Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rice Haggard Among the Methodists

The beginning of the Rice Haggard story takes us back at least as far as December 1784, when the Christmas Conference of the Wesleyan Societies in America was held in Baltimore. At that conference Thomas Coke, who had been sent to America by John Wesley (pictured here), ordained Francis Asbury. Then, both Coke and Asbury were elected general superintendents in America, and the Methodist Episcopal Church began. In the last paragraph of his letter to the conference, John Wesley said:

As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with one or the other. They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free. [1]

The words of Wesley electrified the conference, especially those freedom-loving preachers among the Methodists like James O'Kelly who would later write:

We perceived the counsel in the circular letter to be good; because we were directed to follow the Scripture and the primitive church; and to stand fast in our liberties, seeing we were free from the power of kings and bishops. [2]

But such liberty within the newly-formed church would soon be lost. Not long after the Methodists became an independent group, Francis Asbury emphasized the monarchical aspect of their church government (as opposed to the democratic aspect), and set out to seize control. In defense of Asbury it might be argued that he had been sent by Wesley with some measure of authority. Yet these later actions were a step beyond what Wesley himself had in mind. Sometime later, he sent a rebuke to Asbury, the self-proclaimed bishop:

How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called bishop? I shudder, I start, at the very thought. Men may call me a knave, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never, by my consent call me a bishop. For my sake, for God's sake, put a full end to this. [3]

History bears the sad testimony that Francis Asbury rejected Wesley's appeal.

It was during this period that Rice Haggard converted to Methodism in 1787, then only eighteen years old. Two years later, he delivered his first sermon. A year after that, in 1790, he received an assignment to ride the Bedford circuit in Virginia. In 1791, he was ordained by Francis Asbury and rode the Cumberland circuit; in 1792, the Micklenburg circuit. [4]

Rice Haggard worked hard and made a good bit of progress among the Methodists. So it was natural for him to attend their Baltimore conference of November 1792. By that time, Francis Asbury had made great strides in his quest to control the church. But there was among the Methodists a group who believed that Asbury had stepped over the line, and they wanted to be controlled by no one but God.

At issue in 1792 was the right of a Methodist minister to reject the assignment given to him by Bishop Asbury. Though that was the particular point, men like James O'Kelly believed that there was a much larger question at stake. Would they be free to follow the Word of God, or would their first allegiance be to a man? During the sessions of debate, Rice Haggard looked on as James O'Kelly, brimful of passion, took a New Testament in hand and said,

Brethren hearken unto me, and put away all other books, and forms and let this be the only criterion and that will satisfy me. [5]

But soon the conference turned not on the authority of the Scriptures, but on the question of Asbury's character. This was a natural move for the Methodists. Their short history had been the story of the leadership of Wesley. It seems that their implicit reasoning went as follows: If, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Methodists had entrusted themselves to the benevolent rule of John Wesley, then why couldn't they do the same in America under Francis Asbury? With that question on the table, an elder stood up and asked,

[W]here is the man that will say [that Francis Asbury] ever injured a preacher?

After the question was repeated, a young man whose name was Rice, assured the conference that he had known two preachers who were injured by Asbury. Later, Haggard said, I am the man he has injured. After the right of appeal was rejected by the council, Rice Haggard walked out of the Baltimore Conference along with James O'Kelly and others. [6]

Nine months later, on August 2, 1793, O'Kelly and his colleages met at Piney Grove in Chesterfield County, Virginia, and sent a letter to Asbury. They requested a meeting at which everyone could examine the existing form of church government in the light of the Scriptures. On Christmas Day of that year, the O'Kelly group convened at Manakin Town to receive Asbury's reply. It read:

I have no power to call such a meeting as you wish, therefore if 500 preachers would come on their knees before me I would not do it. [7]

It seemed that Asbury assumed the power to make binding appointments, but had no such power to call a meeting to discuss the policy! It was then that O'Kelly, Haggard, and like-minded leaders saw no other option but to separate entirely from the Methodists and form another religious group which they called the Republican Methodist Church.

By 1801, they had not only adopted the name Christian for themselves as individuals, but had come to call the new body the Christian Church. [8] Interestingly enough, besides James O'Kelly, the only dissenter among the former Methodist preachers to stay the course was Rice Haggard.


[1] As quoted in Colby D. Hall, Rice Haggard: The American Frontier Evangelist Who Revived the Name Christian (Fort Worth, TX: University Christian Church, 1957), p. 24.

[2] Hall, Rice Haggard, p. 24.

[3] Hall, Rice Haggard, p. 24.

[4] Hall, Rice Haggard, p. 23. See also R. L. Roberts, "Rice Haggard(1769-1819) 'A Name Rever'd'," Discipliana 54 (Fall 1994), pp. 68-69.

[5] Roberts, "Rice Haggard," p. 69.

[6] Roberts, "Rice Haggard," p. 69.

[7] Roberts, "Rice Haggard," p. 69.

[8] Earl I. West, Search for the Ancient Order, vol. 1, reprint ed. (Germantown, TN: Religious Book Service, 1990), p. 10.


Adam Gonnerman said...

Thank you for the brief history, looking forward to what else you'll have to say.

Wade Tannehill said...


I probably knew this at one time, but forgot. What, if any, is Haggard's connection to the Stone-Campbell Movement?

I appreciate these posts. They have made me want to read more about the Republican Methodists and this little known stream of Restorationism.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, guys. Wade, stay tuned. The next post will make the connection between the Republican Methodist/Christian Church and the American Restoration Movement. Actually, Haggard himself is the connection.

Anonymous said...

Compelling history. Thanks, Frank, for providing it for the rest of us to consider.

ben overby

ancil said...

My My feeble memory of reading Asbury's journal about the conference. He mentioned his sadness at seeing O'Kelly and the others leave. He said, "That old man will do a lot of harm."