and others of their family
Wesley and Methodism
A review. Eclectic Review, July 1852
Wesley and Methodism, by Isaac Taylor, London, Longmans, 1851
As the portrait painter does not need to flatter the noble and beautiful countenance, so the truly great and good man does not need from his biographer an extravagant and undiscriminating eulogium. For such a man a truthful biography is the most precious tribute and the worthiest monument. It has been the misfortune of Wesley and of Methodism, that neither the man nor the system has been (unless in the volume now before us) portrayed by a critic at once competent and impartial.
Wesley's first biographers were his grateful and admiring disciples. They wrote in the spirit in which the children of a departed parent plant flowers, with reverent and loving hands, upon his grave. Their volumes contain materials for an estimate of Wesley's character, rather than furnish such an estimate.
If Southey was not a competent and impartial biographer of Wesley, the reason certainly is not to be found in any excess of love and reverence for his subject. Wesley's evangelical faith, self-devoting piety, and burning zeal, were excellences too spiritual and heavenly to be within the range of the Laureate's sympathies, at the time when he chose the life and labours of the first methodists, as the theme on which to employ his ever active and graceful pen. In a mere literary point of view, a more competent biographer could scarcely have been wished for. His love of reading carried him through the many volumes, an acquaintance with which was necessary to the performance of his task. His literary skill was shown in the production of one of the most fascinating biographies ever written — a book which Coleridge speaks of reading for the twentieth time, and seems to have continued to read and enrich with marginalia almost until his death. But Southey writes of Wesley coldly — because with an unsympathizing heart. His bigoted churchmanship constantly restrains him, when he seems about to be captivated by Wesley's delight in doing good, and earnest efforts to save the souls of men, whether by methods regular or irregular, according to the principles defended in The Book of the Church. His low and inadequate views of the Christian life completely disqualified him from judging rightly of the leading features of Wesley's character, and the chief results of his labours. Southey, the poet and philosopher, could not worthily portray Wesley the saint.
Appended to the last edition of Southey's Life of Wesley is a beautiful fragment, by Alexander Knox, consisting of observations suggested chiefly by his perusal of Southey's book, and intended for his perusal. Those of our readers who are acquainted with Knox's Essays and Correspondence, will anticipate from him a full-hearted sympathy with Wesley's serene and beautiful piety. Yet he also writes as a churchman, and as a churchman who in his recluse musings had been framing or imbibing superstitious theories of sacramental efficacy, which have not been without influence on the Puseyism since fully developed in the Oxford Tracts. If he had attempted a complete portraiture of Wesley, this superstitious bias would have given, unconsciously to himself, an inaccurate colouring to the picture. A complete portraiture Knox did not attempt. He writes only of Wesley's moral and religious excellence. Of this he speaks from long and very intimate personal knowledge; and it is delightful to read the testimony which his very heart utters. We quote a few lines from this testimony:
The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance. Every look showed how fully he enjoyed the gay remembrance of a life well spent; and wherever he went he diffused a portion of his own felicity. Easy and affable in his demeanour, he accommodated himself to every sort of company, and showed how happily the most finished courtesy may be blended with the most perfect piety. While the grave and serious were charmed with his wisdom, his sportive sallies of innocent mirth delighted even the young and thoughtless; and both saw in his uninterrupted cheerfulness the excellency of true religion. For my own part, I never was so happy as while with him, and scarcely ever felt more poignant regret than at parting from him, for well I knew I never should “look upon his like again”.
Richard Watson was first Southey's controversial critic, and then his rival as a biographer. In the latter capacity he wrote with good taste and with eminent ability. He is not greatly inferior even to the Laureate in literary skill; but he seems never to forget that he is a polemic as well as a biographer. Hence he writes like a lawyer whose brief is never out of his hand. His narrative is encumbered by perpetual controversial digressions; and when at the close of the book he might be expected to put forth his whole strength and skill in an estimate of the character of the founder of Methodism, he shrinks from the task, as if confessing that he distrusted himself, doubting whether he could write impartially on such a theme, and he substitutes various sketches, chiefly from anonymous periodical writers of the time at which Wesley died.
Our readers will remember the interest which was awakened some twelve months ago, when there appeared among the announcements of books preparing for the press, Wesley and Methodism, by Isaac Taylor, author of Ignatius Loyola and Jesuitism. Then it seemed that, for the first time, a biographer both competent and impartial had undertaken the task in which previous writers either had failed or attained only very partial success. In general literary ability, Mr Taylor has, amongst living authors, very few superiors. Of special qualifications for the present work his Natural History of Enthusiasm and his Spiritual Despotism gave ample assurance; since Wesley had been accused of enthusiasm, and Methodism alleged (whether truly or falsely) to be a system of spiritual despotism. Here, then, was a judge engaged in hearing evidence on both sides, and about to pronounce what seemed likely to be a just decision. In one respect only did Mr Taylor's qualifications seem defective; that is, in personal acquaintance with Methodists. The recluse of Stamford Rivers was not likely to have attended class-meetings or love-feasts, or to have engaged in revival prayer-meetings, or to have listened frequently to travelling preachers.
By education a Congregationalist, by conviction an Episcopalian, it seemed unreasonable to expect that he would write with thorough sympathy and full knowledge of a system greatly differing both from Independency and Episcopacy; yet even on these accounts, we are more likely to obtain the results of impartial consideration from him: and, all things considered, it seemed likely that we should find in the volume now before us a truthful portrait of Wesley and a just estimate of Methodism.
It is in no irreverent or self-confident temper that Mr Taylor applies himself to his task. He well observes, that “as often as we cite another to our tribunal the sentence has a double import, and may be read off; first, as touching the party so cited, but also as touching ourselves. We decide according to our own dispositions, our principles, and moral condition.” He wishes that we should go into Methodism — “The Methodism of the past, not of the present time,” ingenuously and modestly, “fairly to measure it and ourselves also with it, perhaps to gather thence some sharp lessons of humiliation.”
