EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


10.

THE VISIT OF WILLIAM BLACK IN 1791

Wesley had kept Black informed of the situation in Newfoundland and as early as 1784 included it in his associate's "present parish". In 1788, when McGeary succeeded in alienating Stretton and Hoskins, he advised Black to "do all you possibly can to keep our brethren at peace with each other." And since 1789, when the American conference had ordained and elected him Superintendent of Eastern British America, he was administratively responsible for Newfoundland. It is not entirely clear what specifically motivated Black to visit Newfoundland in August of 1791. His early biographer Richey suggests that it was "an arrangement suggested by Dr. Coke," whom Black had consulted on Nova Scotian matters in May of 1791 at Philadelphia. This he possibly concluded because Black left for Newfoundland shortly after his return from the United States. His diary, published in 1792, is contradictory on the specific motivation. He begins his journal of the visit by stating that he "had an intention for some time of paying a visit to Newfoundland," suggesting possibly a long-time preparation. But this is directly contradicted by a journal entry of 24 August where--after an especially successful meeting in Harbour Grace--Black was struck by the providential nature of his visit. "My intention," he writes, "was, instead of coming to Newfoundland, to have visited Pasamaquady, the river St. John's, etc., etc. But the Lord over-ruled, and by visiting two or three of the preachers with sickness, occasioned my return to Halifax at the time the before-mentioned vessel was to sail for this Island." It appears that the visit was one by force of circumstance rather than a carefully planned undertaking, although need and legitimacy were patently obvious.

This is not to suggest that the preaching tour was without any consequences. It seems Conception Bay Methodists were at an all- time low, in fact, near extinction. Had it not been for women classes and the leadership of Stretton and a few others, Methodism may indeed have vanished. From Black's visit it is obvious that there were only Methodist remnants in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, Blackhead, Old Perlican, Bay Roberts, and Port de Grave, the latter two presumably communities established by Stretton and Thomey on their "excurtions." The revival of Coughlan was remembered as "a great stir" but lay now in a distant past. The majority of the former converts, Black was told, had either left Newfoundland, fallen away, or died. This description corresponds most likely with reality. The inordinate population distress during the eighties and early nineties kept Conception Bay society rather fluid. In the summer of Black's visit, the cod fishery in the bay had reached bottom productivity. Black himself observed this distress when he notes after visiting some poor people: "They are not many degrees above the savage tribes, either in manner of living, or intellectual improvements." As far as ecclesiastical organization was concerned, in Carbonear--the field of McGeary's activity--there was "no regular Society: only about fifteen women meet among themselves." At Harbour Grace, where Stretton lived and had erected a meeting house, the situation was similar. "There is no regular Society here,"writes Black, "only about twelve or thirteen women meet together in Class." Bay Roberts, further to the south, attended at the time by George Vey, could boast 26 members, although Black's revival meetings there and in neighbouring Port de Grave drew an estimated 250 and 300 people each. Finally, Old Perlican in Trinity Bay, where Hoskins had laboured, was now without any preacher but maintained a society of ca. thirty.

Black's preaching for the first time resembles the concentrated revivalist effort of future itinerants, with repeated visits to Harbour Grace and Carbonear, a saturation effort on the part of the revivalist, whose performance like that of a sensitive stage performer improved with the increasing response of his audience. There were backsliders being restored, but the initial response seems to have come from newcomers to the Methodist faith. The impact of Black's preaching upon individuals was not unlike that of Coughlan's twenty years before, the fear of an angry god and the liberating message of release from sin and guilt. A former listener reminisced years later:

Women and young people had their share in conversions, and the range and intensity of psychological manifestations did not lag behind those of many American revivals. "While preaching at Harbour Grace," Black observed on 22 August, "there was such a shaking among the dry bones, as I have not seen since I came to the Island. Weeping, praying, groaning, etc. were on every side. O what a sight! to see forty or fifty drowned in tears: some crying in the most affecting manner, deeply bewailing their sins, and supplicating mercy for three hours together." Often the church services were followed by long meetings in private homes. Twice there are also reported love-feasts, one in Carbonear, the other in Blackhead. Black administered also the Lord's Supper and remarks that never before had he experienced such a communion.

But charisma did not exclude order. Despite Black's subjectivity, he was able to analyze the revival in rational terms as a divine work with accompanying human manifestations. After an especially intense service, where "the church appeared all in confusion" and "nothing was to be seen but heaving breasts and weeping eyes," he observed matter-of-fact:

While Black preached perhaps to as many as 2000-3000 individuals, the number of actual converts lies in the hundreds. He added the converted to classes and discussed with his Harbour Grace listeners "the nature and necessity of religious Society. I read the rules of our Society, and explained to them some points of our discipline." And in Carbonear, when he found "the former Deed of the church being not according to the Methodist plan," Black "procured another, and now the church and dwelling-house are made over to the Conference."

In the end, Black's visit, as stimulating as it may have been for himself and his hearers, represents a transitory phase in his overall missionary activity and had only a limited effectiveness as far as Newfoundland Methodism is concerned. It was occasional in design and temporally too limited, despite a demonstrated need for him to stay longer and visit other locations. Despite an urgent need to visit Old Perlican in Trinity Bay, Black abstained, "lest I should miss a passage to HALIFAX, and be detained upon the island all the winter."

The impression of the occasional character of the visit is reinforced by a lack of follow-up visits or coordinated missionary activities after Black's return to Halifax. When there occurred a new itinerant ministry in Newfoundland during the mid-1790s, the preachers were sent directly from England without any prior consultation with Nova Scotia or the U.S. But even then, Newfoundland and the Eastern British American theatre of operation took a backseat in Coke's planning. As late as 1804, when Thomas Coke recommended to the Missionary Committee for Newfoundland John Remmington, "a man of GREAT piety, and GREAT zeal, but of small abilities," his neglect of Newfoundland is quite obvious by his choice of a missionary. Coke wrote: "I know the native fishermen on that coast are a very rude ignorant set of men, and that a man of small abilities would do for them." Although he considered Remmington's abilities "smaller than [originally] ... apprehended," his being sent to Newfoundland had the added advantage that "in time he would return to Ireland, and the Irish Conference who gave him to me, would be judges, how far they should employ him, so that he would be no burden to the British part of the Connexion in that respect." While tradition is unanimous in crediting Black with single-handedly saving Newfoundland Methodism from utter ruin, the ever thoughtful Arthur Kewley comes closer to the truth when he observes, "whatever saved Methodism from extinction, it was not the visit of the Reverend William Black." Rather:

But this propels us into a new century and a new stage in the development of Methodism in Newfoundland, one which lies outside the scope of this study and which I shall examine in a future study.


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