Archive for the 'Francis Asbury' Category

The Relative We Don’t Talk About


Jesse Lee

My wife’s maiden name was Lee. Her tribe is directly related to Jason Lee, the first Methodist missionary in the Oregon Territory. The family is justifiably proud of this connection. Jason’s branch of the family was in Stanstead, Canada. As a young adult Jason taught school and served a nearby Methodist church. His interest in mission work eventually led to a connection with General William Clark (of Lewis and Clark). He was chosen to be part of a team sent to the Flathead Indians. Jason Lee’s team did remarkable, groundbreaking work in the Oregon Territory. Willamette University is a direct result of his ministry and a good place to learn the full story of his pioneering work.

Recently I learned the story of another Methodist named Lee. I stumbled upon a website called the Jesse Lee Project. The Project grew out of a conversation between some New England United Methodist pastors. One had recently talked with some “twenty-somethings” who’d made a difficult decision to step away from the organized church. They found it outdated, boring, and irrelevant. These “twenty-somethings” sought a church that was authentic, focused, creative, and open to “out-of-the-box” approaches to ministry. Another pastor in that group recalled the story of Jesse Lee, a pioneer Methodist missionary in New England. He was one of those focused, “out-of-the-box” characters who might mentor us on our 21st-century mission field. For example:

1)   When the Revolutionary War broke out, eighteen-year-old Jesse Lee declared himself a Christian pacifist. After serving a short jail term for his stand, he spent the rest of his military service in the noncombatant wagon service.

2)   After the war, Jesse met and grew close to Francis Asbury, one of the first bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury pressured him to move toward ordination. Jesse resisted, but in 1789 he became a Licensed Local Preacher. Asbury showed up for his consecration service in elaborate clerical garb–because That’s How They Always Did It. Jesse Lee asked Asbury to change his clothes. Such formality and ceremony would alienate average Americans. His approach had to change.  Asbury agreed with Lee. He changed into simpler clothes and held a simpler service. That’s hardly the way you treat your new boss when you’re starting a new job! But on the mission field connecting with people matters more than massaging the boss’s ego!

3)   Asbury appointed Jesse Lee to the Stamford, CT circuit, along with another preacher—who never showed. Jesse didn’t wait around. He went to work establishing a Methodist presence wherever he could. One community gave him a very chilly reception. He saw no way to hold a service and begin to gather a congregation. So he hitched his horse to a tree outside the small, one room school house.   As school let out, Jesse Lee started singing his way through the hymnal. In between hymns he’d tell the children stories. Jesse and those kids had a great time together. Finally Lee asked if anyone thought his or her parents might invite him to hold a service in their homes. Nearly every child’s hand shot up. Jesse picked one. What parent could refuse such an enthusiastic request? “Please, mommy, please!” This technique became a staple in Jesse Lee’s missionary repertoire.

4)      One town council grilled Jesse relentlessly. They even asked him to speak biblical Hebrew! With supreme confidence, Jesse delivered an extended monologue in the ancient language—of Dutch! The town councilmen didn’t know the difference, and they welcomed Jesse to minister in their community.

As I said, my Lee relatives never mentioned Jesse. Maybe they don’t know about that branch of the family. (I promise I’ll do some genealogical digging—one of these days!) But neither has anyone else in my United Methodist family (in my hearing) except the Jesse Lee Project. Obviously we can’t just copy his methods. Hanging around outside a school and approaching children as he did is completely out of bounds these days! But we can still follow his lead.

  • Jesse Lee knew who he was. He stood for his convictions, even when there was a price to be paid. You may not agree with him on that particular issue. But how many eighteen-year-olds do you know who’ve wrestled through similar issues and would do jail time for their core beliefs?
  • Jesse Lee knew that people mattered more than tradition—even at the risk of offending the guardians of the tradition. So he spoke up when Francis Asbury came to his consecration way over-dressed. When Lee was ordained a deacon years later, everyone dressed very simply.
  • Jesse was talked about as a candidate for bishop. But he never had the political backing. He cared more about reaching people than about playing church politics.
  • Jesse Lee did whatever it took to reach people for Christ. He’d sit under a tree and sing and tell stories to schoolchildren. He’d travel long distances on horseback. (Francis Asbury reportedly rode 250,000 miles on horseback. One of my district superintendents claimed he’d driven that far in his six-year term as superintendent.) He kept it simple most of the time. Yet he also wrote prolifically and served as chaplain for both houses of Congress.

I suspect folks in New England where Jesse Lee started many churches still talk about him. I suspect the rest of us would do well to learn more about him. Those pastors talking about Jesse Lee were onto something. He practiced authenticity and integrity. He was clearly focused on reaching people for Christ and he’d do anything to make that happen–including what “nobody ever did” and what “the experts” say can’t be done. 

The relative we don’t talk about just might be the one we need to talk about–and listen to–very intently. What if that authenticity, honesty, missional focus, and “whatever-it-takes” conviction became the marks of our discipleship? Who knows? We might even find some of those “twenty-somethings” coming back to check us out. We might even hear them saying, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”