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The Life of John Wesley by John Telford - Chapter 10



WESLEY was familiar with the religious Societies of the Church of England. He found there congenial spirits, to whom he often expounded the Scriptures, after his return from Georgia. Dr. Horneck, curate at the Savoy and Canon of Westminster, Mr. Smithies, curate of Cripplegate, and William Beveridge, the great Oriental scholar, who was Rector of St. Peter’s, Cornhill, and afterwards Bishop of St. Asaph, were the founders of these Societies. Their popular and awakening ministry led to the conversion of many young men, whom they advised to meet together once a week to edify each other. The members related their religious experience, and maintained a fund to relieve the poor, pay the debts of prisoners, and educate children. In 1678, a year after the formation of the Society, two stewards were elected to manage its charities. The religious Societies were under a cloud during the reign of James II., when every private gathering was an object of suspicion to the authorities; but a great step in advance was taken by the reading of public prayers every night at eight o’clock in St. Clement Danes Church. A crowded congregation attended. A monthly lecture which was established also became very popular.

After the Revolution a rule was passed that every member should try to gain others. The numbers now grew so rapidly that Societies were formed in all parts of London. Great care was taken that no one should be admitted who would lower the religious tone c the meetings. The Societies and those who syrnpathise with them then set themselves to check the scandalous vice of the times. The Lord Mayor and other Londoi magistrates lent their countenance to the scheme. The Society for the Reformation of Manners was thus formed Sunday markets were closed, houses of ill-fame shut up and great success crowned the work. John Wesley's father preached a sermon on behalf of this Society in 1698 In 1735 it was stated that the number of prosecutions for debauchery and profaneness in London and Westminster since the foundation of the Societies had been 99,380. Abuses sprang up, however, in connection with this detective work, and the Society soon sank into insignificance James Hutton, in his narrative of the awakening in Eng. land, says that the religious Societies “had so settled down into lifelessness, that the majority of their members were altogether slumbering or dead souls, who cared for nothing but their comfort in this world, and as they had once joined this connection, they were willing to continue in this respectable pastime on Sunday evenings, by which, at small expense, they could enjoy the pleasure, and fancy themselves better than the rest of the world who did not do the like.”

On May 1st, 1738, the Wesleys and their friends in London, acting on the advice of Peter Bohler, had formed a little religious Society. They were to meet together every week to confess their faults and pray for one another. The Wesleys were no strangers to the blessing of religious fellowship. The Oxford Methodists had found that the only way in which they could keep alive their zeal and spirituality was to meet frequently together. A serious man, whom John Wesley took a long journey to visit, about the time when Methodism arose at Oxford said to him, ‘Sir, you are to serve God and go to heaven. Remember you cannot serve Him alone; you must, therefore, find companions, or make them ; the Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” On board the Simmonds, the little party of Methodists met several times every day to pray and help each other. In Savannah * Wesley advised the serious part of his congregation to form themselves into a Society, which should meet once or twice a week, in order to promote spiritual life. Out of their number Wesley selected some for a more intimate union with each other. These he met himself on Sunday afternoons. Peter Bohler's suggestion, therefore, being in harmony with Wesley’s whole course, recommended itself to him at once. Wesley says the first rise of Methodism was at Oxford, in November, 1729, when four friends met together, the second at Savannah, in April, 1736, when twenty or thirty met at his house, the third when the Society in London was formed. The members first met at the house of young James Hutton, near Temple Bat. When that became too small they removed to the chapel at 32, Fetter Lane.j The original number of members was ten. Three years after the Society was formed, a reunion was arranged. Seven of the first members thus met together; one was sick; two were unwilling to attend. Peter Bohler, who had returned from America, was present

Three years bad brought great changes. The Wesleys had withdrawn from Fetter Lane ; Whitefield had separated from the Wesleys. “Surely,” says Wesley, “the time will return when there shall be again ‘union of mind, as in us all one soul.” When Wesley got back from the Continent in September, 1738, the Society at Fetter Lane had increased to thirty-two. By the beginning of 1739 it had about sixty members. Up to the time, of Molther’s arrival it made steady progress, fed continually by the Wesleys’ preaching in London.

