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coming an important factor in the development of Methodist organization.
The purpose of organization was to promote Methodist discipline or practices. Wesley met his societies very regularly and was exact in his discipline. If they would not attend their class, be constant at the Church services and the communion, he would not have them in his society.40 All of the rules were to be observed—not a part only—and if a woman wore ruffles or a high crowned hat, Wesley took means to see that she put these things off, or that she be ejected from the society. 41 At Norwich, there were three rules enforced at every meeting of the society.
Each member must show his ticket.
Men and women must sit apart. 3. No spectators in the gallery during the communion. Wesley occasionally read over all of his rules to his individual societies, stating that all who were willing to abide by them could remain within the society, and all who could not, were obliged to leave.42 Frankness itself was Wesley's strength in this matter. “I met the society at seven, and told them in plain terms that they were the most ignorant, self-conceited, selfwilled, fickle, untractable, disorderly, disjointed society that I knew in the three kingdoms.” 43 This was real discipline.
Wesley not only examined the societies as a whole, but also the individual members. At Manchester he spent three days and had a private conversation with each member.44 There was much scandal concerning the moral state at Kingswood. Wesley investigated the societies of this place and found that two persons had lapsed into drunkenness in the last three months. These were promptly expelled, but there was little reason for scandal.45 One especial habit caused Wesley much trouble—smuggling. It was the general practice of many good people; but Wesley thought it wrong. Though perhaps in the minority, Wesley took an emphatic stand against this custom. He told the people of
40 Jour., vol. vi, p. 50.
Tyerman: vol. iii, p. 277.
Cornwall that they "should never see his face again” if they kept up this custom.46 At Sunderland, he waged a hot fight against smuggling and put many out of the society for this
Yet 250 were left. But returning there later in 1759, he reported that most smugglers had left the society and honest people had filled in the gap.47 At Norwich he consulted with the class leaders and then asserted that discipline should be enforced if only fifty remained in the society.48 He examined the society at Bristol and left out every careless person, and every one who wilfully and obstinately refused to meet his brethren weekly. 49 Wesley felt that this procedure was worth while. At Sutherland, he was of the opinion that one of the strongest societies existed; they scrupled even to buy or sell milk on Sunday. 50 The result of. such strict standards was either to drive people unsympathetic with Methodism out of the societies, or else to strengthen their zeal and increase their loyalty. The latter usually happened. Whatever else one may conclude, one cannot deny that good members of the societies carried out Methodist practices, and Methodist practices alone.
When Wesley first started the organization of his societies he ascertained the attitude of the bishops toward them. He found that very few opposed them and that Archbishop Secker countenanced them.51 At the same time Wesley had an interview with Dr. Gibson, Bishop of London. Both Charles Wesley and John asked him: “Are religious societies conventicles ?” The bishop answered: “No; I think not; however, you can read the acts and laws as well as I; I determine nothing.” 52 This did not long remain the attitude of the clergy; for soon they began to attack this organizing of Methodists into societies as being unfriendly to the Church. To the accusation that these societies divided people from the Church, Wesley responded, “if any member of the Church does thus divide from, or leave it, he hath
Jour., vol. iv, p. 76.
no more place among us. To the accusation: you make schism, Wesley replied: “If you mean dividing Christians from Christians, and so destroying Christian fellowship, it is not.
