(Sepher Toldoth)

Among the treasured scriptures of the Jews, none was so prized as the Sepher Toldoth, or the Book of Generations. Here any reputable son of Israel could trace his ancestry through all the years. To many people such family records have no interest at all. They can read, for example, the Gospel of Matthew with wonder and profit, and yet give no thought to the kingly genealogy which introduces it. But to the discerning student who would understand the beginnings, the Book of Generations is packed with meaning. He can not lightly pass it by.

It is for this reason that we feel impelled here to insert a chapter from the Book of Generations of the American churches. Doubtless there are persons, wholly admirable and intelligent, who cannot peruse with patience any family history save their own. Should any such find the present chapter of scant interest, and prefer to omit the reading of it, he may do so in confident expectation that the next chapter will resume the general survey at the very point where we have just left it. Nevertheless, we could wish that none would pass this record by, for, if we mistake not, it is vital to any large understanding of the development of stewardship in America. It is indeed Sepher Toldoth for most of the American churches. One brief remark, and the record will follow.

The Pentecostal baptism of the Holy Spirit wrought within the first Christian believers two notable results—a consuming passion to testify of Jesus, and an unswerving stewardship of material possessions. When the power of primitive Christianity was in some measure restored to the church through the Moravians and the Methodists, the same results were again manifest. We have noted the missionary passion of the Moravians, and their fidelity in maintaining widely scattered missions throughout the earth. We have also noted the untiring zeal of the Methodists, and the material results of the Methodist movement. If, in both cases, there was a less perfect expression of stewardship than was found in the Pentecostal church, we have to remember that Christian civilization, both in thought and practice, had accepted the pagan and not the theistic doctrine of ownership. The amazement is that eighteenth-century Christians spanned the intervening centuries, and measured so nearly to apostolic standards.

Right at this point, because of its wide influence in shaping the Christianity of the American continent, we must note the anomalous history of American Methodism. One would hesitate thus to call out by name a particular body of Christians, but historical fidelity leaves us without choice. From the beginning of the republic American Methodists have exercised a profound influence upon public morality and private ethics. Though it has always been the largest evangelical Christian body in America, yet the influence of Methodism has been immensely wider than its own numerical constituency. Its teaching and attitude regarding slavery, intemperance, political and commercial honor—these are woven into the fabric of American Christianity. It is therefore of the largest significance that we shall recognize the attitude and teaching of American Methodism regarding the basal doctrine of stewardship.

It should be remembered that, at the close of the American Revolution, the Methodists of the New World were wholly separated from the authority of John Wesley; they were henceforth to work out their momentous problems without the vision of that anointed leader. The Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1784, and all other Methodist bodies in America have sprung from the parent stem. In the case of the Moravians, as we have seen, their worldwide missions compelled them to recognize the stewardship of property as the inevitable accompaniment of spiritual grace. As for the English Methodists, during the whole of Wesley's lifetime they were integrally related to the Church of England; therefore the most notable results of the Methodist movement in the Old World are bound up with the national church, and with the philanthropic and missionary activities which resulted from a new sense of social stewardship.

But in America conditions were wholly different. Here a church must be created, and all the institutions of Christianity developed, on virgin soil. The history of a century and a quarter is now written. What American Christianity might have been had the master mind of Wesley shaped the policy of American Methodism during that first pivotal generation, it is idle to speculate. But this much is of record, and the influence of it has been felt in all the evangelical churches of our plastic American people: until the death of its first bishop the Methodist Episcopal Church is responsible for this strange anomaly—a Pentecostal movement of unprecedented power and, with it, a meager, parsimonious, and wholly unworthy program of stewardship.

