Lee, Jesse

Lee, Jesse one of the most eminent preachers in the early history of the American Methodist Church, and recognized as the founder of Methodism in New England was born in Prince George's County, Virginia, March 12,1758. He received a fair education, was diligently instructed in the Prayer-book and Catechism, and early acquired skill in vocal music, which served him in all his subsequent labors. His early life was moral. "I believe I never did anything in my youth that the people generally call wicked," is the record in his journal. His father was led to a more serious mode of life than prevailed generally in that community chiefly by the influence of Mr. Jarratt, an Episcopal clergyman. Jesse's parents, however, finally, in 1773, joined the Methodist Society then formed under Robert Williams, one of Wesley's preachers, the promoter of Methodism in those parts. In this very year Jesse experienced in a marked manner the sense of pardoned sin, and continued to benefit by the powerful revival influences which for some years prevailed in the neighborhood. In 1776 he experienced a state of grace which he called "perfect love." "At length I could say, 'I have nothing but the love of Christ in my heart,' "is his record. In 1777 he removed from his home into the bounds of Roanoke Circuit, North Carolina. where the next year he was appointed a class-leader. He preached his first sermon November 17, 1779, and for a time supplied the preacher's place. In the summer of 1780 he was drafted into the militia to meet the approach of the British army in South Carolina. Excused from bearing arms on account of his religious scruples, he rendered various other services, especially by' preaching. Soon obtaining a discharge, he was earnestly solicited to enter the itinerant inistry, but shrank from the responsibility, "fearing lest he should injure the work of God." At the tenth Conference, held at Ellis Meeting-house, Sussex County, Virginia, April 17,1782, Lee was deeply impressed with "the union and brotherly love" prevalent among the preachers, notwithstanding the warm difference that had of late existed among the Methodist preachers on the subject of the administration of the sacraments, and at a quarterly meeting in November he was prevailed upon to take charge, together with Mr. Dromgoole, of a circuit near Eldenton, North Carolina — the Amelia Circuit. At the Ellis Meeting-house Conference, May 6,1783, he was received on trial. 'This year he preached with marked success. He writes, "I preached at Mr. Spain's with great liberty . . . the Spirit; of the Lord came upon us, and we were bathed in tears." "I preached at Howel's Chapel from Eze 33:11 . . . I saw so clearly that the Lord was willing to bless the people, even while I was speaking, that I began to feel distressed for them. . . . After stopping and weeping for some time, I began again, but had spoken but a little while before the cries of the people overcame me, and I wept with them so that I could not speak. I found that love had tears as well as grief." Under appointment of the Conference, which began at Ellis Preaching-house, Virginia, April 30, 1784, and ended at Baltimore May 28 following (see minute for that year), he labored in different circuits with like success, and was now regarded as an important mane in the connection. December 12 he was invited to meet Coke. Whatcoat, and Vasey at the celebrated Christmas Conference of 1784 at IBaltimore, where, with the aid of these persons, ordained (and sent out for the purpose by in r. Wesley, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized. Lee could not attend the Conference from his distant circuit on so short a notice and at that season of the year, but was immediately after requested by bishop Asbury to travel with him in a Southern tour. This was an important event for Lee. He preached with the bishop at (Gorgetown and Charleston. At Cheraw he met with a merchant who gave him such information of New England as awakened in him an eager desire to transfer his field of labor to that region. At the Southern Conference, held in North Carolina April 20, 1785, Lee, in ardent controversy with Coke, who was still in the country. sought the abrogation of certansin strigent rules on slavery adopted in 17 84, which required of each member of the society the gradual emancipation of his slaves. His views soon prevailed. He preached, 1786, in Kent Circuit, Maryland; 1787, in Baltimore; 1788, in Flanders Circuit, embracing a portion of New Jersey and New York. Previously to the General Conference of 1796 there were no prescribed limits to the several conferences, but they were held at the discretion of the bishop as to time and place, the same preacher being sometimes appointed from different Conferences in the same year. At the Conference held in New York, May 28, 1789, Lee was appointed to Stamford Circuit, in Connecticut, and now began his career in New England, which continued for eleven years. New England, from the natural temperament of its inhabitants, and their previous theological education, was a hard field for the introduction of Methodism, into which though spread into all the other Atlantic States, far into the West, to Canada and Nova Scotia — it had not hitherto ventured with a set purpose of permanent occupancy. The dearth of earnest religious interest which succeeded the revivals under Edwards, Whitefield, and Tennant, as well as the prevalent reactionary tendency to rationalism, furnished sufficient demand for the zealous preaching of the Methodists. They felt themselves called also to a special mission in upholding their form of doctrine concerning entire sanctification in this life; but their views on the subject offree will were greatly misunderstood, the Methodist Arminianism being confounded with Pelagianism. "The argument," says John Edwards, "most constantly used against Arminianism in those days was its tendency to prepare the way for Popery" (as being a doctrine of salvation by good works). The dominant theology, therefore, gave the Methodist preachers but a cold reception. Lee preached at Norwalk first in the street, but was subsequently allowed, both in this and other places, the use of the courthouse, and sometimes of the meeting- house. Thomas Ware, who heard Lee about this time, writes, "When he stood up in the open air and began to sing, I knew not what it meant. I drew near, however, to listen, and thought the prayer was the best I had ever heard...When he entered upon the subject-matter of his text, it was with such an easy, natural flow of expression, and in such a tone of voice, that I could not refrain from weeping, and many others were affected in the same way. When he was done, and we had an opportunity of expressing our views to each other, it was agreed that such a man had not visited New England since the days of Whitefield." At Stratfield he formed the first class, consisting of three women, September 26, 1787. At Reading, December 28, he formed another class of two. 