John Wesley’s Organisational Model 2/2
Anglican Unitary Societies n the later part of the 17th century, Dr Horneck, minister of the Savoy Chapel in London gathered into a small group young men, recently out of apprenticeship to meet together for Christian instruction. The group seems to have had two functions: first to offer an alternative to the pubs and alehouses as a meeting place, and second as a place where Christian education, in the Anglican tradition, could be offered. Perhaps another reason for the unitary society was a desire to renew the life of the Anglican Church in England. F.W Bullock, writing of the growth of these small groups states that The Savoy Society, like others, wanted to ‘stimulate it (The Church of England) to fresh life and quickened enthusiasm.’(1)
The late 17th and early 18th centuries were a period when associations grew rapidly. Meetings were held in alehouses and coffee shops, and associations formed for any number of reasons, from the reformation of manners, to the founding of charity schools(2). Horneck’s society was soon joined in London by the Poplar Society of Dr Josiah Woodward. Others followed rapidly, not least because the founding of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698-1699 meant that as a ‘para-church’ group, publishing details of the first societies, likeminded clergy across the country (and beyond) could read about and copy the London groups. The Rev Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles founded his own society in Epworth in 1701.
The societies were always led by the local parish minister or his deputy, and the meetings usually consisted of readings from the Bible, an address and prayers. It was rare for anyone other than the minister to speak.
Once John and Charles Wesley were in London as adults after the failed missionary attempt in Georgia, they were active in speaking at societies across the city. A study of John Wesley’s Diary shows him visiting numerous societies. By the time the Wesley’s were active amongst these groups, one thing had changed – the meetings were open to women.
In the early to mid 18th century, these Anglican societies never developed the more detailed and pietistic style which the Moravians introduced. Perhaps the innate Calvinism of the period, and the rejection amongst Anglicans of the doctrine of perfection meant that there was no need for meetings in very small groups without the minister, or for the close examination which Moravianism and Wesleyanism would adopt.
Regardless of this, John Wesley was influenced by the purpose of societies, and the people who went to them. Some of these people (although not all) were the early members of the Fetter Lane Society, and later the Foundry in London and the United Society in Bristol.
The Marquis de Renty
Of all the individuals who influenced John Wesley, none was more influential than this 17th century French Catholic nobleman. The Marquis was known of during Wesley’s childhood in Epworth, and Samuel Wesley wrote in defence of the Anglican Societies, citing de Renty’s example: ‘Samuel Wesley urged in defence and in advocacy of the Societies, he contended that they were in no sense novelties, since the Marquis de Renty had formed such societies as early as 1640'(3)
In later life, John Wesley abridged the Marquis’ life for publication in The Christian Library, and held up de Renty as an example of Christian discipleship that Methodists should strive for(4) . Wesley read de Renty’s Life in Georgia, and as a result his own personal piety was deepened. He began to visit prisoners (which he had done in Oxford), dined with the poor, gave away some of his income, and practised a form of medicine.
De Renty though influenced Wesley with his classes. These small groups were designed to enable Christian growth and discipleship, and to help one person encourage another in faith. Wesley’s abridged life of the Marquis reads, ‘In all places he laboured, as much as in him lay, to induce such as desired to follow Christ, to join together, and assist one another in working out both their own and their neighbours' salvation. Many such societies he established at Caen, at Amiens, at Dijon, and in several parts of Burgundy'.(5) De Renty encouraged his group members to engage in works of piety too, and would also answer letters written to him by group members on issues of spirituality and faith.
The organisation which de Renty created influenced Wesley in one major way: the Methodist Class. When Captain Foy suggested grouping the Methodists in 1742 in order to pay off the debt on the ‘New Room’ Wesley seized on the basic idea and imported the pietist ideals of de Renty into Methodism. Henry Bett, writing in 1931 sums up Wesley’s purpose in the creating of the classes well. Bett writes: ‘They were little gatherings of devout people who met weekly, and, besides arranging for the relief of the poor, engaged in united prayer, read books of devotion in their assemblies, and discussed together their religious experience’.(6)
From the inspiration of a nobleman came the most important small group in Methodism. Wesley owed no small debt to this pietistic Catholic, who through his life, organisation and devotion gave the eclectic Wesley the foundation for the Class as a group which met for far more than fellowship and Bible study.
The Anglican societies and the Marquis de Renty, like the mystics and Moravians, offered much to John Wesley during his spiritual growth and development. He remained indebted to them, as the Methodists of today should too. Perhaps as we look forward to our common bond in Christ through this year as we celebrate the 300th birthday of John Wesley, so we should reappraise the people and groups who made Methodism the active and vibrant force of the evangelical revival that it was.
The Revd Andrew F Goodhead is Superintendent Minister of the Sydenham and Forest Hill Circuit in South East London.
Headline Summer 2003 pp 12-13
(1) Bullock F.W.B., Voluntary Religious Societies 1520-1799 (St Leonard’s on Sea: Budd & Gillatt. 1963) p109 (words in brackets mine)
(2) For a discussion of this see: Clark P., British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800 (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2000)
(3) Bett H., ‘A French Marquis and the Class Meeting’ Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society Vol XVIII 1931 p43
(4) Telford J., The Letters of the Rev John Wesley AM: Volume IV (London: Epworth Press. 1931) p264
(5) Wesley J., An Extract of the Life of the Monsieur De Renty (London: City Road; 1796) p44
(6) Bett H., ‘A French Marquis and the Class Meeting’ Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society Volume XVIII 1931 p43
The Rev Andrew F Goodhead is Superintendent Minister of the Sydenham and Forest Hill Circuit in South Easter London.