The Methodists were essentially a “grass-roots” form of Christianity, starting from the revival services held, during the 18th century, by Revs. John Wesley and Charles Wesley, two highly educated, devoted clergymen of the Church of England. The movement spread far and wide throughout the English-speaking world, much of the leadership coming from laymen, called “local preachers”.
There were at least five branches of Methodism found among our pioneering settlers – Wesleyan Methodists, Methodist Episcopals, Primitive Methodists, New Connexion Methodists and Bible Christians. By 1884 these were all united to form the Methodist Church.
How it all began…
Tales of pioneer hardship and deprivation have been told many times. Yet still we remember in wonder, that people accomplished so much with so little; that men and women with simple tools, their bare hands, and their own inventiveness cleared the land, drained the swamps, made their own clothing and provided their own food. Through all these difficulties God was with them and they wanted their children educated intellectually and spritually. – from Guelph’s Norfolk Street United Church 175th Anniversary
Following the American Revolution of 1774-83, the British Parliament enacted the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided Canada into two provinces, Lower and Upper Canada. Immediately, a new period of settlement began; and not only did immigrants come from the British Isles, but many Dutch settlers from Pennsylvania, Quakers from New England, and thousands of United Empire Loyalists from the nearby American States poured into this territory to hew out new homes for themselves in the bushland that was later to become Ontario. They brought with them little in the way of worldly possessions, but they were richly endowed with stout hearts, ambition, the will to work, and a burning desire to retain and exercise the religious and political freedoms for which so many of their forefathers had left the old world.
The Methodist denomination was, as usual, one of the very first to establish its organization in the new country. It is said that the Presbyterians have the congregation first, and the church afterwards; but the Methodists the church first and the congregation afterwards.
Once the original settlers had erected a cabin and secured a roof over their heads, the next project to receive immediate attention was a place in which to worship. In those early times, church services were quite frequently held in private homes. Gradually churches were constructed, and by the end of the nineteenth century the rural landscape was liberally dotted by religious edifices, where the Gospel was solemnly expounded by ministers of various denominations.
It was in the early days of the nineteenth century that the “Circuit Riders” of the Methodist Church began to bring the gospel message westward from the new capital, York, established by Governor Simcoe. In a report made in 1817, Bishop Mountain testified, “that the settlers are simple folk, mostly dissenters; to them come the saddle-bag preachers, mostly Methodists, with the simple gospel of right living, shorn of the trimmings of ritual which a more cultivated society desires.”
The saddle-bag preacher was so called because of the fact that he traveled on horseback over the muddy, backwoods trails, equipped with only a few essentials – a change of clothing, some hymn books and bibles – which he carried in a saddlebag. Some idea of the dedication, enthusiasm and physical endurance of these men may be better understood if we look at the extent of two of the seven Circuits then existing in Upper Canada: for example, in 1802, the Rev. Nathan Bangs was assigned to the Bay of Quinte Circuit, which covered the area from Kingston in the east, west to York, then north to Lake Simcoe, and back; the Yonge Street Circuit, when set up, included “Little York”, the old surveys of Toronto, Trafalgar, and Nelson Townships, and the townships on both sides of “the street” (Yonge) from the Bay of Toronto to Lake Simcoe – i.e., Scarborough, Pickering, York, Etobicoke, Vaughan, Markham, King, Whitchurch, and East and West Gwillimbury. Such an extensive territory would be no sinecure under ideal traveling conditions, but the saddle-bag preacher, along with one or two assistants, was expected to cover his Circuit in from two to four weeks.
So it was that, with no churches at their disposal, the Circuit Riders visited the settlers in their homes and held services for worship and prayer. Space does not permit us to recount the details of their individual efforts, but among the saddle-bag preachers who carried on their work so effectively in this area were the Reverends William Case, Peter Jones, Ezra Adams, James Hacking (a Congregationalist), Robert Corson, William Corson,Thomas Fawcett, Thomas Crawford and David Culp. Revival camp meetings were important features of their mission, and the records tell of as many as 150 converts being brought into the church at one service.
It should be mentioned that among the early preachers who served in Ontario were William and John Ryerson, brothers of the Dr. Egerton Ryerson who established his reputation as an educationalist in Upper Canada.
Methodism developed in eighteenth-century England from the teachings of John Wesley. It is evangelical in nature. Methodism came to the Province with the earliest settlers. The Methodists were quick to send missionaries among the emigrants. It had numerous sects, of which the most prominent are the Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, New Connexion Methodists and the Methodist Episcopal Church. By 1884, these groups had united, and in 1925 the Methodist church merged with the Congregationalists and most of the Presyterians to form the United Church of Canada, which is now the country’s largest protestant church.
The Methodist Church, Canada (1884-1925) was formed by a merger of the Methodist Church of Canada with 3 smaller Methodist bodies…The Wesleyan, the Primitive, and the Methodist New Connection, were amalgamated into one body in 1874, and became the Methodist Church in Canada. The Methodist Episcopal Church which was sponsored by American Bishops until 1832, kept their identity until 1883, when they united with the Methodist Church in Canada.
Membership: At the time of their merger in 1884, the four uniting churches reported as follows: Methodist Church in Canada, 128,644 members; Methodist Episcopal Church in Canada, 25,671 members; Primitive Methodist Church, 8,090 members; Bible Christian Church, 7,398. ”