denominations. He wrote in his journal that "the congregation was larger than might be expected in so small a place, and at so short a notice." After the sermon, with the assistance of local folk in obtaining horses for their journey, Whitefield and two companions left Lewes about five in the afternoon.
The influence of Whitefields sermon on October 31, and of additional sermons given at that place on a subsequent visit the following spring, is credited with the formation of what has been acclaimed the first Methodist Society in America. The orators own writings acquaint readers with details of his travels, sermons, and personal feelings, but they furnish not one iota of information about the religious society that sprang up in Lewes. It is from the correspondence of the Rev. Mr. Becket, who was greatly perturbed by the Rev. Mr. Whitefields flamboyant preaching style and some of his doctrine, that we learn anything at all about the society. Never numbering over 30 members, the group met twice weekly to sing Psalms and hymns. Mr. Becket reported to his bishop in London, with apparent relief, that by the fall of 1742 the society was abating as swiftly as it once increased.
The use of the word "Methodist" in Whitefields Lewes episode predates by almost 30 years the arrival in the colonies of missionaries sent by John Wesley. It predates by 40 years the current Bethel United Methodist Churchs initial congregation, formed following a preaching mission conducted by the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson in 1779. It was then another five years before the Methodist Episcopal Church in America was formally recognized.
In 1989 Bethel and Groome churches that form the Bethel-Groome United Methodist Charge in Lewes celebrated the 250th anniversary of Whitefields first visit to the area. Under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Charles H. Poukish, minister at the time, events were hosted which commenced in late August and concluded on November 5 when Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel of the denominations Washington Area addressed the morning worship.
Longtime church members recall similar Whitefield anniversary observations in 1939, 1959, and 1964. During the 200th anniversary in 1939, a meeting of the Association of Historical Societies of Methodism was held in Lewes with Dr. Ernest C. Hallman presiding.
It cannot be denied that the influence of George Whitefield was ecumenical in nature. From his leaning toward the Calvinist conviction of predestination, which brought a break of a few years with John Wesley, he found welcome among Presbyterians and Congregationalists.
Likewise, there is no denying that the man gave his entire life, during which he traveled the Atlantic Ocean 13 times and preached sermons said to number 18,000, to serving his God and Gods children in need. Orphans, prisoners, and those ill in body and soul received his special personal attention. Having made known his desire to "wear out, rather than to rust out," that wish was granted when the end came on September 30, 1770, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, at age 55 years. The previous day, while making his way on horseback, he had preached a sermon almost two hours in length, in the open air, at Exeter, New Hampshire. In the early morning hours of the 30th, while anticipating his preaching schedule for the coming day, an asthmatic attack claimed his life.
(Note: Whitefield is pronounced "Wit-field.")
Francis Asbury and Methodism in Lewes
by Hazel D. Brittingham
Christmas 1984, in addition to marking the traditional Christian observance of the birthday of Jesus, commemorated the two hundredth birthday of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. The formal organization of the forerunner of the United Methodist Church took place during the Christmas Conference in Baltimore in 1784. At that historic gathering of some 60 circuit-riding preachers of the Methodist societies in this country, out of a possible 80, a new denomination was born. Francis Asbury, ordained at the gathering, was elected the church's first bishop.
Upon arrival in America 13 years before, Francis Asbury was a 26-year-old English local preacher who had answered the call sent to John Wesley for missionaries to join the 11 preachers ministering to less than 1,000 members of the Methodist societies in the New World. As he made the open road his home, passing over wilderness trails and mountains and through streams and rivers, Asbury became the one person to be seen and known by more people than any other person in the country. A letter addressed simply to Francis Asbury, America, would eventually reach him.
Thumbnail sketches of Asbury include astronomical figures related to his 45 years as an itinerant spreading the gospel in a new land: preached 16,500 sermons, ordained more than 4,000 preachers, traveled more than 275,000 miles.
Activities in Methodist churches in the Cape Henlopen area during 1984 as the bicentennial was observed cast light upon Asbury's visits to the region.
There is evidence of no fewer than 11 visits to the area generally referred to by him as "Lewistown," ranging from 1779 until 1810. Researching journal entries of early circuit-riding preachers can prove exciting for the interested reader. When pushing aside notations about weather, especially its extremes, and personal ailments and afflictions, occasionally a sentence or paragraph can prove eye-opening and mind-expanding.
Today's reader is indebted to journal entries that, in addition to dealing with the religious nature of the writer's efforts, include gems of information about social, civic, and political activities of the day. A search through Asbury's journals points out that his first visit to the locale appears to have occurred in late September, 1779. The Revolutionary War was in progress and he was not straying far from his "hideout" in the Kent County home of Judge Thomas White located on the Delaware-Maryland border. The single English missionary who had not fled to his homeland at the beginning of the War, Asbury was for a time under suspicion as a Tory.
