Wildfire religion: Methodism as a youth movement in post-Revolutionary America

John Patrick Ellis, Purdue University


Between 1780 and 1820, the Methodist Episcopal Church became the largest Protestant body in the United States as it grew from a sect 8,500 members into a denomination of 260,000. Contemporary accounts suggest that most of these converts were young adults. Methodist preachers stressed that young men and women predominated their revivals, and church records indicate the majority of the sect’s itinerant clergy were unmarried men in their twenties and thirties. In the border region stretching from the Upper South to the Ohio Valley frontier, where the Methodist church’s growth was the greatest, these unmarried youths were particularly drawn to this denomination. Because the Methodists entrusted their young men and women with key leadership roles, American Methodism became a youth-driven organization that, unlike modern youth movements, did not isolate young people from adults in an age-specific subculture. As a result, the church offered youths a powerful forum to question the authority of their elders, challenge established hierarchies based on race and gender, and advocate an egalitarian ideology that dovetailed with the democratic principles originating from the American Revolution. The Methodists enabled young people to be self-assertive in a society dominated by wealthy planters and family patriarchs, and they thus weakened the hierarchical foundations of the border region’s traditionally deferential culture. This dissertation consequently explores both why Methodism fostered a radical youth culture in the border region between the sect’s American roots in the 1770s and its growth into a mainstream religion by the 1820s and in what ways this popular religion democratized American society. ^




Frank Lambert, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Religion, History of|History, Church|History, United States

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