'Thus, at the end of seven months' labor, he had secured five members in society. But the spirit with which he labored appears in his journal as follows: "I love to break up new ground, and hunt the lost souls in New England, though it is hard work; but when Christ is with me, hard things are made easy, and rough ways made smooth." After preaching to a large congregation on one occasion, he was, as usual, left to find shelter where he could, and, as he records, rode through storm, "my soul transplanted with joy, the snow falling, the wind blowing, prayer ascending, faith increasing, grace descending, heaven smiling, and love abounding." In February, 1790, he received three helpers, Brush, Roberts, and Smith, and formed the New Haven Circuit. He passed through Rhode Island, and appeared in Boston July 9. Boardmas and Garrettson had before preached there, but no permanent fruit remained of their labors. Lee, finding no house opened, preached on the Common to 3000 hearers. Though Lee often returned to the city, no society was formed there till July 13,1792. He had better success elsewhere, and constantly labored throughout New England in supervision of the work, till the General Conference of 1796. Soon after this date he began to travel at large with bishop Asbury, as his authorized assistant in preaching and in holding Conferences. Thus employed, he revisited the scenes of his former labors in the South, and traveled also through New England. The period of his labors in that section closed in 1800. It had continued for eleven years, amid great difficulties, frequent theological controversies, and no small degree of persecution. The statistical result at this date was 50 preachers and 6000 members. At the General Conference held May 6, 1800, at Baltimore, Lee was nearly elected a bishop, Whatcoat being chosen over him by four votes. The subsequent portion of his life was spent mostly in the South, in earnest and successful labor as pastor and presiding elder. He preferred, says his biographer, the former position. At the Virginia Conference of 1807 his influence defeated, from an opinion of its unconstitutionality, the proposition to call an extraordinary General Conference, in order to elect a bishop in place of bishop Whatcoat, deceased. He had, for like reason, opposed his own ordination as assistant bishop in 1796. In the Virginia Conference of 1808 he advocated a petition to the following General Conference of May 20, 1808, to establish a delegated General Conference. This proposition had been urged by Lee as early as 1792. Such action was taken by the Conference of 1808, and the powers of the General Conference, as the supreme authority of the Church, were defined in what are termed the Restrictive Rules. In the same year Lee made a last visit and journey throughout New England, which was "an humble but exultant religious ovation." In the summer of 1807 he published at Baltimore his History of Methodism in America, which was the first work of the kind. During that year he served the House of Representatives at Washington as chaplain, as he did also in 1812 and 1813. In 1814 he was chaplain of the Senate. At the General Conference of 1812, in New York, Lee strongly advocated, as he had previously done, the proposition to make the office of presiding elder elective. He opposed with equal zeal the principle of advancing local preachers to elders' orders. He continued his faithful career as circuit preacher and as chaplain to Congress till 1816. He was present at the funeral services of his veteran colaborer, bishop Asbury, held by the General Conference of 1816 at Baltimore, and did not long survive himself, but died at the age of fifty-eight, Sept. 12, 1816. Dr. Stevens closes his history of the Methodist Episcopal Church with the following characterization of Jesse Lee; "A man of vigorous, though unpolished mind, of rare popular eloquence and tireless energy, an itinerant evangelist from the British Provinces to Florida for thirty-five years, a chief counsellor of the Church in its annual and general conferences,"" founder of Methodism in New England . . . he lacked only the episcopal office to give him rank with Asbury and Coke. Asbury early chose him for the position of bishop. Some two or three times it seemed likely that he would be elected to it, but his manly independence and firmness of opinion in times of party strife were made the occasion of his defeat." "In public services he may fairly be ranked next to Asbury, and as founder and apostle of Eastern Methodism he is above any other official rank. In this respect his historic honor is quite unique; for, though individual men have in several other sections initiated the denomination, no other founder has, so completely as he, introduced, conducted, and concluded his work, and from no other one man's similar work have proceeded equal advantages to American Methodism" (4:510. 511). The same author, in another place, thus presents his qualities as a preacher: "Pathos was natural to him. Humor seems, in some temperaments, to be the natural counterpart, or, at least, reaction of pathos. Lee became noted for his wit; we shall see it serving him with a felicitous advantage in his encounters with opponents, especially in the Northeastern States. It flowed in a genial and permanent stream from his large heart, and played most vividly in his severest itinerant hardships; but he was full of tender humanity and affectionate piety. His rich sensibilities, rather than any remarkable intellectual powers, made him one of the most eloquent and popular preachers of his day. One of his fellow-laborers, a man of excellent judgment, says that he possessed uncommon colloquial powers and a fascinating address; that his readiness at repartee was scarcely equaled, and by the skillful use of this talent he often taught those who were disposed to be witty at his expense that the safest way to deal with him was to be civil. He was fired with missionary zeal, and, moreover, was a man of great moral courage" (1:413). "It was a kind of fixed principle with him," says his biographer Lee (p. 350), "never to let a congregation go from his preaching entirely unaffected. He would excite them in some way. He would make them weep if he could. If he failed in this, he would essay to alarm them with deep and solemn warning of words and manner; and, if all failed, he would shake their sides with some pertinent illustration or anecdote, and then. having moved them, seek, by all the appliances of truth, earnestness, and affection, to guide their stirred-up thoughts and sympathies to the fountains of living waters." — See Life and Times of Jesse Lee, by Leroy M. Lee (Richmond, Va., 1848); Stevens, History of the M. A. Church; Memoirs of Rev. T. Ware. (E. B. O.)

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