The Society at Fetter Lane was not a Moravian Society. On May 2nd, 1738, the day after its formation, James Hutton wrote to Zinzendorf asking that Peter Bhler might remain in England as a Moravian preacher on his return from Carolina. The petition was signed by himself and thirteen others, but neither of the Wesleys joined in the request. The Society had no connection with the Moravians except in the personal friendship and sympathy of its leading members till Molther’s arrival. He could scarcely speak in English, but four weeks after his arrival in this country, on October 18th, 1739, he made an attempt to preach. He told Count Zinzendorf that the Society had been mainly under the care of the Wesleys until this time. Wesley states that he was only a private member; but there is no doubt that his influence was considerable, and that the converts of the early Methodist preaching added to the numbers of the Society. James Hutton says, “In June, 1740, he” (Wesley) “formed his Foundery Society, in opposition to the one which met at Fetter Lane, and which had become a Moravian Society.” Wesley’s journals and his letters to the Rev. Mr. Church expressly state that “the ‘reasoning and disputing,’ the ‘biting and devouring one another,” which he found on his arrival from Bristol on December 19th, 1739, was not among “the Moravians, but the English brethren of Fetter Lane before their union with the Moravians.~~* The Wesleys, therefore, were never Moravians nor members of a Moravian Society, as has been so often stated. Molther’s visit to England marks the beginning of the conversion of the Fetter Lane Society into a Moravian Society.

About fifty women and twenty-five men followed Wesley to the Foundery in July, 1740. A nucleus had already been gathered there. In the latter part of 1739, seven months before the breach with the Fetter Lane Society, eight or ten persons, who appeared deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly groaning for redemption, came to Wesley. Many who were awakened under the Methodist preaching had already spoken to him. They were surrounded by difficulties; every one sought to weaken, none to strengthen their hands. Wesley’s advice was always, “Strengthen you one another. Talk together as often as you can. And pray earnestly with and for one another, that you may ‘endure to the end and be saved.” They wished him to counsel and pray with them himself. Wesley, therefore, asked for their names and addresses. He soon found that the number was too great for him to visit them at their own homes. “If you will all of you come together,” he said, “every Thursday, in the evening, I will gladly spend some time with you in prayer, and give you the best advice I can.” This important step was taken at the end of 1739. Their number increased daily. Wesley gave them counsel, always closing “with prayer suitable to their necessities.” When Wesley began to preach in Bristol in the spring of 1739, a few persons agreed to meet weekly like those in London. After the meeting-house there was built several small Societies, which already met in various parts of the city, were joined to the Methodist Society. Those at Baldwin Street and Nicholas Street are specially mentioned in the arrangements for building the room in the Horse Fair. As the work spread Methodist Societies were also formed at Kingswood and Bath.

The Wesleys visited these Societies, but there was as yet no adequate provision for pastoral oversight. Financial necessities at Bristol led to one great step in advance. A large debt still remained on the room in the Horse Fair. On February 15th, 1742, many of the friends met together to consult about its payment. A Captain Foy stood up and suggested that every member should give a penny a week till the debt was paid. Some one objected that many of the people could not afford to do this; but he replied, “Then put eleven of the poorest with me; and if they can give anything, well: I will call on them weekly; and if they can give nothing, I will give for them as well as for myself. And each of you call on eleven of your neighbours weekly; receive what they give, and make up what is wanting.” The person who took charge of the contributions was called a leader, the company under his care a class. After this arrangement was made the visitors sometimes reported to Wesley that certain members did not live as they ought. He at once saw that this was the very thing he had long been wanting. He called the leaders together and desired each to make particular inquiry into the behaviour of those whom he visited weekly. By this means many “disorderly walkers” were detected. Some turned from the evil of their ways; others were put out of the Society. The new organisation was introduced into the metropolis and all other places as soon as possible. It bore the best fruit. In London especially it was a vast gain.* On February 1st, 1742, there were already eleven hundred members of the Society scattered from Wapping to Westminster. Wesley could not easily discover what their life was in their own homes and their own neighbourhood. Some who were inconsistent did much harm before he was aware of it. The pastoral care of the Societies had till then rested entirely on the Wesleys. The first step towards transforming the leaders into a Jay pastorate was taken when Wesley requested them to make special inquiries about the Christian consistency of those from whom they collected contributions. It was soon found to be inconvenient for the leaders to visit the members at their own homes. It took up more time than many of them could spare. In some cases masters and relatives were much opposed to these visits. There was no opportunity for the members to strengthen each other’s hands, or meet face to face for the removal of any misunderstandings that arose. It was therefore arranged that the members of each class should meet together for an hour or two every week.

