EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


6.

"THE PILLARS FALL, YET THE BUILDING STANDS."
METHODIST LAY PREACHERS AND MISSIONARIES IN NEWFOUNDLAND
AFTER COUGHLAN: 1773-1791

INTRODUCTION

Methodism did not vanish with Coughlan's departure from Conception Bay but maintained itself in a tenuous form under local lay leadership until British Methodists finally took notice of it in the 1780s. In fact it defined itself in more explicitly Wesleyan terms only after Coughlan had returned to England. But this normative self-definition came too late, at a time when internal leadership had weakened and outside forces inimical to organized dissent were gathering momentum. The integration into what Frank Baker has called the "trans-atlantic triangle," --i.e., Britain, Canada, and America-- took place only after John Stretton had sought help from John Wesley in the face of what he judged to be the near disappearance of the Conception Bay societies. This decline does not seem unrelated to the overall social and economic situation of the period.

Conception Bay changed demographically during the 1770s and 1780s, so that by the time Black arrived in 1791, Roman Catholics had increased from one-third during Coughlan's time to one-half of the total population. This religious and ethnic presence mobilized local Anglican lay leaders, drawn from the merchant elite, and made them ever more vigilant and determined to suppress dissent of any shade and colour. They were strengthened by the Rev. James Balfour, a staunchly orthodox successor to Coughlan who had moved from Trinity to Harbour Grace. In this endeavour they also had for several years the support of Governor John Edwards, a determined benefactor of the Anglican cause and an opponent of Roman Catholics and protestant dissenters. Since no colonial government or council provided checks on gubernatorial powers, the religious liberty provisions for Roman Catholics and protestant dissenters were not even implemented when they appeared in liberalized form in the governor's instructions of 1779. Protestant dissenters, who were tolerated DE JURE since 1729, experienced considerable obstacles in the exercise of their religion during Edward's rule and were granted greater latitude only when pleading their case in England and, finally, in 1784, under Governor John Campbell, the son of a Scotch Presbyterian clergyman.

Lack of leadership was the major internal obstacle facing Methodists in Harbour Grace. Not only had they been robbed of their determined leader and symbol of legitimation, Rev. Coughlan, they also lost eventually by death the one respected merchant in the community, Arthur Thomey, while the fretful John Stretton was demoted socially from being a small merchant to a shopkeeper. Not even John McGeary, the first official Wesleyan missionary, reversed this lack of leadership but--as we shall see below--added instead to the problems of the Methodists in Conception Bay.

During the American-British hostilities, Conception Bay dissenters were also on the defensive not to have their evangelical dissent misunderstood as a political one. Especially Rev. Balfour equated too easily all opposition to Anglicanism with disloyalty for Britain. He was correct, however, in observing the loyalty of the class-conscious merchants and the lack of effective leadership among the Methodists when he wrote in December of 1775:

A significant external factor influencing religion during the war and famine years was the fact that the entire island in the two decades following Coughlan's departure was hard hit economically. The resident population suffered severely under the attacks and privations of the British-American hostilities. One would expect such time of crisis to be a prime opportunity for experiential religion, but it was not. Since the majority of support of the Methodists came from the lower classes, the boatkeepers; their workers; and at the most from small planters, their mass exodus from the island affected membership significantly. The population was so fluid in 1779 that Balfour could not even provide the SPG with the usual census, since "they are so unhinged by distress, that thousands of them have Emigrated to the Continent of America, & some to England ..." American Privateers, Balfour tells us, did not let through one vessel in ten. The Anglican parson experienced first-hand "a raging Famine, Nakedness & Sickness in these parts. None can express the heartfelt woe of Women & Children mourning for want of Food." Inhabitant suffering did not even end with the cessation of hostilities. It was related to a decline in the fishery and had increased by 1790--in the words of the Rev. Balfour--to "the highest pitch of distress ever known in Conception Bay." It is thus not surprising that the unsettled social and economic conditions proved taxing for the fledgling Methodists in Conception Bay. While the situation created new opportunities for service, the weakened lay leadership was unable to take advantage of it and to respond to worldly distress with otherwordly solutions. It were the women of the community who preserved in their small class meetings a Methodist religious identity. These female remnants were no mean achievement and eventually provided a nucleus on which the successful yet short- lived revival of William Black in the summer of 1791 was able to build.

One could argue that Newfoundland resembles a reversed situation from what has been observed for Nova Scotia. While the immigration of Yankee loyalists to Nova Scotia created demographic conditions and a leadership conducive to a great revival, the emigration of distressed masses from Newfoundland and a despondent and severely deficient lay leadership prevented such a revival. There was certainly no attempt to forge by religious means a colonial identity amidst a crisis. The lack of political opportunities, severely restricted settlement and only rudimentary forms of law and administration retarded also the emergence of a political identity until the 1830s. The participation of responsible selves in community took place on a strictly local level and was well circumscribed by the Conception Bay "mercantocracy." Coughlan was the only individual who in the eighteenth century had effectively challenged their power and carved out by religious means, in his class meetings, an a- political sphere of self-assertion, relatively free from the social controls of the merchants. He had also affected with his revival the social conditions of his converts and moved them toward greater independence. But eventually he too lost out against the combined opposition of the local ruling elite, the governor, and the SPG.

With the departure of Coughlan, a defective leadership, the mobilization of local Anglicans, increased inhabitant distress, and mass emigration, any serious threat to the existing order vanished.

Where such was claimed by the SPG missionaries, it existed largely in their own fears or was introduced as a means of explaining their own lack of success. The potential threat by disaffected Irish was controlled by their compliant clerical leadership, as the expulsion of explosive priests, the suppression of mutinous Irish fencibles in 1799/1800 and the first diocesan statutes vividly demonstrate.

In what follows I shall study in detail the internal development of Methodism from 1773 to 1791 and, in particular, the four major individuals responsible for Methodism's tenuous survival in Newfoundland: John Stretton, John Hoskins, John McGeary, and William Black. Like in the case of Coughlan, such study required an entirely new examination of all relevant sources.


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