EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


5.

ANGLICAN PRIEST AND REVIVALIST IN NEWFOUNDLAND

Coughlan's stay in Newfoundland can be reconstructed from his correspondence with the S.P.G., his ACCOUNT OF THE WORK OF GOD, and Wesley's, Coughlan's and Stretton's letters as well as the official Colonial Office and magistracy records from Newfoundland. Although he arrived there early in the summer of 1766, he was back in England already in December with a petition "of the inhabitants of Harbour Grace, Carbonear and parts adjacent in the Bay of Conception" requesting support from the S.P.G. because of the failure of the summer fishery. At its general meeting of 19 December 1766 the S.P.G. decided to appoint Coughlan "missionary at Harbour Grace and Carbonear with a salary of 50 annually" and advanced him half a year's salary. According to the letters sent to London, the missionary fulfilled his duties with great care and with self-proclaimed betterment of public morals. He baptized, married, buried, visited his parishioners, preached even in Gaelic to the Roman Catholics on Saturdays, enumerated the people in Conception Bay and recorded his statistics in the annual NOTITIA. In October of 1769 he could write to the S.P.G.: "Since my coming to the Bay, drunkenness and profane swearing with sabbath-breaking is very much done away. Great numbers come to church constantly." He also established a charity school in a building erected by the community, which in 1771 saw 70 pupils and was served by several schoolmasters during Coughlan's stay. There were chapels established in nearby Carbonear and Blackhead and cared for-- whenever Coughlan could not visit there-- by local lay people. Probably that same year he was also appointed one of two Justices of the Peace, following a practice among the Newfoundland clergy since the time of Henry Jones, missionary to Bonavista, in the 1720s. While the letters to the S.P.G., which listed a steady increase in Anglican communicants, left the impression of normalcy, trouble was brewing nevertheless in Harbour Grace. In July of 1770 Governor Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, ordered Coughlan's original subscribers to pay their minister the stipend they had promised but had neglected to pay. The dissatisfaction of these subscribers, the principal merchants and planters in Conception Bay, came into the open in a court case against Coughlan by the Roman Catholic merchant Hugh Roberts. The case exhibited besides Coughlan's uncompromising moral demands also a growing alienation between the merchant elite and Coughlan's evangelical flock. The religious polemic which surfaces in the depositions is directed against the manifestations of popular piety and displays a considerable unease over their social consequences. He was accused of having "appoint'd illiterate People to hold meetings at Private Houses" and, guided by a sectarian spirit, was said to have declared "Publickly that no Person whatever should be admitt'd to the Holy Sacrament but such as constantly Attend the Nocturnal Meetings of his deputed Curates & Submitt'd themselves to be examin'd by them one of whom is a very illiterate Fellow a Common Fisherman that many People have been debarr'd from going to that Ordinance as they would not pass under such a scrutiny ..." To the accuser Roberts, Coughlan's religious conduct was so reprehensible and irregular that he asked the governor to "represent to the Laudable Society for probagating [SIC] the Gospel what an improper Person they have sent us, who we cannot think is known to them." Nearly all the merchants who had originally pledged their support for Coughlan now declared themselves for Roberts, stating "... that we all are Sufferers in many respects through the said Lawce Coghlan & that he is a very unfitt Person for a Justice of the Peace as well as a Missionary, being Ignorant of the Laws of his Country & a Person of no Education, & pray that he may be Silenc'd or remov'd." Coughlan, although denying successfully all charges against him, including the one of religious favouritism, had to admit his sectarian ethical impulse, that "he has Sometimes advis'd the Communicants to go to the said Meetings and said he had rather give the Communion to them than to those that did not meet; but never yet deny'd one person for that reason." The court case before a naval surrogate of the governor ended with no conviction of Coughlan but, on 21 October 1771, Governor Byron directed his justice of the peace "for the quiet of the ... Place" to "Deliver up his Commission." While performing his duties as an Anglican clergyman, Coughlan also sought to preach his religion of the heart and organize interested individuals into small groups, the door to door evangelism and classes he was familiar with since his Methodist itinerancy. After experiencing first little success, the eventual revival took place both within his own church as well as in the small gatherings. He writes: "Some prayed aloud in the Congregation; others praised aloud, and declared what God had done for their Souls: Nor was this only at their private Meetings, now and then, but also in the great Congregations." Once the revival had started, the intensity of the religious manifestations surprised and even alarmed Coughlan and increased his doubts about the solidity of the experiences. They manifested themselves in private and public meetings with great "noise", so that "under almost every Sermon and Exhortation some were cut to the Heart, and others rejoiced in loud Songs of Praises." Coughlan himself observed that the length of preaching and instruction preceding this revival was a distinguishing mark from other revivals, especially the ones he had participated in England and Ireland. He writes: Coughlan's initial discouragement led to an attempt by him in 1768 to return to the Methodist itinerancy but was promptly thwarted by Wesley's refusal to have Coughlan re-join the Wesleyan fold. One reason for the three-year duration before