Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Strange Warming


The second largest Protestant denominational family in the United States—and fourth largest church in Britain—arose when three young men broke away from the Church of England after launching what I would dub the first Oxford Movement. The young men were John Wesley (1703-1791), his brother Charles Wesley (1707-1788) and their friend George Whitefield (1714-1770), the founders of Methodism.

The ringleader was decidedly John Wesley, an Anglican cleric ordained a priest in 1728. While at Oxford he founded a group in 1729 initially of three students (his brother Charles became the fourth member) who met three or four evenings a week to read and discuss the classics. This group is the origin of Methodism.

One of those classics was the Novum Testamentum Graece, a source document printed in 1514 as part of the Complutensian Polyglot Bible, the first printed version of the entire Bible in all its original languages. The work was directed by Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros, a Franciscan priest, later cardinal, Grand Inquisitor and religious reformer, at the Complutense University in Madrid, which he founded.

It may have been their engagement with this work that led to a more religious character of the club, whose activities began to include praying, examining their spiritual lives and studying the Bible and then putting their deepened faith into action. The club took food to poor families, visited prisoners and taught orphans to read. With at least two priests among its members, it frequently celebrated the Eucharist.

Their more ascetic practices—they fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3:00 p.m., the reputed hour Jesus died on the cross—were widely blamed in the broader Oxford community for the death of one of their members. John Wesley, however, protested that the member has contracted an illness a good year and a half after he stopped fasting. Several students jeeringly dubbed Wesley’s group the “Holy Club,” and a popular ditty said, “By rule they eat, by rule they drink, by rule do all things but think.”

That ditty also unwittingly gave the movement its lasting name when, as had occurred before, a taunt was turned into a token of pride. The students chanted, “Method alone must guide ’em all, when themselves ‘Methodists’ they call.” Indeed, John Wesley defined “Methodist” for the 1753 English Dictionary as “One that (or who) lives according to the Method laid down in the Bible.”

That was long after a disastrous venture that led to the real institutional beginning of Methodism. In 1736-37, John and Charles Wesley were infused with fervor for their still tiny movement and decided to go to the new colony of Georgia in America and help spawn a revival of “primitive Christianity” (meaning that of the Apostolic Era) among the native inhabitants. The episode ended badly after John left the colony only a little ahead of the authorities, who sought him on charges of harassing a woman he had fallen in love with but who spurned him and married another. Charles followed shortly after.

Back in England, John turned to the Moravians, a pre-Luther, originally Czech Protestant denomination that traced back to rebel Jan Hus, and was counseled by a Moravian missionary who was awaiting papers to travel to Georgia himself. On May 24, 1738, John attended a Moravian meeting in London,  which Wesley described memorably: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

The conversion, commemorated by Methodists as Aldersgate Day, turned Wesley around. He began to preach about his evangelical-style change of heart and personal salvation by faith, then on God’s grace.

Although less famous than his older brother’s, the conversion of Charles Wesley three days earlier is worth noting. It took place at what would be today 12 Little Britain, in the vicinity of Aldersgate, where a plaque at no. 13 reads: “Adjoining this site stood the house of John Bray. Scene of Charles Wesley's conversion by faith in Christ on May 21st 1738.” Charles was not ordained, but after his conversion was a frequent field preacher. His lasting contribution to the Methodist movement are the 6,000 hymns he wrote.

Methodism now began to spread in earnest throughout England. Methodist “societies” worshipped in chapels, the first of which was the New Room in Bristol, built in 1739. At this point John Wesley began to lay the foundation of what would eventually be the structure of the Methodist Church, starting with societies, circuits, quarterly meetings and annual conferences. The General Rules issued by the Wesley brothers in 1743 state the conditions for admission into the “United Societies.” The first annual conference was held in 1744 by John and Charles Wesley, four clergymen and four lay preachers, who met in London.

