John Wesley and the Chignecto “Connexion”

In case you are wondering, today’s title does not contain a typo. The word connexion is deeply implanted within the Methodist denomination and refers to a system of inter-related congregations. In a few weeks, people of Methodist heritage around the world will mark the birth date of John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism. Born on June 17, 1703 at the Rectory in the small market town of Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, John Wesley was the son of the Revd. Samuel and Susanna Wesley.

At first John Wesley was instructed at home by his mother. Later he attended the famous Charterhouse School in London on scholarship and eventually went up to Christ Church College, Oxford in 1720. Wesley was ordained a deacon in 1725 and admitted to the priesthood three years afterward. A masters degree followed in 1727. This background is significant as it serves to underscore both his scholarly background and place within the Established Church.

John Wesley returned to Oxford in 1729 as a Fellow of Lincoln College. It was here that John and his brother Charles became involved with a small group who were known by the nickname the Holy Club. They were later labelled Methodists for their methodical rules for fasting, prayer and study of the Bible. It is to this gathering that the beginning of a new denomination may be traced. Modeled on the Holy Club, the Methodist concept of small group or class meetings, crossed the Atlantic in the 1770s, and helped introduce Methodism on the Isthmus of Chignecto.

John Wesley was described as a small man, weighing about 128 pounds and just over five feet tall. Many of his evangelistic services were held in the open air when hundreds would gather to hear him speak in a high pitched, penetrating voice. No modern amplifiers or microphones for him! During his long career he managed to crisscross England, Scotland and Ireland on horseback, sometimes traveling as many as 7,000 kilometres per year. The evangelical zeal of John Wesley was responsible for Methodism taking root, first in England, and later aided by his followers, throughout the English speaking world. The Methodist Church did not, however, separate from the Established Church until after its founders death.

As the crow flies, the distance from the Rectory at Epworth to the East Riding of Yorkshire is but a few kilometres. It is not surprising that John Wesley paid particular attention to nearby Yorkshire. At the time, this area of England was experiencing an agricultural revolution. Scattered farm holdings were being consolidated into large estates, and the imposition of major rent increases by landlords soon followed. To make matters worse,the rural population was increasing faster than agricultural growth.

The Methodist emphasis on conversion and righteous living, its stress on Bible study and fellowship, appealed to an economically depressed population. Yorkshire became fertile ground for evangelist John Wesley, and Methodist class meetings sprang up throughout the East Riding. As they gathered each week in homes, their economic plight was undoubtedly a topic of concern. What was the solution? Too many people and too little land meant emigration. But where?

About the same time, Michael Franklin (1720–1782) the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia visited the East Riding to recruit settlers for his vast land holdings. The land hungry Yorkshire folk listened carefully to his pitch. Although only a few answered his call, Franklin did much to publicize the possibilities on this side of the Atlantic. During the years 1771 to 1775 it is estimated that some 1,000 to 1,200 Yorkshire migrants settled in Nova Scotia. By far the largest number selected land on the Isthmus of Chignecto and nearby areas.

In April 1775, one of the last ships to set sail from Hull for Halifax was the Jenny. On board was a Huddersfield linen draper, William Black Sr., his wife Elizabeth Stocks and family of five children. Black could not have foreseen that he was to establish a family dynasty that would make its mark in the New World. Nor could he have imagined that his second son, William Jr., was destined to be the founder of Methodism in the Maritimes.

The Blacks were early converts to Methodism and within a few years young Billy was to experience a conversion during a class meeting. In later life, writing to John Wesley, he recalled the event: While they were praying, my heart began to throb within me, my eyes gushed with tears, and I cried aloud for mercy what if the Day of Judgment be coming? On the following Sunday, Mr. William Wells [a lay preacher] gave an exhortation his words were like a dagger in my heart. Then another old Methodist, after praying with me said, I think you will get the blessing before morning. About two hours after, while we were singing a hymn, it pleased God to reveal his Son in my heart.

From this point onward, William Black Jr., never looked back While not as well educated as his mentor John Wesley, he did have the benefit of a sound education at the Olney Grammar School before leaving Yorkshire. For the rest of his life, he was content to be a roving evangelist stressing the sinfulness of man and the need for regeneration through faith. He was ordained a deacon in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia on May 7, 1789 and the following day became an elder.

