Robert Strawbridge Bio
The Strawbridge Shrine in Carroll County, Maryland is named after Robert Strawbridge, one of Methodism’s patron saints. Who was this man after whom this special space is named? He is certainly the unsung hero of early American Methodism.
There are no decisive records of Robert’s life but we owe a debt of gratitude to a number of diligent historians, chief among them Ruthella Mory Bibbins, whose research made it possible for us to recreate this life and mission of Robert Strawbridge. Bibbins suggests that he may have been about 28 years of age when he came to America about 1760.
Robert was reared in northwest Ireland near the small town of Drummers Nave, now known as Drumsna. It overlooks the broad and beautiful North Shannon River valley.
William Crook, an Irish Methodist historian who visited the Strawbridge homestead, described the countryside as he found it in 1866, a century after young Robert came to America:
Robert’s brother, Leonard, had been deeply influenced by the zealous preaching of a Wesley convert from Roman Catholicism named Lawrence Coughlin. It was Leonard Strawbridge who first heard this preacher and convinced his younger brother, Robert, also to hear this unusually gifted man. This was the key which unlocked the latent spiritual power, the gifts and graces, of the younger Strawbridge and set in motion a dramatic chain of events which led him to proclaim the Gospel.
In 1992, a monument to honor Robert Strawbridge was erected in Drumsna by the Wesley Historical Society, Irish Branch. It was a replica of the tombstone placed on the grave of Robert Strawbridge in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland. At the service of dedication, Kenneth Steward, a member of the Strawbridge Shrine Association, unveiled the monument.
After his conversion, Strawbridge began to preach in his predominately Catholic birthplace and arouse persecution. He found it necessary to leave his hometown and find other like-minded folk. Strawbridge found such a group of new Methodist converts in the western coastal town of Sligo, some 30 miles northwest of his home. Later, in County Cavan, he was “recognized…as a man of more than ordinary usefulness and very ardent and evangelical in his spirit.”
In County Armagh Robert was employed in erecting some buildings, but continued to preach. While preaching near Terryhugan, he met and married a devoted Wesleyan, Elizabeth Piper. Shortly afterwards they chose, as was a fairly common practice at the time, to leave Ireland and make their home in the New World. They settled in Frederick County (now Carroll County), Maryland, circa 1760, in a log house rented from the Quaker,John England (who by 1766 had became a Methodist).
Just why Robert and Elizabeth came to America is unknown. Bibbins conjectures that Robert was attracted by the amount of wheat exports from Maryland. But, in fact, as soon as the family settled here, Strawbridge began to preach more than to farm. The success of his preaching is found in the creation of an ever-widening circuit of meetings and classes.
Like all of Wesley’s missionaries to America, Strawbridge was a local preacher. However, tradition suggests he may have been ordained. Whether this was so, Francis Asbury notes that the first 1773 conference permitted him alone to administer the sacraments under direction of Wesley’s assistant.
Strawbridge was independent by nature, a sincere preacher with firmly held convictions and a burning desire to share his faith. As remembered by Mrs. Rebecca Bennett, a daughter of the first American Methodist convert John Evans, Strawbridge was “of medium size, dark complexion, black hair, had a very sweet voice and was an excellent singer. He had six children—Robert, George, Theophilus, Jesse, Betsy, and Jane.” Mrs. Bennett’s sister, Mrs. Sarah Porter, added that the pioneer was “of strong muscular frame,…lean of flesh with a thin visage, the bones of his face projecting prominently” and “that he was a great favorite among the children.”
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. While Elizabeth was undoubtedly helped by nearby residents, with whom the Strawbridges had become good friends, she became, in fact, a circuit rider’s widow. Indeed, twice Strawbridge was appointed to Methodist circuits—Baltimore 1773 and Frederick 1775.
An interesting aside: 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, Mrs. Strawbridge spoke to Mr. Evans about his spiritual needs and he was converted. So it is Mrs. Elizabeth Strawbridge who is given the credit for the first known American Methodist convert. Later, a son of John Evans reported that 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 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 Strawbridge’s death. The names of the members of this Society have been preserved:
John Evans, William Durbin, William Daman, George Havener, Richard Smith, Thomas Leakin, James Crawford, Robert Walker, William Snader, Andrew Poulson, Jacob Cassell, Thomas Donaldson, Daniel Stephenson, Philip Nicodemus, George Logman, with their wives and some children, and later were added John Todd, Mr. and Mrs. Alexander Warfield, Hazekiah Bonham, John and Paul Hagerty, and Samuel Merryman of Baltimore County, and no doubt John England and Benjamin Marcarel, whom a daughter of John Evans recalled as members. A black woman, Aunt Switzer, also belonged and Jacob Toogood, a slave of the Maynards, was permitted to preach to the blacks.
A second Methodist Class was formed at the Andrew Poulson’s home. Mr. Poulson was the brother-in-law of John Evans, having married Prudence Evans, John’s sister. When the crowds became too large for the Poulson house, Robert would preach under an old oak tree in the meadow.
Ruthella Bibbins, mentioned above, preserved many records of the founding of Methodism and was responsible for the key discovery of the Maynard family Bible in Frederick County. Recorded in this Bible is the baptism in 1762 by Robert Strawbridge of John Maynard’s younger brother, Henry Maynard, who was born in 1757. This unhesitating bit of ecclesiastical civil disobedience by Strawbridge—who also administered Holy Communion to his followers!—was the source of considerable friction between Asbury and Strawbridge. Francis Asbury represented John Wesley’s traditional views and did not countenance Strawbridge’s unsupervised administration of the sacraments.
In any case, Robert is credited with preaching and establishing Methodist Classes in many far-flung places. His journeys took him to Delaware and to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where he preached the first Methodist sermon to be heard there. He went beyond Maryland to Trenton, New Jersey, Georgetown, DC, and Leesburg, Virginia, where it is thought he founded the Leesburg Church on land deeded in May, 1766. And in 1774, in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, Philip Vickers Fithian, a Presbyterian missionary, noted the presence of a Methodist Society in Shirleysburg, in close proximity to land owned by Strawbridge.
At the first Annual Conference held in America in 1773, Asbury, Strawbridge, and two others were appointed to Baltimore, the oldest and largest circuit of the fledgling church. From 1776-1781, in addition to serving his original Log Meeting House on Sams Creek, he also pastored at Bush Chapel, erected by Strawbridge, in 1769, near Aberdeen, Maryland and probably the society at Shirleysburg, Pennsylvania. But this was all done independently rather than under conference appointment.
After 13 years as tenants on the England land, in 1773 Robert purchased 50 acres from Mr. John England for the sum of £50. However, in 1776, he was offered a home, rent free, on the Hampton Estate owned by Captain Ridgely, whose wife was an ardent Methodist, in Long Green Valley north of Towson. This new home, which conveniently lay about halfway between here and Bush Chapel in Aberdeen, was also near the city of Baltimore and its rapidly growing Methodist community. In short, it provided Strawbridge a central base for his ongoing missionary enterprise.
However, his ministry was not to last much longer. On a preaching mission, in 1781, not far from his home, he 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 Wheelers.
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 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.
Long after Strawbridge’s death, in 1839, the “Centennial of Methodism” generated interest in heritage and led local preacher William Fort to advocate a Strawbridge marker. After Baltimore City Station secured Mt. Olivet Cemetery in 1849, they tendered a lot for preachers and Robert’s body was reinterred in the Bishops’ Lot in Mt. Olivet. This was done in 1866 and now, ironically, although Strawbridge lies in death alongside Bishop Francis Asbury, his erstwhile critic in life, they are finally brothers in the Christ they preached and obeyed.