John Wesley preaching in the early days of Methodism
The spiritual experiences of other Christian traditions (3): An introduction to Methodist Spirituality
Listening: Hymn 634 in the Irish Chuch Hymnal, ‘Love Divine, all love’s excelling,’ is one of the most popular of the Wesley hymns in the Church of Ireland: http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/l/l531.html
There is a long-told joke about a Methodist minister who was offered a case of wine as a present on condition that he thanked the donor publicly from the pulpit. On the following Sunday morning, the minister thanked the local shopkeeper by name for his kind donation of fruit, and the spirit in which it was given.
In recent weeks we have looked at the Spiritual traditions and the riches of other Christian communities, including the Eastern Orthodox and the Benedictines. Let me introduce the Methodist tradition and the unique gifts of Methodist spirituality.
The best man at our wedding was a Methodist friend and neighbour from teenage years. Later, I was enriched by Methodist spirituality during two student placements in Methodist churches the 1980s, one at the Dublin Central Mission, with the Revd Paul Kingston, the other at Shankhill Road Methodist Church in Belfast, with the Revd Robin Roddie.
In recent years, there has been an increasing number of arrangements, both formal and informal, between local Methodist churches and parishes of the Church of Ireland, including Shannon in Co Clare, Leeson Park in Dublin and Glencairn in Belfast. We have a Methodist member of staff at the Church of Ireland Theological College, a resident Methodist student, the Rev David Nixon, who is preaching in the College Chapel on Wednesday 27 February, there are Methodist students on the NSM course, we have good links with the staff of Edgehill Theological College in Belfast, and we use the unique words of the Methodist covenant in our covenant service in the college chapel at the beginning of each academic year.
But there are five specific, practical treasons why theological students in the Church of Ireland should have an understanding of Methodist spirituality:
● The place of Methodism within the Anglican tradition:
● The brothers John and Charles Wesley were the sons of an Anglican priest, were ordained Anglican priests, and died as priests in the Church of England.
● Methodism began as a movement within Anglicanism
● Methodist spirituality has become part of the spirituality of the Church of Ireland through the large number of Wesley hymns in successive editions of the Irish Church Hymnal, and has become part of wider Anglican spirituality in a similar way.
● The covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church, adopted by both our churches in 2002, commits us to “a fuller relationship of commitment to common life and mission and a growing together in unity.”
Many other reasons abound. Can you think of some?
The Influences of Methodism on Anglican spirituality:
The Wesley hymns in the Irish Church Hymnal include: Hymns 11, 17, 52, 99, 104, 119, 132, 160, 218, 234, 266, 277, 281, 302, 327, 398, 487, 492, 505, 523, 528, 553, 563, 567, 589, 621, 634, 638, 639, 671 ...
There are at least 30 hymns in the Irish Church Hymnal with words and/or music by five members of the Wesley family … Charles Wesley is said to have written 6,000 hymns in all.
John Wesley and Charles Wesley:
John Wesley (1703-1791) is the leading figure in the evangelical revivals of the 18th century. John and Charles Wesley (1707-1788) were the sons of the Revd Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, and his wife Susannah Annesley. John was the second son, and Charles the second youngest in a family of 19 children.
John Wesley was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ Church Oxford, and was ordained priest in 1728. The early influences on his spirituality included the Church Fathers; Anglican divines such as the Cambridge Platonist, John Norris (1657-1711), who spent his final days as Rector of George Herbert’s former parish, Bemerton; Henry Scougal (1650-1678), Professor of Divinity at King’s College, Aberdeen, and author of The Life of God in the Soul of Man; and post-Tridentine Roman Catholic writers such as Saint Francois de Sales (1567-1622), the saintly Bishop of Geneva and author of Introduction to the Devout Life.
But the greatest influences on him may have been Thomas à Kempis (ca 1380-1471), author of The Imitation of Christ, which remains one of the best-known and best-loved works of Christian spirituality; the greatest of the Caroline Divines in the Church of Ireland, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Bishop of Down, Dromore and Connor; and, above all, the Nonjuror William Law (1686-1761), and his books Christian Perfection and A Serious Call.
William Law was particularly influential: John Wesley visited him regularly, and as a consequence Wesley’s views were typical of the High Church and Nonjuring Anglicanism of the day.
After a period as his father’s curate in Epworth, John Wesley returned to Oxford where he lectured in Greek and joined the Holy Club which had been established by his brother Charles while he was a student at Christ Church.
The members of the Holy Club were devoted to Bible study, prayer, frequent communion, visiting prisoners and visiting the sick. Their methodical approach to their devotions brought them the nickname of Methodists.
John Wesley subsequently took over the leadership of the Holy Club from his brother Charles. Under his direction, the Holy Club extended its mission to include prison visitation, helping the poor, and running a school for deprived children.
In 1735, John and Charles Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG, now USPG), then the principal Anglican mission agency. On their journey to Georgia, they were deeply impressed by the piety and prayer life of some Moravian emigrants on board the same ship. But perhaps they were already open to this influence, for among the books John Wesley took with him for the journey were writings by German pietists such as AH Francke and patristic writings.