Until his death in 1791, John Wesley and William Black carried on a lively correspondence. It was encouraging for the latter to be able to call on Wesley for advice in the dark days. Some of this important correspondence may be found in the Maritime Conference Archives. Heres an example. The letter is from Wesley to Black and is dated May 11, 1784. This was a crucial time in history, as the American Revolution was nearing its end.

My Dear Brother: I am glad that you have given a little assistance to our Brethren in Halifax and along the Coast. There is no Charity under Heaven to be compared to this, the bringing Light to the poor heathens who call themselves Christian, but nevertheless sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. I am in great hope that some of the emigrants from New York [the Loyalists] are really alive to God. And if so, they will be every way a valuable acquisition to the Province [Nova Scotia] where their lot is now cast. This may be one of the gracious designs of Gods Providence in bringing them from their native country.

Blacks wide ranging career did not mean that he neglected his first flock in the Chignecto Connexion. From Amherst to River Philip and from Sackville to the Petiticodiac he was responsible for establishing a strong Methodist presence. In the year of his ordination, Black was appointed Superintendent of the Methodist Church in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, a post he held until his retirement in 1812. He died full of honours on Sept. 8, 1834 in Halifax.

Readers interested in more detail regarding Revd. William Blacks career on the Isthmus are directed to Dr. Peter Penners well researched book: The Chignecto Connexion: A History of Sackville Methodist/United Churches. During the month of June, the Maritime Conference Archives in Sackville, will be mounting a display pertinent to Methodism in this area. It will be well worth a visit during the Wesleyan Tercentenary.

Two important legacies of the Methodist movement started by John Wesley, and carried on by William Black, need to be underscored. Most of the Yorkshire emigrants to the Chignecto region were literate, as shown by their ability to sign legal documents, carry on extensive correspondence, read their Bibles and exhort when called upon in Methodist class meetings. As soon as adequate shelter was provided for their families, they turned their attention to the erection of chapels. Schools soon followed. This zeal for education peaked in 1839 with the founding of Mount Allison Academy and later in 1862, the University. Were it not for a strong Methodist presence on the Isthmus of Chignecto and throughout the Maritimes, Mount Allison University would not exist today.

The second legacy relates to music. It has been said that music was the soul of Methodism. Check any contemporary hymnal and count the number of Wesleyan hymns still in use. Although a few were written by John Wesley, the vast majority came from the prolific pen of his brother and associate, Revd. Charles Wesley. The latter has been credited with the composition of no less than 6,500 hymns! To note but two familiar examples: what Christmas service would be complete without Hark the Herald Angels Sing,or can you imagine an Easter service not featuring Christ the Lord is Risen Today?

As part of the Wesleyan Tercentenary, there will be a special presentation in Sackville United Church, next Monday evening May 26th at 7 PM. Entitled My Affectionate Husband: Reflections of Molly Wesley, it will provide a vivid picture of the early Methodist movement and its leader, John Wesley through the unconventional lens of his wife, Molly. The performer is Dr. Marilyn Fardig Whitely, a well known Canadian church historian, whose specialty is the study of Methodist women. Those who attended the Yorkshire 2000 Conference on Immigration and Impact will recall Dr. Whiteleys paper on Cumberland is a Wicked Place: The Changing Lay Witness of the Yorkshire Methodists.

What follows is a preview of how the Reflections of Molly Wesley will unfold. The time is September 1774 and the place, Bristol. John is away as he is so much of the time, preaching and directing the business of his Methodist Societies. The relationship of the couple is at a low point, and Molly prepares to leave John Wesley for the last time. She looks through Johns letters, and reminiscences about her marriage

The performer, Marilyn Fardig Whiteley, will appear in authentic costume and, before taking on the role of Molly Wesley, speaks to the audience. Then putting on a cap suitable to the plain and modest apparel of a late 18th century Methodist woman, she assumes the role of Molly. At the end, Dr. Whitely will return to answer questions from the audience. The performance will last one hour and a free will offering will be taken. This is an event not to be missed!