In the past two columns, I introduced the two pillars of Continental Pietism who also inspired people and churches in the English-speaking world: Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke. In Newfoundland, this revolution in piety and practical religion affected notably the Methodists and Congregationalists.
In Labrador, Moravians grouped people of the same sex, as well as similar age and marital status within the larger congregation, into intimate faith communities, calling them “choirs,” the Greek word for groups.
Meanwhile, an intense passion piety appealed especially to Labrador Inuit as it had previously among Native Americans.
Perhaps the most dramatic effect that the renewal movement had on Newfoundland can be observed in the Conception Bay revival associated with the founder of Newfoundland Methodism, the Anglican priest Laurence Coughlan.
The revival led by Coughlan not only changed the lives of individuals but also turned 18th-century community values upside down. It gave dignity and leadership to men and women who would have remained otherwise powerless in society.
Some of the revolutionary potential of personal religion surfaced in a court case against Laurence Coughlan, the preacher of the religion of the heart. Eventually opposition from merchants led to his resignation as a justice of the peace and forced his premature departure from Newfoundland.
In court, Coughlan was accused before the naval surrogate judge Parker of having “also appoint’d illiterate people to hold (divisive) meetings at private houses.” Merchants, who had no access to these groups, found that their usual economic and political power was useless. It was particularly galling for them that “such as constantly attend the nocturnal meetings of his deputed curates and submitt’d themselves to be examin’d by them, one of whom is a very illiterate fellow, a common fisherman.”
Here, an ordinary fisherman had received recognition as a religious community leader — not for his mercantile prowess and social standing but because of his religious charisma, a gift freely bestowed on the believer without any human preconditions.
‘Our little meetings’
“My preaching in this land would be little good,” Coughlan wrote to John Wesley, “were it not for our little meetings.”
These “little meetings” were intimate cell groups for mutual edification and spiritual growth, an expression of the “ecclesiola in ecclesia,” the little church in the larger congregation that Spener had advocated. These groups served as leaven and ferment in rousing the sleeping congregations of a sluggish church.
Conversions that had changed many lives among members of Coughlan’s Conception Bay mission had social consequences. People were able to overcome their alcohol addiction and so loosened the fetters that bound chronically indebted folk to the company store and eased some of their abject poverty.
“Before they received the Gospel,” Coughlan observed, “they spent much of their time in rioting and drunkenness; but when the Word took place in their hearts, many of them not only got out of debt, but also had to spare.”
The preacher would remark “how groundless is that report that those people who grow religious grow poor, or turn beggars.”
The revival awakened people’s lives, giving them energy to carry their new-found religious convictions into their home communities as far as Trinity Bay, as a Carbonear merchant, George Davies, testifies in a letter to the Halle Pietists. The letter exudes great optimism over Coughlan’s preaching and how, within a short time after the revival started, two additional chapels were erected, one in Carbonear, another in Blackhead.
In Carbonear, in mid-May 1769, a congregation of 124 people gathered on a Sunday morning. The ministerial work became so heavy for Coughlan that Davies asked the Halle Pietists for an assistant whom they might be able to secure through their network and connections. If it were impossible to obtain an ordained minister, then a committed lay person might do.
What mattered to the Carbonear and London merchant was not religious formality, but inward change among the preachers and their flock.
Soon the American-British hostilities would lead to many hardships and dislocations in Newfoundland. Methodists who had formed independent societies lacked leadership and were sorely tested.
They nearly disappeared, had it not been for several groups of women that the Reverend William Black, the Wesleyan superintendent of Eastern British America, found meeting in Conception Bay and Trinity Bay when he visited Newfoundland in 1791.
Hans Rollmann is a professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.