The book consists of four parts, in which the author discourses concerning The Founders, The Substance, and The Form of Methodism, and of The Methodism of the Time Coming. The first is the only part of the work which is biographical, and in this no complete narrative is attempted. It is supposed that the reader has acquired from other sources an acquaintance with the lives of John and Charles Wesley and their “fellow-workers unto the Kingdom of God”, and that he needs only to have his recollection refreshed and his judgment aided, perhaps corrected.
To those who, like ourselves, expected a full, though a miniature portraiture of Wesley's character, as a man, a Christian, a Christian minister, and a distinguished instrument in a great national religious revival, this part of the book must be somewhat disappointing. There are but few sentences in which any attempt is made to delineate character; and they are not wrought into one paragraph, but scattered over many, and incidentally introduced. Glimpses are given us of Wesley's home, school, college; but glimpses only; and our author then hastens to critical and somewhat controversial remarks on Moravianism; on Calvinism, as adopted by Whitefield and rejected by Wesley; and on ascetic extravagance and superstitious credulity, as ulcers in the heart of Romanism, spots only on the face of Methodism — spots which quickly disappeared when the Methodists admitted the gospel, in its grandeur and simplicity, into their hearts.
The title of the section Wesley the Founder of an Institute, awakens the expectation, that in it the leading features of Wesley's intellectual character will be placed before us; but, again, we have little that is biographical. The section is an anticipation of other parts of the volume, in which the substance and the form of Methodism are specially considered. So far as we have in this section any delineation of personal character, it is striking and decisive. Mr Taylor speaks, in sentences soon to be quoted, with the clearness, and something even of the brevity, of the judge, when he gives to Wesley the highest praise, as a master of administrative skill.
We will attempt, under our author's guidance, using freely his materials and frequently adopting his words, to present a sketch of John Wesley, as, at this distance of time, he appears to the Christian mind — to a mind delighting to discover and celebrate his excellencies but not willingly blind to his frailties and his faults.
Born at Epworth, in Lincolnshire, of parents who, Non-conformists by birth, were Conformists from conviction, John Wesley inherited from his father the “stern moral force and religious individuality” which marked his personal religious character and course; and from his mother “the love of order, and abhorrence of anarchy”, which are to be traced in the compact ecclesiastical constitution of Methodism.
Nurtured in the parsonage of an English parish clergyman, his mind was imbued with the truths of holy scripture, as those truths are expressed and embodied (not without some alloy of Romish superstition) in the Book of Common Prayer. He was taught classical literature at the Charter-house school, and “as a boy learned to suffer wrongfully with a cheerful patience, conform himself to cruel despotisms without acquiring either the slave's temper or the despot's”. Oxford “brought out the robustness of his intellectual structure”. As the student, and afterwards as the teacher of logic, he passed through much discipline of great value to him in later life, but logic was certainly not to him, at that period, an instrument either for the discovery of religious truth, or the detection of religious error. Oxford was to Wesley rather the sombre cell of the ascetic than the pleasant and meditative home of the student. By prayer and fasting, by readings in Jeremy Taylor and Thomas a Kempis, and, having left Oxford, by conversations with Moravian bretheren on his voyage to America, and, after his return, by similar conversations in England gland and in Germany also, he sought, “the truth and peace”, and at length beheld “God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself”, “the just God and the Saviour” freely justifying the believer in Jesus. Then “his chains fell off: his heart was free”. He was filled with all joy, and peace and hope in believing, and from that hour to the close of his long and ever active life, his whole spirit and soul, and body, were consecrated to the glory of God, and to the salvation of men.
As a theologian, he was clear rather than consistent, comprehensive, and profound; as a scholar, accurate rather than rich; as a writer, he draws from “the well of English undefiled”, and might be studied by many later writers, much to their improvement, as a model of simplicity, clearness and strength. They might learn, in the study of his more carefully composed composed treatises, that the language of Shakespeare, Bacon, and Bunyan has copiousness, majesty, and sweetness enough to render the new words they are ready to coin quite superfluous. What Wesley was, as a preacher, no living witness can tell us. The results of his preaching, the seals of his ministry, and even the wild excitements which sometimes followed it, make us sure that “his word was with power”. It was power of the highest kind, not the power of impassioned oratory, speaking in every look and gesture of Whitfield; nor of splendid imagery and life-like pictorial illustration, as in the winged words of Chalmers; nor of the perfect combination of conclusive reasoning, graceful ornament, and impassioned utterance as in Robert Hall: it was the power of calm, majestic earnestness; of faith perfectly undoubting; of love to God and man, by which his mien “transfigured”, so that they who steadfastly listened and gazed “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel”, and “could not resist the wisdom by which he spake”.
A gift, even more important than this power as a preacher, was his constructive and administrative faculty. “In dealing” (we quote Mr Taylor's sentences) “with whatever may belong to a process of organization, or of marshalling a host for a single initiatory purpose, Wesley has never been surpassed by civil, military, or ecclesiastical mechanists; nor has he been surpassed by any general, statesman, or church man, in administrative skill.” His society was formed gradually, and, for the purposes of a society, as distinguished from those of a church, its structure was as nearly perfect its is permitted to the invention of man. His administration of it, his management of the complex machine, showed talent and tact, firmness as to principles, with flexibleness in details, which seemed to meet every emergency, avert every peril, and promise the conquest of the world to Methodism, if the founder of Methodism could have been immortal on earth.
