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The Methodists and Revolutionary America, 1700-1800:
The Shaping of an Evangelical Culture

Dee E. Andrews
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
$23.95, xv + 367 pages, ISBN 0-691-09298-2.

Caroline Bélan
Université de Rouen


Dee E. Andrews’s Methodists and Revolutionary America is truly outstanding: everything one has always wanted to know about American Methodism is brilliantly dissected here, in minute detail. For all that, precisely, the micro-level analysis of eighteenth-century British and American social and political highlights tends to obscure the more synthetic study of the religious movement. Let us, then—just the once will not hurt—expose straight away the main criticism one could make about Andrews’s study, namely that the reader is more often than not on the verge of getting lost in the details.

Yet, this is also what makes Andrews’s book so utterly indispensable to the understanding of American Methodism, as well as one of the most useful tools of research in the field of American religious history. Andrews’s demonstration is based on the hypothesis that Methodists are “literally children of the American Revolutionary era” [ix] and aims at answering the question posed in the introduction: “How American was early American Methodism?” [3]. Though the answer will dawn on the reader—as a final revelation—only in the last part of the book (Politics), the first two parts (Origins and Social Change) review Wesley’s life and doctrine as well as present the most prominent characters of American Methodism and their audience in the New World, by and large.

Andrews’s study in the first part of the book sheds interesting light on the origins of Methodism for any researcher on the religious landscapes of Britain and colonial America at the end of the seventeenth century: the unsuspected survival of sects such as the Quakers; the attracting and dangerous challenge of going further into the wilderness for Americans-to-be; the impact of the Enlightenment on European thought; the Toleration Act, allowing the process of denominationalization and more importantly the birth of competition between the Anglican Church and other missionary societies for the propagation of the gospel both in Britain and in the colonies—among which the Wesley family of Epwoth, Lincolnshire, not the least famous with their “Holy Club” in Oxford and George Whitefield as a key member [17].

This first part is undeniably far less centered on America than on Britain and displays an incredibly thorough overview of Wesley’s French and German influences, or of how itinerancy and open-air preaching derived from his American journey; it also shows how, from the start, Methodism attracted a British audience neglected by elitist Anglican authorities. But if Andrews feels the need to go back to the British roots of Methodism, it is to show how the colonies eventually converted to Methodism almost despite Wesley himself since he had been disappointed with his former work in Georgia for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and had repeatedly attacked the patriot movement. Only later does the reader understand that this is merely one among the long list of paradoxes characterizing the religious movement that Andrews patiently, but with much talent, puts into light. Wesley was indeed less than enthusiastic about America, and the first-generation Methodists had hardly anything American about them—nevertheless, “Americans joined [Methodism] in the first place” and “a British society became America’s church” [5]. If Methodism became American, Andrews claims, that is precisely because it matured at the very moment when America’s relationship to religion was changing due to Revolutionary ideas and when the sibling nation was trying to sever its ties with Mother England.

In "The Wesleyan Connection," the second chapter, Andrews radically turns to the American scene and offers a study of the movement up to the Revolution insisting on the missionary activities of British-sent Methodists who, early on, had realized the potential represented by American colonies. Once again, Andrews cleverly manages to set forth another paradox of Methodism in the links between the Church of England and its new missionary society. Indeed, Methodism “was never designed to make a separation from the Church of England to be looked upon as a Church intended for the benefit of all those of every Denomination” [41] but the unexpected growth of the flock and success of the missionary society in America came to mean potential independence until, unfortunately, Whitefield’s abrupt death.

Exactly in the same way as American society itself was compelled to evolve, Methodism had to adapt to radical changes, Andrews explains, such as the opening of the West, the opportunity for churches to expand, and the competition among the more and more numerous denominations. He shows how Wesley, although he had reconsidered helping “the desolate sheep in America” [67], would not be at the origin of American Methodism and how Thomas Coke—a firm believer in the necessity for a true church government—softly and cleverly drove the American group away from their British roots.

In term, Methodism was also to provide a favourable ground for the involvement of minorities and women; but of course what Andrews points to is the paradox in a denomination that welcomed women while at the same time restraining their influence and role to the household, hence the expression “cottage religion” to define Methodism. Their contributions were “more often assumed than acknowledged” [99] even though in some cities “the founding members were all women” [101]. One of the most interesting parts of this study is the way in which the relative acceptance of women in the movement generated conflicts within the family unit and how “a woman by her conversion might be as easily led to reject as to celebrate the family ties, including her responsibilities as a republican wife and mother” [105-106]. Potential disobedience, Andrews explains, was almost overtly upheld by Wesley who reminded his flock that the supreme duty of a Methodist was “to listen to Christ first, confront parental and spousal authority if necessary, and above all to resist being ‘unequally yoked‘ with unbelievers” [107]. Andrews gives examples of Methodist women confronting their Anglican husbands, or husbands threatening preachers at revivals because of the negative influence religion exerted on their wives or daughters.

“The image of the ‘daughter of Eve’ died hard, and many Methodists continued to perceive women as weak in body and mind but paradoxically powerful in sex and guile” [110]. For that reason, itinerants were warned against the potential temptations that women represented; Asbury, particularly, was “deeply suspicious of the power of sexual attraction to lead men astray from their missionary vocation” and told itinerants to “remain unattached” [110]. Itinerancy was of course “gendered” [119] and as women were not allowed to preach, they went back to the only place where they had some authority, the household.

