The circuit rider Jesse Lee was an apostle for Methodism across a young America. His humble and bold faith offers many lessons for today’s church.
Watch, therefore, and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. ~ Mark 13:33
On June 17th, 1789, a man knocked at the door of a house in Norwalk, Connecticut. The Rev. Jesse Lee had just been appointed to the New England circuit by early Methodists at their conference in New York City. He had written to a man in Norwalk to see if he would be willing to let him preach at his home. The man was not there, and his wife said that she wouldn’t let him preach there.
Undaunted, Lee kept looking for a place to deliver God’s word, and settled on the shade of a tree overhanging an intersection near the Boston Post Road at the outskirts of Norwalk’s growing settlements. It wasn’t much of a spot – but it was good enough to get him started. He drew a crowd, delivered his sermon, and invited people to meet with him afterwards.
This was the start of Methodism in New England. Preachers such as George Whitefield and Charles Wesley had breezed through New England briefly years earlier, but Jesse Lee’s mission was apostolic – he was called to be sent, called to plant new Methodist societies wherever he could in New England.
To be an apostle for Methodism in New England back then was a huge challenge – the “established” churches of New England’s towns and villages were funded by local taxes, and so outsiders with different beliefs and goals weren’t welcome. In one place, Lee’s effigy was hung from a noose, a strong message for someone offering gentle, Godly words.
But apostles don’t give up. Apostles keep going. Apostles buck the odds, shake the dust from their feet, as Jesus suggested when God’s word is not received well, and move on to the next spot. Apostles keep trying to reach people, accepting that sometimes people’s hearts are cold, but that God has a way of opening many hearts when they are ready. Apostles keep seeking out the opportunity to plant God’s word firmly in a chosen few, who, in turn, become sowers themselves.
“The Apostle of New England” – and beyond
Jesse Lee is called often the “apostle of New England,” and with good reason. in his first ride through New England, Lee managed to inspire only 100 people in Connecticut and Massachusetts to join Methodist societies, but those were strong seeds that took root. Many of the Methodist societies that Lee founded and supported between Maine and South Carolina are still churches today – including First United Methodist Church Middletown, the church that I support today as a Seminarian Associate.
How did Jesse Lee do this? I often wondered what Lee did to move people so much to a life of faith. Churches had been in New England for nearly two centuries before Lee showed up, and their brand of Christianity was not bad, but it had left many people with a dim and distant view of how God touched their everyday lives.
Lee brought Christ into people’s hearts. When he was in prison for refusing to bear a musket during the War of Independence (but willing to serve nevertheless), his preaching from his jail cell brought the soldiers outside to tears, so much so that he was allowed to preach to them outside soon thereafter. Lee would go on after his career as a circuit rider to serve as the chaplain to the U.S. Congress, and was a well appreciated patriot.
What did Jesse Lee actually say?
But what did Jesse Lee actually say to people? I decided to read up on Jesse Lee, first for my own interest, and then for a paper that I wrote this semester. We know very little about Jesse Lee’s actual words. His journals were destroyed in an archive fire in 1836 before they could be published, and only a few extracts appear in a biography that was published before then. Like many circuit riders, Lee would note in his journal the Bible passage that he spoke about in a sermon, but left no account of the sermon itself. It seemed like I would never learn what Lee actually said.
But then, I found something quite remarkable. I was searching through an online library catalog, and found a reference to a sermon that he had preached in the tiny farming village of Saint Johnstown, Delaware, on November 18th, 1783. It was only available as a scanned electronic image of the original published sermon. I ordered up a copy, and excitedly opened up the file that arrived in an email. The front page of the scan was stamped, “BEST COPY AVAILABLE” – meaning, “Sorry, we know that this isn’t a very good copy.” The letters were very blurry, and, sometimes, completely missing.
The sermon was entitled, “Practical Piety: The substance of a Sermon Preached at a Watch-Night.” If you are patient, you can try reading it here. A watch-night is a time of extended hymn-singing, prayer, preaching, and reflection, often lasting well into an evening. In Jesse Lee’s time, watch-nights were held fairly regularly, and are the root of many of today’s alcohol-free New Year’s Eve celebrations and church services. That night was not a typical time for a watch-night, so Lee was determined to reach people, no matter what.
Lee wrote down the sermon at the request of someone who had heard him speak, and many years later, near the end of his life, he decided to publish it. His scripture reference for the evening was Mark 13:33: “Watch, therefore, and pray.” Lee’s words were simple, and filled with scripture references at first, encouraging his listeners to be diligent in watching what they do and say, so they could be living a holy life even before they met Christ in heaven.
At the end of his sermon, though, his tone changes, as he lets people know how many people in America had to wait many months to hear the word of God from a preacher like Lee. How often would these people in Saint Johnstown be moved by the humble love of God that Lee shared with them? It was up to them, the ones who Lee touched, to touch one another with God’s living word. You can practically hear the tears flowing through Lee’s sermon at this point.
Apostleship of the Heart
And so it was that Methodism was born in America. Circuit riders like Lee brought the gospel of a living God to people’s hearts, and inspired them to live today as if they were both in heaven and on earth, like Jesus Christ himself. He didn’t do it with flash, big PR campaigns, or much of anything except a willingness to preach and to lead small groups of people person-to-person into a living faith. From those groups, known as “classes,” faith-filled communities sprung up, fed by the visits of circuit riders; many became preachers, exhorters, and circuit riders themselves.
Many of the Methodist traditions that inspired Lee’s ministries live on in today’s United Methodist Church, but some of those traditions are honored in words more than deeds. Where are the apostles of today’s Methodism? Where are the people who, like Lee, are willing and supported in taking God’s living faith on road trips to places where it needs to be heard and experienced? How much, in our fear of being “too Christian” or “Evangelical,” do we miss opportunities to simply stand up for Jesus, and sit down with people who need to experience Jesus?
Jesse Lee’s experiences in New England are, in many ways, not so different than today’s New England. There is the same stony soil of faith, the same doubts, the same commitment to a notion of faith that is about an established place in a community, rather than making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Recently, I went down to Norwalk to take a look at a plaque very close to where Jesse Lee delivered his first sermon in New England. I knew the place well, and it really doesn’t look all that different from what it was like in his times. It’s kind of a forgotten place. A place in which only an apostle would dare to plant the seeds of faith. I spoke a brief sermon on Lee’s behalf.
A place to start.
Let’s mount up, apostles. We’ve got some circuits to build. We’re called to be sent. Amen.