But the time came that Wesley must die. He had survived his brother Charles, whom, till death parted them for a little while, he had loved, in spite of great differences of opinion and frequent discussions; and whose hymns were constantly on his lips, because they were written on his heart. He had survived his friend and fellow-worker, Fletcher of Madely, also; who, while his champion as a controversialist, was, by a strange combination of qualities, his pattern as a saint. For John Wesley aspired to be not the philosopher, the scholar, the orator, nor even, as his chief object, the leader of men, and their spiritual governor for their good, but to be himself a saint indeed, a Christian growing up into Christ in all things, attaining the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. And herein God gave him the desire of his heart. He was not faultless. The faultless are to be found only before the throne of God. He had the infirmity of credulousness, not, as those who will see no fault in him say, according to the measure of his age, but far beyond it, beyond the measure of any age, except those which could receive and transmit the legends of the Roman-catholic saints. It, is mortifying, Mr Taylor observes, to see his “powerful mind bending like a straw in the wind before every whiff of the supernatural”. He had a far more injurious infirmity, in his undue self-confidence — a confidence however, almost inevitable to one who was surrounded by men, his inferiors in nearly every respect, his instruments rather than his counsellors, who were only “to help him when, where, and how he pleased”. One result of this infirmity — a result already most calamitous and which threatens to be fatal — was his stereotyping the Methodism of his “Poll Deed”, his four volumes of Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament, and binding it, so far as Law can bind Thought, upon the souls of all the Methodist preachers as long as Methodism shall endure. This was by far his gravest fault; but even this, and whatever other impaired the excellence of his character, are only proofs that perfection is never found among the fallen children of men. In the heart and life, in the words and deeds of John Wesley, there were combined in beautiful symmetry whatsoever things are true, venerable, and just, with whatsoever things are pure, lovely and of good report. From his dying chamber he might have sent forth, with scarcely less confidence than the apostle, whom in ardour and activity he so much resembled, the charge — “Those things which ye had both learned and received, and heard and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” “His was a personal virtue that was not merely unblemished, for it was luminously bright. His countenance shone with goodness, truth, purity, benevolence: a sanctity belonged to him which those near him felt, as if it were a power with which the atmosphere was fraught.” His death was the crown of his life. His passage through the Valley of the Shadow of Death was in perfect peace. Never, since the days of the apostles, did earth lose one who had contributed more to holiness among men. Never, since those days of inspiration, did heaven receive one for whom a larger company of spiritual children was waiting, to be his joy and crown of rejoicing in the days of the Lord Jesus.
We must notice, though far more briefly than we wish, the exquisite chapter which Mr Taylor gives regarding Charles Wesley. We do not remember any passage in Mr Taylor's writings equal in all respects to this. It in very brief, yet very comprehensive; beautiful in expression, and full of wisdom in thought. It is from this chapter that extracts may best be taken. We wish, indeed, that our space would permit us to enrich our pages with the whole. Our readers will welcome two or three paragraphs. Those who have already read them in the volume will delight to have them presented to their attention afresh:
As his brother's friend, adviser, and colleague, Charles exerted an influence that was almost always corrective and salutary. Less credulous than John, less sudden in his apprehensions, and proportionately more discriminative and cautious, his mind reached its maturity earlier; and this maturity was itself of a riper sort. But then his prejudices, as a churchman, were less flexible; his reserve and modesty were greater, and unless the superior force of his brother's character had carried him forward beyond his own limit, he must soon have withdrawn from public life, and then he would have been known only, if at all, as the author of some sacred poetry of rare excellence. But these very hymns, if the author had not been connected with Methodism, would have shown a very different phase, for while the depth and richness of them are the writer's, the epigrammatic intensity and the pressure which marks them belong to Methodism. They may be regarded as the representatives of a modern devotional style which has prevailed quite as much beyond the boundaries of the Wesleyan community as within it. Charles Wesley's hymns on the one hand, and those of Toplady, Cowper and Newton on the other, mark that great change in religious sentiment which distinguishes the times or Methodism from the staid non-conforming era of Watts and Doddridge.Several paragraphs follow, which, most reluctantly, we must omit. They contain a graphic description of an old-fashioned Methodist congregation singing, with heart and voice, the hymn: “O Love Divine, how sweet thou art!”
Better constituted than his brother for domestic enjoyment, Charles had a happy home, where the gentle affections of the gentle nature found room to expand; and it was thus that he became qualified to shed into the methodistic world something of a redeeming influence which John could never have imparted. Charles Wesley's mind was an ameliorating ingredient, serving to call forth and to cherish those kindlier emotions with which a religion of preaching — a religion of public services — so much needs to be attempted. His personal ministrations, no doubt, had this tendency in some degree, but it was by his sacred lyre, still more than as a preacher, that he tamed the rudeness of untaught minds, and gained a listening ear for the harmonies of heaven, and of earth, too, among such.
Every reader will feel that this scene must be from life. To this there follows a high eulogium of the hymns generally, both in their doctrinal and devotional characteristics, and some observations, well deserving to be pondered, on the importance of psalms and hymns considered as the “liturgical element”, in the worship even of those churches that do not use liturgical prayers. “The Hymn Book to such bodies comes in the stead of creed, articles, canons, and presiding power.” Mr Taylor will think us in error; nevertheless we must say we heartily welcome the change. The Hymn Book is dear for its own sake, and dearer still if it helps to secure our deliverance from the frozen creed, and the exclusive and uncharitable canon. But we will not dispute. We prefer to give the beautiful and noble concluding paragraph of Mr Taylor's tribute to the sweet singer of Methodism:
Hymns and psalms and spiritual songs, a species of literature in which the English language is more rich than any other, administer comfort, excitement and instruction, to an extent, and in a degree, which never can be calculated. The robust in body and mind, the earthly, the frivolous, and the sordid, know nothing of that solace, of that renovation of the heart which sacred poetry is every day conveying to the spirits of tens of thousands around them. It is not merely when sickness has slackened the cords of life, but also when the heart has become benumbed by the cares and toils of the common day, and when even the understanding is rendered obtuse, it is then that the hymn and psalm, at a late hour, restore the spirit, and give renewed clearness, but giving consistency to the distracted intellect, and so lead the soul back to its place of rest in the presence of things “unseen and eternal”. Among those to whose compositions millions of souls owe inestimable benefits in this manner, Charles Wesley stands, if not foremost, yet inferior to few.