the onset of the revival seems to have been the religious state of the people, many of whom lacked the rudimentary forms of religion and needed to be prepared religiously for a revival. This is somewhat similar to the situation described by Hoskins in Old Perlican, Trinity Bay, where first a basic familiarity with religion had to take place, before the need for subjective holiness was perceived as existentially relevant. An added factor may also have been the different role expectations among his hearers, who perceived Coughlan as a regular Anglican priest but not as a revivalist. Coughlan, who played both roles, may have had difficulties in eliciting the appropriate response to his revivalist message because his mission in Newfoundland was initially understood exclusively in terms of his Anglican ministry. His position as Anglican priest and S.P.G. missionary also distinguishes him significantly from his American and Nova Scotian Methodist counterparts and prevented him from organizing outright an independent society. Coughlan's effectiveness as a revivalist can in my judgment be understood best by the relevance and simplicity of his message: a turning away from vice or religious indifference and formality to a life of virtue and personal commitment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Hellfire sermons and deathbed conversions provided the stark relief against which the saving message of Christ was preached. The subspecies of deathbed conversions provided the minister and his lay helpers with powerful occasions for preaching, and the genre was still exploited religiously in Coughlan's ACCOUNT OF THE WORK OF GOD, where he contrasts the peacefulness and ease of the believer's death with the terror of the unrepentant sinner facing death. The conversion experiences recorded by Coughlan's hearers provide only mediate access to the inner world of the converted since the biblical and liturgical language with which these experiences are expressed hides more than it reveals. Several converts describe themselves as individuals who attended church regularly but did not perceive the need for a conversion. Eventually, this need for a religious and moral change was felt as a result of Coughlan's preaching. Next, there took place almost invariably a prolonged personal struggle under an increasingly heavy consciousness of guilt. Finally, the individuals were freed from their burden of sin and guilt in a liberating dramatic experience, the type of religious change that William James calls a "sudden conversion". Conversion usually followed a religious or personal crisis but the situations, in which this liberation took place, vary greatly : during private or public prayer, public or private Bible reading, during or after the partaking of the Eucharist, in a fearful personal situation or even during illness or on the deathbed. But the removal of sin and guilt was not necessarily the final stage in the conversion experience. Often there followed profound doubt about the authenticity and finality of the conversion, which was overcome only gradually in a series of experiential confirmations. The conversion of the sinful self is, even if only a few times, described theologically as a spiritual rebirth. In the deathbed experience of a prototypical sinner, Coughlan noted that the man during his life protested against Coughlan's unorthodox Anglicanism, "that he was for the CHURCH, the CHURCH, and that he was sure the Clergy in ENGLAND did not preach up, that People must go to Hell, except they were born again ..." Also Coughlan's co-worker and successor, Stretton found objectionable in Reverend Balfour's preaching that the successor of Coughlan in Harbour Grace spoke "not one word of the New Birth ..." The time when this revival struck initially is noteworthy. It was in the midst of winter, a seasonal characteristic shared with Hoskins' revival in Old Perlican. But the relation of seasonality and revival can best be explained by the seasonal character of the Newfoundland economy, which in the ice-free time saw the entire community employed in the fishery. Only the winter provided opportunities for a sustained evangelistic and missionary activity among the Newfoundland inhabitants. Stretton observed that Coughlan held meetings "in the winter season, for that is the only time they have to spare." It seems that women, and in particular young women, predominated among those who became converts. Sometimes the previous conversion of a family member was a factor. The societal impact of gender becomes clear when one remembers that the ratio of women in the total population of Conception Bay was one in ten. What is characteristic for the later revivals of Hoskins and William Black, and of revivalism in general, the significant involvement of children and young people, does not seem to have been true of Coughlan's revival. From the accounts I cannot ascertain a single conversion of a child or an adolescent. This is especially remarkable when one considers that half of the total population were children. Coughlan's appeal was not directed to the upper crust of Conception Bay society, although he was effective even among the women in the family of his principal opponent, the Harbour Grace magistrate Charles, whose sister experienced a deathbed conversion. But, generally, Coughlan's converts were those whom he describes in contemporary pietistic idiom as using "the artless Language of precious souls", and for whom he had much genuine affection. The ameliorative effects upon the lower classes were significant and unsettling for the merchants, who had kept them in semi-servitude by a truck system that exchanged rum and supplies for fish caught during the fishing season. The heart-felt religion of Coughlan's revival enabled converted fishermen to break free from their alcohol addiction and achieve a greater sense of self-worth and financial and personal independence. Coughlan reverses the economic deprivation theory of religion when he observes shrewdly. In