THE REPUBLICAN METHODISTS

Six separate American religious movements cross pollinate to form the Restoration Movement. You can see each of these movements graphically illustrated

Let me introduce you to the Republican Methodists. This southern religious movement contributed important individuals and basic concepts to the Restoration Movement. The Republican Methodists represent a cry for freedom in church government and biblical interpretation.

I. American Methodism

Methodism grew out of an English movement led by John and Charles Wesley. John Wesley surveyed Anglican's coldness and formalism noting a definite lack of evangelistic fervor. Anglicans were little concerned for the poor, to Wesley's chagrin. He reacted zealously, taking the message to coal miners. Long before the shifts changed and the miners went underground, Wesley preached to them. His open air meetings often drew more than 5,000 hearers. He touched thousands with his preaching and the common man responded to the Gospel as never before.

Once individuals made personal decisions, Wesley organized them into small societies or spiritual clubs. The clubs encouraged personal growth. The clubs followed a definite program at each meeting. They confessed every known sin and the group encouraged each other to defeat Satan's tempting. Since these societies followed a methodical program they became known as Methodists. Wesley did not intend to begin a new church. He planned for Methodists to continue their operation within Anglicanism.

Methodist societies came to the United States relatively early. During the Great Awakening of the mid-1700s, George Whitefield preached a Methodist message. At one point John Wesley journeyed to America to see about establishing a mission to the Indians of Georgia.

Like other religious movements in Colonial America and early United States, Methodists suffered for lack of leadership. For the most part, Methodist societies depended on the Anglican church for its ministry, particularly for the ordinances. Many independent thinking settlers, however, refused use Anglicans for baptism, marriage, and burial.

After the American Revolution, Methodism severed ties with its European roots. Wesley, thinking the American Methodist Church needed supervision and hoping to maintain ties, appointed Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as superintendents. Wesley also provided Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey with letters which allowed them to ordain preachers. Whatcoat, Vasey, and Coke arrived in New York on November 3, 1784. They carried with them a document from Wesley spelling out their privileges and responsibilities.

A short time later American Methodists convened to form the American Methodist Church. The church then ordained Francis Asbury a deacon, then in quick succession an elder and superintendent. Asbury assumed the title Bishop. Americans immediately protested Asbury's intention to establish an episcopal organization. James O'Kelly led a group of southern Methodists protesting the establishment of an episcopalian structure. O'Kelly said this structure represented a loss of freedom and the Bible gave no precedent for it.

II. James O'Kelly (1735?-1826)

James O'Kelly was a sincere man blessed with obvious leadership ability. He cared about the Gospel and fervently pressed its expansion. He is described as:

Laborious in ministry, a man of zeal and usefulness, an advocate of holiness, given to prayer and fasting, an able defender of Methodist doctrine and faith, and hard against negro [sic] slavery, in private and from the press and pulpit.

His zeal and determination to be a free Christian led him to solid and steady opposition to Asbury for five years.

We know little about O'Kelly's birth and early life. Earl West thinks he was born in Virginia of Irish descent. O'Kelly's biographer, W.E. MacCleeny, believes he was actually born and educated in Ireland.

Sometime prior to 1760, O'Kelly married Elizabeth Meeks. The O'Kellys had two sons, John and William. Methodist evangelists entered the region near the O'Kelly home when William was about 12. The year is uncertain. Both William and Elizabeth converted and immediately began to work on James. At one point, William considered the ministry but his father discouraged him. As a result, William left home to study law and he ultimately ventured into a successful Virginia political career.

The Gospel ultimately made its impact upon James O'Kelly's life. At age 39, he decided to follow Christ. About 1778, O'Kelly began preaching as a lay minister. He preached numerous evangelistic efforts and is given credit for the growth of Methodism throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

The conference which established American Methodism as an identifiable church also ordained O'Kelly to the ministry. At that time O'Kelly raised questions about the wisdom of having Bishops. Seeing Asbury assume power led O'Kelly to take a small group of preachers out in protest. Over and over again O'Kelly stated he felt there was just too much English in the Methodist system.

III. The trek towards Republican Methodism

Before too long some American Methodists began clamoring for freedom from episcopal tyranny. O'Kelly and others believed the Revolution ended such oppression. Perhaps the easiest way to see the trend towards a free church can best be seen in a series of conferences and meetings.