We must pass over entirely the sketches of Whitfield, Fletcher, Coke, Lady Huntingdon, and the other “honourable Company”, and laboured, whether apart from each other, or with each other, for the spread of the gospel. The chief matters of the volume claim more than all our space. At the conclusion of the division on the Founders of Methodism, there are several paragraphs relating to the founders and martyrs of the English Church, and to the Puritans and Nonconformists, Howe, Baxter, Charnock, Manton, Bates, and Flavel, in which there is much to invite remark; but we may not indulge either our readers with extracts, or ourselves in commentary. Mr Taylor's promised book on the Nonconformists of the past age will soon, we hope, instruct and delight us by the fuller consideration of these themes.
In the second part of his volume, our author treats of the substance of the Methodism of the last century. He inquires “what is it which distinguishes it on the one hand from that religious condition which it found existing, and, on the other, from that which has come into its place, and which now surrounds ourselves?”
Though this question is so distinctly proposed, we are obliged to say that it is not distinctly answered. Here we have to complain, as other reviewers have done, in respect to Mr Taylor's writings, of want of clearness. We cannot help contrasting him, in this respect, with another of the lights of our age, Archbishop Whately. Some may say of the archbishop, as Mr Taylor says of Wesley, that he is “a shrewd and sharp logician, not a master of the higher reason”. For ourselves as readers, and as reviewers, desiring much to give a just deliverance, we greatly regret the absence, in this part of Mr Taylor's book, of those clear and brief marginal summaries of the contents of every paragraph, which the great logician is wont to give, and by means of which, had they been furnished, we might have stated, in Mr Taylor's own words, and without risk of misrepresenting him, what are the four elements into which he has divided the substance of Methodism.
As to what these four elements are not, he speaks clearly enough. They are neither new doctrines nor new rules of Christian life. The doctrinal peculiarities he holds to be comparatively trivial; the disciplinary arrangements he excludes from the distinctive characteristics of Methodism. What, then, are these four really distinctive “elements of the great Methodistic revival”?
The first is a vivid feeling of our relationship to an unseen Sovereign and Judge, and to an unseen and eternal work, in which the sentence of the judge will be executed on every human spirit. It is the awakening of the religious as distinguished from the moral sense — the awakening of the soul to the dread realities of a righteous judge and an eternal retribution.
The second is a vivid “reflex” feeling of the relation of the Father of Spirits to the individual spirit thus awakened to a divine life. This feeling must needs blend with the first, in order to any permanent spiritual renovation. Yet our author seems afraid of it, or doubtful of its practical results. He speaks of it as tending to produce a piety morbidly personal — speaking of them, as in the class-meetings of the Methodists. This morbidly individual form of piety which Mr Taylor holds to be specially methodistical, he contrasts, dimly indeed, yet repeatedly, with some church form of piety — which he traces to the apostles — perceives morbidly developed in the Church of Rome, and prominently manifested in the English Church — but which unhappily for us, he does not clearly describe in his own pages. One cannot help doubting whether this Church idea of Christian piety is very clearly defined in his own mind. Methodism, however, had, for its second element, this vivid feeling of relationship between the individual spirit and the Father of Spirits.
We have examined three times the chapter on the third element; but are not sure that we know what the third element is. After three pages of preliminary remarks, we are said to “come in sight of that which we are now in search of — namely, that which was the principal and the harmonising element of the Methodistic revival”. We expect to have immediately a distinct statement of this principal and harmonising element. We look for the large type, in which Mr Taylor sometimes presents the words which express his leading thoughts — but instead of this, we have several singularly beautiful paragraphs concerning HIM the one Christ our God and Saviour — His participation in our nature — His sympathy with us — and our peace through Him, and concerning the process by which our spirit is led to the enjoyment of this peace. But the writer seems to have lost “sight” of that third element of Methodism which he promised to show us — or to be so dazzled by its brightness that he forgets to show it to his readers. Certainly he nowhere says distinctly what it is. We infer, after our repeated readings of the whole section relating to this third element, that it is a vivid consciousness of personal, present salvation through the Son of God, and an habitual fellowship between the redeemed and restored human spirit and the personal Redeemer, the shepherd and bishop of souls.
The fourth element is “evangelic philanthropy”. This is given to us in large type in the second sentence of the section. We are thankful not to be left to inference, and obliged to doubt whether our inference is correctly drawn. As to the section itself, we pass it over as a digression — a digression relating to Christian missions in connexion with the epistles of the New Testament, well deserving of separate discussion, but having scarcely any connexion with that analysis of Methodism which we are now considering.
Our present question is: Do these four elements constitute a true analysis of the Methodism of the last century? Was it distinguished by these four characteristics, from the religious condition by which it was proceeded, and from that which now surrounds us? For ourselves, with the reverence of which even reviewers need not be destitute, when studying the opinions of a prince in literature, we must say that we cannot receive the analysis as correct — we cannot recognise the features as really distinctive. To us it seems that these four elements belong to genuine Christianity, always and everywhere; nor have we perceived any more marked and powerful manifestation of any one of them, or of the whole of them, in Methodism, than in every revival of the spirit and power of Christianity, from the beginning until now.
