Revolution and Counterrevolution Among the Methodists in Early Nineteenth Century British North America

This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.

By Todd Webb

By the time the American Revolution ended in 1783, the globe-spanning denomination envisioned by Methodism’s main founder, John Wesley, was already dividing. The Wesleyan Methodist church in Britain and Methodist Episcopal church in the United States might be united by theology, but they were divided by politics. The Wesleyan Methodist leadership remained loyal to the British Empire, while the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal church sided with the recently created American republic. In the early nineteenth century, these two Methodist cultures came into direct contact in the British North American colonies of Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario). In the aftermath of American independence and the Loyalist exodus, ministers of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States rode north, following their former charges while also missionizing new territory. They established preaching circuits, held highly-emotional camp meetings to convert the spiritually benighted, and distributed denominationally approved and produced literature, all in an effort to extend and consolidate American Methodist culture and influence.[1] Beginning in 1814, the Wesleyan Methodists also began to missionize Lower and Upper Canada, establishing a community of ministers and laity whose outlook was shaped by Britain’s reaction to the French Revolution. During the 1820s, the impact of the American and French Revolutions combined and clashed with particular force among the American Methodists and British Wesleyans in Lower and Upper Canada, producing unexpected cultural results that upset the expectations and plans of the leaders of both churches.[2]

To understand what follows, we need to begin in Britain during the 1790s: a decade of political crisis from which the kingdom’s Wesleyan Methodist Church was not immune. That denomination might have happily recorded membership increases of thousands, but it also had to confront a growing, but groundless, suspicion among Britain’s ruling class that Wesleyanism’s itinerant preachers were a fifth column, serving the interests of revolutionary France’s most vehement republicans—the Jacobins. From 1792 on, the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger cracked down on political dissent of all kinds. It insisted on specific pledges of loyalty from the religiously dissenting British Wesleyans by the end of 1795. At the same time, anti-Jacobin novels and tracts portrayed Methodists as naïve, sometimes crack-brained enthusiasts who fluctuated between preaching the doctrines of Jesus Christ and the revolutionary trinity of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Clergymen of the state-supported Church of England thundered the same message from their pulpits.[3]

In response to this mounting pressure, almost all of the Wesleyan ministry in Britain threw itself behind the cause of king and country. In 1792, for instance, the preacher Samuel Bradburn, who, only a few months earlier, had spoken in favor of the revolutionary Thomas Paine’s rabble-rousing tract, The Rights of Man, did a complete about-face and began arguing that there were no “better subjects in the British Empire than Methodists,” since their views on civil government were based “not upon political manoeuvres, but upon the holy scriptures.” That year’s general gathering of Wesleyan ministers, the Conference, went one better, declaring that “none of us shall either in writing or conversation speak lightly or irreverently of the Government under which he lives.”[4]

If anything, this Wesleyan culture of reaction became even more pronounced with the resurgence of the British radical movement after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. In the aftermath of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, when the Manchester yeomanry trampled and sabered a peaceful and largely working-class crowd that had gathered to protest in favor of parliamentary reform, the Wesleyan ministry proclaimed, “The government that affords us protection is entitled to our constitutional subjection and support.” Laity were to “submit themselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” and avoid “men that are given to change.”[5]

This was the counterrevolutionary mindset of the British Wesleyan laity and ministers who settled and preached in Lower and Upper Canada after 1815. It almost immediately put them into conflict with the Methodist Episcopal preachers who moved into those colonies in the 1790s. Following the lead of their denominational superiors, the bishops, Methodist Episcopal ministers made a point of siding with the young American republic, even if that made them suspect in the eyes of the staunchly British governors of the two Canadas.[6] Sensing the way the political winds were blowing, and culturally conditioned to support law and order anyway, the British Wesleyan ministers denounced their American counterparts as dangerous, anti-British elements in colonial society. As early as 1817, for example, the Wesleyan preacher Henry Pope declared that the presence of American Methodists in Upper Canada was “more than English blood would (or could) endure!!” Several other Wesleyan ministers claimed that these Methodist Episcopals were “‘democrats’ and enemies of our Government” who should be driven out of British territory.[7] The American preachers tried to fight back against this Wesleyan counterrevolutionary rhetoric by arguing that any Methodist Episcopal ministers in the colonies were actually “conscientious in praying for Kings and all that are in authority.” Similarly, laity attached to the Methodist Episcopal Church did their best to defend their preachers, pointing out that many of them had “become subjects of this Government” after the War of 1812.[8] British Wesleyan laity were not to be convinced by such arguments, however, insisting “the American preachers had not right to preach in Canada” and suggesting that “measures would be adopted to have them paid off and sent out of the country.”[9] By the late 1810s, Lower and Upper Canada had become a battleground between the British Wesleyan and American Methodist Episcopal churches.

