9. Independence Hall and Wesley’s attitude toward the Colonists
Imagine that today is a beautiful spring day in May of 1775. But the mood is not cheery. The air feels charged with tension. It has been just a month since a bloody battle took place between British and colonial forces in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. The Second Continental Congress has just convened in what is today “Independence Hall.” Gathering just a week later, the Methodist preachers are also meeting in conference at St. George’s. Here the preachers called for a “General fast in all our Societies for the prosperity of the work of God & peace of America and great brittain[.]” These were hardly “fighting words” for the Methodists, but it was all that was recorded in the Minutes concerning the conflict with Britain. The American Methodists were a people with diverse and quickly-changing political views. As a whole they did not “take sides” in the conflict. A call for prayer and fasting for peace, the preachers discerned in conference, was best.
Wesley himself changed his attitude toward the American Revolution dramatically. A month after the Methodist preachers met at St. George’s he expressed being sympathetic toward colonists’ protests. A few months later, in September 1775 he saw it differently. His pamphlet, the Calm Address to Our American Colonies, argued that Britain was totally justified in its taxation of the colonies and strongly criticized the rebellious American colonists. Wesley went so far as to call the colonists “dupes” who were the naïve accomplices in a conspiracy by the French to overthrow the English government. Wesley remained strongly opposed to the colonists’ cause throughout the war. His pamphlet was debated extensively in Britain where there was a lot of pro-American sentiment. In America it was barely read at all since ports were closed to ships from Britain. The story of this pamphlet being burned by Methodists to prevent its distribution is most likely not true. Americans did learn of Wesley’s diatribe, however, and it was a source of embarrassment to people like Francis Asbury. Asbury wrote that he was
“[t]ruly sorry that the venerable man [John Wesley] ever dipped into the politics of America. There is not a man in the world so obnoxious to the American politicians as our dear old Daddy, but no matter, we must treat him with all respect we can and that is due to him.”
American Methodists were not of one mind about the Revolution either. They included pacifists, American soldiers, British loyalists, and even a spy for the British army. Captain Thomas Webb who had helped organize Methodists in Philadelphia in the late 1760s claimed after the Revolutionary War that he had even told the British military commanders of Washington’s planned Christmas Eve crossing of the Delaware River – just thirty-five miles north of where we are standing. Fortunately, for the Americans, this was a bit of military intelligence the British army failed to heed.
After the Revolutionary War, the Methodist Episcopal Church in America still struggled with its relationship to British Methodists led by John Wesley. American Methodism may have succeeded in spite of rather than because of the American Revolution. With Wesley condemning the colonists and a Methodist leader caught as a spy it is not hard to imagine why Methodists could have suffered from quite a public relations problem! It is worth reflecting on why they didn’t.