Nor did this come from mere chance or neglect, for Methodist leaders were never negligent. It was the unhappy and unexpected result of a deliberate policy, whose main purpose was to produce a race of heroic preachers. And the logical result followed. With amazing swiftness a continental church was created, notably strong and elastic in administration; but the multitudes that made up its membership, the very bone and sinew of American Christianity, never realized the vastness of the responsibility of stewardship that inevitably must be laid upon them. We are comparing Methodism with no other Christian body; if such comparison were permissible, there could be exhibited an honorable record indeed. But the exalted dispensation of the gospel, which was committed to the Methodists, demanded an equally exalted program of stewardship, and herein their failure in those momentous days of the beginning proved nothing less than a calamity. The purpose of the fathers, unto this hour, has been in part defeated, because, in their mighty program of advance, they failed to develop a sufficient base to carry to completion their vast designs.

No one will misconstrue us, as though we made timorous assault on Mount Shasta! The noble fabric of American Methodism is known in all the land, and her lines are in all the earth. Assault and defense are alike gratuitous. But this we say: Had American Methodists recognized in the beginning their responsible stewardship of property, as was their right, this day would behold, in vaster measure than we can estimate, the triumph of Christianity and the glory of the Son of God.

And this we say, that the Methodist people themselves were not culpable for the neglect of Christian stewardship in those days of the beginnings. For the fathers made mistakes. To think otherwise would be to claim for them an unerring wisdom, which they never claimed for themselves. That Peter, the apostle, and James, the Lord's brother, both erred because of Jewish loyalty is no least reproach to those mighty names; nor is it any diminution of rightful honor that the heroic Asbury recognized but one commanding necessity: the creation of an itinerant ministry, ready to march at command for the conquering of a continent. And Asbury realized his ideal. What a mighty race of preachers rallied to the banner of early Methodism! Brave, indomitable, godly, they threaded every forest, they forded every river, they subdued every wilderness. The record of their deathless devotion is in the heart of the nation.

But the creation of a race of preachers is not the whole of apostolic counsel. Bishop Asbury was tireless in leading forth a band of burden-bearing ministers, but, judging from preserved records, Bishop Asbury seemed little concerned in raising up a body of burden-bearing laymen, and herein he seems to have erred grievously. As we contemplate those days of the foundations, when hundreds of congregations were being knit together in close organic connection, and, at the same time, were loosely left both to find and to fix their own standards of stewardship, it is difficult to explain this misjudgment of the responsible leadership of the church. It came to pass again and again that brave ministers, those, indeed, who could least be spared from the active work, were forced by dire poverty to abandon the active ministry; and yet Methodists felt no shame for it, and were not rebuked!

Even so gentle a spirit as Nathan Bangs, who understood whereof he spoke, wrote in 1839: "The defect in Bishop Asbury's administration, as I think, was not encouraging the people sufficiently in making provision for their ministers, particularly for men of families. He seemed to fear that, if they were too well off as it respects this world's goods, they would lose their zeal and spirituality, and thus cease to be useful; and as it was very congenial to that covetous disposition, so natural to men, to withhold when they were not compelled to pay, many such quoted Bishop Asbury to justify their want of practical liberality."

Nathan Bangs, the historian of those early days, withholds no meed of praise from the great first bishop; nevertheless, these further discerning words from his pen illustrate the common penalty of untempered zeal, how it often creates the very catastrophe which, it would avert: "Bishop Asbury considered the itinerant ministry, under God, as the grand instrument of the world's salvation; to support this therefore, in all its vigor and spirituality, he bent all his energies. Hence, to prevent a catastrophe which must come upon the church by the substitution of a 'located' for a 'traveling' ministry, he thought it essential to keep it aloof from the world, by preventing it from accumulating worldly property. Yet it may be questioned whether more have not been induced to 'locate' from a feeling or a fear of poverty than by the enjoyment of a competency. Had a competent provision been timely made for the support of itinerant ministers, and for the suitable education of their children, I have no doubt we should have been far stronger every way—in wisdom, in numbers, in ministerial talent and usefulness, if not also in holiness and general prosperity." These weighty words were written while the heroic days of the fathers were fresh in the memory of a host of living men.

