While a most plain and simple religion, Methodism has incredible depth. However, unless Methodism’s practical theology is contextualized by Anglican primitivism, this point is usually missed, and something more one-dimensional is left behind. Wesley’s methodism sheds enormous light upon classical Anglican doctrine and its related treatment of ecclesiastical discipline– a fantastic case study for those who take it upon themselves. While contemporary Anglicans often look to the East to reinvigorate Christian mysticism and holiness, Methodism has already tread the path, uniquely adapted for the Anglican Way.
The Holy Club:
When the Wesley brothers, along with Ingham and Gambold, met to study the Greek NT and Fathers in 1729, they mutually agreed upon certain vows of fellowship, amongst which were daily BCP prayer, frequent communion, weekly fasting, social charity, self-examination, and confession. The model of Wesleyans brotherhood was precedented upon late Caroline and Non-juror devotional practice, defined by the peitistic literature of churchmen like Cosin, Tolliston, Taylor, Horneck, Kempis, and Law. Soon the band gained the moniker “Holy Club” (aka. Reforming Club, Bible Bigots, Supererogation Men, Bible Moths, etc). The Reforming Club was essentially conformist, and it is curious how this zeal was received by more laxidasical Anglicans,
“They were all zealous members of the Church of England; not only tenacious of all her doctrines, so far as they knew them, but of all her discipline, to the minutest circumstance. They were likewise zealous observers of all the University Statutes, and that for conscience’ sake. But they observed neither these nor anything else any further than they conceived it was bound upon them by their one book, the Bible; it being their one desire and design to be downright Bible-Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive Church and our own, for their whole and sole rule.
The one charge then advanced against them was, that they were “righteous overmuch;” that they were abundantly too scrupulous, and too strict, carrying things to great extremes: In particular, that they laid too much stress upon the Rubrics and Canons of the Church; that they insisted too much on observing the Statutes of the University; and that they took the Scriptures in too strict and literal a sense; so that if they were right, few indeed would be saved.” (Wesley, A Short History)
The General Rule:
In 1738 and 1744 Wesley drew up general rules for bands and classes, a combination of catholic canon and moral uplift. Public vow and consecration (setting apart) of members was necessary to join the ‘class-band’. The guiding principle was the same as St. Benedict’s– providing a structure or Rule of life for the surest way to workout one’s salvation, evidencing good fruit. Moral works required regular participation at class meetings, keeping the Sunday sabbath, partaking in weekly communion, regularly fasting, and utilizing morning prayer daily without contradiction to the established church. In sum, “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, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their salvation.” The methodist society reintroduced particular confession and penance between Anglican laity, compensating, by reason of necessity, for what more puritanical worship deprived in the regular priesthood.
While the Methodist confessional might have given revivalism its ‘hot seat’, other evangelical counsels or “teetoling” rules also addressed secular evils of the day, for the “avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced”. These rules launched on a large-scale what was known as the 18th-century revolution of manners, aka. christian perfectionism. This started by suppressing certain rampant social vices like drunkenness, gossip, expensive dress, and family debt. The text of the 1744 Rule is below, and portions not surprisingly remind us of our own Anglo-Catholic confirmation cards/rules,
“YOU are supposed to have the faith that “overcometh the world.” To you, therefore, it is not grievous, — I. Carefully to abstain from doing evil; in particular, — 1. Neither to buy nor sell anything at all on the Lord’s day. 2. To taste no spirituous liquor, no dram of any kind, unless prescribed by a physician. 3. To be at a word both in buying and selling. 4. To pawn nothing, no, not to save life. 5. Not to mention the fault of any behind his back, and to stop those short that do. 6. To wear no needless ornaments, such as rings, earrings, necklaces, lace, ruffles. 7. To use no needless self-indulgence, such as taking snuff or tobacco, unless prescribed by a Physician. II. Zealously to maintain good works; in particular, — 1. To give alms of such things as you possess, and that to the uttermost of your power. 2. To reprove all that sin in your sight, and that in love and meekness of wisdom. 3. To be patterns of diligence and frugality, of self-denial, and taking up the cross daily. III. Constantly to attend on all the ordinances of God; in particular, — 1. To be at church and at the Lord’s table every week, and at every public meeting of the bands. 2. To attend the ministry of the word every morning, unless distance, business, or sickness prevent. 3. To use private prayer everyday; and family prayer, if you are at the head of the family. 4. To read the scriptures, and meditate therein, at every vacant hour. And, 5. to observe, as days of fasting or abstinence, all Fridays in the year.”
The 1808 American Rule is a bit longer with more detailed ‘teetoling’ provisions for general moral uplift…
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as: The taking of the name of God in vain; the profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling; drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity; slaveholding; buying or selling slaves; fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling; the buying or selling uncustomed goods [without paying customs duty]; the giving or taking things on usury—that is, unlawful interest; uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers; doing to others as we would not they should do unto us; doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as the “putting on of gold and costly apparel;” the taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus; the singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God; softness and needless self-indulgence; laying up treasure upon earth; borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.
It is expected of all who continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only; by all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed; by running with patience the race which is set before them, “denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily;” submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world; and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely, for the Lord’s sake.
It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are, the public worship of God; the ministry of the Word, either read or expounded; the Supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures; fasting or abstinence.
…If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
Methodism was conceived as a primitive-catholic revival within Anglicanism. Wesley carefully built and restrained the methodist societies so they might resemble a sort of mendicant order within the Church of England. As such, Wesley was a kind of arch-abbot, assigning priors and inducting friars throughout the realm. This was the new Monasticism, the turning of the ‘minster abbey’ inside-out, sanctifying laity by a ‘sure Rule’ of Common Payer that Cranmer envisioned. Wesley’s (attempted) addition was to order the laity, restoring the minor offices of the primitive church. In the same way monastics dubbed their missions ‘households’, the Methodists called their chapel “Preaching Houses”. Protestants, especially Anglicans, have no bereave regarding the dissolution of the monasteries or religious life in England. The latter would be superseded and intensified by Cranmer and Wesley, holiness leaving the walled-cloister, spreading into the domestic family. Methodism is that beautiful system progressive sanctification, started by Cranmer and finished by Wesley, which builds and girds the vows churchmen given at baptism.
While Cranmer was perhaps too optimistic regarding the general priesthood of common people, Wesley, I believe corrected this exuberance with ‘band-classes’, and until the break between Methodism and Anglicanism in 1784/1792, the societies were to function as a corporate and tiered organization amongst laity, hopefully under the direction of Hanoveran Bishops. The tragedy was the Bishops missed a chance to welcome and integrate the great Order Wesley had built. Yet Wesley’s reputation as a great thinker and organizer lives beyond him. When Keble later suggested lay communion as a possible reprieve against national apostasy, Keble was making a similar appeal to lay priesthood, perhaps looking upon Wesley, if not Law’s, example. The difference with non-separating Presbyterian classes, consistories (parallel vestries), and conferences that Puritans like Cartwright proposed would have been proffered conformity to Anglican standards, namely prayer book rather than directory worship.
How these societies were ordered and the kind authority each layer of ministry utilized will be a future post, especially the tough question of Wesley’s odd high church principles against his creation of Superintendents.