March 17, 2014

The Irish and America's Oldest Methodist Congregation

When John Wesley received news of Methodist developments in Ireland in summer 1747, he immediately set sail for Dublin. This was the first of twenty-one trips Wesley made to the Emerald Isle during his ministry. Upon reaching his destination, a growing society of several hundred members greeted Wesley, the work of a handful of lay preachers who, though not directly connected to Wesley, considered themselves part of his movement nonetheless.

Robert Swindell was one of the first Methodist lay preachers in Ireland. Swindell, who began preaching in 1741, brought Methodism to the city of Limerick in southwest Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day 1749. By May of that year his ministry in the River Shannon port town had aroused one angry mob, great interest from many listeners, and one Methodist class.

Thomas Walsh was among the people listening to Swindell on Saint Patrick’s Day. Only nineteen years old, Walsh had recently left the Catholic Church in which he was raised in order to join the Anglican Church of Ireland. Still thirsting for a deeper religious experience, he eagerly welcomed Methodist preachers when they came to Newmarket where he lived in September 1749. At that time, Walsh joined the local Methodist society.

John Wesley visited the Methodist preachers and classes in County Limerick in 1750. Eager to meet the esteemed religious leader, Walsh seized his opportunity to speak with Wesley about his desire to enter the preaching ministry.
Of their meeting, Walsh remembered,

I opened my mind to that man of God, the Rev. Mr. John Wesley, I spoke my thoughts freely and without disguise, desiring his advice on the occasion, which he sweetly and humbly gave me; adding withal, that I might write to him afterwards. I did so, giving him a brief account of my conversion to God, and of what I experienced in my soul concerning preaching.
Wesley’s responded by giving Walsh his first Methodist appointment.

My dear Brother—It is hard to judge what God has called you to do until trial is made. Therefore, when you have an opportunity, you may go to Shronil, and spend two or three days with the people there. Speak to them in Irish.

Walsh did as Wesley instructed and showed great promise in Shronil—a nearby community in which preachers had already established a Methodist society. Walsh quickly earned a reputation as one of most effective Irish preachers in the movement and demonstrated an ability to communicate effectively with Protestants and Catholics alike. He also had a gift for languages and was able to speak English and Irish fluently as well as being educated in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

One of the people most responsible for Walsh’s education was his teacher, Peter Guier. Guier taught at a school in Ballingrane where Walsh was a student as a child. There, in addition to learning languages, Walsh also became familiar with the unique community of which his teacher and many classmates were members—the Irish Palatines—the community to which he would return in 1752 with a Gospel message of grace and holiness.

Methodism and the Irish Palatines

The Irish Palatines were Germans—their name derived from the region in southwest Germany from which they immigrated in 1709. Driven from their homeland by the coldest winter on record, the Irish Palatines were the remnant of 13,000 refugees whom England’s Queen Anne granted passage to London. Of that original group, some returned to the continent and others continued on to the American colonies. The British government, however, resettled approximately 3,000 Protestant Palatines to Ireland in order to counter the indigenous Catholic population.

Despite the monarch’s favor the Palatines faced great hardships in Ireland. Housed on small parcels of land on Protestant owned estates scattered throughout the countryside, they were unable to stay in contact with their countrymen. Since the Palatines spoke German and their new neighbors spoke Irish, they also had a terrible time assimilating. Many Palatines found this cultural isolation unlivable and returned to Dublin or England.

Palatines who settled near Limerick on the estate of Sir Thomas Southwell, however, had a different experience. Their numbers were large, 130 families, which allowed them to create their own community and institutions. Each family received eight to twelve acres of farmland and had their annual rent subsidized by the government. The government also provided each family with a musket, ammunition, and a loan for purchasing needed supplies. In addition to this aid package, Southwell provided the Palatines with material for building their homes.

Given the opportunity, the County Limerick Palatines flourished. They built homes and started farms—introducing new techniques, produce, and technology to region. They also formed their own local government and elected a burgomaster, or mayor. The Palatines, who were Calvinists and Lutherans in Germany, even found a spiritual home in the Church of Ireland thanks to a program sponsored by Queen Anne’s successor, George I, which insured that a German-speaking minister served their parish.

Ballingrane, the largest settlement on Southwell’s land, was the center of Methodist activity when Thomas Walsh took his message to the Palatines. While the Palatines certainly had some knowledge about the work of Methodist preachers in Limerick, Walsh was the first preacher to go directly to them. The dynamic relationship that emerged between the speaker and his audience yielded fast results. Palatines soon formed Methodist classes and societies and Philip Guier, Walsh’s former teacher, became a preacher and class leader.

With Methodism thriving there, Wesley returned to Limerick in 1752 to preside over the first Methodist Conference in Ireland. There were ten itinerating ministers on the island at that time including Walsh and Swindell. At Conference, Wesley also appointed Guier as a non-itinerating or local preacher to the Palatines.

Passionate about their work in Ireland, Wesley’s preachers continued to preach and organize classes following the Conference. Even in their zeal, however, they did not imagine that in 1752 two Irish Palatines joined the movement who were destined to take Methodism to America—cousins Philip Embury and Barbara Heck.

Image: The River Shannon in Co. Limerick
References: Available upon request