He describes his initial visit to Lewes as an opportunity to preach to 50 or 60 people, but he felt the results of his efforts to be questionable. His presence must have stirred the Presbyterian congregation in the town, for their minister, the patriotic Dr. Matthew Wilson, proclaimed a fast to assist his flock in determining whether the Methodists were of God or the devil.
A return trip in early 1781 attracted 120 serious people on a rainy day. Although the preacher sensed a little more gentleness than he had "a twelvemonth past," he made this blunt notation: "I think for the ignorance of God and religion, the wilds and swamps of Delaware exceed most parts of America with which I have had any acquaintance; however, God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham."
Before chapels were constructed for worship, Asbury would preach at a private home in Quakertown and at the courthouse in Lewistown (located near St. Peter's Episcopal Church on Second Street). Lewes Methodists are pleased that the building of two early chapels rated even a single sentence in the bishop's handwriting in his account book.
The Ebenezer chapel, built in Quakertown where the remains of its cemetery may be seen, was mentioned on October 20, 1788: "We have a house now building, and I hope something will be done here." This chapel was constructed on land deeded by Rhoades Shankland, Esq., a prominent landowner and surveyor. Shankland's home is mentioned by Asbury as the first one opened to him in the area, and it was at his house that Asbury preached and/or lodged on several occasions.
The October 23, 1790, recording of: "We have a chapel built at Lewistown," refers to the recently restored preaching house located at 214 Mulberry Street ( corner of Mulberry and Third). Privately owned as a residence and resting on its third site, the chapel was originally constructed on Third Street (bank parking lot).
Bishop Asburys brief notation of October 19,1787, reveals that when arriving at Shanklands in the evening, he found the people in disorder and violence about the election; some had taken up fire arms. Strife at election time was not uncommon in Sussex County, but only once while Lewes was the official county voting place was it necessary to alter the location. That was in October, 1787, when the polling place was moved to Nanticoke Hundred.
Evidently it was in the midst of this political unrest that Asbury arrived in the coastal county seat. The election, and its results, however, were extremely important that year. Not only were legislators on the ticket, but the election was to determine the ten delegates from Sussex County to attend the coming convention in Dover to consider approval of the federal Constitution. And, with unanimous approval by all 30 delegates (ten from each county), the Constitution was ratified on December 7, 1787, making Delaware the first to do so. The action won for Delaware its acclaim as "The First State."
The journal writer's account of his October, 1790, visit was his most lengthy entry related to a stay in the locality. He mentioned that "Mr. W." (Presbyterian minister Dr. Wilson) had passed away since Asbury had last visited, and "has gone to give an account of his stewardship, as we must all shortly do."
The bulk of the account for the date deals with Asbury's visit at "the light-house" (Cape Henlopen) and his warm regard for Keeper Hargus. The journal states, "I could but praise God that the house was kept by people who praise and love himno drinking or swearing here. Brother Hargus is a Christian and a preacher; and God has owned his labours."
It appears that among the matters discussed by the two was the account of an Irish ship with 300 aboard that had sunk with all but 40 perishing. Blame was placed squarely on the ship's drunken captain by Asbury's notation, and the journal continues: "Brother Hargus told me that he did not go near the wreck until after his return from Lewistown, with a guard. Stricter laws are now made, and the people on this shore are greatly reformedfor which they may thank the Methodists."
The bishop's visit to Lewes in the spring of 1805 provides an unofficial census report with the notation, "There may be in Lewistown one hundred and twenty houses, and about eight hundred souls."
On the same visit he lodged with Caleb Rodney. Rodney is believed to be the merchant whose store was located at the corner of Second and Market Streets (todays New Devon Inn) and suffered slight damage during the bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812. Rodney served a brief time as governor of Delaware in 1822-23, filling out the term of his predecessor.
Asbury mentioned meeting with "the Africans" in Lewistown in a similar vein in both 1798 and 1810, giving the impression that he met with whites and blacks separately. As the denomination spread in an ever-widening circuit from Maine to Georgia, the reader of Asbury's published journals realizes with amazement the geographical area he covered and the privations endured. All was for sake of the goal he had set for himself as he left his homeland in 1771, never to return. On his leave-taking aboard ship, Asburys diary shares his question to himself about why he was going to the New World. His answer was that it was not to gain honor or to get money, but "to live to God and bring others so to do."
This incredible mans goal had been met when, upon his death in Virginia in 1816 at age 71, the expansion of the denomination was reckoned. Asbury had fostered and overseen growth from a few Methodist societies with 11 preachers and about 1,000 members to the Methodist Episcopal Church in America with 700 preachers and more than 200,000 members.
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