In America, Wesley remained in contact with the Moravians, and translated a number of German pietist and Moravian hymns.
On his return to London in 1738, John Wesley met the Moravian Peter Bohler who encouraged him to “preach faith until you have it.” At a meeting in Aldersgate, London, on 24 May 1738, John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” when he heard someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans:
“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.”
This experience is usually described as John Wesley’s conversion. From that time on, he dedicated his life to proclaiming the Gospel. He travelled extensively as a preacher, and enlisted laymen in that task of preaching.
Wesley insisted that he remained a loyal priest of the Church of England as he continued in his itinerant ministry, especially preaching to those he felt had been sidelined by the Established Church and its parish structures. Soon, meeting houses and chapels were being built for the preachers and the growing number of Methodist societies. In 1784, the “Deed of Declaration” set out the use for these chapel buildings, and established an annual conference of 100 preachers.
In that same year, the Bishop of London refused to ordain chosen preachers to work in the new United States of America. As a result, John Wesley took it on himself to ordain the preachers himself. Methodism had attained its own independent life, and had become a separate denomination, although Irish Methodists struggled for another quarter century to remain within the Church of Ireland, and the Primitive Wesleyan Methodist Society, whose members wished to maintain that communion, and the Wesleyan Methodists only merged to form the Methodist Church in Ireland as late as 1877.
John Wesley’s understanding of grace:
Wesley spoke frequently of prevenient or preceding grace – the grace of God that goes before us. This grace stirs our consciences, moves us to do good and creates in us a hunger for God, eventually bringing us to our knees. There then comes a moment when we are set right with God through Christ, and we become conscious of his saving or justifying grace. We then begin to experience the love of God in our lives.
Wesley then says this is followed by sanctification, regeneration, holiness and perfection. Wesley saw perfection not as a realised or final state but as a process involving growth in love. Finally comes assurance of union with God.
Early Methodist Spirituality:
The young men at the Holy Club in Oxford in the early 1730s were given the nickname Methodists because of their earnest approach to religion and their religious practices.
The name remains attached to the movement and churches that trace their origins back to the brothers John Wesley and Charles Wesley.
The earliest rules of the first Methodist societies required:
● Frequent attendance at the Holy Communion;
● Meetings for the study of the Bible and other religious writings
● The encouragement of each other in ethical conduct.
● Regular visits to the prisons.
● Service to the poor.
This balanced and “methodical” approach to spirituality is characteristic of early Methodism.
The Large Minutes, a publication summarising Methodist rules and practices during John Wesley’s lifetime, carefully enumerates the “Means of Grace.” Those described by John Wesley as being the “instituted” Means of Grace included:
● Prayer (Private, Family and Public).
● Searching the Scriptures through Reading, Meditating and Hearing – the methods of meditating on Scriptures that were recommended included the Meditations and Vowes (1605-1606) and Occasional Meditations (1630) by Bishop Joseph Hall (1574-1656) and Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who gave us the phrase “mere Christianity” popularised by CS Lewis..
● Attendance at the Lord’s Supper – “at every opportunity”.
● Fasting – on Fridays.
● Christian Conference: be this, Wesley meant conversation with fellow Christians.
In pursuance of these means, those early Methodists attended Church of England or Church of Ireland parish services on a Sunday morning as well as their own preaching service at 5 a.m. Additional prayer meetings took place during the week.
At home, the head of a household would both pray alone and pray regularly with his family.
John Wesley published forms for each type of prayer, although extempore prayer was a familiar mode.
In addition to the “instituted” means of grace, there were the “Prudential Means” of grace, which consisted chiefly of occasions for Methodist fellowship.
Every Methodist belonged to a small class, and the more earnest to the smaller band. These classes and bands provided opportunities for prayer, learning, sharing and testing the spiritual life. Anything spoken of “in band” was treated as confidential. An early Methodist needed no confessional. On joining a “band” he/she was asked: “Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?”
John Wesley also provided forms for self-examination as a regular penitential discipline. The original purpose of the classes was to create groups which could collect money for the work of the Methodist movement. Those members with further responsibilities – such as leaders, helpers, Preachers or Assistants (later Superintendents) – saw these meetings as means of grace.
John Wesley believed that spiritual progress occurs when people take part faithfully in the right means of grace. What carried this spiritual revolution was John Wesley’s development of the class meeting.
This idea matured with the foundation of the first society by Wesley in 1739. For him, a society was “no other than a company of men [and women] having the form and seeking the power of godliness, united in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation.”
There were other opportunities for growth in faith. A variety of occasions for corporate prayer provided rich soil:
● The periodic Love Feasts were chiefly meetings for testimony, at which biscuits or cake and water were shared.
● The annual Covenant service, when Methodists solemnly renewed their relationship with God.
● Watchnights were times of prayer and witness, late into the night. Wesley modelled these on the vigils and feasts of the early Church.
● In addition, sermons and hymns are import dimensions to Methodist spirituality.
