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antiquity, no sacred buildings hallowed by the mem-
ories of centuries. On the contrary, it is an entirely
modern institution. Its position as a Church can
hardly be said to have any clearly defined beginning,
for it was the result not of secession but of a
slow and steady development It has arisen simply
and naturally from a mere religious society within
the English Church, till it is now, as it has long
been, a distinct ecclesiastical community embracing
among its adherents many millions of souls and
extending its influence throughout the whole world.
The extravagances that have come in its train are

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366 The Methodist Church.

such as are apt to repel the thoughtful mind, and have
been the food for satire to witty critics through every
period of its history. But its claims upon our atten-
tion and regard are very high. It organisation, its
doctrine and its influence, are among the most
interesfing facts in the Church history of recent
times. It has produced many works of Christian
benevolence, it has diffused a new spirit of earnest-
ness, and the influence which it has exerted on the
religious life of England has been so marked and
powerful that no historian can venture to ignore,
however much he may depreciate it As a Church
it is but of yesterday ; a century and a half com-
prise its entire history ; its progress has been simply
marvellous.

Methodism did not take its rise from any doctrinal
dispute nor from any question of church-government.
It was from the very beginning a religious movement
Herein lay the secret of its strength. It had no
sympathy with Dissent, it had no interest in mere
ecclesiastical disputes. Its declared object was *to
reform the nation, more particularly the Church, and
to spread scriptural holiness over the land.' The
discovery which Methodism had made did not con-
cern the validity of the Episcopal office nor even in
the first instance the doctrines of the Church. It
was simply the discovery once more of the value of
the human soul and of its immediate personal relation
to God. The force of this conception is sufficient to
explain all its subsequent history and influence as
well as all its evident shortcomings. For there is
nothing which is more likely to lead to fantastic as
well as glorious results than the keen consciousness



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The Methodist Church. 367

of spiritual realities which from the very first Metho-
dism strove to inspire.

The Methodists preached no new doctrine; their
theology was very scant and very simple ; they knew
little of the metaphysical subtleties of the creeds, and
cared not to know. But there was one idea which
was always present with them and which over-
shadowed all others, the idea of the worth of the
individual soul and the need for personal holiness.
This idea lies at the root of the Methodist move-
ment, explains its origin, determines its progress,
underlies all its organisation, and enswathes its entire
history. There is certainly a vast difference between
the old-fashioned Methodism of last century and the
Methodism of to-day, just as there is a vast difference
between the Presbyterianism of this century and the
Presbyterianism of the eighteenth. The old-fashioned
Methodism like the old fashioned Presbyterianism
brought with it much that seems crude and ridiculous
to modem eyes. A generation that has seen such
rapid progress is apt to look with complacency on
a generation that believed as the early Methodists
did *in present miracles, in instantaneous con-
versions, in revelations by dreams and visions, which
also drew lots and sought for divine guidance by
opening the Bible at haphazard.' Still it remains
true that the inspiring idea of the Methodist societies
at the present time is the same idea to which they
owe their origin, and which they have done much to
revive not only in the Church of England but in all
the Churches of Christendom.

When Mr. Buckle, therefore, in his History of
Civilisation described John Wesley as a great schis-



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368 The Methodist Church.

matic, whose aim was to found a system which should
rival the Established Church, he was looking at the
result of Wesley's labours and drawing an illogical
inference — an inference which the facts do not justify.
The system which Wesley founded is the Methodist
Church. It certainly rivals the Establishment, but
nothing was further from the intention of its Founder
than to form a new sect. He was a loyal son of the
Church of England, and he remained faithful to her
till his death. The Church which claims him as its
Founder has long been outside the Anglican Com-
munion, but it began within her pale, and the separa-
tion was only gradual. It is now one of the great
Churches, comprising many distinct bodies which
though divided from each other are substantially
identical, and trace their origin to one common
source, the genius and the piety of John Wesley.