By these means Methodism was provided with an organisation which remains unchanged to this day. The secret of its endurance and of the high spiritual tone which it has maintained among its members is to he found here. Wesley abundantly recognised the blessing of these weekly meetings to the Society. “It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and naturally to “care for each other.” As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for, each other. Objections were raised, of course. “Many were at first extremely averse to meeting thus.” Some looked on the class as a restraint; others said they were ashamed to speak before company. When any one objected that there were no such meetings when he joined the Society, Wesley replied, that it was a pity that they had not been held at first, but that the need and benefit of them was not then known. He regarded it as one of the great advantages of Methodism that it was able to change whatever could be changed for the better, and to learn by every day’s experience. He set himself to answer the more plausible objection that the leaders had neither gifts nor grace for such work by meeting them once a week for counsel. If any one was remarkably deficient in qualifications, Wesley promised that he would try to exchange him for a better leader if the objectors spoke to him of such cases. He took care, however, to point out that God had greatly blessed the work even of humble leaders.

These arrangements were introduced into Methodism during the year 1742, when the great extension of Wesley’s itinerancy took place by his visit to Newcastle. It provided a lay pastorate at the time when the growth of the work made it essential to have a vastly increased staff. Restless as was the itinerancy of the brothers, they could only pay occasional visits to the country Societies. The leaders lived on the spot, and met their classes every week at the appointed hour. By this means the work made steady progress, even when the brothers and their lay-preachers were called away to Other scenes of labour. Their converts were knit together and kept from wandering back into the world.. Bands had been formed at Fetter Lane consisting of not less than five or more than ten members of the Society; married men met together in one band, married women in others; single men and single women had bands of their own. It was thought that greater freedom and fuller help would be secured by grouping them thus. The “Select Society” or “Band” at the Foundery formed an inner circle composed of the more advanced Christians, to whom Wesley gave advice which might help them to “go on unto perfection.” The visitation of the classes once a quarter by Wesley or his preachers and the use of a ticket of membership which might secure the discipline and privacy of the Society seem to have begun in 1742. In August, 1737, Wesley joined with the Germans in Georgia in one of their lovefeasts. Wesley was greatly interested in these survivals of the ancient Church. He, therefore, introduced them into his own Societies.t At first they were only open to the Methodist bands, but by-and-bye all the Society joined in them. After partaking of bread and water, the meeting was devoted to religious experience.

Wesley early resolved, by the grace of God, not “to strike a blow” in any place where he could not follow it up At Mullingar, in Ireland, on July 10th 1750, for instance, he declined an invitation to preach made by the sovereign of the town (the Irish title for mayor). “I had little hopes,” he says, “of doing good by preaching in a place where I could preach but once, and where none but me could be suffered to preach at all.” When he visited a few place and found that those who had been awakened desired to join his Society, Wesley used to explain its purpose, and receive those who were willing to become members. At Newport, in the Isle of Wight, in 1781, he says, “After preaching, I explained the nature of a, Methodist Society, of which few had before the least’ conception.” Sometimes the whole congregation begged to remain to his Society meetings. They crowded in with the members, or exhibited such eagerness to hear that Wesley could not refuse them admittance.t He was well… repaid at Barnard Castle in June, 1763. “It was a day of God’s power. They all seemed to take the kingdom by violence, while they besieged heaven with vehement prayer.” The financial affairs of the Society were under the care of stewards. This arrangement was first made in London. A few days after the Foundery was taken, some of the friends told him that they would not sit under him for nothing. When Wesley replied that his fellowship supplied all his needs, they reminded him of the expenses of the lease and repairs of the Foundery. One man offered to receive the subscriptions and pay accounts Wesley thus found his first steward. The number was afterwards raised to seven. They met every Thursday morning at six, and distributed all the money paid them up to the previous Tuesday night. All the finance of his Societies was thus placed under the management of suitable persons chosen from their own number. As the growth of Methodism called for division of labour, it was simply made on these lines.

The watchnight service, which has been adopted by so many evangelical Churches, was first kept in 1740, at the suggestion of a Kingswood collier. Before their conversion the colliers used to spend their Saturday night at the public-house. Now it was devoted to prayer and praise. Wesley heard that they met thus in Kingswood School. Some advised him to put an end to such meetings, but he could see no cause to forbid them. Rather he believed the watchnight might be introduced elsewhere. He sent word that he would join in the service on the Friday nearest full moon, and on the previous Sunday announced that he would preach. Methodism thus gained one of its most popular and useful services. At first watchnights were held once a month, then once a quarter, from half-past eight to twelve. The service is now confined to the last night of the year.