A mark of evangelical piety was the frequent reading and discussion of sermons. Methodism included sermons as part of its official doctrinal standards, including 44 sermons by John Wesley.
Perhaps it is worth dispelling one myth, however. Wesley was not the first evangelical preacher of his time to preach in open fields: he was inspired to do this by his contemporary, George Whitefield, in 1739.
Yet his record of preaching is phenomenal: he travelled over 250,000 miles on horseback throughout these islands, he often preached three or four times a day, he never repeated a sermon, and he is said to have preached over 40,000 sermons.
Perhaps the most enduring Methodist influence on private worship comes through the Methodist tradition of hymn-singing. John Wesley compiled his Collection of Hymns, which was published in 1780 and which included a large number of hymns by his brother Charles Wesley. This collection was described as “a little body and experimental and practical divinity.”
The index to Wesley’s hymns reads like a Creed. There are hymns for Believers’
● Groaning for full redemption
● Brought to the birth
● Interceding for the world
Hymns were provided to describe “the pleasantness of religion” and the “goodness of God,” as well as judgment and its consequences. “Backsliders” found verses for their encouragement. A section of the collection was designed to meet the needs of societies and classes when they met.
Another important collection of hymns was Hymns for the Lord’s Supper, published in 1745. This collection had 166 hymns.
Through these hymns the Methodists learned their doctrine and found a pattern for their lives. They sang these hymns, but they also meditated on them, and they prayed them. There are stories of how many Methodists on their deathbeds would recall the words of the hymns, as well as those of scripture.
Much of this early pattern of piety and spirituality continued to characterise Methodism after the death of John Wesley in 1791. However, with his death Methodists lost his personal supervision of the life of the Methodist societies.
The movement became the Methodist Church in 1795. But many other bodies arose with tenuous links with Wesley and Methodism, despite their names, and with a very different approach to spirituality and piety.
Many of these emphasised revival. The Primitive Methodists in England, who were radically different from the Irish Primitive Methodists, were known for their “enthusiasm.” At their open-air camp meetings, preaching had the primary objective of bringing about conversions. There was fervent prayer. After Sunday evening services, the more devout people who were present would stay back for a prayer meeting that included extempore prayer and hymn-singing. This had led to the mistaken impression that the next stage of Methodism placed a great deal of its emphasis on emotional expressions of spirituality.
Methodists sought to bring people to Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of their souls. These benefits were felt, and a proper aspect of sanctification or being made holy, was an experience, bringing a sense of release, of peace of mind, or a vision of Christ. It produced changed characters. But in fact it was not normally marked by excessive emotional expressions.
Although Methodism has since become a mainstream denomination, the enthusiasm associated with the spirituality of the early movement has not been lost totally.
The present unique aspects of Methodist spirituality on these islands include:
● The preaching services,
● The Covenant Services;
● The singing of hymns and extempore prayer;
● Love Feasts (in some places);
● Watchnight services;
● Class meetings (occasionally).
Today, when fasting is found among Methodists, it is normally in identification with the world’s poor and hungry rather than as a spiritual discipline. There are fewer occasions for family prayers and small prayer meetings. In the last few decades, Methodism has also been influenced by the liturgical movement and the ecumenical movement.
Methodism is an important part of Anglican tradition, and has had an important place and influence in Irish society – think, for example of the pasrt played by Wesley College, Dublin, Methodist College, Belfast, and Gurteen Agricultural College in Co Tipperary.
John Wesley’s own spirituality drew on a variety of sources including late mediaeval spirituality, the Elizabethan, Puritan and Scots divines, the Caroline divines and the Nonjuros and the post-Tridentine spiritual writers.
Methodist spirituality made a very important connection between faith and life, rather than bringing any new insights or doctrines. The dramatic success of the great Wesleyan revival in the 18th century was due to educational methods and structures of spiritual accountability as much or more than it was to new and dramatic doctrinal formulations.
David McKenna says: “[U]nder the mandate and motivation of the Holy Spirit, John Wesley saw in the chaos of his time the challenge of spiritual regeneration for individuals and moral transformation for society.”
The Methodist Covenant as adapted for use at the Covenant Service in the Church of Ireland Theological College:
Christ has many services to be done.
Some are easy, others are difficult.
Some bring honour, others bring reproach.
Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests,
others are contrary to both.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.
I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
A Raymond George, ‘John Wesley and the Methodist Movement,’ pp 455-459 in The Study of Spirituality, eds Cheslyn Jones, Geoffrey Wainwright and Edward Yarnold (London: SPCK, 2004).
RW Gribben, ‘Methodist Spirituality,’ pp 265-266, in The SCM Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, ed Gordon S Wakefield (London: SCM, 1983/2003).
Richard H. Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002): ‘John Wesley,’ pp 116-126; ‘Charles Wesley,’ pp. 127-140.
Peter Thompson, Working out the covenant: the story so far (Dublin: Church of Ireland Publishing, 2007).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes used in a seminar on the Year III course, ‘Spirituality for Today,’ on 26 February 2008.
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