It is a remark of Matthew Arnold that John Wesley
had a * genius for godliness.' This is not only the
key-note of Wesley's character, but also, as we have
said, the secret of the Evangelical Revival of the
eighteenth century and the true explanation of the
rise of the Methodist Church. When the second
George was on the throne of England, religious life
had sunk to a very low ebb. It was truly, as Carlyle
describes it, ' an age of spiritual paralysis,' ' a godless
world.' The ignorance of the lower classes was
almost equalled by the ignorance of the lower clergy.
There was no hope in the Church, for the Church was
asleep, and when she did awake it was only to
apologise in the mildest of tones for her loosely held
belief. Neither was there any hope in Dissent, for
Dissent had spent its force, and was languid and



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The Methodist Church. 369

powerless. Something like despair began to fall on
the minds of serious and devout men ; the prevailing
tone was sceptical; a cynical rationalism pervaded
even the apologetic literature of the day ; Arianism
was openly avowed; Socinianism became rampant;
scepticism was everywhere supreme. The natural
results in life and conduct were to be expected, and
the historians of Methodism have drawn a very
sombre picture of the state of religion in England.
But the rectory at Epworth, the home of the Wesleys,
is itself a proof that some deduction must be made.

Like a later movement in the Anglican Church,
Methodism is sometimes regarded as an Oxford
movement. It is commonly traced back in the history
of its founder to his experiences at Oxford, where un-
doubtedly the idea of the Methodist societies is to be
found. When John Wesley returned to the University
in 1729, after having acted for some time as curate
to his father, he found that his brother Charles had
formed a small religious society of which he at once
became the head and moving spirit. The peculiarities
of this society, embracing as they did regular attend-
ance at communion, fasting, stated hours for devotion
and visitation of the sick, naturally made it an object of
ridicule to their quick-witted and not too pious fellow-
students, who nicknamed them * the Holy Club,' * the
Sacramentarians,' and finally * the Methodists.* The
nickname was appropriate, for they reduced all their
religious duties to rule, * they interrogated themselves
whether they had been simple and collected, whether
they had prayed with fervour Monday, Wednesday,
and Friday, and on Saturday noon ; if they had used
a collect at nine, twelve, and three o'clock; duly



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370 The Methodist Church.

meditated on Sunday from three to four on Thomas
ji Kempis ; or mused on Wednesday and Friday from
twelve to one on the Passion.' But this little society,
which was really nothing more than a college set, had
no direct or immediate bearing on the Methodist
movement. It came to nothing. It never at any time
numbered more than thirty adherents, and all of these
took different directions — some of them developing
into strict High Churchmen, others passing over into
Dissent. If it is remarkable for anything it is for this,
that through its means there were brought together
the two men who by the variety of their gifts, the one
by his commanding eloquence, the other by his
administrative capacity, effected the great religious
revolution of modern times. Already George White-
field had experienced the baptism of fire, * the daystar
had arisen in his he.art,' and he was burning to deliver
his message. With what power and with what result
he delivered that message, you have already been
told by a previous Lecturer. It is with John Wesley
rather than with.Whitefield that the story of Metho-
dism as a Church is bound up.

Setting aside then the Oxford Methodism as having
no direct connection with the movement, except that
it had its influence on Wesley's mind and indicates
his prevailing characteristic, we find two very clearly-
marked periods in the history of the Methodist
Church. The first is the period during the lifetime of
the founder after his conversion, when it is as yet
nothing but an association of Religious Societies,
though all the elements of a complete organisation
are present. The second is the period after the
death of Wesley, during which it has gradually con-



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The Methodist Church. 371

solidated into a distinct and fully equipped Church.
The first of these periods has been described as the
period of Evangelical Methodism, the second may be
called the period of Ecclesiastical Methodism. The
first period of half a century centres in the personal
history of Wesley ; the second has seen the complete
development of his principles and the triumph of his
system.