The late President Charles J. Little, of Garrett Biblical Institute, distinguished for rare scholarship as a Methodist historian, could with difficulty restrain his indignation when he was wont to refer to this unusual neglect of Bishop Asbury—not that he honored Asbury the less, but it is a lame encomium indeed that cannot bear also some burden of blame.

Keen historic insight cannot forget those hundreds of "located" preachers, the flower of the army, forced out of the ranks in those very days when American Methodism was laying down the lines for its future development. As early as the year 1799, when there were two hundred and sixty-nine "traveling" preachers in the actual work, Jesse Lee is authority for the astounding statement that there were eight hundred and fifty "located" preachers, many of them the most commanding leaders of the church. That is to say, men who had completed their probation, tested men, were compelled to step aside, while young and untried men were given the reins of power.

It is an astonishment and a grief to recall some of the noble men, who ate out their hearts in lonely separation from their brethren, when to preach the gospel was their very breath of life. There was Valentine Cook, the one great product of the ill-fated Cokesbury College, a leader of profound spiritual insight as well as of genuine culture. It was he who introduced the "mourner's bench," as a place apart, where penitents might receive spiritual counsel and instruction. Had he been permitted to continue a responsible leader in the church, that same mercy seat might have been spared the opprobrium of later excesses, which never were a part of pure Methodist usage. But in 1800 he turned heavily from the ministry to feed a dependent family, and, as a schoolteacher, earned his living until the year 1820, when he died.

There was Russell Bigelow, whom Bishop Thomson described as "a perfect gentleman," who preached with such majesty of thought and such beauty of diction that his audiences "were well-nigh paralyzed beneath the avalanche of thought that descended upon them." Of him a chief justice remarked, "It is one of the greatest regrets of my life that I did not know him better; we were a wild people when he was among us and we never duly appreciated him." And yet Russell Bigelow, the Bishop Simpson of the first Methodists, and absolutely needed by the church in those crude frontier days, turned brokenhearted from the ministry, which he loved with such passion, to provide bread for his wife and children. He died in extreme poverty, neglected and alone.

There were Caleb Boyer and Ignatius Pigman, of whom Bishop Whatcoat said he had not heard their equal, except those masters of world-Methodism, Wesley and Fletcher. There was Edward Dromgoole, whose practical wisdom prevented the disruption of the early societies and made possible the organization of Episcopal Methodism. There was Ira Ellis, of whom Asbury himself said he had "abilities not inferior to a Jefferson or a Madison." There was William Phoebus, "skillful in administration, deeply read in the Scriptures, a bold and independent thinker." And what shall we more say? There were James Cromwell, Jonathan Forrest, Lemuel Green, John Hagerty, all of them members of the Christmas Conference of 1784, which saw the birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church. And yet these ordained ministers of God, all of them, and scores, and hundreds of others besides, were compelled to withdraw from the active ministry of the church whose altars they had builded!

This unconscionable sacrifice of leaders, when leadership was above the price of rubies, is almost incredible. Why was it necessary? In the large majority of cases because stern duty compelled it; because Methodist ministers had to turn from the ministry in order to provide food for their dependent families. Because, forsooth, Francis Asbury inflexibly demanded that Methodist preachers should provide for their expenses on a stipend of $G4 a year! In 1800 an increase of $16 a year was permitted, but, until the death of the immovable bishop, to whom "the itinerancy" was more worth than "the itinerant," Methodist preachers received lodgings among the people and $80 a year, "and no more," for their salary.

Of course a family could not be maintained on this pittance, nor was a family in the program of the itinerancy. When godly men had announced their purpose of marriage the good bishop petulantly exclaimed, "The devil and the women are getting after my preachers!" not seeming to perceive that God had a larger purpose, even for "the itinerancy," when faithful ministers made covenant bonds with holy women. A remnant were indeed able to maintain their ministry unto the end, and some great names survive out of that first eventful and crucial generation. But who were they?—Richard Whatcoat, Jesse Lee, William McKendree, Beverly Waugh—men who, like Asbury himself, were able to remain bachelors and live the camp life of a soldier, and who were, therefore, able to continue in the Methodist ministry. Freeborn Garrettson married a lady of wealth, as well as piety, so he too was able to hold his place of leadership. These and a few other names are held in abiding honor, for their works do follow them. But of the many brave men who died, unfamed and forgotten, their life-tragedy is recorded in the early conference minutes. One word reveals it all: "Located."