If you mean gathering people out of buildings called churches, it is.” In spite of these many explanations the opposition continued; for it was thought that the Methodists held too many meetings; if they held fewer, the people could devote more time to earning their living and taking care of their families, and the preachers also would be less exhausted because of too many meetings. 55 Some spoke of Wesley's societies as critics recently spoke of the Salvation Army. The establishing of his societies was spoken of as the "opening of Wesley's Mission, and doubtless many felt the same antipathy toward them as many to-day feel toward the Salvation Army.56 Yet Wesley would not admit these charges. A society was nothing else than “a company of men having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation”: this was in no sense schism.57 But in spite of opposition, the societies grew. In Dublin there were 420 members in 1752—and that was after much rioting against the Methodists. 58
Still in spite of his avowals to the contrary, Wesley did not forward unity with the Established Church. When he said, “I spoke to the members of the society, consisting of Churchmen, Dissenters, and Papists, that were," one can well understand the feelings of the High Churchmen.58 This kind of organization so angered a clergyman named John Free, that he went about maligning the Methodists and in a Speech at Zion College, 1759, he claimed that he was spit upon by the Methodists for advocating their suppression. This showed the high pitch of feelings at the time. 60
Appeal to Men of Reason, Works, vol. v, p. 28.
Scott: Fine Picture of Meth., p. 20.
Nevertheless, Wesley continued to perfect the organization of these societies. He printed a constitution called The Nature, Design, and Rules of the United Societies. 61 He sought to give each Methodist a spirit of unity by explaining at society meetings the contents of the minutes of the conferences, letters from the Methodist preachers in America, etc.62 He saw that this organization gave new converts strength and unity; and those not so united grew faint hearted.63 For this reason, he urged all Methodists to join them, and reproached any who stayed outside of a society because it was humble in its nature. He insisted upon a public, clear-cut stand for the society, on the part of every individual Methodist. Anything less than this was not satisfac
As he said in a letter to a friend, “one thing gave me great pain; you are not in the society." 65 And when one urged Wesley to dissolve his societies; to renounce all lay assistance; to leave off field preaching; and then intimated that he would gain honorable preferment in the Church; Wesley answered such a temptation by laboring more industriously for his societies. He well knew that with well organized societies, those practices, such as field preaching, the using of lay preachers, and ordination, which were the hope of Methodism, would be protected and furthered.66
SECTION II. THE BEGINNING OF THE METHODIST
Further development of organization within Methodism came out of these societies. On the one hand, the societies were further divided into classes, bands, etc., on the other, they were further united into one larger group called the “Conference.” Both types of these developments had for their purpose the more effective carrying out of Methodist practices.
The first Conference of the Methodists convened June 25, 1744. The place of meeting was London, and the purpose for
61 Works, vol. v, p. 190ff.
Moore: vol. i, p. 452.
Eayrs : Letters of Wesley, p. 116.
the gathering was simple: many of the preachers desired the better to know how to save their own souls, and those about them. It was a very modest gathering which lasted for five
The first Conference in Ireland took place in 1752eight years later—and on an equally humble scale.68 Ordained men and lay preachers attended the early Conferences; but as the ordained clergy withdrew from the Methodists, Conferences tended to be made up more and more of these lay preachers. There was no hard and fast rule in the beginning. “Most of the preachers in the kingdom were present" at the Irish Conference in 1769.69 The question was raised at the Conference of 1746 as to who were "the properest persons to be present at these Conferences.” The opinion rendered, was that the preachers, earnest band-leaders, and any other "pious or judicious stranger” were proper attendants upon the Conference.70 As late as 1778, Thomas Taylor in his diary recorded, “To-day we permitted all sorts to come into the Conference, so that we had a large company.” Thus these Conferences were most democratic at the beginning, and many besides the itinerant preachers were admitted. 71
The reason for establishing these Conferences can best be understood from a member, Henry Moore: “For some years the preachers moved round the kingdom as Mr. Wesley thought best, from time to time, without any regular plan. But he now found it necessary to divide the whole work into circuits. This plan was attended with many difficulties, and it seemed at first that the unity of the body could not be preserved, on account of the clashing interests of circuits. But a remedy was soon found for this threatening evil, viz., to summon annually a considerable number of preachers, in order to consult together concerning the affairs of the societies. The preachers thus met with him [Wesley] at their head, he termed, The Conference.” 72
Ibid., vol. iii, p. 143.
Quoted from Tyerman : vol. iii, p. 271.