To have the eye of the understanding opened to behold the Righteous Judge, the final tribunal, the world of retribution — to have the heart broken in godly sorrow for sin, healed by the assurance of a father's pardon and a saviour's sympathy and care, and filled with love to God and love to mankind — with evangelic philanthropy — these are the elements not of Methodism only, or chiefly, or in any way distinctively, but of Christianity — Apostolical, Reformed, Puritan, Nonconformist — of the Christianity which gives peace to our own hearts and hallows our homes. Retribution, reconciliation, restoration — for ourselves and our race, to the love and the likeness of God in Christ — these were the thoughts and words which kindled the soul of Paul, and “turned the world upside down”; these words Luther read, believed, spake as in thunder, till Europe reverberated with the awful and joyful sound; these words Baxter proclaimed in piercing tones, and Doddridge echoed in tones milder, but not less sincere; these words Robert Moffat translates into the barbarous languages of Africa, and the heathen believe and tremble — believe and love. If we were asked for the distinctive characteristics of the Methodism, we should point to two, not four. The first would be traced to the religious condition of England at the time when Wesley and his fellow-labourers began to preach; the second would be found in the prominence given in the Methodist preaching to the doctrine of the New Birth, in the likeness of God, and the enjoyment of the peace of God. The religious condition of England was that of the professed faith in Christianity and the real ignorance of it. The people were roused to think of the meaning of their own words — the words read in their churches, printed, though rarely read, in their family Bibles; recognised in baptisms, marriages, funerals, in courts of law, as well as in churches and houses. The masses of the people, when these truths were clearly and powerfully set before them by the Methodist preacher, did not deny, as would an infidel nation, like the French; or dispute, as would a sceptical nation, like the German; or reject, as would a popish nation, like the Spanish; but, in vast multitudes, they believed and turned to the Lord. The truth taught to them by these preachers was not chiefly the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as in Luther's day and to his hearers. Luther's (which is Paul's) doctrine on this subject was taught both by Wesley and Whitfield and the fellow-workers with them both; but in Wesley's ministry the chief place was given to the doctrine that by this new birth we enter upon a spiritual life, in which holiness secures happiness, purity gives and guards perfect peace, and the soul, bearing the image, is a partaker of the felicity, of the blessed God.
For description of the spiritual life, as a life of sanctity and bliss, Wesley's later writings are richer than those of any divine whose works were read currently in his day, or are read in our own day in English homes.
It would be scarcely possible, even were it desirable, to consider the form of Wesleyan Methodism apart from the unhappy and almost baneful controversies which now agitate and convulse the Methodist Connexion. Mr Taylor wishes to shun these waters of strife, but cannot entirely avoid them. He formally disclaims any intention of meddling in these disputes: “Are we then,” he says, “so bold as to entertain the thought of schooling the extant Wesleyan body; or do we propose to advise 'Conference', or to utter judgement in causes now pending between it and any of its unruly members? Certainly to no such high purposes as these is the reader, in the present instance, to be made a party.” We make no such disclaimer. On the contrary, we apply ourselves to this part of the book mainly that we may gather from it suggestions to which thoughtful and dispassionate Wesleyans will do well to take heed. Mr Taylor modestly says: “May there not be room for the intervention of any whose only solicitudes and whose only jealousies relate to that Christianity which is common to all evangelic bodies?” We are sure there is both room and need for such intervention: and though the Wesleyan Conference and its official writers have hitherto met with frowns or sneers all the counsels offered to them by persons not of their own body, we shall not be deterred from laying before such of the Methodist preachers and people as may read these pages some counsels suggested by Mr Taylor's book in its bearing on the present state of the Wesleyan church, and prompted by a sincere and prayerful desire for the healing of their divisions and the restoration of their properity and peace.
The form of Wesleyan Methodism Mr Taylor considers as fourfold, namely:
I. A scheme of evangelical aggression.With the section on evangelic aggression, few, if any, persons will differ. Itinerancy, with the greatest and best of the preachers as the chief, the most laborious itinerants, all will confess to be one of the mightiest agencies for spreading the knowledge of Christ and for arousing the attention of those in whom even the name of Jesus had ceased to inspire intelligent reverence and love.
II. A system of religious discipline and instruction as towards the people.
III. A hierarchy, or system of spiritual government.
IV. An establishment or body corporate, related to civil law and equity.
The section on religious discipline brings forward matter which, when present controversies have subsided, must give rise to discussions not inferior in importance even to those now so violently agitated. At present all the divisions of the Wesleyan family adhere to itinerancy. The old body is bound to it by civil law. We fear some of the younger bodies have forged similar fetters for themselves. All of them prefer and itinerant ministry, either from prejudice, or choice, or a sense of its necessity, in the absence of pastors fully educated for their work. Yet in the different Methodist churches there are individuals — preachers and laymen also — who begin to see and feel that, however efficient the preaching of itinerants may be in the work of aggression, it is most painfully inefficient for the discipline and instruction of the people who had received a good education, and have been trained in Christian families. To the preacher himself, the itinerant plan is ulmost an unmixed evil. It deprives him of the stimulus to systematic study, which nearly all minds find to be indispensable, especially in these days of desultory reading and attendance upon public meetings. It tends to injure the minister in respect to some of the highest moral qualities which a pastor should possess, depriving him of that permanent interest in the peace and prosperity of his flock, which should render it almost impossible that he should rend and scatter it in deference to any of the maxims promulgated by the Conference regarding pastoral power. Nor are the evils of itinerancy chiefly felt by the preachers. The people are deprived by it of the complete instruction in religious truth and moral duty to which the resident pastor is led for the refreshement and solace of his own heart, as well as for the benefit of his hearers. In particular, it renders next to impossible tha t continued exposition of entire books of scripture which has long been cultivated by ministers and valued by by congregations in Scotland, and is becoming more common in England. Such expository discourses can be given only by the minister who has leisure “among his lexicons and his commentaries, in his study, the blessed place of his converse with all minds and with heaven, for perpetually extending and retaining his acquisition as a Biblical expositor”, and who addresses the same congregation regularly and frequently from year to year. There is to the people a greater disadvantage even than this forfeiture of the chief benefits of pulpit instruction, in the absence from their homes of that pastoral influence which can be acquired only when the pastor is the faithful and beloved friend, the friend whose tears have often mingled with his people's tears in their sorrows, and whose smiles have reflected and multiplied their joys; whome they have known so long and so well, that he is nearer to their hearts than any earthly friend, except thos who form their own family circle.
