Snapshot of Methodism in New Paltz, 1800

January 2022
by Anna Louise Bates, PhD, Church Historian

What does it mean to become a Methodist?  The answer to that question has changed drastically over time.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Methodist church was new, it was perceived as an experimental church, wherein profound conversion experiences marked the entry of new souls to local churches.  Following that experience, often inspired by enthusiastic preaching by an early circuit rider, the newly converted would spend two years on probation, attending regular services and meeting with other “seekers” in weekly classes.  If, at the end of their probation, the resident elder and the local congregation welcomed them, they were admitted to full membership in the local church.

Those early conversion experiences are the topic of this piece.  Perusing the memoirs of early circuit riders in New Paltz, I came across this description of an incident at the home of a local family.  The story is in the journal of Elijah Woolsey, who preached in New Paltz in 1800. 

“One Sabbath evening I preached at New-Paltz, and after preaching went to my sister’s (Phoebe Deyo) to lodge but had not been there long before a young man came in great haste on horseback up to the door.  In an instant he dismounted, and hastened into the house, all in a flood of tears.  We were much alarmed, fearing some accident had happened in the neighbourhood.  … As soon as he could speak he said, “Do come over to my father’s – the Lord is there.” 

Woolsey followed the unnamed young man to his home.  Consider carefully the scene he encountered:

“… [A]s we drew near the house (we) heard the people crying and praying within.  … When we entered the house the first one we took notice of was a young woman named Elizabeth, who had been converted about three months before, lying on the floor, with her hands stretched up toward heaven, crying, “Glory,” as loud as she could.   The next was the young man who came for us.  He was kneeling by the bedside, and his brother, a lad of about twelve years of age, was kneeled down by his side praying for him.  In the middle of the house was the mother, and her daughter, a little girl of about ten years of age, with her arms around her mother’s neck, praying for her.  In the chimney corner was another daughter on her knees, crying for mercy.  When I beheld all this, I stood astonished for some minutes.” (Coles R. G., The Supernumerary: or, Lights and Shadows of Itinerancy Compiled from the papers of Rev. Elijah Woolse, 1845, pp. 64-65)

Satisfied that his preaching had borne fruit, Woolsey concluded his journal entry: “Thus the work of the Lord began in that place.”

To a reader in 2022, this sounds like a strange scene indeed!  In 1800, though, it was a sure sign of God’s presence in a family or community.  The story, I think, calls us to remember our own conversions.  Were our hearts strangely warmed?  Did we experience a kind of cathartic moment like the members of this local family?  I suspect not.  And reading this description today, huddled in my office where I seldom venture out to live church services for health reasons known to all of us, I wonder whether we can recapture some of that early enthusiasm.