The leaders of the Methodist Episcopal and British Wesleyan churches eventually intervened in an effort to summon order out of the chaos that their followers had created in Lower and Upper Canada. In 1820, the bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church sent one of their best men, John Emory, to Britain to find a compromise agreeable to both denominations. Emory was well received by the leading British Wesleyans and, on 10 July 1820, they agreed to a partition: the Methodist Episcopal Church would take sole charge of the Methodist communities in Upper Canada while the British Wesleyans would confine their activities to Lower Canada. Though they remained as wary as ever of anything that even looked like republicanism, the Wesleyan leadership in Britain also wanted to breathe new life into one of the key ideas of their founder, John Wesley, that the world was his parish. This meant, in their words, that “the American Methodists and ourselves are but one body.”[10] After 10 July 1820, denominational unity trumped political reaction among the leaders of British Wesleyans when it came to settling issues in the two Canadas.

The 1820 partition sent shockwaves through the British Wesleyan community in Lower and Upper Canada, producing a cultural transformation that their metropolitan leaders could not have anticipated. Ministers and laity alike were appalled by the prospect of having either to abandon Upper Canada or join congregations led by men whom they still saw as agents of a revolutionary threat to British rule. Upper Canadian laymen like Paul Glasford wrote to their church leaders in Britain, warning that “the arrangement with” Emory would “not be carried into effect” in the colony. The British Wesleyan laity of Upper Canada “refuse to be transferred” to the Methodist Episcopal Church, he added. In another part of the province, 112 British Wesleyan laity were equally emphatic, arguing that the Methodist Episcopals were “disaffected to this [colonial] government and enemies to our King and we cannot nor will not give ourselves to them.” “Can you censure us for our conduct in this respect?” they asked, “We are persuaded you will not.”[11]

In defying the will of the denominational authorities in Britain, these British Wesleyan laity were saying, they were only trying to create a perfect, untainted replica of their home country and church in the New World: one that remained committed to Britain and Wesleyanism’s counterrevolutionary mission of defending king and county. While doing so, the British Wesleyan laity knew that they could rely on the full support of their ministers in the colonies, who also threw themselves into this campaign of rebellious loyalism. Those preachers sent letter after letter to their ministerial superiors in Britain, insisting that in defying metropolitan authority, they were doing God’s work, preserving their church and their empire from falling into error and perdition.[12]

As the British Wesleyan community in Lower and Upper Canada staked their claim to being true guardians of their church’s counterrevolutionary heritage, the partition of 1820 had a different effect among the American Methodists in the colonies. With their British Wesleyan brethren in the two Canadas continuing and even escalating their claims about American disloyalty, the Methodist Episcopal preachers increasingly felt that they had to put some distance between themselves and their superiors in the United States. In an effort to combat ongoing charges of subversion, the American Methodists in Upper Canada broke with the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States in 1828, forming their own Canada-based Conference.[13] During the 1830s and 1840s, that independent denomination went through a series of painful and disruptive unions and disunions with the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Britain. By the end of that period of upheaval, however, the former Methodist Episcopals in Upper Canada had elaborated a British identity of their own. That sense of self allowed them to argue that they were every bit as loyal to the imperial authorities as the British Wesleyans in the colonies or the home country itself.[14]

The historian Jerry Bannister argues that the nation of Canada was “at bottom, an experiment in counter-revolution,” but one, he suggests, that always owed more to the impact of the American Revolution than the French Revolution. Another scholar, Denis McKim, elaborates on Bannister’s insight, demonstrating that there was such a thing as a Canadian “Thermidor,” when, in the early-nineteenth century, the impact of the French Revolution reinforced existing conservative values, particularly among the upper-class, Anglican elite of Upper Canada.[15] If this post has suggested anything, however, it is that the impact of the French Revolution on cultural formation in Lower and Upper Canada was both more widespread and complex than Bannister or McKim suggest. As the leaders of the British Wesleyan and Methodist Episcopal churches learned, metropolitan ideas, whether counterrevolutionary or revolutionary in their origins, could be subversive of order and harmony when transplanted in a colonial setting.

Todd Webb is an associate professor of History at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. He is also the author of Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec. He is currently working on a study of the schism of 1849 in British Wesleyanism and its connection to what he is tentatively calling the “mid-nineteenth century crisis in Anglo-American Protestantism.”

Title image: John Wesley preaching outside a church. Engraving.

