The Confused, the Curious, and the Reborn: Methodism as a Youth Movement in the Upper South and Ohio Valley, 1770–1820
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 3-31
- View Citation
- Additional Information
SPRING 2010 3 B etween 1780 and 1820, the Methodist Episcopal Church grew from a sect of 8,500 members into a denomination of almost two hundred and sixty thousand. Although the exact number of Methodist youths cannot be calculated, contemporary accounts suggest that most of these converts were young adults. Methodist preachers and lay members stressed in their diaries and correspondence that young men and women predominated at their revivals , and the authors of most Methodist autobiographies recalled that they had joined the movement as youths. Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Americans generally regarded as youths those individuals who had entered puberty but had not yet married. In the border region stretching from the Upper South to the Ohio Valley, where the Methodist Church grew most rapidly, unmarried young men and women flocked to the denomination. Other upstart evangelical sects, like the Baptists, also attracted young people in these regions, but the Methodists’ growth outmatched all competitors. To a degree, Methodism’s youthful orientation reflected the demographics of American society. In 1800, the median age of the American population was only sixteen. Yet even this does not adequately explain Methodism’s young leadership . The majority of the sect’s itinerant preachers were unmarried men in their twenties and thirties, and the Methodists licensed talented boys to preach as early as their late teens. They also encouraged adolescent, even prepubescent, boys The Confused, the Curious, and the Reborn Methodism as a Youth Movement in the Upper South and Ohio Valley, 1770-1820 John Ellis First Methodist Church in Louisville, 1812, from a sketch commissioned by Reuben T. Durrett. THE FILSON HISTORICAL SOCIETY THE CONFUSED, THE CURIOUS, AND THE REBORN 4 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY and girls to exhort and pray at services. Because the Methodists entrusted their young men and women with key leadership roles, American Methodism became a youth-driven organization that, unlike modern youth movements, did not isolate youths from adults in an age-specific subculture.1 Yet Methodists had a more peculiar appeal to young people. The Methodists empowered young exhorters and preachers to lead adults and other young people , thus offering youths a forum to question the authority of their elders, challenge established beliefs, and broadly influence both Methodism and mainstream society. Given the youthful orientation of early American Methodism, the movement ’s appeal is thus best understood through the perspective of its young people. This article considers two interlocking questions: Why did Methodism attract young converts in the Upper South and Ohio Valley frontier between the movement ’s roots in America in the 1770s and its growth into a mainstream religion by the 1820s; and why did Methodism evolve into a culturally radical, youthdriven movement in the early republic? Neither Methodism nor the sect’s youthful allure was confined to the rural South and West. In the eighteenth century, the movement first flourished in the mid-Atlantic’s seaboard cities. As early as the 1770s, Francis Asbury, who soon emerged as the church’s national leader, admitted from Philadelphia that he led a cohort of “young preachers,” causing older observers to suspect that Asbury had “stirr[ed] them up against those the[y] should be in subjection to.” However, toward the century’s end the movement’s growth shifted westward. By 1804, Asbury lamented, “I have felt for the preachers in the east . . . for the towns and cities, they are very dead.” In the rural interior, as the sect grew more youthcentered , signs of intergenerational friction and youthful attraction persisted and perhaps intensified. Parents became angry when their Methodist son publicly condemned their sinfulness at a Kentucky revival or a teenage daughter questioned her parents’ denominational bias when she announced her conversion to Methodism at an Ohio camp meeting. “[You] have taught me from my childhood to hate . . . the Methodists,” she proclaimed, “till my soul was well nigh lost and ruined forever!” Methodists’ preachers were likely elated by this young convert’s censorious assertions in part because they also became targets of their elders’ ire. One complained, “[The Methodists] take foolish inexperienced young men and place them at the helm of affairs,” while another protested, “Unless there be some steps taken to less[en] the...