Methodism in the kitchen was not limited to women only but also concerned blacks who had little chance, in the households of their white masters, to meet anybody but preachers [133]. The parallel between women and blacks is not surprising, but Andrews brilliantly demonstrates how antislavery Methodists were accused of threatening the family unit since slaves and servants were part of the household economy and life in the same way as women, and could not be removed without some danger for the organization of the whole family. Andrews also shows how blacks underwent a transition from slavery to freedom which coincided with their conversion experiences, and focuses on the various degrees of anti-slavery sentiment among the Methodists through an incredibly well-documented study. He warns the reader, however, against any generalization and relates how some itinerants refused to accept white members who chained servants and slaves whereas prominent Methodists like Asbury claimed they were both against slavery and in favor of a reorganization of the “enormous evil” [117] that would offer better conditions to slaves: “hence for the thousands of black people attending revivals, Methodist class meetings and chapel services in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the emancipationist message of the Methodist movement was ambiguous at best” [132].

“It is rare—a mere miracle, for a Methodist to increase in wealth and not decrease in grace” Bishop Asbury explained to his American audience. Chapter six is indeed centered on wealth and Andrews reveals a paradox once again. The Methodist doctrine made it clear that an ‘in-between’ position in society was the best solution. A Methodist was not to be too wealthy but wealthy enough to sustain the family and show that he was capable of managing his household—this implied attacks from both the very poor and the very rich. Although what Andrews notices is that Asbury, though worried by the dangers of borrowing from the rich and therefore having to acknowledge that investors had some power and influence on the movement, asked early on for the support of local wealthy men, “patrons of the movement," as Andrews says, “whose gifts they accepted, […] whose servants they converted, and whose wives and daughters formed a bulwark sustaining Methodist itinerants’ daily rounds” [157].

Chapter seven focuses on the process of Americanization undergone by Methodism in the 1790s, a period of strife, schisms and personal conflicts within the church, which nevertheless led Methodism to “become more American than either its adherents or its enemies realized” [188]. Andrews depicts the conflicts and views of the new republic on the separation of church and state, but, somehow, maybe because the reader does not yet see what Andrews is aiming at, the chapter, called "Politics Without," is not always clear or helpful. Even though the link between Andrews’s arguments is not always obvious, some passages are delightful, such as when Andrews writes about the vestry of St Peter’s parish, blaming the Quakers and Methodists for being “guided by their wives and sweet-hearts apron strings” [190], or when he describes the itinerants’ ordeals, explaining how sexual temptation led to the loss of many Methodist itinerants to the great displeasure of frigid Asbury.

In "Politics Within," Andrews brilliantly shows how, according to him, the Americanization of Methodism is the result of an internal conflict for the democratization of church government and explains how, through two major schisms, the national political question debated at the time of the possibility of popular vote or representation was transferred to the religious movement. For Andrews, what American Methodists learned from the Revolution was mainly “the need to adapt to American mores whenever possible” [197], and on the American scene, it meant taking into account the various schisms which helped question the lack of democracy in the church organization. Andrews’s study of itinerancy and of “Asbury’s boys” [207] is very interesting and reveals how itinerancy was one of the greatest tools of the gradual insertion of Methodism into the American religious landscape, even though, as Andrews notes with much talent, circuit riders had to cope with the reputation of being pseudo-shamans and miracle-makers, or of seducing each woman they encountered.

Chapter 8 concludes on the Second Awakening in the 1800s, the “Methodist Age” [222] in which the denomination, though in its golden period, was characterized by discord and ambiguity in the same way as America experienced divisions before the Civil War. Methodism at the time “exhibited a notable propensity for resisting reform and toleration of issue” [226]. Surprisingly, as Andrews shows, the second-generation Methodists feigned to ignore blacks or women and instead turned to the American bourgeoisie to increase its membership which resulted in the development of publications, turning Methodism into “a visible business” [236]. Logically, however, a new visibility of the public sphere also meant taking women back to the private household where they could fully and eventually concentrate on their converted families. The lack of access to power, however, led black members not to the household but to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church where, contrarily to the Methodist Church, advancement in the hierarchy was finally possible. The situation of blacks then was inevitably a source of conflict in the church and before the Civil War, “the southern preachers […] found themselves in a position with the Methodist Episcopal Church analogous as that to the South held within the nation: slowly but inexorably losing a majority voice” [236].

To conclude, Andrews defines the “three major advantages” [238] which, despite the successive schisms and enduring paradoxes of the movement, have made the incredible success of Methodism: the “bold claim to offer salvation [as well as holiness] to all,” but also the focus, through revivals and camp meetings, on “action and invention”—what Andrews defines as the “expectation of being entertained with something new” reporting Sowden’s words—and finally the “universal” character of the Methodists, which assured believers that anywhere on the American territory the church organization would be quite the same [238]. If Methodism was in time to develop as “the church of those left out of republican prescription for democratic progress—women, blacks and the rural and urban poor,” that was because “it was increasingly what Americans were about as well” [239].


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