The Strawbridge Heritage Landmark: A Methodist treasure
Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge: Pioneers of faith
BY Louis Piel
The importance of the ministry of Robert Strawbridge cannot be overstated.
At the time of the Christmas Conference in 1784 (three years after Strawbridge’s death), there were 15,000 members of Methodist Societies, of which 13,350 were from Maryland. Also, there were 23 chapels in Maryland, 15 in Virginia, nine each in Delaware and North Carolina, five in Pennsylvania, four in New Jersey, and one in New York — 66 in all. All of this is a testimony to the vast extent of Robert Strawbridge’s labors.
Like all of John Wesley’s missionaries to America, Robert Strawbridge was a local preacher. He was independent by nature, a sincere preacher with firmly held convictions and a burning desire to share his faith.
Once he had arrived in American from Ireland in about 1760, in order to follow his divine calling, Robert was quite happy to leave the oversight of the farm in the capable hands of his wife Elizabeth.
John Evans, a farmer who lived within five miles of the Strawbridge farm, came to assist Mrs. Strawbridge in plowing the fields during one of Robert’s absences. During dinner that day, she spoke to Mr. Evans about his spiritual needs and he was converted. So it is Elizabeth Strawbridge who is given credit for the first known American Methodist convert. Later, a son of John Evans reported this event happened in 1764.
There is scant evidence of Strawbridge’s work since he left no Journal or letters as Francis Asbury did. This notwithstanding, his superb abilities as an ambassador of Christ along with his personal charisma, brought quick and substantial results.
In a very short time, he had a house church known as the Methodist Class, the same name used for Wesley’s ecumenical house churches in Britain. This was the “first class of Methodists in America” and it met in the living room of the Strawbridge house. The original members of this first Methodist Class were John Evans; his wife Eleanor Evans; his nephew Job Evans and Mary Evans, his wife; Nancy Murphy; and Mrs. Hoy.
Later Strawbridge formed the “First Society of Methodism in America” which met in the home of John England. In 1768, the “first society” moved to the home of John Evans and continued to meet there until 1809, a considerable time after the death (1781) of Robert Strawbridge.
On a preaching mission in 1781, not far from his home, Strawbridge succumbed to an unspecified illness and died at age 49 on the Wheeler farm near Hunt’s Chapel in Riderwood. An early convert of Robert’s, Richard Owings, preached the funeral sermon, and Robert was buried at the Wheeler farm.
Strawbridge’s ministry of little more than 20 years secured a firm base of Methodist Classes and preaching places for the foundation of Methodism in America. His influence was out of all proportion to his short life.
Our unsung hero and patron saint died three years before the famed Christmas Conference at Lovely Lane Meeting House in 1784 Baltimore where the Methodist Episcopal Church was launched as a new Protestant denomination. At this Conference, Wesley’s envoys, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, were elected superintendents or bishops and continued to carry on the work so faithfully begun by Strawbridge.
The past is prologue
The arrival of Robert & Elizabeth Strawbridge in America cause for celebration. Why?
1. Because of the enormous impact that Robert and Elizabeth had on early American Methodism, not only in Maryland but also in the region.
2. Because it was the site of the first Methodist Class meeting in America.
3. Because the first convert to Christ through Methodism was through Elizabeth Strawbridge.
4. Because it is local, it is within the bounds of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and should be known and visited.
5. Because the Strawbridge House and grounds are a national United Methodist Heritage Landmark of the denomination.
6. Because their faith journey is not just an event in past history but a guide for the church and our faith today.
A day to remember
United Methodist Heritage Day
Saturday, June 19, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
On the Strawbridge Shrine grounds
in New Windsor
The celebration will include musical groups, “In Fellowship,” a contemporary Christian band, the Senior Singers of Carroll County, the Mount Zion Church singers from Annapolis, and liturgical dancers.
The guest speaker is Jane Donovan, adjunct Professor of Religious Studies at West Virginia University, a member of the General Commission on Archives & History, editor of the “Historians Digest” and the author of seven books and many articles about United Methodist history. Foundation (first American born Methodist preacher) in Virginia.
