Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions
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Fr. Hardon Responds to Msgr. Bray -
Bristol, September 11, 1784
To Dr. Coke, Mr. Asbury and our Brethren in North America.
I have accordingly appointed Dr. Coke and Mr. Francis Asbury, to be Superintendents
over our brethren in North America. As also Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vesey,
to act as Elders among them.
Three conferences were held in 1785, 1786 and 1787. The first question printed in the Minutes of each Conference is:
Who are the superintendents of our church?
Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury.
The title bishop was introduced, for the first time, in the 1788 conference:
Who are the Bishops of our church for the United States?
Thomas Coke, Francis Asbury.
When Wesley learned that the title Bishop
was being used, he wrote the following caustic letter to Asbury:
London, September 20, 1788
But in one point, my dear brother, I am a little afraid, both the Doctor
and you differ from me. I study to be little; you study to be great. I creep;
you strut along
. One instance of this, of your greatness, has given me
great concern. How can you, how dare you, suffer yourselves to be called bishop!
I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave, a rascal, a
scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never, by my consent call me bishop!
For my sake, for Gods sake, for Christs sake, put a full end to this!
Your affectionate friend and brother,
Evidence that Asbury was not appointed a bishop,
but only superintendent, is also found in the Life of Asbury by Strickland
(New York, 1858):
Know all men by these presents, That I, Thomas Coke,
Doctor of Civil Law,
Presbyter of the Church of England and Superintendent
of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America,
set apart the said Francis
Asbury for the office of superintendent of the said Methodist Episcopal Church.
Hence, the title bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church originated in the vanity of Coke and Asbury.
From Father Hardon:
The Methodist Church in America grew in numbers during the Revolutionary War, but also weakened to the point of disintegration for lack of Anglican-ordained clergy to care for its needs.
The attitude of Wesley in England and his ministers in America toward the Revolutionary cause must reflect the standing of the Methodists, while the patriots were sacrificing their lives to gain independence. Wesley was smarting from the jilting by the young lady and the jolting by the Grand Jury.
Wesley wrote: Probably that subtle spirit (Satan) hoped, by adding to all other vices, the spirit of independency, to have overturned the whole work of God, as well as the British Government in North America . The spirit of independency which our poet so justly terms The glorious fault of angels and of gods, that is, in plain terms, of devils the same which so many call liberty. Reason is lost in rage . Wisdom is fallen in the streets. And where is the place of understanding? It is hardly to be found in these provinces There is no liberty of the press . There is no religious liberty . There is no civil liberty. Do you not observe, wherever these bawlers after liberty govern, there is the vilest slavery? Thus is real liberty, in all its branches, given up for that poor shadow, Independency! A phantom which does not, in fact, exist in any civilized nation under heaven . Independency, that chimera is not found in the wilds of Africa or America.
As to Washington's Army: General Howe will regard any number of them as much as he would so many sparrows. Will these dead-doing men, do you think, be in haste to cut off the old weather-beaten Englishmen!
Gloating over their defeats, he wrote: Since we have help from God, there has been manifest blast on them. Meantime, are they humbled? No, they roar like a wild beast in a net.
That the Methodist preachers in America shared Wesleys opinions is evident from the fact that, when the war broke out, they all asked for passes, excepting Asbury. He went into hiding. General Swartwood granted the passes with the observation: Now you have done all the hurt you can, you want to go home.
The observation of Cobb, in his Rise of Religious Liberty, sums up the Methodist attitude toward the Revolution:
The Methodists are not to be classed among the strugglers for religious liberty. They procured no small odium in the Revolution as Tories in politics and opponents to full freedom of worship.
May I express the hope that my addendum to Father Hardons eighth chapter will be useful to those who are fortunate enough to have purchased a copy of this very valuable book.
JAMES B. BRAY
Monsignor Brays observations (in the May issue of your REVIEW) on the Methodists in The Protestant Churches of America were gratefully appreciated as showing a scholarly familiarity with the early religious history of our country. With due respect to the sources he quotes, I believe that documentary evidence confirms the three statements in my book which he felt were not fully supported by the historical context.
