O'Kelly, James one of the most noted of American Methodist pioneer preachers, and the father of the first schism among them, was born about 1757. He was converted while yet a youth, shortly after joined the Methodists, and was licensed as a local preacher. He began his ministry in an old colonial church in the southern part of Virginia about the middle of the Revolutionary war. One writer, noticing this early work of O'Kelly's, says: "The people flocked to hear him, and great was the work of God under his powerful exhortations and earnest prayers." In 1778 he was admitted into the traveling connection, and he soon took a prominent position among the Methodist preachers of Virginia. He was a warm-hearted Christian and a zealous preacher he would rise at midnight and pour out his soul in prayer, crying, "Give me children, or I die." He was ordained elder at the organization of the Church in. 1784. For several years afterwards he filled high stations in the Church-acting as elder at the head of the South Virginia District: there he was useful, and had much influence. One of O'Kelly's contemporaries describes him as "laborious in the ministry, a man of zeal and usefulness, an advocate for holiness, given to prayer and fasting, an able defender of the Methodist doctrine and faith, and hard against negro slavery in private and from the press and pulpit." He was a member of the first council that met in 1789. In 1790 he addressed a letter to Mr. Asbury, with whom he had been acquainted since 1780, complaining of his power, and bidding him half if his episcopal career for one year, lest he should have to use his influence against him. As this appeal was ignored, Mr. O'Kelly moved in the Conference of 1791, "That if any preacher felt himself aggrieved or oppressed by the appointment made by the bishop he should have the privilege of appealing to the Conference, which should consider and finally determine the matter." This resolution was lost. Thereupon O'Kelly, and a few who thought like him, withdrew from the Conference. Efforts were at once made to conciliate them: a committee was appointed to wait on O'Kelly and his party, and if possible induce them to resume their seats, but the effort utterly failed. Even Dr. Coke's personal appeal was powerless. The General Conference closed Nov. 14, 1792, and on the 26th of that month Asbury presided at the Virginia Conference. The question was raised whether O'Kelly and his adherents of the ministry were to be continued in the Connection. Mr. Asbury at once pleaded for their retention, and even proposed that the Conference pay Mr. O'Kelly £40. For a while this money was accordingly paid, but O'Kelly, finding that the Conference was not disposed to take much notice of his schemes, refused any longer to receive this pay, and thus broke the last link that bound him to Methodism. O'Kelly now sought to impress his views on the Methodists of Virginia, but he was firmly opposed by Nicholson, Leroy, Cole, and M'Kendree, the latter, although at first inclined towards O'Kelly, having now become fully satisfied that the exceptions to Asbury's administration were utterly groundless. They met O'Kelly in public discussion, and saved the Church in Portsmouth from a violent rupture. In the section where he had so long labored he was more successful in his bad work. Some societies were entirely led away by his specious plans; a few traveling and a large number of local preachers followed him, and the O'Kelly schism became a fact in the history of Methodism. At the Conference of 1793 the names of James O'Kelly, Rice Haggard, John Allen, and John Robertson were entered as formally withdrawn from the Connection.
O'Kelly and Haggard, assisted by disaffected local preachers, at once began the work of organizing a new and pure Church, free from all such evils as they fancied had corrupted Methodism. Allen settled, and soon after, entering upon the practice of medicine, gave up preaching altogether. Robertson remained local, and after some years became the head of a subordinate schism in the O'Kelly ranks. The Republican Methodists was the title chosen for the new Church. The leaders proceeded to hold conferences and other meetings for the purpose of deciding upon some settled plan of operations. They formed many rules, but upon trial found them extremely defective when compared with those they had abandoned. At length they renounced all rules of Church government, and took the New Testament as their guide. They agreed that all the plans and regulations made at their conferences should be merely advisory. The name for their Church was suggested by the political complexion of the times. Republican principles prevailed in Virginia, and there was something to be gained by a Church bearing the imposing and popular name, "Republican Methodists." One of their first measures was to enact a leveling law. All the preachers were to stand on an equal footing. There were to be no grades in the ministry. They endeavored to swell their numbers by promising the laity much larger liberty than they enjoyed in the old Church. The leaders warred zealously, and not without success. In some places they carried off entire societies; in others they wrought ruinotis divisions. A few preachinghouses were seized by them, and the rightful owners turned out of doors; from others the Methodists retired in order to avoid strife. The seceders are even accused of having said all manner of evil against the Methodist Church. They certainly censured the preachers severely. Asbury was the object of their peculiar displeasure. They took special pains to impeach his character in every possible way before the public. The name of bishop they professed to regard with holy horror. They insisted that bishop and elder had the same signification in Scripture; yet they received the one and rejected the other. "The spirit of division," says Bennett, "prevailed chiefly in the southern counties of the state, and in the border counties of North Carolina. In all this region the influence of O'Kelly was very great, and he scrupled not to