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GARRETTSON, FREEBORN, Methodist minister; b. 15 Aug. 1752 in Maryland near the mouth of the Susquehanna River, son of John Garrettson and Sarah Merriarter, née Hanson; m. 30 June 1793 Catharine Livingston in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and they had one daughter; d. 26 Sept. 1827 in New York City and was buried in Rhinebeck.

Freeborn Garrettson was a member of a wealthy Anglican family, but as a young man he fell under the influence of itinerant Methodist Preachers. In 1775 he had a traumatic conversion experience – “my soul was exceeding happy,” he later wrote, “that I seemed as if I wanted to take wings and fly to heaven. “He freed his slaves, and in due course resolved to become a Methodist preacher. Beginning his ministerial work in 1776 as a preacher-on-trial, he itinerated widely for the next several years in Maryland and neighbouring states. As a pacifist, he wanted to have nothing to do with the American revolution, explaining that “it was contrary to my mind, and grievous to my conscience, to have any hand in shedding human blood,” and he carefully pursued a policy of neutrality despite much persecution from the patriots. He was ordained a Methodist minister at a conference held in Baltimore in December 1784, the same conference that witnessed the creation of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States.

For more than 50 years Garrettson preached his evangelical Methodist gospel from North Carolina to Nova Scotia, being responsible for thousands of conversions. He was an indefatigable itinerant and a powerful preacher and committed to centralized control at the expense of congregational independence. Even though he spent only 26 months in Nova Scotia, it may be argued that next to Henry Alline*, Garrettson was the most gifted and influential preacher in 18th-century Nova Scotia. His coming to that province occurred immediately after his ordination. The 1784 conference, encouraged by John Wesley, Thomas Coke – Wesley’s able lieutenant – and William Black, the leader of Nova Scotia Methodists, appointed Garrettson and James Oliver Cromwell as special missionaries to Nova Scotia. The death of Alline had created a religious vacuum in the province, and this fact, together with the arrival of many thousands of loyalists (some of whom were Methodists), seemed to provide an opportunity for the Methodists to break the Allinite–New Light hegemony over much of the colony.

Garrettson and Cromwell sailed from New York for Halifax in the middle of February 1785. On his arrival Garrettson received offers of assistance from Governor John Parr* and the Reverend John Breynton*, the Anglican rector of St Paul’s Church, and over the next few weeks he preached in Halifax in a house rented by Philip Marchinton*. In late March he set out on his first missionary tour. During his sojourn in the colony, Garrettson was to visit almost every settlement apart from Pictou. He was particularly successful in the Yankee-Allinite heartland stretching from Falmouth down the Annapolis valley to Granville and Yarmouth, and then up the southern shore to the Argyle district, Liverpool, and Chester. In this region he took advantage of the work done not only by Alline but also by Alline’s supporters such as Thomas Handley Chipman and John Payzant. As well, Garrettson was able to build upon the evangelistic labours of Black in the Chignecto-Cumberland region and Halifax, and he also broke new missionary ground in the loyalist centre of Shelburne. One of the men he recruited to the Methodist standard, James Man*, was to have a long and distinguished ministerial career in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Garrettson attracted large and enthusiastic audiences who were drawn by his charismatic personality to his emotional and pietistic message. Though he was sometimes violently attacked by disciples of Alline because of his criticism of aspects of Alline’s theology, Garrettson was nevertheless able to trigger in 1785 and 1786 a major revival in the colony, which he referred to as “this visitation of the Spirit.” The stress he placed on “Free Grace” and on the possibility of sanctification, as well as the warm fellowship provided by the “Class Meetings,” appealed to those many Nova Scotians who wanted the old evangelical Christianity of Alline but not the antinomian excesses of some of Alline’s followers.