L After the little society at Oxford had broken up
Wesley went to Georgia, but his mission was unsuc-
cessful, and he returned to London in 1738. It was
at this time that the crisis occurred in his spiritual
experience which had such a mighty influence on his
subsequent career. On his return from Georgia, his
mental condition as he himself described it was one
of complete entanglement and confusion. He was
disappointed and miserable, and probably inclined (as
he afterwards thought) to exaggerate, but there can
be no doubt of the reality of his mental perplexity.
He had become confused amid opposing schools of
theology. He had read the Lutherans and the Cal-
vinists, and vainly sought an antidote for both in the
contradictions of Anglican divines. In despair he had
betaken himself to the Fathers, but * bent the bow too
far the other way.* It was in these circumstances
that he came under the influence of Peter Bohler, an
earnest German, and a member of the Moravian
Brotherhood, who gravely warned him against his
own philosophy, and explained to him the true nature
of faith. To Wesley the conversation of Bohler
3eems to have had all the freshness of a revelation,
though he did his best to combat him. It prepared
the way for an event which must be regarded by all



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372 The Methodist Church.

unprejudiced students as the true beginning of the
Methodist Church. The date is the 24th of May
1738, and the story is told by Wesley himself all
unconscious of its issues. Oppressed by his doubts
and entanglements he was looking everywhere for a
sign that would set him at rest In the morning he
opened his New Testament, and fancied he found a
special message for himself in the words on which
his eyes rested, * There are given unto us exceeding
great and precious promises.* As he went out he
opened again at the words, * Thou art not far from
the kingdom of God.' In the evening he went very
unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where
in the fading twilight he heard one reading * Luther's
Preface to the Epistle to the Romans.* The words
of the great Reformer sank into his soul, and a new
Reformer was born, *the meek May twilight was
deepening into night, but the dawn of the great revival
shone in John Wesley's heart'

It was this experience which made John Wesley
a preacher, which was the true beginning of Method-
ism. It began in the soul of its founder, and was
wrought out there before it became a fact of history.
The desire to make known to others what he had
himself experienced, changed the polished and exact
Oxford student into a powerful preacher of the gospel,
and *the common people heard him gladly.* He
responded to the appeal of Whitefield, who had
already begun his field-preaching, and was electrifying
peasant and peer with his impassioned eloquence. It
was with difficulty that he could reconcile himself to
the irregular mission, but his scruples were soon
melted away in the fervour of his religious zeal. He



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The Methodist Church. 373

felt that his work had come, he knew that he had a
message to deliver, he did not dare to be silent And
so wherever opportunity offered in open field or
thronged highway he began to lift up his voice. The
burden of his preaching was the doctrine, then called
'new,* of salvation by faith, and the success which
from the first attended him was very great. Lacking
the fiery oratory of Whitefield, he had the same
earnestness, the same profound conviction of the
reality of his message, and he had also a rare practical
sagacity much more valuable for attaining permanent
results, he was 'a born administrator of spiritual
forces.' Hence while Whitefield's fame is a lingering
echo, the work of Wesley remains, and his name is in
all the Churches. They who gave him the nickname
builded better than they knew, for the * Founder' of
Methodism was above all things a Methodist.

It has been said that Wesley had no preconceived
plan, and in a certain sense this is true, but he was
not merely the creature of circumstances, he was
determined by one clear purpose: * Church or no
Church, we must save as many sinners as we can.'
To this end everything was directed. The defects of
the Church system were speedily recognised : no
attempt had been made to insure systematic religious
instruction. To remedy f his he adopted an idea which
was naturally suggested to him by the success of his
preaching. In 1739 he tells us eight or nine persons
came to him in London, who appeared to be deeply
convinced of sin. They desired that he would spend
some time with them and advise them. So he
appointed a day when they might all come together.
And this was the beginning of the * United Societies,'



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374 T^ Methodist Church.