The first statement has to do with John Wesleys visit to Georgia in 1735. In the book, the Methodist founder is described as returning to England after an unfortunate trial involving a woman of his parish whom Wesley waited too long about deciding to marry. Monsignor Bray objects that a Grand Jury and the young lady made this decision, not Wesley. But the facts in the case, even those cited by the Monsignor, still still bear out the original statement. Wesleys indecision about marrying Sophie Hopkey arose from his unsettled conflict as to whether he should remain celibate along with the fear that the girl might repulse him. When she married a man named Williamson, Wesley went through the most serious crisis of his life. To see her no more, he wrote in his Journal, that thought was as the piercing of a sword I was weary of the world, of light, of life (Stand. Ed., I, 334). Unfortunately he continued to see the lady, whom he never forgave for having deceived him. When her religious fervor cooled, Wesley deprived her of the Lords Supper. At this point the worsted suitor was hailed before the court of Savannah on several charges, especially that he had attempted to seduce Sophie. After attending six sessions of the court, the accused left Georgia clandestinely, since, in his own words, I knew by experience every day would give fresh opportunity to procure evidence of words I never said and actions I never did (Ibid., p. 400). The extent of Wesleys guilt has not been fully determined.
Another statement with which Monsignor Bray takes issue is that John Wesley (though a simple parson) presumed to consecrate one of his followers, Thomas Coke, to the episcopacy. According to the Monsignor, Wesley merely appointed Coke (and Francis Asbury) superintendents, but they assumed the title bishop on their own authority. The weight of historical evidence shows that the Methodist founder was hiding behind a verbal distinction in which most probably he and certainly his followers did not believe. In desperation at the refusal of Anglican prelates to ordain presbyters for the Methodist ministry, Wesley ordained twenty-seven men for the work of preaching and administering the Lords Supper. But this alone would not guarantee succession after his death. Here (in England), he argued, there are bishops In America there are none (Methodist Magazine, 1785, p. 602). So he imposed hands on the presbyter, Thomas Coke, and declared he was making him a superintendent. Coke understood himself to be a bishop. Within a year he exercised what he believed were episcopal powers by imposing hands in Asbury. In two years the latter realistically changed the name superintendent to bishop for himself, Coke and Wesley-with the approval of the majority at the General Conference in 1787. If anyone should have known Wesleys intentions, it was his brother and confidant, Charles, who summed up his views in this bitter quatrain:
How easy now are Bishops made At man or womans whim!
Wesley his hands on Coke hath laid, But who laid hands on him?
To this day, the official Discipline defines a bishop (as) a general superintendent of The Methodist Church, thus retaining Wesleys ambiguous terminology to describe what he actually intended, namely, the Episcopal dignity.
The last critique questions the accuracy of the statement that the Methodist Church grew in numbers during the Revolutionary War, if it had weakened to the point of near disintegration for lack of Anglican-ordained clergy to care for its needs. The apparent contradiction is resolved by noting that the growth in membership was due to revivalist conversions brought about by itinerant preachers; but this very increase in numbers nearly destroyed the Methodist body for want of an indigenous clergy, which was finally supplied from outside the Anglican ranks by Wesleys assumption of Episcopal powers.
I thank Monsignor Bray for his valuable addenda on the beginnings of the Methodist Church. My hope is it will stimulate further efforts to unearth the wealth of religious data still buried in the sources of American history. The Catholic Church would benefit from the excavation.
FR. JOHN A. HARDON, S.J.
West Baden College
West Baden Springs, Indiana.
 The Protestant Churches of America. By John A. Hardon, S.J. (The Newman Press, Westminster, Md.).
Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 57-#8, May 1957, pp. 686, 688, 690, 692 & 694
Vol. 57-#9, June 1957, pp. 786, 788 & 790
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