Methodism and Methodists
By the Rev. Marcus L. Gray, D. D., Chillicothe

Bishop E. R. Hendrix in "A Hundred Years of Methodism in Missouri," writes:

Just a century ago Nashville, Tennessee, and St. Louis, Missouri, were in the same district and William McKendree was presiding elder. It was the Cumberland district in the Western conference. The Western conference embraced what are now the states of Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, to say nothing of Arkansas and Missouri, which were taken in that year. There were in it five districts, some embracing more than one state. Strong men belonged to the Western conference, which never had a western boundary except the Day of Judgment. The General conference was content with simply naming the eastern, southern and northern boundaries, so as not to interfere with other conference lines, and gave the Western conference all west to the setting sun and everything beyond it, if the itinerant wanted to go there. The Western conference was a name never absent from the annals of Methodism for a long period at a time and even when it disappeared at the last session of our General conference the name still survived by request in the "Western district." Among the honored names on the roll in 1806, when John Travis was appointed to the Missouri circuit, were those of William McKendree, James Axley, Jesse Walker, Peter Cartwright and Learner Blackman.

After a year's work in the territory of Missouri, so recently acquired as part of the famous Louisiana purchase, John Travis reported in the fall of 1807 at the Western conference, which met at Chillicothe, Ohio, that he had organized two circuits, one north of the Missouri River, which he called the Missouri circuit, and one south, that he called the Meramec circuit, and that, together, they numbered one hundred and six members. Travis ever had a warm place in his heart for this, his first work, for he had just been admitted on trial when appointed to it. He returned from his remote appointment in the Mississippi district the next year to attend a camp meeting near St. Louis, in company with William McKendree and Jesse Walker, who walked forty-five miles to reach here. That was a notable company of preachers at the first camp meeting held in Missouri, and where they witnessed forty conversions. McKendree had been an officer in the Revolutionary war and was present at the surrender of Cornwallis, and as the first native-born American bishop, was to become its Chief Justice Marshall as well, the expounder of its constitution. Jesse Walker, who succeeded Travis as preacher in charge of the Missouri circuit, was the Daniel Boone of Methodism, of whom it was said, "He was never lost and never complained," delighting to go where no white man had gone before him, a hero who, in the midst of the dense Romanist conditions of the Spanish and French population, was to pray St. Louis Methodism into existence nearly four, teen years after Travis began his work in the country. It was the privilege of Jesse Walker also to plant Methodism in Chicago. John Travis was a fearless man of vigorous mind who, after nine years of itinerant service, married and located, practicing medicine in Kentucky until some fourteen years before his death, when he became totally blind, still doing service as a local preacher and thrilling all in public and private with the story of his itinerant life.

Not until 1814 was the "Missouri district" formed, with 804 members, and two years later the General conference in Baltimore created the "Missouri conference," bounded on the north by the Ohio conference, on the east by the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, on the south by the Arkansas River, and on the west by nothing. In 1819 the first substantial and finished Methodist church ever erected in Missouri was built in Cape Girardeau County, two miles from Jackson; and here was held the first session of the Missouri conference that was ever held within the present limits of the state. Bishop George presiding.

When Missouri was admitted as a state in 1821, it had a population of 66,518, of whom 10,222 were slaves. The Methodists numbered 1.543. It was not until 1836 that the Missouri conference was confined to the limits of the state. The first General conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, divided the state into two conferences, so that the name "Missouri conference" was given to all that part of the state north of the Missouri river, as today. In the Methodist family there are now nearly 200,000 Missouri Methodists.

One of the principal agents in the planting of Methodism in Missouri, William McKendree, in whose district the whole territory of Missouri was placed at the session of the Western conference, in 1806, lived to preside over some four sessions of the Missouri conference, the last as late as 1824, eight years after the death of Asbury. Bishop Asbury, with a rare sagacity in selecting leaders, had sent McKendree in 1801 across the mountains from his native Virginia to be presiding elder of the Kentucky district and to have a sort of general superintendence of the large Western conference. Always in the van and on the firing line, McKendree was chosen again by Asbury, in 1806, to preside over the new district, which was to embrace all the inhabited part of the Louisiana Purchase, it being attached to the Cumberland district, which included much of middle Tennessee and some of Illinois. McKendree was a man of genius, to whom the conquest of the Mississippi Valley for Christ is largely due, and the numerous "McKendree" churches and chapels, reaching from Missouri to the Atlantic seaboard, are the monuments of his labors in many states that were only territories in his day.

But what shall we say of Francis Asbury, who, like Moses, looked, over into the Promised Land, so recently acquired from France and Spain, but himself never entered it. His heart was ever with his "beloved McKendree" as he fondly called him. At the session of the Western conference, where he presided in 1806, and appointed the first preacher to the Missouri circuit, his journal records with zeal for the frontier work in these simple words: "The brethren were in want, so I parted with my watch, my coat, and my shirt." We naturally ask what he had left out of his $64 a year salary. Who can question that his heart went with his gift?" Silver and gold I have none," well might this apostle say, "but such as I have give I unto thee." We claim Asbury, too, as among the founders of Methodism on this side of the Mississippi. "In diligent activity no apostle, no missionary, no warrior, ever surpassed him. He rivalled Melancthon and Luther in boldness. He combined the enthusiasm of Xavier, with the far-reaching foresight and keen discrimination of Wesley." His mantle fell upon McKendree, who survived him nearly twenty years, but their names are inseparable, as was their work. "My fathers, my fathers, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!"

Honored names are they of minister and laymen who, during the past hundred years, have been connected with Methodism in Missouri. Some have become bishops of the church and educators and editors, and some have been governors and United States senators and members of congress. Others without public office have been the foremost citizens of their counties, always interested in every good word and work. Large gifts have come to our Methodism from those not of our communion in the belief that we would wisely administer them. The largest is a bequest by the late Robert A. Barnes of St. Louis, who married Miss Louise De Mun, a daughter of a leading Roman Catholic family, who was in hearty sympathy with him in his purpose to found a great hospital under Methodist auspices. For this there has already been purchased the finest site in St. Louis, having a frontage of some 1,200 feet on Fort Park, and it is, the intention of the trustees to retain not less than $1,000,000 of the bequest sa an endowment after completing and equipping the best hospital of its kind in the land.


© Missouri American History and Genealogy Project
Created August 16, 2017 by Judy White

Source: History of Northeast Missouri, edited by Walter Williams, Volume I, Lewis Publishing Company, 1913