Let it not be supposed that the Methodist people were loath to support their ministers, or begrudged them a competent allowance. They loved their pastors, and never was a people more loyal than the people called Methodists. But they were trained to believe that the work of God would be impeded if their ministers should receive the comforts of temporal prosperity; they would then be unwilling to "travel." It was in reality a discounting of the very manhood and consecration of Methodist preachers themselves. But Bishop Asbury thought he knew human nature, and the rule respecting a minister's salary remained in force. That the Methodist people themselves were ready to respond with liberal contributions is apparent, for they built and equipped Cokesbury College, and then, when it was burned, renewed their gifts for its rebuilding, and all within the first twelve years after the organization of the church. When the second Cokesbury College was consumed, Dr. Coke exclaimed, "O that all this money had been laid out for a married ministry!" But it was not to be. The married preachers were "located," and striplings took their places.

Moreover, the first generation of American Methodists started with a world-vision of Christianity. Although other Christian bodies were the first to actually organize missionary boards, it is the abiding honor of American Methodism that at the very Conference which saw the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church three missionaries were set apart for foreign service. Two men were sent to the northern field of Nova Scotia (outside the republic), and one to the tropical island of Antigua, "the land of earthquakes and hurricanes." This was in 1784, and before any missionary societies, as such, were organized. The first contribution of Methodists for foreign missions, the "collection" being taken during and just after the Christmas Conference of 1784, was $325, certainly a noteworthy record for a band of pioneers, for the people were poor, and money, at the end of the Revolution, was not plentiful among Americans anywhere. Stewardship among Methodists started on a high level and might have been conspicuous from the beginning, for the preachers and the people were ready. But the vision of Coke was not shared by Bishop Asbury. Alas! two generations were to pass before that neglected vision would come again.

It can never be well when the responsible leaders of the church undertake to set at naught, for any reason, the divine word, "Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn." From the time the holy tithe of the Jewish people was set apart for the support of the tribe of Levi it was ordained, "They that minister about holy things live of the things of the temple." Even so, "They which preach the gospel should live of the gospel." If Asbury neglected to follow this ancient command, other apostles before him had fallen into the same mistake. The church at Corinth failed to provide a support for the apostle Paul when he labored among them; and Paul gloried that he worked with his own hands, lest he should become burdensome unto them. This seems like great magnanimity and worthy of high praise. Nevertheless, when Paul beheld that same church "straitened in their own affections," when they might have been "enlarged," he remembered that he himself had omitted to train them in personal lessons of stewardship, and he wrote, "Forgive me this wrong." Could the spirit of Asbury travel again those pioneer circuits of a vanished generation, would he not utter the lament of the great and sorrowing apostle?

It is congenial to our ingrained hero-worship to magnify the men who hazarded their lives for the gospel; it is not congenial to lay upon them the blame for an unready church. Yet what shall we say? In March, 1816, Bishop Asbury died.

In May the General Conference met in Baltimore. One of the most significant acts of the General Conference of 1816 was the recasting of the church law for the support of the ministry. The salary of "traveling" preachers was increased to a fair competency, and a worthy plan inaugurated for reaching Methodist people with a larger program of stewardship. But the reform had come too late. Thirty-two years had passed since the organization of the church, and an entire generation were entrenched in the financial doctrines of Asbury. It was an arduous undertaking to change inwrought convictions and lifelong habits. "A penny a week and a shilling a quarter" had provided sufficient living for the mighty men of the beginning; who were these later preachers, that they should expect more? Thus ever has incompetency glorified a golden age that is past.