The class-leader is not unfrequently thus endeared by sympathy, in gladness and in grief, to the members of his class. The travelling preacher, however gentle and affectionate, cannot be so to his flock. Itinerancy sternly forbids the formation of a relationship so tender and so pre-eminently Christian, or rudely breaks it as soon as its strenght and sweetness are beginning to be felt. To one who knows what it is to be a pastor, or to have one, in the true meaning of the term, it is most mournful to read the hard disputes about the pastoral authority which now fill Wesleyan publications. the struggle for the power to expel is indeed a sad spectacle. The true pastor obtains power without struggling for it, or even speaking of it, or thinking about it; but it is power not proclaimed and paraded, not seen, except by its results. It is the power of superior knowledge, wisdom, and piety; and of counsels given in the meekness of wisdom, and obeyed not of constraint, but willingly, obeyed from the heart.
Mr Taylor has sketched such a pastor. We may venture to conjecture that it is no fancy picture, but one drawn from the hallowed remembrance of the pastoral home in which his own early years were spent. He speaks of:
The exhibition — from year to year, of fervent, consistent piety, in its aspects of wisdom, meekness, self-command, devotedness, in the person of the loved and revered father of his congregation — the man who is greeted on the threshold of every house by the children, and whose hand is seized as a prize by whoever can first win it — the man whose saddened countenance, when he must administer rebuke, inflicts a pain upon the guilty, the mere thought of which avails for much in the hour of temptation. It is the pastor, an affection for whom has, in the lapse of years, become the characteristic of a neighbourhood, and the bond of love among those who otherwise would not have had one feeling in common.As the local preachers, whom Mr Taylor unduly depreciates, are most efficient allies in the “aggressive” work of Methodism; so the class-leaders are more than allies, they are the chief agents in the work of Christian training. With respect to class-meetings, Mr Taylor is completely mistaken. We may be sure, as we read his pages, that he has never “met in class”. Had he done so with a class-leader of not more than average intelligence and experience in the Christian life, he would not have supposed that the calss meetings resemble the confessional, and that those who attend them listen to those polluting disclosures of inward corruption which are poured into the ear and defile the soul of the Romish priest. The class-leader does not demand an “unreserved” exposure of a week's sin and temptation. Still less to the members “disgorge before all, with remorseless disregard of delicacy, reserve and diffidence, all the moral ills of the past seven days”. The real defect generally is just the opposite of these. The answers to the leader's question tend to become almost as stereotyped as the question itself, and the meeting degenerates into a formal routine, like the questions and answers of a catechism. Still, notwithstanding defects to which all human institutions are liable, the class meeting renders to many minds most valuable aid in Christian culture. It is the best part of Methodism. However easy it may be to point out its defects, it is very difficult to suggest a way of avoiding thsoe defects while securing its advantages.
The third feature in the form of Wesleyan Methodism — a hierarchy or scheme of spiritual government — brings us into the midst of the principles and practices which are now the subject of fierce controversy, and which have been the cause or the occasion of all the strifes which have at various periods devastated the Connexion. These principles and practices may be thus stated and described: Mr Wesley formed not a Christian Church, but a Society, supplementary to Christian churches, and designed to be helpjul to their ministers and members. He claimed for himself, and delegated to his “assistants” or “helpers”, the power to admit to the privileges of his society, and to exclude from those privileges; but it was most clearly understood that this exclusion was not excommunication from the Church of Christ. Now this society has become the Wesleyan Church, and the Conference takes Mr Wesley's power over his voluntary association as the model of the power of the superintendance of circuits (subject only the Conference) over the Church of God. Their prize essayists on the pastoral office claim for them the power: “first, to receive candidates into church fellowship, having first judged of their fitness for that privilege; second, to remove from the body the disobedient and incorrigible; third, to inflict censures in cases of less flagrant transgression; fourth, to appoint to church offices.”
Of this doctrine, Mr Taylor (though decidedly, almost bitterly, opposed to ecclesiastical democracy) speaks in terms of most severed yet most just condemnation. We observe in various speeches, both of Wesleyan minsters and laymen, recently delivered, indications that this part of his book has been read and studied, and is guiding some of the laity at least to rational and scriptural views of the rights and duties of the whole Church of Christ. We quote Mr Taylor's stern but wholesome words:
The doctrine which makes the clergy everything in the church and the people nothing — or noting but its raw material — this doctrine is not of Christ: a reader who “looks through the vista of history, and sees in what manner this pride-born doctrine has worked, and what have been its fruits, will scarcely hesitate to say, It is of Satan.Again:
Little as Wesley could have imagined such a course of things as likely to arise from the constitutionhe gave to his Conference, there has, in fact, resulted from it this singular state of things — namely, that in respect of the position of the ministers toward the people, which is that of irresponsible lords of God's heritage, the professedly Christian world is thus parted — on the one side stand all Protestant churches, episcopal and non-episcopal, Wesleyanism excepted. On the other side stands the Church of Rome, with its sympathizing adherents, the malcontents of the English Church, and the Wesleyan Conference! This position, maintained alone by a Protestant body, must be regarded as false in principle, and as in an extreme degree ominious.We have stated, that in this claim of absolute power in church government has been the cause, or the occasion, of all the divisions from which Wesleyanism has so grievously suffered. That this was the case in the troubles which arose speedily after Mr Wesley's death is proved by the methods which were employed with considerable, though not complete, success, to heal those divisions. “Authority”, the authority of travelling preachers and especially of “superintendents”, was shared with the leaders' meeting. There is a dispute, which perplexes even the lawyers, as to the termsin which these concessions were expressed; but nothing can be clearer than the fact, that important concessions were made, and accepted, and acted upon; that, practically, for many years, persons were admitted into the “Wesleyan Church”, and excluded from it, only with the approval of the leaders' meeting. The leaders were rightly regarded as sharing in the duties and responsibilities, and therefore in the authority, of the pastoral office. The popish doctrine and practice, which Mr Taylor so justly condemns, is the result, partly of gradual encroachment, partly of assertions, made in times of strife, and intended as a means of suppressing resistance to the restrictions of Conference on the rights and duties of the lay officers.
