EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


7.

JOHN STRETTON OF HARBOUR GRACE

Crookshank, the source for much of early Irish Methodist history, states that in 1763 Mrs. Eliza Bennis, an active laywoman in the Methodist movement, while visiting Waterford, Ireland, "spoke to a young man named John Stretton about his soul, and was thus the means of conversion." Stretton seems to have been from Limerick originally, as Wesley's association with his parents suggests. By 1770 this young man had become a middling trader or small merchant in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, and--as we have seen--supported Laurence Coughlan's missionary efforts in Harbour Grace, a place where according to Stretton "Religion [was] scarce to be found..." During the winter of 1771/72 Stretton attended Coughlan's men's class as a regular member, and in November of 1773 he married Mary Parsons, a "devout native" of Newfoundland. His letters to Eliza Bennis portray him as a sensitive HOMO RELIGIOSUS, an individual with an introspective consciousness of guilt, who was earnestly in search of the highest good of contemporary Methodism: "Christian Perfection".

After the departure of Coughlan in 1773 Stretton, together with Coughlan's Irish Catholic convert Arthur Thomey, organized the Methodist remnant into a class that met on Sunday evenings in the church at Harbour Grace. This occurred in the face of opposition from local magistrates, the principal merchants, who--as it appeared to Stretton--"took upon them to read prayers in the Church, and laboured with all their might, to introduce the dullest formality in the room of the pure gospel, which he had preached." An unnamed "poor illiterate fisherman" assisted Thomey in preaching and exhortation. In addition to meeting in a class, the Harbour Grace evangelicals for the first time formed a "society" of ca. 30 and drew "up rules as like Mr. Wesley as we could, consistent with local circumstances." The group encountered great difficulties when in October of 1774 James Balfour, the dour former S.P.G. missionary in Trinity, a convert from Scotch Presbyterianism, moved to Harbour Grace. And yet that Christmas the Methodists of Harbour Grace celebrated what according to Frank Baker may have been the first "love feast" in the northern regions of British America. The accounts of it by Stretton--like the previously formulated rules--are a witness of steps in the normative self-definition of Conception Bay Methodism.

The local society was sustained and strengthened in these day-long emotionally charged meetings. Even the prosaic merchant Arthur Thomey appears to have been overwhelmed by the experience. According to Stretton the "love feast" was consciously modelled after European Methodism, a practice he may have been familiar with in Ireland. The subjectivity of the religious experience did not succeed, however, to extinguish in Stretton remnants of a profound uncertainty in religious matters. These doubts were combatted by his friend Thomey with Wesley's NOTES ON THE NEW TESTAMENT so that "light broke in again upon my soul, his words were like dew; blessed by God, I yet find Jesus precious to my soul; when I find I love him, it is an evidence to me of my acceptance." The religious culture of the post-Coughlan period is thus no longer dominated by a local revivalist but by common religious experiences and Wesleyan theological and ecclesiastical orientations. Meantime, at Carbonear, Thomas Pottle read "prayers and expounds to them." He was a planter of Clowns Cove, part of today's Freshwater, and a layman who had been converted under Coughlan's preaching at Carbonear. After Coughlan's return to England he met at Carbonear with Coughlan's followers in a class. A letter of Pottle, written to Coughlan on 28 July 1772 and published in his ACCOUNT, shows that Pottle was theologically a Calvinist and Antinomian, who continued his master's approach of death bed conversions. The Carbonear evangelicals met regularly as a class but were not organized into a society. And they, too, celebrated Christmas with a love feast, which had helped them overcome temporarily the loss created by Coughlan's physical absence.

