The Journals & Notebook of
 Nathan Bangs 1805-1806, 1817


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Editorial Annotations

Bangs's comments on Asbury's contribution to American Methodism in the wake of the Bishop's death in 1816 were made no later than January 1817 and seem to have formed the basis of the account Bangs eventually included in his his auto-biography written in the 1850s. Although Bangs never ceased to esteem Asbury's memory, the Bishop's indifference and even opposition toward raising the educational standards of Methodist preachers clearly grated on Bangs who believed that such attainments were essential to raising the church's social profile among the general population (see Flores passim.)

Asbury arrived in America in 1771 and was the only British Methodist to stay throughout the years of Revolutionary War. In spite of his prominence, Asbury never drew more than a regular itinerant's salary and regarded himself as a preacher first and a bishop second. He never married, never owned a house, and is reputed to have travelled more than 250,000 miles on horseback throughout his career (see Wigger 44ff.) Asbury's death, however, marked the beginning of a decline in his own brand of frontier evangelistic heroism. After 1816 Methodists, in large part at the urgings of Bangs, began to increase the educational requirements of ministerial candidates through the introduction of formal courses of study. By the 1840s such courses of study had been standardized throughout the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. At the same time, Asbury's emphasis on an itinerant Christianity and "experimental" religion also waned. Similar developments can be observed among Canadian Methodists of the period as well.

Bangs also discusses in this entry two important questions that arose at the 1816 General Conference in the wake of Asbury's death. Up until this point both presiding elders and circuit riders had been appointed by Asbury who had kept a private notebook in which he evaluated preachers for this purpose (Wigger 44). Two questions where considered separately: whether presiding elders should continue to be appointed by the bishop (or simply nominated by the bishop) and whether a council of appointments should be established to station preachers rather than allowing this power to pass to Asbury's successor. As an aside, the method by which presiding elders received their appointments (to which no change was made in 1816) would eventually serve to open the Canadian Church's difficulties with Henry Ryan. For excerpts from Egerton Ryerson's account see right-hand pane.


[Retrospective entry:] May 1816

May 1st 1816. our General Conference convened in the City of Baltimore. Previous to this, tidings of the death of Bishop Asbury reached us. In the death of this great and good man, the American Methodists have lost not only a tried friend, and faithful Bishop, but also an affectionate Father. It is true, he had his spots and blemishes, which, from his elevated station in the Church, were the more visible. If, at any time he manifested a partiality to his favourites, and an indifference to the sufferings of individuals, these failings may find an apology in the common frailties of humanity, and in the determination to make every thing subserve the general good of the Church. To accomplish this object, the interest of individuals must be frequently sacrificed, If a love of power may be justly attributed to him, we may safely conclude that it originated from a conviction of his ability to use it for the best of purposes viz., to the general diffusion of Christian knowledge. If he manifested an aversion to scientifical attainments among the Preachers, it doubtless arose from a fear that it is extremely difficult to combine knowledge and a pious zeal together; probably concluding that the latter is more essential to a Gospel ministry than the former. His continual desire to keep the ministry poor, may be accounted for, from the apprehension that riches are dangerous auxiliaries to aid the ministry in the discharge of his duty; and if he had approved of measures to insure a competency to men of heavy and expensive families his name would have been transmitted to posterity with a juster claim as a Father to the fatherless. Having no family of his own to provide for, he could not enter into the paternal feelings; and hence neither the entreaties nor tears of suffering fathers, could, always move him to plan his measures, in the distant and oppressive removals of Preachers from place to place. Accustomed to make continual and great sacrifices himself for the sake of Christ, he thought, perhaps incorrectly, that others, whatever their circumstances, ought to do the same. But his unbounded thirst for the salvation of souls, arising from a penetrating sense of God's immense love, and their lost and ruined state by nature and practice, his genuine and deep experience of the religion of Jesus Christ, his many virtues, his great powers of mind, his extensive knowledge, his comprehensive view of subjects, his penetrating genius, and his skill in managing and governing so complicated a machinery as the Methodist economy, secured to him the confidence of his brethren, and the respect of all who were honoured with his acquaintance. He was indeed a man, but a man who had a superior claim upon the Methodist ministry and people, to any other, however eminent for talents and piety, who may hereafter arise. We can have no more father although we may have ten thousand instructors in Jesus Christ. I believe, but few among us, expected that any other person would ever claim the same authority and contend for the same undefined power in regard to stationing the Preachers, as was voted to Bishop Asbury. In this, however, we have been sadly mistaken.

