EARLY METHODISM IN NEWFOUNDLAND

by Hans Rollmann


9.

JOHN MCGEARY OF CARBONEAR,
THE FIRST OFFICIAL METHODIST MISSIONARY TO NEWFOUNDLAND

John McGeary, or Mag[a]ery, is the first official Methodist missionary to Newfoundland. Little is known about his previous service, except that Wesley called him in September of 1784 "one of our American Preachers, just come to England." The American Conference Minutes list him in 1782 as one of the new itinerants. That same year he was stationed, together with Freeborn Garrettson and Woolman Hickson, on the Somerset Circuit in Maryland, and the next year he and Woolman Hickson were preaching in West Jersey. John Lednum, the historian of Methodist origins in America, thinks that McGeary was a participant in the historic Christmas Conference of 1784 in Philadelphia, but that is hardly possibly in light of his September conversation with John Wesley. Of this conversation Wesley continues in the letter quoted above: "He gave a pleasing account of the work of God there, continually increasing, and vehemently importuned me to pay one more visit to America before I die. Nay, I shall pay no more visits to new worlds, till I go to the world of spirits." McGeary appears to have found temporary employment on the Gloucester circuit and, in 1785, he was sent to Harbour Grace, which now for the first time appeared in Methodist records as a missionary "station."

Although Stretton, Thomey, and Thomas Pottle had maintained societies in Harbour Grace, Carbonear, and Blackhead, a preacher "given wholly to the work" and not so "entangled with the affairs of this life" as these lay people was needed. After peace with the American colonies had been concluded, missionary attention now focused once again upon North America, although neither Coke nor Asbury seem to have shared Wesley's enthusiasm for the northern regions of British North America. The former was more drawn to the West Indies, and the latter increasingly preoccupied with U.S. matters. Stretton's first letter to Wesley in 1784 broke the ice covering relations with Newfoundland since Laurence Coughlan. In his reply of 25 February 1785, Wesley was genuinely happy that Stretton established relations with him and told him that just then he had asked Dr. Coke "before he returns to England to call upon our brethren also in Newfoundland and perhaps," as Stretton had desired, "leave a preacher there likewise." But in June of 1785 Stretton still implored Eliza Bennis: "O write to Mr. Wesley, not to forget us in this benighted corner ..." John McGeary was sent in the fall of that year in response to Stretton's plea. Stretton reports to Eliza Bennis in November that "last month a preacher arrived here from London, sent by Mr. Wesley: his name John Magery; a good man, and a good peacher; I hope he will prove a blessing to this place." And, yet, in a postscript to the same letter, of 12 December, he already voices his concerns: "Mr. Magery, that I fear he will not abide long, -- indeed whoever seeks ease or comfort is not likely to meet much of it in this Island." The same note of caution was expressed a little later by the superintendent of North American missions, Thomas Coke, when he writes that despite some successes McGeary's "single endeavours are not likely to carry the work of God to that extent which every pious soul must wish for." McGeary was not very communicative in his new surroundings. Freeborn Garrettson, his former associate in Maryland, wrote to Asbury that he had "heard very little from Newfoundland." And on 26 February 1786, Coke requested of Stretton rather brusquely: "Tell brother Mc.Geary that I expect he will cross the water, and meet me at Halifax. It appears to me I shall not have time to call at Newfoundland. I shall be glad to be favoured with a particular account of the work in your Island." Wesley's opinion of McGeary was perhaps the most positive among the contemporaries. To a disappointed Stretton he wrote: "The more proof you have of him, the more you will be convinced, that John Mcgeary is a Workman that needeth not to be ashamed. His one care is, to follow Christ ..." Matters worsened when McGeary married the daughter of a planter against her father's will and was deprived of the necessities of life by Carbonear locals. An irate Wesley wrote to Black in February 1787: "You have great reason to be thankful to God for the progress of His work in Nova Scotia. This is far from being the case in Newfoundland, where poor John McGeary appears to be utterly discouraged, not only through want of success, but through want of the conveniences, yea necessaries of life. Truly, if I could have supposed that those who made me fair promises would have suffered a preacher to want bread, I should have sent him into other parts, where he would have wanted nothing." Black replied to Wesley from Halifax with an air of understanding: "I wish brother McGeary was here instead of being in Newfoundland; he would meet with a very different reception." From a letter of Wesley to Stretton of 19 March 1788 it appears that McGeary and the Anglican clergyman James Balfour had an altercation, in which McGeary's temper must have played a role. On the same day Wesley advised Black: "I wish you would do all you possibly can to keep our brethren at peace with each other. And your pains will not be lost on poor John McGeary. There is much good in him. Indeed, he is naturally of a bold, forward temper; but I think ... his zeal is now according to knowledge." Wesley seems to have been unaware of the seriousness of McGeary's situation. Stretton, in a letter to Eliza Bennis, in November of the same year writes:

McGeary returned to England in October of 1788, where he received a preaching appointment in Redruth. But in 1790, for reasons not clear at present, he was back in Newfoundland again.

In 1791 Black was "joyfully" received by McGeary in Carbonear, who "had been weeping before the Lord over his lonely situation, and the lamentable state of the people." It was Black, as we shall see, who rekindled the Methodist fervour when he visited Carbonear repeatedly during his revivalist tour through Conception Bay. McGeary's missionary presence in Newfoundland remained without any lasting effect whatsoever: no revival, not even a steady growth, only frictions with fellow lay preachers and the community. And when Black once more succeeded in rekindling a religious fervour in Carbonear, McGeary left for England, where from 1793 on he was listed among those who "desist from travelling."


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