Despite Stretton's and Thomey's commitment, by Christmas 1775 the survival of the society in Harbour Grace was seriously threatened. Stretton's weak public presence and related doubt about a religious vocation contributed to the decline of the society. For him "it was reduced to this alternative, either for me to undertake the superintendance, or see the Society decay ..." To gain certainty of his calling he implored Eliza Bennis "to consult Mr. Wesley about my doubts of being called to speak in public; and let me have his opinion thro' you." Although he spoke also in the summer of 1776 to "a number of people almost savage, in the upper part of this bay", only reluctantly did he agree to provide leadership because of his doubts of a calling in the face of little success. To Eliza Bennis he wrote: "I thought myself called in order of providence to do what I could; but still I am not persuaded, that I am called of God to preach his word; and should be glad if some person more worthy, and fitter for the work, was here to keep these few sheep together, and do them good; the reason I have to think so is this; there has not one soul been awakened by my speaking, that I know of, now near a year ..." Stretton's religious correspondence with Eliza Bennis was his spiritual lifeline. He wrote in the summer of 1777 to her, "... after all my reading (which I am very fond of), I find myself amazingly ignorant of spiritual things; and greatly feel the want of Christian converse; for the professors here, (except a few which are dispersed) are very ignorant, and unfit to keep up a conversation of any kind ..." The same letter gives us a glance into the spiritual state of the struggling yet persistent society.

There is also mention of wider preaching, albeit without any lasting success. "Last Winter", Stretton writes, "I travelled over land, in this desolate country, about twenty-four miles: to a harbour that never heard the joyful sound; but my labour seemed in vain; the people there, but a remove from a savage; yet I have since felt, as if God would bless the seed then sown." The only discernable contact with evangelicals outside of Conception Bay was the one established with Congregationalists in St. John's. Their founder, John Jones, had already fraternized with Coughlan in 1771, and doctrinal differences such as their determined Calvinism vanished in light of a common evangelical purpose."

Stretton's spiritual life was not unlike that of other Methodist contemporaries who experienced intensely the alternate currents of religious certitude and alienation. In his quest for perfection he resembled Martin Luther in search of a just God, the JUSTITIA DEI, here only replaced by a feverish expectation of "Christian Perfection", which he saw realized in Eliza Bennis and others but was himself unable to obtain.

The prognosis for the Harbour Grace Methodists in the fall of 1777 could best be described as stable but not very optimistic. Stretton writes:

The "dead ministry" was that of the Anglican Reverend Balfour, who is described in the same letter as "a learned scribe, filled with the lumber of the schools." The contrast between Balfour's preaching and the religious expectations of Stretton and his small following were all too obvious. At the occasion of a sermon, preached by Balfour at the funeral of a society member, Stretton observed: "his [Balfour's] language seemed as heathen greek to the audience in general; he spoke much of the plastic power of Nature of the dignity, and mortality of Man, but not one word of the New Birth ..."

In 1777 Stretton and Thomey also "made an excurtion of about sixty miles along the wild shores of this dreary country at Christmas, preaching in every place inhabited" with some success. Here, again, the seasonal factor in Newfoundland revivalism can be observed. Stretton himself considered "it remarkable that religion on these accounts flourish most in the winter season, when business is at a total stand." In one place, where there "was but four dry professors, a society was soon established of thirty-seven, near all believers, in one evening at a love feast, five were set at liberty; open profligates convinced and converted, also two aged sinners called in, one of one hundred years old, the other of eighty, who are yet alive." Cordial ties were also established with the congregation of John Hoskins in Old Perlican, while those with Congregationalists in St. John's were renewed. This all contrasted significantly with the dismal picture at Harbour Grace, where Stretton not only experienced spiritual distress but also financial difficulties in his business ventures. Personal difficulties increased in 1778 and 1779 when Stretton became seriously ill, lost his fishing business, and was finally forced to take up "shopkeeping", the latter to the disadvantage of regular society attendance but not to missionary efforts among his customers. In fact, he was able to convert in a dramatic deathbed conversion his local enemy, the one responsible for Stretton's business troubles, who subsequently recovered from his illness.

There is a long silence in the correspondence with Eliza Bennis. But when it resumed in June of 1785, Stretton had written to John Wesley the previous fall and received an encouraging answer from the founder of Methodism. Asking him "to send a preacher to this place, as the work of God seems to be at a stand here, and superstition and profaneness greatly encreasing ...," Wesley responded in February of 1785. In the letter he expressed satisfaction about Stretton's initiative in establishing ties with him and remembered his acquaintance with Stretton's parents in Limerick. The letter, which also speaks of Coughlan's illness, death, and prior "tears and contrition for his past unfaithfulness", reflects the new situation of religious liberty and growth of Catholicism in Newfoundland (for Wesley "that deadly enemy of true religion") in response to a change in the Penal laws in 1779 and the publication of religious liberty by Governor Campbell in 1784. Wesley instructed Thomas Coke, then visiting America, "before he returns to England to call upon our brethren also in Newfoundland and perhaps leave a preacher there likewise."

