A new kind of Methodism and a new kind of bishop

Cadiz, Ohio, was one of those western towns where Francis Asbury sent a corps of itinerant preachers to share a simple gospel. There young Matthew Simpson (1811–1884) lived with his pious Methodist, Irish immigrant grandmother and extended family.

As a youth Simpson had the problem of many second-generation Methodists; despite being steeped in Methodism from childhood, he still was not “converted” in the Methodist sense. Educated by his Methodist uncle, he attended Sunday services, read the Bible, avoided grosser sins, and even went briefly to a Methodist college. Finally, in 1829 at age 18, he went forward to the altar at a camp meeting. There were no bolts of lightning and no special enlightenment, just a resolve to be religious and join the church at the first opportunity.

Over the next 50 years, this young man of humble roots would undergo a transformation that mirrored that of the church, the nation, and even the world at large, all at lightning speed.

Rules? what rules?

Within a few years of his conversion, even as he pursued a medical license and career as a doctor, Simpson was called to preach, appointed as leader of a Methodist class, and granted an exhorter’s license—all without having applied. Others saw in him the ability to lead and spurred him on, yet he personally struggled to live a life sanctified by grace until one day while reading Proverbs 3:5—”Trust in the Lord with all thine heart”—he was convicted to do just that.

In 1833 Simpson was licensed to preach and, as was common, admitted to the fellowship of traveling preachers on a four-year trial basis. Though “on trial” he asked to work near Cadiz, to get his medical practice in order and look after his mother.

Simpson considered quitting when he heard preachers with “unction” and saw that their converts outnumbered his. But he also compared himself with less educated preachers and decided he could do as well as they. Within a year he was assigned to prosperous industrial Pittsburgh, the largest Methodist society in the conference, with two churches, Liberty Street and Smithfield. His first stop in Pittsburgh was the elegant home of Methodist James Verner, a wealthy lumberman and brewer. There he met Verner’s 16-year-old daughter, Ellen.

Simpson married Ellen Verner on November 3, 1835, the year he was appointed to Liberty Street. Usually young clergy were expected to ride more difficult circuits and to wait until the end of their four-year trials before marrying. But Simpson was not usual.

The Methodist system limited appointment lengths and did not let churches choose a pastor. But when Liberty Street wanted Simpson to stay on after his time was up, a prominent layperson and brother-in-law of a Methodist bishop helped craft an appeal that resulted in Simpson’s reappointment. The two Pittsburgh churches split from each other as a result. Such conflicts occurred more and more as city Methodists began to conform to the practices of other denominations.

For his final two years on trial, Simpson landed another city appointment (Williamsport). His next appointment in 1837 would not be to a church, but to Allegheny College, a Methodist institution. In every way, Simpson was on a fast track.

Appointments and disappointments

Simpson always valued education, even though his own came primarily through personal study. The faculty of Allegheny College were so impressed with his knowledge, they voted to grant him an honorary master of arts degree. He preferred to earn a degree, but he also preferred a Methodist degree, so he accepted. He also accepted a professorship of natural sciences. And he was officially ordained—though he never pastored a church again.

“Uneducated” Methodist preachers had so far converted more sinners and planted more churches than the college-educated ministers of other denominations. But now churches began to demand the type of preaching their more respectable Presbyterian and Congregational neighbors received. Methodist colleges became increasingly important in producing educated clergy.

Simpson was soon named vice president of the college and a member of the board of trustees. In 1839 he became the first president of Indiana Asbury University (now DePauw) in Greencastle, Indiana—a college formed by Indiana Methodists in direct competition with local Presbyterians.

Simpson traveled widely on behalf of the college, developing a reputation as an orator and winning the support of influential friends. He aimed to hire professors who would not proselytize but would nonetheless instill a religion-based morality. He also wanted to steer clear of politics. But this would prove impossible, as the biggest test of the new nation was brewing.

Border conferences like Pittsburgh, where slavery was legal in places, paid lip service to the Discipline, the Methodist statement that slavery was a great evil. But they forbade preachers from stirring the pot by expressing abolitionist views or attending abolitionist meetings. By the mid-1830s, tensions were reaching a peak.

Though he favored abolition in theory, Simpson began to shift to a more conservative position on slavery: he thought it was taken for granted in the Bible and thus could not be sinful in all cases. He also began to blame abolitionists for damaging the unity of the church with their extremism. He wanted abolition, but not at the cost of dividing Methodism.

Simpson became a delegate to General Conference just as the gap between church law and practice became unsustainable. Bishop James Osgood Andrew (1794–1871) of Georgia had acquired a slave after his first wife’s death. Georgia law forbade him from emancipating her, and the Discipline from selling her. The 1840 General Conference did not expel Andrew, thus allowing a slaveholder to continue as a bishop.