use it to the, utmost of his ability in building up his own cause. Although his success-in gaining proselytes from the ranks of Methodism was far less than he anticipated, yet the history of this painful schism is full of sad memorials: families were rent asunder, brother was opposed to brother, parents and children, were arrayed against each other, warm friends became open enemies, and the claims of Christian love were forgotten in the hot disputes about Church government. The means of grace were neglected, piety declined, religion was wounded in the house of her friends, and the enemies of Christ exulted over many who had fallen away from faith." "It was enough," says Jesse Lee, "to make. the saints of God weep between the porch and the altar, and that both day and night, to see how the Lord's flock was carried away captive by that division." The conjectures for O'Kelly's secession are very varied. Some writers of his own time and since believe that his ambition craved position — beside the noble Asbury, and that when shut out from the episcopal cabinet, he determined to build up a Church of his own, where, though but a simple presbyter, he could yet rule as chief. It is said that an English lawyer, a man of infidel principles, who, strange to say, admired the Methodist Church, and witnessed with many regrets the O'Kelly schism, advised Jesse Lee and many other leading ministers to make O'Kelly a bishop; "for," said he, "if you will let him share the dreaded power with Asbury, he will no longer fear it." The history of O'Kelly's movement shows that the lawyer was nearer right than wrong. Besides this, we learn from certain records that O'Kelly held heterodox views. "He denied," says Dr. Lee, "the distinct personality of the Holy Trinity. He affirmed that, instead of distinct persons in the Godhead, the terms Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were only intended to represent three offices in one glorious and eternal Being;" It was a favorite expression of his, as we learn from a living contemporary, that "God was Father from eternity, Redeemer in time, and Sanctifier for evermore." Of the truth of this charge there is proof in the proceedings of the Greenbrier Conference. He had raised doubts of the personality of the Trinity in the minds of two preachers from his district who were present at the Conference, and they only renounced their heretical opinions when their brethren confronted them with overwhelrning scriptural evidence of the true doctrine. This was in May, six months before the meeting of the General Conference of 1792. We may well believe that a man so bold as O'Kelly would not hesitate to give expression to his doctrinal views, and there is little doubt that many were led astray from the truth in the large district over which he presided so long. The influence of O'Kelly was used against Asbury with a success that should have satisfied any man who had not determined to rule or ruin the Church. The council was O'Kelly's favorite hobby; he kept before the preachers and people the great evil of the council; magnified the power of Asbury as a bishop Until many were impressed with the belief that a great, overshadowing ecclesiastical tyranny was growing up in the Methodist Church. During his travels in Virginia in the summer of 1790 Asbury saw the sad effects of O'Kelly's influence; and when he reached the Leesburg Conference in August of that year he showed a noble disinterestedness as pleasing as it is rare. He says: "To conciliate the minds of our brethren in the South District of Virginia who are restless about the council, I wrote their leader a letter informing him that I would take my seat in the council as another member, and in that point at least waive the claims of episcopacy; yea, I would lie down and be trodden upon rather than knowingly injure one soul." Not long after his withdrawal from the Church O'Kelly issued a pamphlet in which he gave his reasons for protesting against the "Methodist Episcopal government." This production was chiefly remarkable for its perversion of the plainest historical facts of Methodism, the misrepresentation of its economy, and an unbounded abuse of Asbury. His strictures on the government of the Church, as well as his defamation of Asbury, demanded a reply. Asbury himself collected ample materials for this purpose, and submitted them to the conferences for their action. The papers were accepted, and a committee appointed to prepare them for publication. Nicholas Snethen, on behalf of the committee, published a work in which he "not only vindicated Methodism, but placed the pretended facts and groundless assertions of O'Kelly in a position so variant from truth as to leave the character of their author in more need of an apology than was the mere fact of his ceasing to be a Methodist." O'Kelly came forward in another small pamphlet, entitled A Vindication of an Apology. This was promptly met by Snethen in An Answer to James O'Kelly's Vindication of his Apology. The readiness with which O'Kelly's charges were met, and the ability with which they were refuted, gave a decided check to his revolutionary measures. He proceeded, however, with the formal organization of the Republican Methodist Church. He scrupled not to ordain such preachers as consented to receive ordination at his hands, although he denounced Methodist ordination, in the line of which he himself stood, as a "spurious episcopacy." The success of the separatists in making proselytes was far below their expectations. By a careful comparison of the returns from the large circuits in O'Kelly's old district, and wchere he wielded the greatest influence, we find that from 1792 to 1795, when the schism was at its height, the largest decrease in any one circuit was only a little over two hundred, while in two circuits lying in the very field of strife there was a gain of nearly four hundred. It is true that the returns from all the Virginia circuits in 1794 show a decrease of two thousand members; but there were probably other causes for this besides this schismatic movement.
