“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree” – that all 81 Methodist preachers should ride to Baltimore for a Christmas Conference. . .
The year was 1784, when the Rev. Thomas Coke met with Francis Asbury at Barratt’s Chapel near Dover, Del., to relay John Wesley’s plan to start a new denomination – the Methodist Evangelical Church. They would meet in six weeks’ time, on Dec. 24 in Baltimore, to create the new Church.
This year, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling will step into history in the pulpit of Barratt’s Chapel to share a Christmas sermon. Her message will be available on the Peninsula-Delaware and Baltimore-Washington Conference websites and is on YouTube for individuals and congregations to view and share. See the video.
“One of the wonders of being able to draw upon our history as we observe this sacred season, is that we are given the gift of memory and perspective,” said Bishop Easterling. “Rather than embracing a sugar-coated season, we know from our ancestors – recent and ancient – that hurts, hardships, and heartbreak don’t cease because a certain date appears on the calendar. Rather, Christmas can make us feel even more vulnerable. In this sacred space and time, I give thanks that God is with each of us in our vulnerability, our joy, our doubt and our challenges.”
Built in 1780, on land donated by Philip Barratt, Barratt’s Chapel is the oldest surviving church building in the United States built for and by Methodists. Coke came to the church on Sunday, Nov. 14, and was preaching when Asbury walked into the church. Coke left the pulpit to embrace him, and, today, a star in the floor of the Chapel commemorates their meeting.
On the Barratt Chapel website, it’s reported that during this service, the sacraments of baptism and Communion were administered for the first time by ordained Methodist clergy. The Rev. (later Bishop) Richard Whatcoat was ordained as a Methodist by Wesley and Coke and officiated during the sacraments.
Phillip Barratt, 55, had died just two weeks before this meeting. However, his widow, Miriam Sipple, invited Coke, Asbury, and 12 other preachers to dinner at her home, which was nearby. It was in an upstairs bedroom in her house where Coke and Asbury planned the meeting at which Asbury would be ordained and made a bishop and the denomination would be organized.
Coke remembered that day in his journal. “Sunday, November 14, 1784. About ten o'clock we arrived at Barret's-chapel [sic].... In this chapel, in the midst of a forest, I had a noble congregation.... After the sermon, a plain robust man came up to me in the pulpit, and kissed me: I thought it could be no other than Mr. Asbury, and I was not deceived.... After dining, in company with eleven of our preachers, at our sister Barret's, about a mile from the chapel; Mr. Asbury and I had a private conversation concerning the future management of our affairs in America...."
Following that meeting, Freeborn Garrettson was sent, in Coke’s words, “like an arrow” riding about 1,200 miles as he called the preachers to Lovely Lane Chapel in Baltimore. More than 60 responded and meet at the Christmas Conference, where, over 10 days, they established a Discipline, a Book of Worship, ordained preachers and ordained Asbury as a Deacon, Elder and General Superintendent.
While it is now a limited service church, the impact of Barratt’s Chapel still echoes through history.
The Rev. Philip Lawton, the historian of the Peninsula-Delaware Conference, said in a United Methodist Communications story that Barratt intentionally created a major meeting place for the Methodists on the main highway through Delaware. The building seats about 500 people, he said. “When Barratt built it in 1780, there were maybe 1,000 Methodists on all of the Delmarva Peninsula. By building this on the main highway he was really making a statement. He had a vision that the Methodists were going to grow and were going to become something important. It's here that a national movement began."
That movement continues in the lives of United Methodists during this Christmas season. “The lesson of the season is Emmanuel – Christ with us – alive in us,” Bishop Easterling said. “We are living in unprecedented times, and I thank God that you are the people God has chosen to pray, to witness, and to say a holy word to our hurting world. In the midst of everything, you are a beloved child of God, and I give thanks for you.”
Barratt’s Chapel and the nearby Museum of Methodism are open to the individuals and small groups. The museum is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays and by appointment. To make an appointment or to schedule a small group tour or special event, contact the Chapel office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-335-5544. Learn more at https://www.barrattschapel.org/index.html.