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