In 1801 O'Kelly changed the name of his party. Renouncing their original title, he issued a pamphlet in which he announced himself and his adherents as The Christian Church. Some of his societies readily assumed the high- sounding name, others hesitated, a few protested, and divisions speedily followed. The more modest among them shrunk from an appellation that declared all men heretics except themselves. Divisions and subdivisions became the order of the day. One party clung to O'Kelly as the Christian Church; another followed John Robertson as Republican Methodists; and yet another, under the lead of William Guirey and others, set up for themselves under the title of "The Independent Christian Baptist Church." These different parties continued to maintain a sickly existence for some years; but their numbers and influence gradually diminished. The decline continued until there could be found no organization worthy to be called a Church, but only fragments of societies scattered over the country. almost equally powerless against the Church they had left, and against the wickedness by which they were surrounded.
It is not difficult to discover the causes that produced the failure of O'Kelly's plans. The most potent was the heresy which his system contained. . This was the taint that corrupted the whole scheme. His Unitarian errors allowed no Savior to be offered to the people; and destitute of this vital and central force, his Church was soulless and its name a mockery. But the motives of the leaders seem to have been devoid of purity, as their system was of saving truth. "If the real cause of this division were known," says Asbury," I think it would appear that one wanted to be immovably fixed in a district; another wanted money; a third wanted ordination; a fourth wanted liberty to do as he pleased about slaves, and not to be called to account." The fierceness of their attacks on Asbury contributed to their ruin. Their swords, raised to strike him down, pierced their own hearts, and their violent dealings came down on their own heads. Their wrath against him knew no bounds. In one of their ephemeral pamphlets he was called the "Baltimore Bull," and a rude picture of a bull's head graced the title-page. They proclaimed him an enemy to the country, and charged him with laying up money to carry with him to England. Such injustice could not fail to have a speedy and powerful reaction; and as the light shone more brilliantly on the path of Asbury, the darkness grew deeper on that of his traducers. Many who had been drawn off in a moment of excitement, after calming down and re-examining the points in controversy, returned to the Church. Although Asbury spared no pains to expose O'Kelly's errors and to thwart his plans, yet he kept his heart right towards him, and when occasion offered treated him with Christian courtesy. The first and last meeting after the rupture took place at Winchester. Hearing that his former friend was lying ill, Asbury sent two brethren to say that he would wait on him, if he desired it. They "met in peace, asked of each other's welfare, talked of persons and things indifferently, prayed, and parted in peace. Not a word was said of the troubles of former times." This, as far as we know, was their last interview on earth. O'Kelly lived to an extreme old age, the sad spectator of the failure of his cherished schemes. He saw the man whom he had sought to ruin descend to his grave in peace and full of honors, mourned by grateful thousands as the father of American Methodism. He saw Asbury's place filled and his principles defended by another whom he had fondly marked for a leader in his own ranks, He saw hundreds of his own followers forsaking him, and rallying again to the standard of Methodism. He saw those who remained scattered and broken into contending factions. But in the face. of all these facts the stern old man clung to his cause with a heroism worthy of a better fate, and with faltering voice and failing strength proclaimed his confidence in its ultimate success. In 1805 Asbury, passing through Virginia, writes of O'Kelly as "coming down with great zeal, preaching three hours at a time on government, monarchy, episcopacy, occasionally varying the subject with abuse of the Methodists." Hope did not desert him even "in age and feebleness extreme." We are assured by one of his followers that he" went down to the grave satisfied with the past, and peaceful and trusting with respect to the future." His stormy and eventful life closed Oct. 16, 1826. Dr. Stevens says, "O'Kelly was an Irishman of fiery temperament, and, as usual with such temperaments, his conscience was weak, easily swayed by his prejudices; weak to yield to them, though strong to defend them." Of the O'Kelly schismatics, Lee, their historian, writing in 1806, says: "They have been divided and subdivided till at present it is hard to find two of them that are of one opinion. There are now but few of them in that part of Virginia where they were formerly the most numerous, and in most places they are declining." See Stevens, Hist. Methodist Episcopal Church, 3:16-37; Lednum Rise of Methodism in America, ch. 33; Bennett, Memeorials of Methodism in Virginia (Richmond, 1871, 12mo), ch. 9.