explaining the revival, these characteristics can only with much violation of the evidence be exploited in favour of a narrow economic or demographic reductionism. While one could argue that the population dynamics of Conception Bay, especially the influx and settlement of the Irish Roman Catholics, produced insecurity or an identity crisis for the established English settlers and prepared them for otherworldly solutions and re- orientations, the lack of a response specifically reflecting such a change among those most affected makes such an explanation unlikely. Unlike Black's revivalist tour of 1791, which took place in the midst of a serious economic depression, economic reasons yield little when attempting to explain the onset and dynamic of Coughlan's revival. All in all, the revival was "religious" in nature. It provided the converted with subjective certainty of liberation from sin and guilt, once -- through the preaching and pastoral efforts of Coughlan -- such liberation had become established as an authentic and desirable solution to the human plight of the residents. It also conveyed concrete moral, emotional, and aesthetic rewards resulting from a life of holiness. For the individual who underwent a conversion experience the human horizon of meaning was not so much an ethnically changing society as it was a precarious outport existence, which now could be endured with fellow believers, illuminated by ultimate meanings, and grounded in ontological certainty. The notoriety of the minister and the psychological manifestations of the conversions seem to have been factors in the spread of the revival throughout Conception Bay in that they attracted the curious from outside of Harbour Grace. They in turn took Coughlan's salvific message into their communities in a kind of inverted itinerancy. Coughlan's ministerial charge, but especially the geographical realities of outport-bound Newfoundland, placed severe limits on the mobility of the preacher. Coughlan attracted primarily local fishermen and small planters of a West Country English Protestant and Channel island background. The numerical strength of the converted, who actively supported Coughlan and met in groups, does not seem to have been large. Stretton, in October of 1770, one year after the revival started, may have slightly underestimated the strength but generally reflected the true situation when he spoke of "a few professors scattered through the different Bays, that were awakened by the labours of Mr. Coughlan ..." In Harbour Grace, Coughlan formed the men and women into separate classes without organizing them into a formal Methodist society. Presumably, the establishment of a regular "society" during Coughlan's tenure as Anglican priest and S.P.G. missionary would have led to his immediate removal from the ministry. The formation of a Methodist society took place after his departure along the lines of Wesley's societies and rules, but with little lasting success. The numerical strength of the new society in Harbour Grace shortly after Coughlan's departure was 30. According to the eyewitness accounts, the social cohesion of private assemblies in the form of "classes" seems to have been decisive for the forging of a religious identity. Coughlan acknowledged in his 1772 letter to Wesley, "My preaching in this land would do but little good, were it not for our little meetings." These weekly meetings became even more important after the missionary's departure from the island. They also were a thorn in the eyes of merchants and other community leaders in that they established a communal identity inaccessible to those in power and outside the realm of traditional mechanisms for achieving social control. Only the leadership in the movement was recruited from among the merchants and well-to-do planters: the Harbour Grace merchant John Stretton and the convert from Roman Catholicism Arthur Thomey as well as the Freshwater native Thomas Pottle. Coughlan and Thomas Pottle, it should be mentioned if only in passing, are also credited with having converted while in Newfoundland Pierre Le Sueur and Jean Tantin, two traders from Jersey who eventually introduced Methodism to the Channel Islands. Coughlan's departure from Newfoundland in 1773 followed a further petition by his enemies to the governor to remove him after he had disqualified a prominent merchant as godfather of a child on moral grounds. Governor Shuldham forwarded the merchant complaints resulting from this dispute to the S.P.G., and Coughlan, upon his return from Newfoundland, appeared on 15 October 1773 before the Society and resigned his mission. Already in November of 1772 he had approached Wesley with a Methodist CREDO and a desire to preach as an itinerant among Methodists in Ireland. But when Wesley remained as uncooperative in re-admitting Coughlan to the Wesleyan fold as in 1768, Coughlan became a successful if somewhat unsettled preacher in Lady Huntingdon's Connexion, with appointments in London, Norwich and other places. In 1776, at the height of the Calvinistic controversy, Coughlan chose sides once more against Wesley by dedicating his ACCOUNT OF THE WORK OF GOD IN NEWFOUNDLAND to his benefactress Lady Huntingdon. In April of the same year Coughlan's "Heart [was] in Continual Pain about my dear Children in Newfoundland ...", and he made plans of returning once more to the island. But these plans do not seem to have materialized, and he remained a preacher in the connexion. Coughlan's last ministerial position seems to have been Holywell Mount Chapel in London. A song book, published in 1779 by Coughlan for use in this chapel, and a mezzotint portrait, dated 20 April 1781, testify to his ministerial presence in this chapel belonging to Lady Huntingdon's Connexion. But the final word on him comes from a letter by John Wesley of 25 February to Coughlan's former co- worker Stretton in Harbour Grace and still reflects some of the early tensions. Wesley wrote:
Back to The Origins of Methodism in Newfoundland