John Wesley’s Organisational Model 1/2

Andrew Goodhead

This article can do not more than highlight a couple of the more important influences that led to the dynamic creation that the Methodist movement was at its inception, but it may help us to realise that our roots are deep, and owe much to many traditions.

1. The Mystics

Little is written or spoken of this group of people, who included Henry Scougal, Claude Fleury, Herman August Franke, Macarius and the Marquis de Renty. In part, it was under the influence of these authors that Wesley travelled to Georgia. In America, Wesley hoped to discover ‘Primitive Christianity’ and as he wrote to Dr John Burton he was hopeful that the experience might prove to be effective in ‘saving my own soul’. (1)

The mystics stressed the need for an inward, personal journey towards conversion and faith. This journey denied the importance of the means of grace (prayer, Bible study, communion, fellowship) or the need for any outward works of piety (visiting the sick and prisoners, giving money for the relief of the poor). The mystics also denied the need for reason in the life of the believer as an aid to growth and learning for the Christian.

For a while, John Wesley was enthusiastic about the idea that peace and fellowship with God could be found through inward soul searching and personal devotion, but this became a dry and dusty road for him as he realised that there was a need to use the means of grace, to practice works of personal piety, and to consider reasonably how the Christian life stood in relation to scripture and the world around.

Over time, and certainly before he left Georgia, Wesley had all but abandoned the mystics whose withdrawal from the world verged on the reclusive. He wrote to his elder brother Samuel in 1736, that he had come to regard the mystics as, “the rock on which I had the nearest made shipwreck of the faith.”(2) Far from saving his own soul, John Wesley almost drowned in the morass which the mystics set before him. However, one aspect of the writings of the mystics did enter Methodism, and set it apart from any other movement: perfection.

Wesley absorbed the mystical understanding of perfection (also called sanctification): that there is a need for every Christian to pursue ‘inward holiness or a union of the soul with God.’(3) He set in place one of the most important doctrines of the Methodist movement, that everyone could grow in grace and holiness through discipleship and know perfect love. Henry Rack observes that perfection (especially as outlined by Scupoli, a mystic writer whom Susannah Wesley had also read) ‘appealed … by its concentration on will and intelligence rather than feeling.’(4)

The doctrine of perfection, arising from the mystic writers was an integral part of the Band and Class system in Methodism. In these small groups, members were encouraged to share their experience and trials and together grow ‘in grace and holiness’. This growth towards perfect love of God was even catered for in a defined group, ‘the Perfect Band’, for those who Wesley considered had reached that point. There was also a ‘Penitents Band’ for those whom Wesley considered were backsliders but wanted to recover lost ground.

2. The Moravians

John Wesley first encountered the Moravians on board The Simmonds as it sailed to Georgia. He was awestruck by their calmness during a storm at sea, and in conversation with August Spangenberg their leader, was equally amazed at their expressed willingness to die! Shortly after landing in Georgia, Wesley had a conversation with Spangenberg, and was directly asked whether he knew Jesus Christ. Wesley answered as best he could, but felt his replies were ‘vain words’(5) . In contrast Spangenberg wrote in his journal ‘I observe that grace really dwells and reigns in him.’(6)

Wesley studied the lifestyle of the Moravians and concluded that they showed signs of primitive Christianity as they shared goods and lived communally. It is not surprising then that when Wesley returned to England he should find the Moravians who were beginning a work in England attractive. He met with Peter Böhler, the leader of the Moravian group in England, and it was under his influence that Wesley began to preach faith for Böhler assured him, by that method, Wesley would find faith.

Life revolved around a new religious society in Fetter Lane, which was a strange mixture of Moravians, Anglicans and Dissenters. Membership was open to any who wanted to experience faith, and the weekly pattern of meetings was distinctly Moravian, with added Anglican touches. Each week members met as a whole Society, and in smaller groups, called ‘Bands’. There were also Love Feasts, Watch Night services and ‘Letter Days’ when correspondence from other Moravian groups and leaders was read. Added to this was the insistence by Wesley (and his brother Charles) that regular attendance at the Parish Church for Communion, Bible reading and visiting and relief of the poor should be maintained. A contemporary observer of the practices of this particular Society could see a model almost identical to the very earliest days of Methodism.

It was through Fetter Lane and the carefully organised routine and structure of worship and meetings that Wesley did find his faith (at Aldersgate Street, a Society ‘related’ to Fetter Lane, begun by James Hutton, one of the founders of Fetter Lane). His experience of faith on May 24th 1738, gave Wesley an assurance that all could experience the same saving faith, and be justified in an instant; but with the background of Fetter Lane’s careful organisation he realised that the mutual support of peers would assist the continuing growth of a Christian towards sanctification (perfection).

Wesley’s break with the Moravians and the separation with the Fetter Lane Society occurred because of the influence of the doctrine of stillness (or quietism) which simply said that the means of grace, and any outward works should be avoided until the individual had found faith through waiting patiently for Jesus. This was anathema to Wesley, and his split from the Moravians was acrimonious (although he maintained good personal relationships with many of its leaders).

The routine of Fetter Lane and the understanding of perfection that Wesley held were two vertebrae in the backbone of early Methodism. These two, along with other elements of doctrine and practice which Wesley had acquired from his past gave to the Methodist movement a distinctive nature that proved a popular and effective vehicle for life changing experiences, shared in community with others of varied backgrounds and education, and which allowed each person to grow in discipleship towards perfection, a state not reserved for a few, but available to all.

The Revd Andrew F Goodhead is Superintendent Minister of the Sydenham and Forest Hill Circuit in South East London

Healdine Spring 2003

(1) Telford J., (Ed) The Letters of the Rev John Wesley AM Volume 1 (London: Epworth Press. 1931) p188

(2) Telford J., (Ed) The Letters Vol I p 207

(3) Rack. H.D., Reasonable Enthusiast (London: Epworth. 1989) p96

(4) Rack. H.D., Reasonable p101

(5) Ward W.R. & Heitzenrater R.P., The Works of John Wesley: Volume 18. Journals and Diaries 1 (1735-1738) (Abingdon Press: Nashville. 1988) p146

(6) Heitzenrater R.P., Wesley And The People Called Methodists (Abingdon: Nashville. 1995) p 60

(7) Morgan K., Methodist Testimonials p89 in Barry J., & Morgan K., (Ed's) Reformation and Revival (word in brackets mine)

The Rev Andrew F Goodhead is Superintendent Ministe of the Sydenham and Forest Hill Circuit in South-East London.

Headline, Spring 2003 pp 12-13.