Further Readings:

Christie, Nancy, ed. Transatlantic Subjects: Ideas, Institutions, and Social Experience in Post-Revolutionary British North America. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008.

McKim, Denis. Boundless Dominion: Providence, Politics, and the Early Canadian  Presbyterian Worldview. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.

McLaren, Scott. Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper

Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019.

Webb, Todd. Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an  Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013


[1] The classic statements of this argument appear in George Rawlyk, The Canada Fire: Radical Evangelicalism in British North America, 1775-1812 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994); and Nancy Christie “‘In These Times of Democratic Rage and Delusion’: Popular Religion and the Challenge to the Established Order, 1760-1815,” in George Rawlyk, ed., The Canadian Protestant Experience, 1760-1990 (Burlington, ON: Welch Publishing Company, 1990), 9-47. For a more recent and convincing approach to the continental context of Canadian Methodism see Scott McLaren, Pulpit, Press, and Politics: Methodists and the Market for Books in Upper Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2019).

[2] For a more detailed version of this argument see Todd Webb, Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013), 43-69.

[3] W.R. Ward, “The French Revolution and the English Churches: A Case Study in the Impact of the Revolution upon the Church,” Miscellanea Historiae Ecclesiasticae 4 (1972): 62-84; M.O. Grenby, The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 61, 83-4, 97, 112; Robert Hole, Pulpits, Politics and Public Order in England, 1760-1832 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 170-2.

[4] Samuel Bradburn, Methodism Set Forth and Defended (1792), 51-2 and Minutes (London, 1792), 270-1 both quoted in Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 127. See also W.R. Ward, Religion and Society in England, 1790-1850 (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1972), 29.

[5] This proclamation of the British Wesleyan Conference was reprinted in the Montreal Herald, 12 February 1820. See also David Hempton, “Thomas Allan and Methodist Politics, 1790-1840,” in David Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and popular religion, c. 1750-1900 (London: Routledge, 1996), 115-19.

[6] This brief sketch of the mentality of the first American Methodist preachers in Lower and Upper Canada is based on Christie, “‘In These Times,’” 22-3, 32-3; Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 6-9, 49-56; John Wigger, Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in American (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 106-10, 115-18; and Russell E. Richey, Early American Methodism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 37-8, 86.

[7] Peter Jones to William Case, 25 January 1817, Box 1, File 4, William M’Kendree papers, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University; William Case to William M’Kendree, 17 March 1817, Box 1, File 4, ibid.; Address of the Bay of Quinte Circuit to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 15 January 1820, Box 1, File 10, ibid.

[8] Henry Ryan to the General Secretaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, 9 October 1815, Box 1, File 20, #11, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Correspondence, United Church Archives, Toronto, Ontario; Brethren of the Yonge Street and Ancaster Circuits to the General Secretaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, 14 December 1816, Box 2, File 23, #29, ibid.

[9] Testimony of John Rose, John Gould, John Vancamp, and Catherine Vancamp, 1 January 1820, Box 1, File 10, William M’Kendree papers, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.

[10] Minutes of the General Committee, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, 10 July 1820 and 23 August 1820, Reel 1, United Church Archives, Toronto, Ontario. On John Emory and his mission to Britain see James Kirby, et al., The Methodists (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 294-5; Robert Emory, The Life of the Rev. John Emory, D.D, one of the Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church (New York: George Lane, 1841), 93-4, 115-16; Journal of John Emory’s trip to Liverpool (1820), Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University.

[11] Paul Glasford to Joseph Taylor, 23 November 1820, Box 4, File 39, #43, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Correspondence, United Church Archives, Toronto, Ontario; Members, Trustees, etc. of the Bay of Quinte Circuit to the General Secretaries of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society, [1821], Box 5, File 44, #8, ibid.

[12] See, for example, William Sutcliffe to George Marsden, 31 October 1820, Box 4, File 39, #42, Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society Correspondence, United Church Archives, Toronto, Ontario; Robert Lusher to Joseph Taylor, 17 November 1820, Box 4, File 39, #37, ibid.

[13] This process is summarized in Neil Semple, The Lord’s Dominion: The History of Canadian Methodism (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), 71-6.

[14] Webb, Transatlantic Methodists, 70-101.

[15] Jerry Bannister, “Canada as Counter-Revolution: The Loyalist Order Framework in Canadian History, 1750-1840,” in Jean-François Constant and Michel Ducharme, eds., Liberalism and Hegemony: Debating the Canadian Liberal Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 99, 127; Denis McKim, “Upper Canadian Thermidor: The Family Compact and the Counter-revolutionary Atlantic,” Ontario History 107, no. 2 (Autumn 2014): 235-62.

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