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Historian uncovers untold story of early defense contractor, Methodist leader

From rags to riches, an unknown immigrant was a catalyst for industrialization and religion alike in the United States.  

Jane Dononvan

Jane Donovan’s book, “Henry Foxall: Methodist, Industrialist, American” is the untold story of an immigrant who transformed American Methodism from a religious movement to a denomination while transitioning American industry into a global economic power.

“My goal was to tell a story that had not been investigated much by Methodist historians, historians of industrial technology or military historians. It is a story of transitions,” said Donovan, a religious studies instructor at West Virginia University and recipient of the 2011 Eberly College Outstanding Teaching Award. “We know they happened, but this is really the first major study that looks first-hand at those transitions as they were in progress.”

To construct this uniquely American narrative, Donovan uncovered a crucial primary source that tells Foxall’s story—his personal journals.  

“In one of Foxall’s obituaries, there’s mention of a journal, but I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t in a public repository. With some help from a reference librarian at the Library of Congress, I tracked down Foxall’s descendants, and they still owned the journals. I took a train ride to Chicago and spent a weekend transcribing them,” Donovan said. “I was the first person outside the family to see the journal in over 200 years. They trusted me with this story.” 

Donovan’s eighth book encapsulates Foxall’s curiosity about theology, business and government as told during his travels to England, Ireland and Wales in 1816 and 1817.

Henry Foxall book

“The journals are remarkable because he had insatiable curiosity. He wrote about so many things. He went to art galleries in London. He visited a British munitions factory. He met with British anti-slavery activist William Wilberforce,” Donovan said. “Much of what’s in the journals has nothing to do with Methodism, but a lot of it also illuminates the transition then underway in Methodism.”  

Methodism began as a reform movement within the Church of England. It became popular in the United States largely due to its organization of circuit riding preachers who didn’t stay inside church buildings, but traveled around the country. That approach made an impact as westward migration occurred, allowing the denomination to take advantage of new settlement patterns, the growth of new towns and the development of rural areas.

“Methodism succeeded here because it’s individualistic. It’s focused on the individual conversion experience and teaches free will,” Donovan said. “Unlike Calvinism, there is no notion that you are predestined to your fate. For Americans who are reinventing themselves all the time, that’s a message they like.”

The first generation of Methodists were mostly working class—farmers, coal miners, weavers, blacksmiths. Starting out as an ironworker, Foxall himself represents that transition from first generation to second generation Methodism.

“Over time, Methodists changed social positions. They moved from working class to middle class, some even upper middle class. A few got rich,” Donovan said. “Foxall was one of those people—he started out working class and became extremely wealthy. At his death, his estate in modern currency was worth almost $8 million. That was all self-made.”

As the denomination grew, it needed institutions. It needed a pension plan for clergy. It needed buildings. It needed infrastructure. And Foxall was ready, checkbook in hand.

“There has been, unfortunately, not nearly enough scholarship about some of the key Methodist lay people who played significant roles in the church’s development. The scholarship has tended to look at the clergy. That’s nice and all, but it’s the lay people who pay the bills,” Donovan said. “And there’s a lot more to the story. It’s important that we remember who really is the church, and that’s the folks in the pews.”

Foxall was also pivotal in transforming American industry. He introduced ironmaking technology from England’s industrial revolution into the United States. As a cannon founder, he used the latest British techniques, which were more efficient in production and created more effective weaponry.  

“We didn’t have anyone on this side of the Atlantic who knew how to cast cannon solid and then bore them, which resulted in a much more accurate and lethal weapon,” Donovan said. “Foxall transformed the munitions industry in this country. He helped set the United States on a path to becoming a world power.”

Henry Foxall was more than a generous philanthropist and a successful entrepreneur. His story demonstrates the intersection of church and state in a space that traditionally sanctifies their separation.

“I was attracted to Foxall because of what I perceived as a conflict between his role as a devout Methodist and someone who earned a living producing munitions,” Donovan said. “He’s a classic American immigrant story. We sometimes forget how important that is.”

Donovan’s peer-reviewed monograph is the first to be published by New Room Books, the United Methodist Church’s new academic publishing house. It is available now via Amazon and Cokesbury.