Methodism celebrates 200 years in Savannah

Religion column



Although Methodism have been established in Georgia for at least 225 years, its continuing presence in Savannah, where I serve the church, is 200 years old this year.

While British warships prowled the Georgia coastline, country Methodist preacher James Russell was appointed to Savannah to build a church. Methodism in 1812 was thriving across the nation, holding 400-500 camp meetings per year with 3 million people attending these dramatic social and religious gatherings. National success notwithstanding, Dr. George D. Smith in his “History of Methodism in Georgia” (1913) described Savannah Methodism in 1812 as a “forlorn hope” consisting of three poor white and four even poorer African-American Methodists.

Brother Russell, a successful backwoods preacher, was ill-suited to the relatively cosmopolitan and educated city folk accustomed to sophisticated preaching from the pulpits of First Presbyterian and First Baptist churches. Russell would not be the last rustic Methodist preacher unevenly yoked with more cultured city cousins. Nevertheless Russell, a determined backwoodsman, cut the timber for the building himself, floated it down the Savannah River on a raft and built the first Methodist church building in Savannah, cutting marsh grass and selling it on the side to support himself and his family.

Some 20 years earlier, Methodist Circuit Rider Hope Hull had preached sanctification in a mechanic shop in Savannah, but was unable to establish a congregation. “The History of American Methodism” (1964) notes that there was “great prejudice against the Methodists ... and continual peril from mobs,” probably because early Methodists were rigorous, uneducated, mostly from the poorer classes and in no mood to defer to the more genteel Christians in any given city.

Frances Asbury, Methodism’s first bishop, visited Georgia frequently beginning in 1788, once getting lost in the Georgia backwoods for 21 miles, his traveling companion Thomas Coke noting that ticks harassed them along the way.

Asbury was the most recognizable person in the early days of our nation, having spent 45 years, often in poor health, riding on horseback up and down the Eastern Seaboard and crossing the Allegheny Mountains more than 60 times. This chronically penniless cleric slept on dirt floors, rode through rain and snow, crossed dangerously swollen rivers and near the end of his life had such swollen feet from the continual horseback riding that Methodists had to carry him from his horse to the pulpit so he could preach.

No record remains of the sermons Asbury preached in Savannah or elsewhere in Georgia, but Asbury, not known for his eloquence as a preacher, would surely have touched on his favorite themes of the need for daily holiness of heart and life and his warning that Methodists would decline if they ever became prosperous.

Two hundred years later, it’s probably too late to turn back the clock on Methodist prosperity, but the Savannah bicentenary gives Methodists the opportunity to rededicate themselves to the calling of personal and social holiness, hallmarks of that frontier faith worth nurturing today.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.