Societies were made up of “classes” of a dozen members that met weekly for “spiritual fellowship” and guidance and “bands” of select members deemed “spiritually gifted.” By 1744 these select members were said to number 77. From this categorization of members also comes the term “backslider,” for a convert who falls back into preconversion habits. As the movement grew, John Wesley appointed "helpers" who visited societies (at least 30 a month) in “circuits.” To keep the preaching fresh and effective, he rotated preachers among circuits about every year or two, setting up the “itinerancy.”

The growth of the movement brought new problems, most notably with the mother institution, the Church of England.

Some of these problems stemmed from the reality the Methodists’ successful ministry to laborers and criminals and others on the margins of society who were not served by the established church. In the United States, Methodism became the faith of slaves who formed black churches in the Methodist tradition. More egregious to the Church of England, however, was that most Methodist leaders were not ordained. They flouted parish boundaries and rules on who had authority to preach, and initially Methodists encouraged women to preach, both at home and at outdoor events where they gave witness of their faith.

Differences with the Church of England divided the Wesley brothers. Like John, Charles was born the son of an Anglican priest, and disagreed vehemently with his brother concerning the widening breach with the Church of England. He preached his own faith in the fields, but not in churches. When, in 1765, he became too ill to be active he settled around the northern London Anglican parish of St Marylebone. Near death, he sent for the priest and told him, “Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.” He was.

John Wesley originally believed that the Church of England was “with all her blemishes, [...] nearer the Scriptural plans than any other in Europe” and was willing to make concessions to keep the peace with the Anglican clergy. However, by 1746, while reading an account of the early Church, he became convinced that apostolic succession was a “fable” and that he was “a scriptural episkopos [bishop] as much as many men in England.” Nonetheless, in 1763, John took the additional step of allowing Erasmus of Arcadia, a Greek Orthodox bishop of the Diocese of Arcadia in Crete, to consecrate him a bishop—secretly because it was illegal in England to do so.

The public break with Anglicanism did not come until 1784, as a by-product of the American Revolution, which led to mass departure of Anglican priests out of loyalty to the king and an enormous clerical shortage. The newly formed United States disestablished all churches, and the Anglican affiliate, the Protestant Episcopal Church was formed. The joke among Episcopalians is that the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, then repaired to a tavern to found the new church.

As the Church of England dithered about appointing a bishop to ordain replacement U.S. priests, Wesley took action. He ordained Thomas Coke, an Anglican priest, as “superintendent” of U.S. Methodists by the laying on of hands. Coke sailed to America and ordained Francis Asbury superintendent. Both then asked the Americans to call them “bishops,” over John Wesley’s objections, in the Methodist Episcopal Church they formed in 1784. That same year, John made the British Annual Conference of United Methodist Societies his institutional successor.

Methodism has no formal creed of its own comparable to the Lutheran Augsburg Confession. John Wesley wrote 25 Articles of Religion that abridge and adapt the Church of England’s 39. Much more important are the Scriptures—meaning the Protestant 66 books. Methodists draw from these the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, the universality of original sin. They believe that the universal distribution of grace through human cooperation is necessary for eternal salvation and that although offered to all it may be freely rejected.

John Wesley split with Whitefield, the third founding Methodist from the original Oxford group, on the question of predestination. Whitefield developed Calvinist leanings that moved him to become a fiery preacher and effectively start the Protestant evangelical movement. He preached a series of “revivals” in late colonial North America that led to a whirlwind movement eventually known as the Great Awakening, to which we shall turn next.

2 comments:

  1. Just a few weeks ago I (re-)read the notice of my grandparents in-home wedding officiated by a minister of the "M.E. Church". Not knowing if the "M" stood for one of our three local towns, Middlefield, Middletown, Meriden, I finally confirmed with some historian-friends that it was Methodist Episcopal. Anne

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    1. The Methodist Episcopal Church was the first Methodist denomination founded in the United States. It existed until 1939, when several splinters rejoned into the Methodist Church, now the United Methodist Church.

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