At our last General Conference, a very interesting question was introduced, which indeed, has frequently been agitated in the Conference. The question was, Whether the presiding elders should be appointed solely by the Bishop, as they always have been, or whether he should be nominate them, and leave it to the Conference to confirm or reject such nomination; and that the presiding elders thus chosen and appointed should form a council of appointment to assist the Bishop in stationing the Preachers. Whatever may be said against the mode of electing the Presiding elders, (although that appears to me just and reasonable) it is certain, I think, that no rational, or scriptural argument can be brought against the necessity and expediency of a council of appointment. When this power was delegated to Mr. Asbury, it might be used with safety and advantage, because the connexion was then comparatively small, and Preachers few, and all young; consequently he could have an intimate knowledge of all the circuits and preachers. But in the extension of our work, the increase of the number of preachers and members, it is utterly impossible for any one man, (unless he be miraculously inspired) to have such general and particular knowledge of the whole work and all the peculiar circumstances of each individual preacher, as is absolutely necessary to form a correct judgement in regard to fixing the stations of 6 or 7 hundred men annually. Whatever might have been plead in favour of this principle in the days of Father Asbury, no consideration can justify the practice now. A person is selected from the body of Preachers, to be Bishop, not particularly because he is the best qualified of any, but because so many and no more, are wanted, and because he is one of the best. Now to suppose this man can have such a superior knowledge to all his brethren, as not to need their counsel, in matters of the first importance to the Church, is truly ridiculous; and the principle can never be defended until scripture and reason are discarded. Indeed the principle is discarded in practice, from year to year; and why it should be plead for in theory, is unaccountable. To delegate an authority to a person, who, by continual practice, acknowledges his incapacity to use it, is to the last degree, absurd. But in the present instance there is a power lodged in the hands of the Bishop, which he is not capacitated to use; for if he were, why does he counsel with the presiding elders, and others respecting the stations? To give one man unlimited power over 600, many of whom are equal to himself in age, experience, wisdom, erudition and piety, to remove them at pleasure, to transfer them from Conference to Conference, without even assigning a reason for his conduct, is a practice repugnant to every principle of reason and common sense. If this principle be not exemplified in practice, it is an acknowledgement that it ought not to exist; and he who thus discards it in practice, and pleads for it in principle is as inconsistent as him who pleads the use of poison in his food, and yet dare not partake of a morsel himself for fear of its fatal consequences; and he also manifests to the world, either great weakness, or a desire to have power lodged in his hands by law, merely for the name of it. I feel it my duty to lift up my voice against a theory fraught with such incalculable mischief to mankind Such is its nature and tendency that, unless it is peacibly given up, it will produce a convulsion in the Church, if not a total annihilation of the episcopal office. Men may bow to it a while for peace sake; but the bow being bent to an undue tension, will sooner or later, fly back, with such velocity, as to strike the man who holds the string of power, with ponderosity. I sincerely pray that the time may soon arrive, when this part of our government will be so modified as to suit the gains of the people, and conciliate the affection of the Preachers.

May 1813

January 1802

Primary Sources

Abel Stevens Life and Times of Nathan Bangs Stevens and Bangs on the death of Francis Asbury

Egerton Ryerson Methodism: Its Epochs and Characteristics Ryerson on Case and Ryan's opposition to elected presiding elders (1824)



scientifical: Intellectual attainments in any number of disciplines including theology, history, and philosophy.


Edited by Scott McLaren
Book History Practicum
University of Toronto