Resistance to these encroachments formed a principle part of the struggles which preceded the formation of the Wesleyan Association in 1835; and at that time, the Conference asserted its prerogatives in a revised constitution, which made the "Minutes of Conference" the statute-book of Methodism; the leaders' meeting the jury, who should give a verdict on the charge brought against a member of the society; the superintendant — one, that is, of the travelling preachers — the sole judge, by whom the sentence, whether of censure, removal from office, suspension, or excommunication, should be determined; subject to appeal only to courts composed entirely of travelling preachers.
Under this revised constitution, the Wesleyan Church has enjoyed fifteen years of treacherous calm; and it seems to have been imagined, nay, firmly believed, and fully expected, that in this nineteenth century, in Britain, with the New Testament in their hands, the laity would permanently submit to be excluded from those church functions which the apostolic epistles require all Christians to be at all times ready and fitted to discharge.
The storm which now rages arose, not amongst the Methodist people, but in the Conference itself. We fear, we must confess, that it originated rather in petty jealousies among the preachers, with regard to the distribution of honours and offices, than in generous zeal for the rights of the Christian people. The controversy began with the circulation, in a kind of secret and surreptitious way, of certain anonymous pamphlets, called Fly Sheets. These pamphlets were deserving of grave censure, for the presence in them of many little personalities, and for the absence from them almost entirely, of appeals to scriptural principles, as guides to the reformation needed in Wesleyanism. This bitter personality, it should in justice be said, was not the characteristic of the Fly Sheets only. It has characterised both sides of the controversy, to an extend which ought to make each party ashamed of blaming the other.
The Fly Sheets were suspected to come chiefly from the pen of a minister, to whom the Conference had previously endeavoured, by very unwise and undignified methods, to bring home the authorship of an anonymous book called Wesleyan Takings. Internal evidence justified very strong suspicion that this minister (the Rev James Everett) was a principal contributor both to the Takings and the Sheets; but no external proof could, even by the most desperate efforts, be obtained, and this question of authorship still remains one of the unsolved problems of literature, though it is not quite so doubtful as the authorship of Junius's Letters.
The efforts to prove the authorship were indeed desperate. One preacher was censured severely by the Conference, because he refused to furnish evidence at the expense of a dishonourable breech of confidence. Another preacher was commended because he did divulge, in violation of every feeling of propriety and honour, part of the contents of a paper of which he had obtained a glance while in a friend's study. But even these methods failed; and the suspected author of the Fly Sheets and two other preachers, who would not join in denying participation in the authorship, and in denouncing the publications themselves, were expelled on suspicion, or for contumacy, though proof against them could not be, and was not, produced.
The effect of these proceedings, so revolting to those instincts of English Christians, which demand that every one shall be dealt with as innocent until he has been proved to be guilty, was to awaken general and strong sympathy with the expelled ministers. Before these expulsions, the Fly Sheets and their anonymous writers had been blamed rather than approved. The Conference might have profited by some wholesome, though unwelcome, truths which they contained; have refuted, in Christian and conclusive argument, whatever in them was false; and tranquility allowed them to pass into oblivion.
The contrary course, so unhappily taken, placed the expelled ministers before the Christian public not as criminals, but as martyrs. The pecuniary loss entailed by their expulsion was made up to them by generous subscriptions. Multitudes of the lay officers and members of the Connexion espoused their cause, and thereby transgressed the preposterous law which forbids the holding of meetings, the writing of letters, the doing or attempting to do anything new until it has been appointed by the Conference — a law of which the prize-essayist on the pastoral office affirms (not ironically!) that it is “a high compliment to the good sense of the people”. For the transgression of this, or of kindred Methodist laws, thousands of persons were expelled, and still larger numbers withdrew, preferring fellowship with those who were unjustly excommunicated to fellowship with those who had pronounced sentence against them. The mournful result was a decrease of about 55,000 members previously to the last Conference, and the alienation of a vast, probably a larger, number of persons in judgment and affection from Methodism, so administered. Of these many with withdraw, unless retained by wise concessions which we fear the leading ministers (and a large portion of the wealthy laity as their supporters) are resolved shall not be made. The temper of the last Conference was the reverse of conciliatory. Mr Walton, one of the preachers, was sternly censured for the publication of a pamphlet entitled Counsels of Peace, the only real fault of which was a want of boldness in distinctly proposing needful reforms. The eloquent Dr Beaumont was degraded, because he had failed to carry out fully the Conference policy in the expulsion of the reformers in his circuit. The results of the course of conduct pursued to Dr Beaumont might seem providentially designed to show the Conference that their censures are accounted by Christians of almost every denomination to be utterly destitute of all moral weight. Throughout the country the Conference sentence of degradation has been regarded as a certificate of honour. The doctor's services as a preacher and speaker have been valued and sought by the Wesleyan people, as well as by other Nonconformists, more than they ever were before. His popularity, previously great, has everywhere increased. The Conference attempted to fix upon him the brand of shame. It unconsciously entwined around him the garland of triumph.
