Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 120 / Number 3
"That Unhappy Division": Reconsidering the Causes and Significance of the O'Kelly Schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church
- Elizabeth A. Georgian, pp. 210–35
This article reexamines the O'Kelly schism, the devastating 1792 division in the Methodist Episcopal Church that arose after decades of quarrelling between the Itinerant James O'Kelly and the church's leader, Bishop Francis Asbury, over the new denomination's governing structure. It resulted in the formation of the Republican Methodist Church and first halted then reversed the denomination's previously dramatic growth. The article is the first to analyze the schism from a statistical perspective, which sheds new light on its causes, scope, and effects. O'Kelly’s detractors and historians today view the schism as a local, southern event, but data drawn from society membership and itinerant patterns point toward a national crisis. This evidence furthers the emerging consensus that real issues—republicanism versus federalism in the church's government—led to the damaging divide, not personal animosity between O'Kelly and Asbury. Yet, misunderstandings of the causes of the schism led church leaders down paths that worsened the crisis and failed to prevent the rise of many other divisions in the decades that followed. Ironically, it was James O'Kelly's decision to abandon Methodism in favor of ecumenical Christianity that staunched the Methodist Episcopal Church's bleeding wound, not the actions of Asbury and his supporters.