“I have had a blessed winter among them,” Garrettson reported to Wesley on 10 March 1787. “If the work continues much longer as it has done, the greater part of the people will be brought in.” Yet, despite his optimism, Garrettson left Nova Scotia in April, never to return. He felt compelled to go back to his native land because, as he explained, “I was not clear that I had a call to leave the United States.” When he left Nova Scotia, the Methodists were the fastest-growing religious group in the colony and on the verge of pushing the New Lights to the dark periphery of historical oblivion. Yet within two decades the Methodists had been overtaken by a burgeoning Baptist movement led by a remarkable group of young, dynamic preachers such as Harris Harding*, Joseph Dimock*, Theodore Seth Harding, and James and Edward* Manning, the first three of whom had been converted during the Garrettson revival. The talents of these Baptist preachers as well as other factors – Garrettson’s departure from the colony, the absence of strong indigenous Methodist leadership, the poor quality of Methodist missionaries from Great Britain, and the decision of American Methodists to concentrate in the United States – significantly weakened the Methodist movement in Nova Scotia after 1786.

When Garrettson returned from Nova Scotia a plan was afoot, apparently devised by Wesley and supported by Francis Asbury of the United States, to have him appointed general superintendent of Methodist missions in British North America and the West Indies. For some reason, however, nothing came of this scheme. Instead Garrettson continued to labour as an itinerant preacher, and for many years he served as presiding elder of the New York District. He had an estate at Rhinebeck and used his considerable wealth, augmented further by his marriage into the Livingston family, to support the Methodist cause, particularly in New York state. Until his death in 1827, Garrettson remained an ardent critic of the “crying sin” of slavery and an enthusiastic and committed disciple of John Wesley.

George A. Rawlyk

Freeborn Garrettson’s manuscript journal and other papers are in the Garrettson coll. at Drew Univ. Library (Madison, N.J.); photocopies of correspondence relating to British North America and a microfilm copy of the journal are available at the UCC-C. Various published editions of material from the journal have been produced; the following were consulted in the preparation of this biography: The life of the RevFreeborn Garrettson; compiled from his printed and manuscript journals and other authentic documents, comp. Nathan Bangs (4th ed., New York, 1838) and American Methodist pioneer: the life and journals of the RevFreeborn Garrettson, 1752–1827, ed. and intro. R. D. Simpson (Rutland, Vt., 1984). An autobiographical address delivered by Garrettson in 1826 before the New York Annual Conference appeared the following year under the title “Methodism in America,” Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine (London), 50 (1827): 672–76, 740–45, 810–15.

The New Light letters and spiritual songs, 1778–1793, ed. G. A. Rawlyk (Hantsport, N.S., 1983). R. Reece, “Death of the Rev. Freeborn Garrettson,” Wesleyan-Methodist Magazine, 50: 861. DAB. W. C. Barclay, History of Methodist missions (3v., New York, 1949–59), 1. S. D. Clark, Church and sect in Canada (Toronto, 1948). G. [S.] French, Parsons & politics: the rôle of the Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada and the Maritimes from 1780 to 1855 (Toronto, 1962). J. T. Hughes, An historical sketch of the life of Freeborn Garrettson, pioneer Methodist preacher (Rhinebeck, N.Y., 1977). G. A. Rawlyk, “Freeborn Garrettson and Nova Scotia” (paper presented to the World Methodist Hist. Soc., Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Ky., 1984); Ravished by the spirit: religious revivals, Baptists, and Henry Alline (Kingston, Ont., and Montreal, 1984). Matthew Richey, A memoir of the late RevWilliam Black, Wesleyan minister, Halifax, N.S., including an account of the rise and progress of Methodism in Nova Scotia . . . (Halifax, 1839). T. W. Smith, History of the Methodist Church within the territories embraced in the late conference of Eastern British America . . . (2v., Halifax, 1877–90). Abel Stevens, The women of Methodism . . . (New York, 1866). N. A. McNairn, “Mission to Nova Scotia, “Methodist Hist. (Lake Junalaska, N.C.), 12 (1973–74), no.2: 3–18. W.J. Vesey, “Freeborn Garrettson: apostle to Nova Scotia,” Methodist Hist., 1 (1962–63), no.4: 27–30.

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Cite This Article

George A. Rawlyk, “GARRETTSON, FREEBORN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/garrettson_freeborn_6E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/garrettson_freeborn_6E.html
Author of Article:   George A. Rawlyk
Title of Article:   GARRETTSON, FREEBORN
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 6
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1987
Year of revision:   1987
Access Date:   December 5, 2023