which have now grown into the Methodist Church.
Other societies arose at Bristol, at Kingswood, at
Newcastle, and in 1743 it became necessary to draw
up rules for their guidance, another element having
meanwhile been added by the division of the societies
into classes, which have continued to be a special
feature of the Methodist system. The document em-
bodying these rules is still in force, and though it is
unsectariari it cannot be doubted that it presents
another sect ' in process of formation.* A religious
society has begun, nominally within the Church of
England, but having no organic connection, being
constituted simply on the basis of mutual edification
and growth in grace. Of this ever-growing Society
Wesley, almost in spite of himself, became the
director. He was supported by his brother Charles,
whose hymns inspired the Methodists with deep
spiritual feelings, and he was also joined by one or
two clergymen of the Church, but the societies in-
creased so rapidly as to tax all their powers. As far
as they could they endeavoured personally to
superintend them all, and when circumstances com-
pelled them, even began to administer the sacraments
— a step which it must in fairness be allowed was
hastened by the shortsighted opposition of many of
the parish ministers. Another step followed even
more bold, the appointment of lay preachers. It was
taken very unwillingly, but it soon became and has
always remained a strong feature in Methodism.
Wesley knew its dangers, and he endeavoured by
every means in his power to guard against them.
He held his first Conference in 1744, and subsequently
adopted a doctrinal test for the admission of lay



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The Methodist Church. 375

preachers. From this time till his death the history
of the movement is the history of rapid progress, and
of the gradual widening of the breach between
Methodism and the Church. In the year 1778, when
he opened the New Chapel in City Road, London,
Methodism was recognised as a great power in
England. It was still within the Church, but the
cords were loosening. Discontent was spreading
because of the difficulty in respect to the adminis-
tration of the sacraments, and the demand was made
of Wesley to ordain the preachers. He paused, but
necessity determined him,and yielding to the judgment
of his friends, he set apart preachers first for America,
next for Scotland, and finally for England ; while in
1788, he 'provided that his presbyters' orders should
be transmitted to his preachers,' having four years
previously entered into Chancery the Deed of De-
claration, the Magna Charta of Methodism, which
legalised the Conference, gave his societies a per-
manent basis, and prepared for their subsequent
development The course of that development has
not been what he desired, his life-long wish was to
retain his societies within the Church of England,
but he clearly foresaw the result which he vainly sought
to avert, for he said, *As soon as I am dead the
Methodists will become a regular Presbyterian
Church.'

II. What Wesley prophesied has practically come
to pass. The restraint which his personality exercised
ceased when that personality was withdrawn. He
was not long dead when dissension broke out in the
Methodist Societies. By the 'Plan of Pacification,'
Conference gave power to the preachers in each



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376 The Methodist Church,

society to administer the sacraments, and the practice
soon became general. But the demand for power to
administer the sacraments was coupled with a demand
which trenched on the powers of Conference, and
sought to give a larger share to the laity in the ad-
ministration and government of the Societies. This
demand was steadily resisted, and every repetition of
it led to a secession of greater or less dimension, till
finally, in 1851, an attempt was made to 'starve the
Conference into submission, and more than 100,000
members withdrew from its communion.' Since that
time we are told, on high authority, peace and unity
have remained unbroken. The main body has
assumed the name, and claims to represent more
nearly than the others the mind of the founder. It
is by far the largest and most active of all the divisions
of Methodism, numbering in England alone more
than five hundred thousand members.

It would be an impossible task, within the limits
of this lecture, to describe in anything like detail the
different communities into which Methodism has
crystallised. Fortunately, such a description is neither
necessary nor desirable. Despite the apparent diver-
sity in the various sections of the Methodist Church,
there is a striking unity running through them all,
and, indeed, to an onlooker (as is almost always
found) the differences that divide them seem in most
cases hardly perceptible. Practically, Methodism is
one. The sole subject of division has been the
question of church-government, but as this was not
the basis on which the Societies were founded, or,
rather, as it was no such question that determined
their form, it has made little difference in the charac-



