The Methodist Conquest

Methodist circuit rider“If you hear something lumberin’ through the canebrake,” said the Arkansas borderers, “it’s either a bear or a Methodist preacher, and either one’s bound to be hungry.”

In the 1820s, the “second Great Awakening” was underway,  and Methodist, Baptist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian preachers were fanning out across the western states to bring religion to the multitudes of the unchurched.  At prayer meetings in private homes, at revivals in large churches, and at multi-day camp meetings attended by thousands, they inspired their listeners to sobs, shouts, prayers, and frequently, in the case of young women, hysterical fits. The gatherings provided intense religious experiences as well as cathartic emotional release.  But they were only part of the agenda, an agenda that the Methodists understood  better than anyone else.

Without using those words, Daniel Walker Howe, the author of What Hath God Wrought, describes the Methodist success in evangelizing the western frontier as the result of a brilliant, and uniquely American, marketing strategy.  The strategy had four major components.  The first was door-to-door outreach, carried out by uneducated but heroically dedicated circuit riders, who traveled alone, dressed in black, hundreds of miles through swamps and canebrakes, seeking shelter wherever a hospitable house might be found.  Each one carried with him a Bible, a hymn book, and a copy of the Methodist Discipline, a set of rules for godly living.  Miserably underpaid, these men of faith relied on the charity of their hosts for food and lodging, and repaid them by sharing the light of Methodist doctrine.

The doctrine itself was the preachers’ second advantage.   Rejecting the Calvinist belief in predestination,  the Methodists reframed salvation as a choice to accept God’s grace, made freely, by an autonomous individual, rather than by the arbitrary intervention of God.   Along with the ability to choose salvation came the stabilizing structure of the Discipline, which proscribed swearing, drunkenness, promiscuity, and ostentatious dress, and demanded thrift, honesty, self-discipline and moral self-improvement.  For the southern borderers, often separated from their families and lacking the restraining influences of a settled community, the Discipline provided a way to bring order and security to their lives.

Perhaps the Methodists’ most powerful innovation was the establishment of “classes,” groups of about thirty people, led by respected laypeople and meeting in private houses.  In many ways, the structure of the classes mirrored those of the Quakers and Baptists.  Class leaders led worship, handled group finances, and monitored the behavior of members.  Even in the South, women and African-Americans could assume leadership roles.  Members of all classes in a given circuit came together at quarterly meetings, for administrative business as well as for worship.  Although Quakers and Baptists had developed similar systems, the Methodists had the advantage of a strong central organization, capable of organizing and supporting these classes as well as hundreds of camp meetings every year.

Their efforts were highly successful: between 1780 and 1850 the number of Methodists rose from 15,000 to 2,700,000, making them the largest religious denomination in the country.  Membership in other churches increased as well, from one out of six Americans at the time of the Revolution to one out of three.  In the new states of the South and West, a settled and stable society was beginning to emerge.


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