A. The Virginia Conference at Brokenback Chapel - May 18, 1789. At this conference it became obvious that many preachers wanted to end the episcopal system altogether. Asbury fought this on the ground that it represented a thorough break with Episcopalianism (Anglicanism) and Wesley did not want such separation. Southern churches spoke most clearly. Most Virginian and North Carolinian preachers simply felt Asbury a tyrant. O'Kelly was the southern churches' acknowledged leader.

I find it interesting that another important discussion occurred during this conference. The conference discussed the form of baptism. Some insisted that immersion was the only biblical baptism. James O'Kelly definitely opposed this view. He held to infant baptism and sprinkling and continued to do so his entire life.

B. Methodist General Conference in Baltimore - November 1, 1792. Asbury soon recognized O'Kelly as his main antagonist. In 1790 with the trend towards episcopalian government continuing, O'Kelly frankly told Asbury he would oppose him in every possible way if the course didn't change. Increasingly, the southern churches turned against Asbury. In spite of O'Kelly's opposition, though, Asbury ordained him and 12 others to the position of elder during this conference.

Of greater importance during this conference was the presentation of a petition for the right of preachers to appeal their appointments. Only the Superintendent/Bishop could appoint preachers to their churches. Many preachers felt congregations should call their own preachers. Taking an obvious slap at Asbury, O'Kelly moved that the preachers have the right to question their appointments. Asbury then retired from the Conference and turned the leadership over to Thomas Coke. Conferees then debated O'Kelly's motion for three days. When the discussion ended the conference split the motion into two parts. The Conference then passed one section, but the right to appeal went down to defeat. Conference leadership simply outmaneuvered O'Kelly. O'Kelly and four other preachers: Rice Haggard, John Allen, John Robertson and William McKendree all withdrew. McKendree later returned to Methodism and John Allen entered a law practice leaving only Haggard and O'Kelly.

C. Meeting at Reese Chapel, Charlotte County, Virginia - November 14, 1792. This meeting gathered together those following O'Kelly. O'Kelly's and his followers sent petitions to the Methodists trying to bring about reunion. The Methodists rejected every petition although, strangely enough, they allowed the protesters to continue working and preaching among the Methodists.

D. Meeting at Piney Grove, Chesterfield County, Virginia - August 2, 1793. Those who continued following O'Kelly petitioned Asbury to meet with them in conference to discuss the whole church government issue. Asbury refused.

E. Conference at Manakintown, Virginia - December 25, 1793. O'Kelly's followers severed all relationships with the Methodists. They then selected the name Republican Methodists. Estimates place the total membership of the Republican Methodist Churches at this time at about 1,000.

F. Meeting at the Old Lebanon Meeting House - August, 1794. Prior to this meeting, the Republican Methodists appointed a seven man committee to work out a plan of church government. Rice Haggard arose and said:

Brethren, this (a Bible) is a sufficient rule of faith and practice. By it we are told that the disciples were called Christians, and I move that henceforth and forever the followers of Christ be known as Christians simply.

Following this, A.M. Hafferty arose and moved that "they take the Bible itself as their only creed." The motions carried and the Republican Methodists, then known only as Christians, devised the "Five Cardinal Principles of the Christian Church":

1. The Lord Jesus Christ as the only Head of the Church.

2. The name Christian to the exclusion of all party and sectarian names.

3. The Holy Bible, or the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as our only creed, and sufficient rule of faith and practice.

4. Christian character, or vital piety, the only test of church fellowship and membership.

5. The right of private judgment, and the liberty of conscience, the privilege and duty of all.

IV. Where are the Republican Methodists?

Trouble soon infiltrated the ranks of the new group. I pointed out that O'Kelly strongly favored infant baptism. William Guirey, another of the group's preachers, took it that immersion alone constituted Scriptural baptism. The Republican Methodists divided over the issue. The immersionists became known as Christians while the rest were denominated O'Kellyites.

The immersionist faction later organized the Virginia Christian Conference. They then discovered the New England Christians and united with them in 1811. Slavery divided this union in 1854. After the Civil War the Guirey and O'Kelly factions of Republican Methodism reunited. In 1890, reunification with the New England Christians took place taking the name The Christian Convention in the United States. The Christian Convention then united with Congregationalism in 1931 to form the Congregational-Christian Church. In the 1950s this denomination united with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ.

Through the working out of all these combinations protest occurred. Congregations often remained outside the union efforts. Some of these congregations later became part of the Restoration Movement. Rice Haggard moved to Kentucky and identified with the Kentucky Christian Movement led by Barton Warren Stone.

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