John Early (1 January 1786–5 November 1873), Methodist bishop, was the son of Joshua Early and Mary Leftwich Early. His paternal uncle Joel Early and first cousin John Early (1757–1804) both sat in the Convention of 1788, and his maternal uncle Jabez Leftwich served two terms in the House of Representatives. Born in Bedford County, Early grew up on the family farm near Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest estate. His father owned several hundred acres of land and several slaves; raised tobacco, sheep, and fine horses; and also owned a store in nearby New London. Early probably attended a local school. His sermons, letters, and journals suggest that he was comfortable reading, writing, and giving discourses on religious subjects at a young age, perhaps as a result of religious instruction he received from his Baptist parents.
During an explosion of Methodist revivals in 1804, the minister Stith Mead persuaded Early to convert to Methodism at Flat Rock Church. Early did some of his first preaching in the slave community at Poplar Forest and often while a circuit rider preached to African Americans or groups of whites and blacks. He emancipated a slave in 1806 and denounced speculators who dealt in human chattels. After inheriting several slaves when his father died in 1812, Early expressed regret about having become a slaveholder, calling it a "degrading appellation & unhappy situation." As he grew older, he became more reconciled to slavery, reflecting the trend among evangelicals and Virginians as a whole, and owned slaves through the 1850s. In 1825 Early organized and was elected president of the Lynchburg Colonization Society, an auxiliary of a national association founded to help former slaves settle in Liberia.
The Virginia Conference of Methodists licensed Early to preach in 1806. His first assignment was as junior preacher on the Cumberland circuit of the Richmond District. He soon became known as a powerful, forceful preacher who could bring his listeners to their knees. Early traveled circuits in eastern and central Virginia and North Carolina from 1806 to 1812 and in 1813 was appointed presiding elder of the Meherrin District, which included the counties between Richmond and Lynchburg. He led a camp meeting in Prince Edward County that converted a thousand new members in seven days. For the first years of his ministry he kept a journal of his travels, preaching, and conversions.
Early married Ann W. Jones, of Warren County, North Carolina, on 18 January 1815. Following the custom then current among Methodist ministers, he retired from itinerant preaching and located, as it was called, in Lynchburg. His wife died on 27 February 1820, and on 14 November 1822 Early married Elizabeth Browne Rives, of Dinwiddie County. They had four sons and three daughters before her death on 16 May 1857. Early served as presiding elder of the Meherrin District from 1821 to 1824, conference missionary from 1824 to 1826, a minister on the Bedford circuit in 1827, presiding elder of the Meherrin District from 1829 to 1832, agent for Randolph-Macon College from 1833 to 1840, and presiding elder of the Lynchburg and Petersburg Districts from 1841 to 1846. He was elected secretary of the Virginia Conference in 1822, and from then until 1849 he was either secretary or president of that conference every year except 1845.
Early served as a delegate to the church's General Conference in 1812 and again in 1828, 1832, 1836, 1840, and 1844. At the 1844 General Conference in New York, he took a leading role in the division of the church, largely over the issue of slavery. At the Louisville convention in May 1845, he was a key figure in creating the Methodist Episcopal Church South and served on the committee of organization. Early argued for making a change in the church's discipline to soften its condemnation of slaveholding, but the measure was defeated at the Petersburg convention in 1846. For the next decade he turned his administrative skills to the organization of a publishing operation for the Methodist Episcopal Church South. He opened an office in Richmond and worked as one of two church book agents from 1845 until 1854, when the church established a publishing house in Nashville.
At the annual General Conference in Columbus, Georgia, in 1854, Early was elected bishop. He emphasized mission work to slaves and traveled to Georgia and South Carolina in order to advise missionaries on how to handle themselves among slaveholders on the rice plantations. He also visited the Kansas Territory on a mission to the western Indians. Early was known for his strong convictions, integrity, efficiency, and toughness. Stubborn and tenacious, too, he displayed a strong will that earned him the nickname "Brother Negative." In 1858 several ministers brought charges against Early for maladministration and accused him of being overbearing, discourteous, dictatorial, and arbitrary. After two days of hearings, the General Conference accepted Early's explanations for his behavior and cleared his name.
Early helped establish and nurture the church-affiliated Randolph-Macon College, which received its charter in 1830. He served as president of the board of trustees from 1833 until his death. As agent for the college from 1833 to 1840, Early raised $40,000 and oversaw hiring of faculty and staff and construction of the first college buildings in Boydton. He supported the controversial decision to move the college to Ashland in 1868.
Active in Lynchburg civic affairs, Early served on the common council and on a committee to develop a water system. He also led efforts to establish the Lynchburg Charity School, the first organized effort at public education in the city. He endorsed petitions to the General Assembly for improving turnpikes and canals that served Lynchburg, supported construction of a railroad from Lynchburg to Tennessee, and was a director of the James River and Kanawha Company from 1835 to 1839.
Early received serious injuries in a railroad accident in 1866. In that same year he retired and was placed on the church's list of superannuated clergymen. John Early died at his home in Lynchburg on 5 November 1873. Following a funeral at Court Street Methodist Church, he was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, which he had helped establish.
Biographies in William W. Bennett, Memorials of Methodism in Virginia (1871), 522–524 (frontispiece portrait), David S. Doggett, Memorial Discourse, on Occasion of the Death of Bishop John Early, D.D. … (1875), John E. Edwards, "Anecdotes of Bishop Early," Frank Leslie's Sunday Magazine 5 (1879): 177–179, and J. Rives Childs (great-grandson), "Bishop John Early," The John P. Branch Historical Papers of Randolph-Macon College 4 (1913): 50–66 (variant second marriage year of 1821 on 55 and second quotation on 64); second marriage date in Childs, Reliques of the Rives (Ryves) (1929), 523, 527; John Early Papers (including autobiography "Bro Jno Early of Virginia" with birth and first marriage dates, diary with first quotation on 2 Jan. 1813, and William K. Thomas, "Traveling Preacher: The Story of Bishop John Early" [typescript, 1964]), McGraw-Page Library, Randolph-Macon College, Ashland; several accounts and receipts in Early Family Papers (1798–1903), Virginia Museum of History and Culture, Richmond; obituaries in Richmond Daily Dispatch, 6 Nov. 1873, Lynchburg Tri-Weekly News, 7 (with variant death date of "yesterday morning"), 10 Nov. 1873, and New York Christian Advocate, 20 Nov. 1873; memorial in Methodist Episcopal Church South Minutes of the Seventy-Ninth Session of the Virginia Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1873 (1874), 23–26.
Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Catherine OBrion.
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