By 1843 the MEC had lost 8,000 laypeople and 150 ministers to a new abolitionist Wesleyan Methodist Connection led by preacher Orange Scott. Debate in the 1844 General Conference was dramatic and bitter. By then Andrew owned a slave from his second wife as well. Finally General Conference proposed suspending Andrew from the exercise of his episcopal office as long as he could not, or would not, free his slaves.

Southern delegates drafted a Plan of Separation, permitting annual conferences in slaveholding states to separate and reorganize as the MEC, South. Simpson viewed this as hasty and blamed the South, and slavery, for the division of his beloved church.

A great church and a great empire

With noted gifts of persuasion and a growing list of influential friends and supporters, Simpson was selected in 1848 as the editor of the Western Christian Advocate. He generally avoided controversy as editor, but in a political conflict with Indiana congressman Bill Brown over the Compromise of 1850, Simpson used the paper’s wide circulation to contribute to Brown’s defeat.

In 1852 Simpson was elected a bishop, in part due to his skill at crafting a compromise over pew-selling. He settled back in Pittsburgh, but not for long. Methodists soon made him part of a delegation to take fraternal greetings to Irish and British Methodists and represent American Methodists at a conference in Berlin.

Honored throughout his stay, Simpson went on to tour important Protestant locations in Europe. Noting dramatic changes and growth on that continent, he predicted that a few powerful nations would ultimately put an end to war; America was destined to be one of the world’s great civilizing empires, he thought, and Methodism would be its main religion. In 1859 he moved his episcopal residence to the Chicago suburbs to be near the church’s new Garrett Biblical Institute.

By now Methodism was deep in the conflicts lashing the nation. Methodist papers North and South condemned each other. Some Northern preachers in the South were threatened, even banned. A Texas mob lynched a Northern preacher with whom Simpson had traveled. Tensions were also rife within the MEC, especially between New England states and those on the Mason-Dixon Line. Nearly every Northern Methodist conference established a committee “on the state of the country” to lobby state and federal governments.

After Lincoln’s election, Simpson made his way to Washington, DC, to meet with him and ensure that Methodists got their share of the political spoils. But Lincoln gave Methodists relatively little. Undeterred, in 1863 Simpson moved again, this time to Philadelphia to be nearer centers of political power. He made frequent trips to Washington, DC, and spoke often in its churches. He also began to tour giving his famous “War Address,” which combined Christian enthusiasm with patriotic fervor. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton said Simpson had done more than anyone to encourage support of the Union forces.

By 1864 it was clear that Lincoln needed the Methodists for his reelection and the continuance of the war effort. They were by far the largest denomination represented among those fighting and dying on the fields of battle. Lincoln asked Simpson to substitute for him at a speaking event.

The bishop preached on the providence of God in the affairs of the nation, paying tribute to Lincoln and denouncing the South. In March 1865 Simpson attended Lincoln’s second inauguration, preaching in the capital on the Sunday following to the president and his wife. He was able to secure a cabinet position for Methodist senator James Harlan of Iowa and the continuation of his friend John Evans as governor of Colorado Territory. On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox. Two days later, on Good Friday, Lincoln was assassinated.
The president’s cabinet wired Simpson, asking him to arrange the funeral.

Relations cooled between Methodists and Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson. When Congress moved to impeach Johnson in 1866, General Conference was meeting in Chicago. Simpson introduced a resolution that they set aside an hour for prayer to “save our Senators from error” (the “error” being failure to impeach). Both the secular and church press agreed that the resolution was directed at Waitman Willey, a wavering senator and a Methodist, who did indeed capitulate. Johnson was impeached. Simpson accepted the invitation to open the next Republican convention with prayer.

Letting the laypeople in

As bishop, Simpson traveled extensively and stayed in the homes of affluent Methodist laypeople, from bankers to Wall Street traders. He began to believe that such friends should have influence in the councils of the church and in 1860 proposed to allow lay (male)representation to General Conference. The conference agreed, but in necessary follow-up votes in the annual conferences the proposal failed.

Simpson began speaking out, which was controversial. Bishops were not supposed to publicly endorse a side, and Simpson had maintained silence with regard to slavery. But on lay representation, he broke this taboo, and in 1868 the measure succeeded.

Simpson’s final years brought him both affluence and influence. President Grant attended the wedding of Simpson’s daughter. When he died in 1884, Simpson left a $100,000 estate. By then, his vision for Methodism had largely come to fruition. It was no longer an organization of uneducated evangelists and backwoods preachers spreading the Gospel. Methodists were important. They were educated. They were ministers of high-steeple churches in the best parts of town. They were professors, college presidents, journalists, congressmen, governors. Even President Grant attended a Methodist church. Methodism was the largest church in the United States. It was arguably the most dominant form of American Christianity. CH

By Scott Kisker

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #114 in 2015]

Scott Kisker is professor of the history of Christianity at United Theological Seminary, an ordained United Methodist minister, and author of Mainline or Methodist? Recovering Our Evangelistic Mission.
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