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The Methodist Church. 377

ter of the various bodies. The distinct characteristic
of Methodism is neither its doctrine nor its form of
government, though both of these are in a sense
pecuh'ar, but its method of reh'gious discipline. It
was essentially the complement of the English Refor-
mation, which was in some respects lamentably
defective. That Reformation was, in a large degree,
a political movement, and did not touch the depths
of religious experience. As a previous lecturer has
said, it had * no Martin Luther, no John Knox,' and
all the more did it need its John Wesley. The im-
press of his master mind may be seen in the whole
religious life of England, but it is distinctly visible in
every form of Methodism, and more especially in that
form which bears his name, and which claims, with
justice, to be the parent stem of the great tree of
Methodism whose branches spread throughout the
whole world. In what I shall say, therefore, with
regard to the doctrine and discipline of the Methodist
Church, I shall confine myself with advantage to the
system of Wesleyan Methodism, which is the typical
form. But there are more than twenty communities
which claim Wesley as their founder, all differing
more or less widely from the main body. I can do
no more than mention some of the more important.

The first breach in the ranks of Methodism was
the New Connection^ which came into existence seven
years after the death of Wesley. It was founded in
1798 by Alexander Kilham, who was expelled from
the Conference on the question of lay co-operation,
and numbers about thirty thousand members. Se-
cession once begun did not cease. The same demo-
cratic element underlay the movement of the Protestant



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378 The Methodist Church.

Methodists, who seceded ostensibly on the organ
question in 1828, as well as that of the Wesley an
Methodist Association of 1836. Both of these, how-
ever, and also the seceders of 1850, were amalgamated
in 1857, and are now known as the United Methodist
Free Churches, The democratic element is impressed
on the constitution, for Conference consists of circuit
delegates, and circuits are independent of control by
Conference. By far the largest body in England,
however, next to the Wesleyan, is the Primitive
Methodist Connection, It is strongest in the Midlands,
the scene of its origin. It was founded by Hugh
Bourne and William Clowes, local preachers, who
were separated from the Wesleyan Methodist connec-
tion about 1 8 10, because they had violated the rule
laid down by Conference with regard to camp meet-
ings. Primitive Methodism has certain peculiarities
which betray its origin. Its constitution is more
popular than that of Wesleyanism. It is more evan-
gelical than ecclesiastical, and it allows women to
preach. Its Conference is composed, in addition to
twelve permanent members, of four members who
are appointed by the preceding Conference, and of
delegates from district meetings, the lay element
predominating. This sect has a membership of
about two hundred thousand, and stands in very close
relation to the parent body. Not unlike the Pri-
mitives, both in character and spirit, are the Bible
Christians or Bryanites^ as they are sometimes called,
who sprang up in Cornwall about the year 181 5.
They owe their origin to a Cornish local preacher,
William O'Bryan or O'Brien, and are most numerous
in the west and south of England. In all other



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The Methodist Church. 379

respects save the constitution of its Conference this
sect is almost identical with the Primitive Methodists.
In its supreme courts the ministerial and lay elements
are balanced. Its Conference consists of ten super-
intendents of districts, the president and secretary of
the preceding Conference, lay delegates from each
district meeting, and as many of the travelling
preachers as are allowed by their respective district
meetings to attend. Its adherents, including those
in Canada and in Australia, amount to more than
thirty thousand.

Such are the main divisions of English Methodism,
substantially at one in doctrine, and differing only on
questions of church polity.

There is, however, another branch of Methodism
which must be mentioned. Strictly speaking, it is no
portion of the Methodist Church. It is no result of
the labours of Wesley. It partakes of the same
general character, but is widely divergent on the
subject of doctrine. What is known as Welsh Calvin-
istic Methodism has generally been associated with
the name of Whitefield, but in reality it had a distinct
and independent origin. It began in 1735 under the
preaching of Howell Harris, a native of Trevecca in
Breconshire. His friends had sent him to Oxford to
cure him of fanaticism, but the cure was not effectual.
He had scarcely begun his preaching when another



Online LibraryFranceThe churches of Christendom → online text (page 27 of 31)