Bring a picnic lunch or purchase lunch on the grounds.
For more information visit the Web site at www.strawbridgeshrine.org or call the curator at 410-635-2600.
Find our more at:
All United Methodists are encouraged to observe their common heritage. How? The first steps are easy.
Vist the Web site: www.strawbridgeshrine.org and read the interesting information on the bio of Robert Strawbridge, BishopJohn Schol’s talk about Robert and Elizabeth Straw bridge at the 2009 annual meeting of the Strawbridge Shrine, or “The Faith Journey of Robert & Elizabeth Strawbridge.”
There are also many resources available at the Visitors Center of the Strawbridge Shrine including books on Robert and Elizabeth and the historic buildings on the site. Share this information with your heritage group, your congregation or study group.
You can also call to Marian Goettee, the tour guide
coordinator at 410-775-0099. There are trained costumed people who will come to your church, or historical group and deliver a first-hand live presentation. There are also worship bulletin flyers available for your church worship bulletin.
Claiming your heritage
Firsts of Robert Strawbridge:
First preacher of Wesleyan Methodism in America • Organized first class meeting in America • Bulit first Methodist meeting house • Performed first Methodist baptism • Conducted the first Methodist communion service • Converted the first American born Methodist local preacher • Established Methodism so strongly in Maryland and Virginia that at the first Methodist annual conference (1773) six hundred of the eleven hundred Methodists in the Thirteen Colonies were from either Maryland Or Virginia
Bringing history to life
The historic Strawbridge Shrine, located just outside of New Windsor in Carroll County, is named after Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge. They were two of early Methodism’s patron saints and indispensable figures in early American Methodism.
Both Robert and Elizabeth had been active in the Wesleyan movement in Ireland and came to America about 1760. They settled on a farm rented from a Quaker, John
England. Robert is credited with establishing the first Methodist class meeting in America.
The Strawbridge Shrine Association was formed on June 18, 1930, to preserve the history and ministry of Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge.
Thirty-two acres were purchased along with the Strawbridge farm house in 1973. In 1940 the Strawbridge House was named one of the first four “shrines” (now referred to as “Heritage Landmarks”) by the then General Commission of the Methodist Church.
The John Evans house which sat in a field on a private farm about five miles distant was moved to the grounds of the Shrine in 1978. In 1982 a replica of the original Log Meeting House, the first preaching place, was built on the grounds by Richard L. Blacksten, a log restorationist.
In 1989 a curator’s house was erected on the grounds. The Asbury Smith Visitors Center is on its lower level. Statues of Robert and Elizabeth have been erected on the grounds. All of the buildings on the grounds have been fully furnished in period furnishings.
Mr. James Wollen, a historical architect, uncovered the logs in the Strawbridge House, dendrochronologist Edward Q. Cook from Columbia University determined the age of the logs, and Kirsti Uunila, a professional archaeologist and a United Methodist, voluntarily organized two teams to do digs during her vacation time.
The Strawbridge House, the Evans House, and the 19th and early 20th century farm buildings (except the barn) have been furnished. All of these projects have been paid for by memberships, gifts, the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the General Commission on Archives & History of the United Methodist Church.
Travel back in time
The historic Strawbridge Shrine has just completed a new 20 minute DVD about the shrine and other historic buildings in the area.
The video is suitable for confirmation classes, church groups and even for sanctuary worship showing.
You can purchase the new anniversary video from the Visitors Center for only $2 per copy or by mail for $5.
If you are interested buying a video, or if you’d like to visit the Strawbridge Shrine, or take a church or heritage tour, contact the curator, Laura Apostol, at 410-635-2600.
Although the historic buildings are kept locked, once you set an appointment you will be greeted by costumed guides who will give you the opportunity to visit the buildings, see the new Shrine video and learn more about the importance of Robert & Elizabeth Strawbridge.
Hundreds of people visit the shrine each year, by private car and by bus, including confirmation classes, church groups and interested historians from all denominations and backgrounds.