Discovery, promise at Strawbridge birthplace
BY MELISSA LAUBER
Two-hundred fifty years ago, Methodist pioneer Robert Strawbridge came from Drumsna, Ireland, to explore what God had in store for him in the New World. This August, a small group of Methodists reversed his journey, traveling from Maryland to Drumsna, discovering what God had in store for them amid the past.
This summer’s journey was part of a Celtic spirituality tour, conducted by the Rev. Art Thomas and Anne Seville, for students at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in Baltimore. Their itinerary led them into sites from the 5th century, when a new flavor of Christianity was being born amid the high crosses in “the land of saints of scholars.” But Thomas couldn’t resist a detour into the 1800s, when John Wesley’s holiness movement captured the imagination of a young maverick named Strawbridge.
Thomas’ enthusiasm for Strawbridge stemmed, in part, from leading the restoration efforts of the John Evans House at the Strawbridge Shrine in New Windsor. Evans was the first convert to Methodism in America, brought to Christ by Strawbridge’s wife, Elizabeth, in her kitchen. Thomas served as curator, furnishing the historic home to tell the story of America’s first class meeting and of the lifestyle of the early Methodists.
On the bus ride through the green of the Irish landscape, Thomas told the group, which included several United Methodists, about the life of Strawbridge, highlighting Strawbridge’s firsts. They were many, but chief among them was recorded in the journals of Methodism’s first bishop Francis Asbury: Strawbridge, in about 1760, “formed the first Society in Maryland and America.”
With Strawbridge the church in America was born. It seemed only fitting to Thomas to celebrate its 250th anniversary with a visit to Drumsna.
On a country lane, where Strawbridge, and later author Anthony Trollope, once strolled, the group walked to the site where Strawbridge was born in 1732. A modern house now stands there, but behind it is a breathtaking view of what historians have called “the serpentine windings of the noble Shannon” River and the surrounding loveliness of the Leitrim mountains.
Gifts were exchanged, small speeches made and tea was served in porcelain cups. In the afternoon, the group traveled to the St. Patrick Center in Downpatrick.
The Rev. Ed Grove, of the Mt. Wesley-Greensburg Charge, recalled how Patrick, a bishop, visited Ireland in the 400s, creating a model of evangelism that feels relevant today. According to Grove, the fall of the Roman Empire left Ireland outside of the influence of the early church. Patrick, as a missionary, set up camp with his men near established settlements. His band would worship, perform healing and live among the people, letting their lives speak God’s story. People were persuaded.
An interesting brand of faith – Celtic Christianity – evolved in the years from 500 to 800 and beyond. It sprang from the soul of the Irish people. The dualism of the Greek and Roman world never fully caught on, instead, there were few boundaries between heaven and earth. God was present in the earthly tasks of life, from tending of a hearth fire to the planting of the field.
In Celtic Christianity, God was not transcendent, rather God was immanent, breaking into the lives of people in ordinary, spectacular, and also mundane ways. Prayer was woven into every action, faith was practical rather than doctrinal and the people, revered the natural world as God’s creation.
Living among the culture and letting God’s presence among us evolve in unexpected ways is a powerful model for many in today’s church, said Grove.
In some small way, this same spirit existed in Robert Strawbridge, who eschewed the hierarchy and trappings of the church and wandered the countryside on horseback sharing his Good News.
In Drumsna, the visiting group heard from Barry Guckian, a Strawbridge interpreter.
Guckian had learned about Strawbridge when the United Methodists erected a statue in his honor in Drumsna, a replica of the stone at Mt. Olivet cemetery in Baltimore.
His portrayal of Strawbridge, in 2007, won Drumnsa a national “Pride of Place,” award. “In all the country, we are most proud of our town,” his mother explained.
On this 250th anniversary of Methodism in America, it might also do for United Methodists to show just a little pride – of place, of heritage and of the possibilities God provides.
To learn more about Robert Strawbridge and view a small group discussion guide on his life and ministry, visit http://www.strawbridgeshrine.org/journey.html