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Robert Strawbridge

Robert Strawbridge 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.

Deeply influenced by the zealous preaching of Lawrence Coughlin, a Wesley convert from Roman Catholicism, Leonard Strawbridge convinced his younger brother, Robert, to hear this gifted man also. This key unlocked the latent spiritual power, the gifts and graces, of Robert Strawbridge and set in motion a dramatic chain of events that led him to proclaim the Gospel.

After his conversion, Strawbridge began to preach in his mostly 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, 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, while preaching near Terryhugan, he met and married a devoted Wesleyan, Elizabeth Piper. Shortly afterwards they chose 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 become a Methodist).

As soon as the family settled here, Strawbridge began to preach. 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. A second Methodist Class was formed at the Andrew Poulson’s home. When the crowds became too large for the Poulson house, Robert would preach under an old oak tree in the meadow.

The success of his preaching is found in the creation of an ever-widening circuit of meetings and classes. 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.

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. 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, becoming, in fact, a circuit rider’s widow. Indeed, twice Strawbridge was appointed to Methodist circuits—Baltimore in 1773 and Frederick in 1775.

in 1776, he was offered a home, rent free, on the Hampton Estate in Long Green Valley north of Towson owned by Captain Ridgely, whose wife was an ardent Methodist,. This new home, which conveniently lay about halfway between his original Log Meeting House on Sams Creek and Bush Chapel in Aberdeen. It 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.

On a preaching mission, in 1781, not far from his home, he succumbed to an unspecified illness and died at age 49. 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. He 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.