Wesley felt himself responsible for every side of his people’s life. He was not content to be their adviser in spiritual matters only, but laboured to make them model citizens and subjects. In March, 1755, on a visit to the west of England, Wesley “found Bristol all in a flame; voters and non-voters being ready to tear each other to pieces.” He was suffering from a severe cold, and had not recovered his voice so as to preach or even to speak to the whole Society, but he desired those members who were “freemen” to meet him. He mildly and lovingly informed them “how they ought to act in this hour of temptation,” and had good reason to believe that the greater number profited by the advice. What his election rules were may be seen from another record. At Bristol, on October 3rd, 1774, he says, “I met those of our Society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them— “I. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy.

Wesley was equally careful to preserve his Society from defrauding the revenue. Smuggling was carried on in all parts of the country in those days to an extent which now appears almost incredible. Wesley states that “the numbers concerned therein, upon all our coasts, are far greater than can be imagined.” In 1744 it was estimated that not less than four thousand five hundred horses were employed in the trade in Suffolk alone.t In July, 1753, the stewards of West Cornwall met at St. Ives. When Wesley began to examine the Society he soon found that he could not proceed. “Well-nigh one and all bought or sold uncustomed goods.” In the evening he met all together, and told them they must put away this abomination or see his face no more. All promised to do so, and the plague seemed to be stayed4 At Sunderland in 1757 he warned the Society that he would no more suffer smuggling, than robbing on the highway. Next day he examined every member on this subject A few would not promise to refrain, so that he was obliged to cut them off. Two hundred and fifty were of a better mind. Two years later he spoke to each of the Society there again on this matter. “Most of the robbers, commonly called smugglers, have left us,” he says, “but more than twice the number of honest people are already come in their place. And if none had, come, yet should I not dare to keep those who steal either from the King or subject.” In a letter written from Chatham to Joseph Benson, who was grappling with smuggling at Sunderland, Wesley says, “‘The Word to a Smuggler’ is plain and homely, and has done much good in these parts.” The tract thus aptly described was published in 1767 There is no escape from its reasoning. It shatters every subterfuge, and proves that all who buy uncustomed goods are as guilty as the actual smuggler himself. Those who excused themselves by saying, “But I do not know that it was run,” did not escape. “No! Did not he that sold it tell you it was If he sold it under the common price, he did. The naming the price was telling you, ‘This is run.” He points out that those who defrauded the revenue increased the burden of taxation on all honest men. “Therefore every smuggler is a thief-general, who picks the pockets both of the King and all his fellow-subjects.”

Any one who studies Wesley’s relation to his Societies will soon see how resolutely he set himself to grapple with the vices of his day. Wherever Methodism was planted it contributed in no small degree to a general reformation of manners. It made its members better citizens, and raised the whole standard of morality. No truce was ever made with sin. At Rye, in January, 1778, Wesley preached, as usual, to a crowded congregation. “How large a Society would be here could we but spare them in one thing! Nay, but then all our labour would be in vain. One sin allowed would intercept the whole blessing.”

London was the choicest of Wesley’s Societies. At Manchester, in May, 1783, he was greatly delighted with the select Society. “I believe there is no place but London where we have so many souls so deeply devoted to od. A year later at Whitby he says, “I met such a select Society as I have not seen since I left London. They were about forty, of whom I did not find one who had not a clear witness of being saved from inbred sin. Several of them had lost it for a season, but could never rest till they had recovered it. And every one of them seemed now to walk in the full light of God’s countenance.” Such a tribute helps us to understand the high character of the London Society. The old preachers often trembled when they were called to labour among the experienced and devoted Methodists of the metropolis. Not a few came with reluctance. But they soon found that their hands were borne up by the people, so that their work prospered, and the happy fellowship with some of the oldest and best members Methodism possessed proved no small blessing to them. For both the Wesleys London Methodism cherished the warmest affection. Charles felt so deeply the loving interest of the Society at the time of his marriage, that he writes, “Surely both Jesus and His disciples are bidden.” Nowhere was he more beloved or more happy than at London. It was the same with his brother. In December, 1741, he met the Society.. “We scarce knew how to part, our hearts were so enlarged toward each other.” Years only deepened the love and sympathy with which London Methodism regarded its founder. This was, indeed, true of all the Societies. Wesley had sacrificed everything—ease, wealth, honour—to give himself wholly to the work of God; and he was honoured not only by the abounding success of Methodism, but by the reverence and love of all his people,