Very many persons have remained in connexion with the Conference in the faint, but dearly cherished hope that “the Memorial Committee” would recommend to the ensuing Conference concessions such as would prevent the necessity of their final separation from the religious home of their youth, and, indeed, of their whole Christian life. These hopes have been bitterly disappointed. The disappointment is all the more bitter because the concessions generally desired are so exceedingly moderate. A constitution with less of the democratic element than that of the Free Church of Scotland would satisfy nearly all parties among the Wesleyans, restore peace to the old Connexion, and might even reunite all the sects of Methodists in one powerful and harmonious church. Very many would be satisfied with a concession of power to the laity very much smaller than is possessed by laymen in the Presbyterian churches. Full security against being expelled by the superintendent, in spite of the protest of the class leaders, would remove the only grievance which very many of the leaders feel; but even this is absolutely refused — refused with an infatuation which almost surpasses belief. The Memorial Committee has met, deliberated, and published its report. As might have been expected from the exclusion from it of Dr Beaumont, whose presence was necessary to a fair representation of different opinions, this report is thoroughly one-sided. Trivial alterations, in details, are proposed, but the sole authority of itinerant preachers, in excommunication, is distinctly reasserted. More recently, four hundred laymen have assembled, not as the freely chosen representatives of the Methodist people, but as nominees of the president, and they have deliberately assented to provisions which amount to this, namely, that if all they lay officers and members throughout the entire Connexion were opposed to the expulsion of a member, against whom his superintendent had pronounced the sentence of excommunication, it would be in the power of the Conference to carry out the sentence in spite of them all! This is the justification of Mr Taylor's strong sayings: “that the clergy is everything, the laity nothing”, that the power of the Methodist Conference is equalled only by the power of the priesthood of Rome. That an assembly of Methodist laymen should give their sanction to such a church system is at once wonderful and mournful. It is less wonderful, but more mournful, when we learn that, from this lay meeting, there was deliberately excluded every person, however distinguished for intelligence, experience in Methodist affairs, and piety, whose name was affixed to a declaration recently issued by a moderate party at Birmingham, who sought to mediate between the Conference and the more ultra-reformers. In the most emphatic sense this meeting of laymen was packed. The only way of securing a fair representation of the opinions of the body was deliberately rejected.
In the speeches made at this meeting (as reported in the Watchman), there is no formal reference to the book we are now reviewing; but there are unmistakable proofs that the book has been read, and has troubled the thoughts both of preachers and laymen.
We fear it has done little more than leave them without excuse. A layman “does not think the text of Scripture can be so clear as many of the ministers think it to be, when every other Protestant church holds a policy different from their own in this respect”. The ministers scarcely attempt to deny that they have Rome, and Rome only, on their side. One of them, the Rev Thomas Jackson, actually goes to the length of avowing his sympathy with the men whom Mr Taylor calls the malcontents of the Church of England — with the Bishop of Exeter and his party – with the men who are striving for what they call “synodical action”. “These men,” says Mr Jackson, “want to exercise the pastoral charge as it is laid down in the New Testament!!”
Here, then, the issue must be joined. Is the popish-puseyite-conference doctrine of the pastoral authority the doctrine of the New Testament? It is marvelous to see on what slender scriptural evidence this gigantic claim is made, and how completely the scriptural contradictions to it are left out of sight. The texts referred to are those in which ministers are styled “pastors”, “overseers”, “rulers”, and are commanded to “feed the church of God”, and “to take the oversight of it”. There is not a syllable in any one of the texts referred to (except the admonition to Titus” “a man that is an heretic after the first and second admonition reject”) which might not be addressed to class leaders and local preachers with even more suitableness than to itinerant preachers. The leaders and local preachers are very often men who have long ministered to the flock, and are known and very highly esteemed for their work's sake; the itinerant preacher is always, comparatively, a stranger. Injunctions exactly identical with that given to Titus, taking Mr Wesley's note upon it as fairly expressing its meaning, are repeatedly given to the members of the church at large (Rom xvi, 17; 2 Thess iii 6).
Throughout the New Testament, it is on the members of the church, collectively, that the responsibility for the purity of the church is made to rest. The Methodist preachers speak of this responsibility as a heavy burden, which they would gladly lay down if they might. Christ, in his word, lays on them no such burden. Obeying the principles and precepts, and conforming to the examples, of the New Testament, they will be relieved of it at once.
There are passages in the inspired statute book of the church which expressly prescribe and exemplify the scriptural rule of excommunication. Our Lord himself requires that the offender's fault should be told “to the church”, and requires him to “hear the church”. Mr Wesley, in his notes, makes the unauthorised addition “the elders” of the church; but distinctly recognises the passage as the permanent rule of discipline. St Paul requires the church of God at Corinth to “gather” and “to put away from themselves the wicked person”. The punishment was inflicted of many. The many — the saints — the whole church, were to restore and receive him to their fellowship when he had become a true penitent. After this manner, excommunication is inflicted in independent churches. The church is gathered. The pastor is president. The New Testament is the only statute book. The punishment is inflicted of “many”, though pronounced by the pastor's voice, and therefore it has solemn, moral, and spiritual power. The Wesleyan excommunication is by one, often against the many who constitute the church; and therefore it is utterly destitute of power over the conscience, and awakens no response from Christians, except it be the response of indignant disapproval.
Earnestly do we commend the work now reviewed, and Mr Taylor's former book on Spiritual Despotism, to the study of the Wesleyan clergy and laity. These books contain principles by the adoption of which Wesleyanism may yet be saved. These principles are not democratic — not the principles of Independency — not our own principles. They are the more likely to gain a hearing from the Methodists. Even Mr Taylor distinctly holds that “the presence and concurrence of the people, in acts of discipline”, is one of the great rudiments of ecclesiastical polity; and “that there can be no security and no liberty, and scarcely any purity and vitality in a church which says to the laity: “You have nothing to do with theology but to receive what we teach you; (this is the popish dogma), and noting to do with rules of discipline, or laws of administration, but to yield them obedience.” This last is the dogma which, we fear, the next Wesleyan Conference will maintain. Sincerely do we pray that, from this infatuation, a body so important to Christianity, and in many ways so honoured and so useful, may yet be saved.
NotesRev Thomas Coke (1747-1814) was born at Brecon, Wales, and studied at Oxford as a Gentleman Commoner of Jesus College. He later beame a prime mover of the Methodist missionary movement particularly in the West Indies and the south of the United States. He had a large income and many influential friends.
John Flavel (1627-1691), educated at Oxford, was a Presbyterian writer and preacher whose sermons were said to be “hissing hot”. Ejected from his living in 1662, he continued to preach secretly. His works included Husbandry Spiritualised and Navigation Spiritualised.