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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Freeborn Garrettson - Early Shore Methodist

Salisbury Times - July 30, 1958

One of the most famous of the early Methodist preachers on the Delmarva Peninsula was Freeborn Garrettson. He was a man who labored for the church on the Peninsula for many years, traveling from one end of the Shore to the other. Many stories are told of his work in the various counties and on the numerous circuits. Here, however, is told only the story of how he was

received in Dorchester County and of the role he played in establishing Methodism there.

On Dec. 1, 1779, Henry Airey, who had been told of Methodism shortly before by a relative, Mary Ennals, met Francis Asbury and urgently requested that a preacher be sent to Dorchester. In response, Asbury sent one of his most able students, Freeborn Garettson.

This was not Garrettson's first visit to the county, however, for in 1779 he had visited the Forks District. And, on a second visit to the same region, a large congregation gathered to hear him discourse for two or three hours. As he concluded, a magistrate made an attempt to send him to jail. When the sheriff handed him the writ, Garrettson said that he was on an errand for the Lord and that the sheriff would be punished if he persisted in fighting against God. The sheriff listened and then said, "It is a pity to stop you," and Garrettson was permitted to go on his way.

Garrettson left Delaware Feb. 8, 1780, and arrived at Airey's home on Feb. 11. During the journey, he wept freely, feeling much oppressed and several times he stopped hi horse with intentions of turning back.

When he arrived at Mr. Airey's home, he was greeted by the entire household, both white and black, who were assembled for worship. For three days he labored, preaching to numerous, attentive congregations. It was at this time that he said, "The fields are white for harvest, but the wicked rage, and invent lies and mischief."

The county court was in session at this time, and some of its members were determined that the community be rid of this fellow. On a pretense, they charge with Toryism. Garrettson also was informed that the court had freed "a very wicked man" and promised to protect him if he would kill the preacher. Garrettson took temporary refuge at Mr. Airey's, much depressed in spirit. For the next week or so, he presented the teachings of Wesley to large congregations in another part of the county without being molested by his enemies.

On Saturday, Feb. 25, however, he preached to "A weeping flock" in woods in the northern part of the county, and on the way back to Airey's house was waylaid by a company of men who surrounded the party with the intention of taking Garrettson to jail. They beat the horses and used much profane language.

After dark they took their prisoner to a magistrate who, sitting in his great chair, judged and condemned Garrettson for preaching the Methodist Gospel, and ordered 12 men to escort him to the Cambridge jail. Although Airey was not arrested, he did accompany his friend on the journey.

The group had not gone far before there was an "awful flash of lightning" and in several seconds the foe had fled in fear, leaving Garrettson and Airey alone. Garrettson called for his guards, but failing to hear an answer, continued along the way, until he over took two of them who, according to the story were almost frightened out of their wits.

John Lednum in his book, "A History of the Rise of Methodism in America," said,

"Mr. Garrettson told them if he was to go to jail that night they ought to go on. One replied, 'O, No'. Let us stay until morning.' The guards that formed the company collected again, though greatly intimidated by the lightning. The leader of the guard, riding by Garrettson's side, inquired, 'Sir, do you think the affair happened on our account?' One of the men swore, and another reproved him for swearing on such an awful occasion as that was to them. The guard stopped suddenly, and one said, 'We had better give him up for the present,' and they turned back. Son, however, they returned again saying, 'We cannot give him up.' And again they fled, and were not seen anymore that night."

About midnight, Garrettson and Airey returned home, where they were received joyfully. Garrettson, during his sleep that night was "transported with visions," which he interpreted as an assurance that every weapon or plan used against him would fail.

The next day being Sunday, he understood to preach an 11 o'clock sermon, which many came to enjoy, especially after the affair of the preceding night. As many of his enemies were expected to attend this meeting, he was informed that a few of his friends had short clubs hidden under their coats to defend him, if need be. By now many had heard enough of the new religion to fight for it.

As the service began, the persecutors came in a body, and the leader, showing a pistol, seized Garrettson and pulled him into one of the rooms. Soon, however, Garrettson returned to the congregation and began to exhort, calling on the people not to fight, for he would go to jail peacefully. In the company of both Airey and his enemies, he went to the jail in Cambridge, where he and Airey occupied a room in the old tavern from about noon until just before sunset. The public room of the tavern was kept filled with people who came to drink and to gloat over their prey. Garrettson later said he was surrounded by the wicked and by God's great mercy he was preserved.

Late in the afternoon one of the bullies, undoubtedly intoxicated, entered the room and aimed at Airey a blow which did not land with full force. Airey, acting in self-defense, laid the attacker on the floor with one blow to the head, and this ended the crisis for it brought laughter from the people and caused them to curb their behavior a little.

Later the same day Garrettson was put into the jail, and the key removed in order that no friends could, if they so desired, administer to his necessities. A dirty floor was his bed, a saddle bag his pillow, as the cold east wind blew in upon him through two large open windows. At first, no one was permitted to speak to him, but several days later, in a letter to Asbury, Garrettson wrote that although some of the people wanted to get rid of him, they were not so cruel to him as formerly, nor to those who visited him. Mr. and Mrs. Airey remained loyal and did what they could to make him comfortable and to secure his release. His brother, Thomas Garrettson, hearing of his confinement, came from the western shore to be near and aid in this time of distress. Asbury, while he could not come personally, sent letters of encouragement, and a book to read during his confinement and other letters came from friends.

It was intended that he be kept in jail until a general court convened nearly 12 months away, but after two weeks of confinement he was set at liberty. This freedom was obtained partly on his own behalf, and partly though the efforts of the governor of Delaware in letters to the governor of Maryland.

Upon his release, he did not tarry long in the county but by March 17, was on his way back to Delaware. He did, however, manage to visit most of the newly formed Methodist societies in Dorchester.

Thus, on his first official visit to Dorchester in 1780, Garrettson spent about half of his time being arrested or in jail. Garrettson said, however, that many came to visit him from far and near, and he really believed he was never given the means of doing more good than at that time. He preached with such success, while in jail, a wag remarked that if they had kept him there much longer, he would have converted the entire county. Several years after his imprisonment, not far from the jailhouse, he is supposed to have preached to more than 3,000 people in one congregation, which, if true, was approximately one-third of the county's population. Later he could claim that many of his previous worst enemies had been converted to Methodism; while all the ringleaders of the mob involved in abusing him died a violent death save one - Batt Ennalls, who was converted. A fact which subsequent Methodist preachers doubtless made good use.

Concerning Garrettson's usefulness, Asbury said, "It is incredible, the amount of good he has been instrumental in doing." In later years Garrettson made several return visits to Dorchester. During the latter half of the Conference Year 1782, he traveled and preached in the county. In 1787, as an elder of the Church, he traveled for 12 months, visiting almost every circuit and congregation, superintending the circuit preachers, and administering the sacraments.

It was with the coming of this great preacher that the strength of the Anglican Church was broken, a blow from which it labored long to recover. From that date the Methodists were to grow - grow so that within a few years they were by far the dominant church of Dorchester County.

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