The request of Stretton occurred upon the background of a worsening situation for Conception Bay Methodists. Stretton's fellow labourer Thomey, a Roman Catholic convert of Irish descent, who appears first in a letter of Coughlan to the SPG in 1768, when he became the schoolmaster of the charity school in Harbour Grace, had died in November of 1784 on a business trip to Portugal. Thomey, according to Stretton, was a respected merchant of Harbour Grace who had helped him maintain the evangelical gathering there after Coughlan's departure for England. The commercial records for Harbour Grace confirm Thomey's solid standing in the community and identify him as the perhaps financially most secure individual of Conception Bay Methodism. He served temporarily as a school teacher for Coughlan's charity school and later preached from house to house and wherever an occasion presented itself, such as to Hoskins' congregation in Old Perlican, once at the risk of his life. He also visited with Stretton the Congregationalists at St. John's, and in December of 1778 both men made a 60-mile preaching tour "along the wild shores of this dreary country." Wesley, himself saddened by the death of his "designated successor John Fletcher, comforted Stretton in a letter of 26 February 1786: "By removing such instruments as Arthur Thorney [Thomey!] and Mr. Fletcher, our Lord puts us in mind of what we are ever prone to forget -- that the help which is done upon earth He doeth it Himself, and that He has no need of man. The pillars fall, yet the building stands. Why? The hand of the Most High supports it." While still preaching in Harbour Grace Stretton now reported that "the society is broken up, and few come to hear me, and my present business prevents the excursions I used formerly to take ..." The promised visit of Coke to Newfoundland never materialized, but in 1785 John McGeary was sent to Harbour Grace, and later to Carbonear, albeit with dismal effect. Stretton, during this time, also became involved in an acrimonious struggle between the Carbonear Methodists, Rev. Balfour, and the Harbour Grace magistrate Henry Nicholls for control of the Carbonear chapel, a case finally resolved by Governor Campbell in favour of the Methodists. This was a first public acknowledgment of Methodist rights in Newfoundland by a governor who himself had a decidedly Scotch dissenting background. Campbell--unlike his predecessor Edwards--considered the matter a case of private property right to the disenchantment of Rev. Balfour, who, in a letter to the S.P.G., expressed the fervent hope "the Society will speak to the governor, otherwise he [Balfour] cannot stay there, as the people in general are so much inclined to enthusiasm and sectaries."

Wesley kept in touch with Stretton, as several letters between 1786 to 1790 show. He also sought to defuse the tensions that existed between Stretton, McGeary and Hoskins. The planned work of William Hammet as missionary to Newfoundland faltered in a storm, which drove him to Antigua and later from Methodism. McGeary returned for two years to England in 1788, and Stretton was once again providing leadership in Harbour Grace. In August of 1788 he built at his own expense the first Methodist meeting house in Carbonear, although at this time there seems to have been no longer a society in existence. His reasons for building it must have been his judgment that "the protestant minister is worse than none, and few go to church, while Popery like a deluge sweeps away the rest ..." In order to see preaching continue, Stretton sought the services of Samuel Woods, an Irish acquaintance, for the following summer. Whether these attempts succeeded are not certain, but the building of a meeting house seems to have temporarily attracted people on Sunday evenings, yet without lasting impact. Stretton, in a letter to Eliza Bennis, attributed the lack of success to "the general hurt done" by McGeary. By January of 1791 Methodism had become nearly extinct in Harbour Grace. A totally disillusioned Stretton wrote to Eliza Bennis that "I am here alone, not one family heartily religious that I can associate with or hold any profitable converse with all the dreary Winter."

Ten months later, however, a buoyant Stretton could write about an event "the most extraordinary I have ever seen, and as remarkable if particularized as in parts of the continent of America, that I have read of." To his friend in Ireland he explained "that the Lord has been pleased to revive his work in this place last August, in a most remarkable manner, through the instrumentality of a Mr. William Black from Halifax in Nova Scotia." But before examining the work of McGeary and Black, it might do well to survey another area of independent Methodist missionary activity in Newfoundland, that of the school master John Hoskins at Old Perlican, Trinity Bay.


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