August | Making Informed Moral Choices

by Methodist Survey
Tags: practicaltheologychannel, Through the Year with John Wesley, Wesleyan theology

1. The Important Question: Making the Happiness Choice

2. Working out our Salvation: Another Happiness Choice

3. Friendship and Happiness Through the Christian Way

4. Making Informed Moral Choices

John Wesley Cautions Against Bigotry

Keep this in mind

Wesley himself gave a famous summary of the fundamentals of Methodism. “Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, — that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third, religion itself.” 

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Making Moral Choices: the local and the travelling preachers

Keith Rowe

Local and travelling preachers

Wesley watched over the emerging Methodist movement like a somewhat autocratic parent guiding an infant family. His guiding genius was evident in every aspect of the revival, but early Methodism was also a powerful lay movement. Perhaps Wesley’s greatest genius was his capacity to enlist and encourage lay persons in mission and leadership. There was a message to be spread and people to be pastored and every able bodied leader was needed.

John began with the presumption that only a properly ordained man could truly preach the gospel. The needs of the revival changed his mind. The first lay preacher was Thomas Maxfield one of the Bristol converts. He was once left in London to pray with and care for the Society in John’s absence. He crossed the thin line from prayer and advice to preaching and a number were converted through his words. Wesley was horrified when he was told, and resolved to put Maxfield in his place. Wise old Susannah, who had heard Maxfield, had some wise advice for her son: “John,” she said, “take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching and hear him yourself.” Maxfield continued to preach and others joined him, all with Wesley’s active support and encouragement.

Local preachers remained at their work and cared for a congregation, while “travelling preachers” travelled a “circuit”. Until quite recently, our own Conference referred to the years a minister had “travelled” — a quaint but meaningful way of referring to a life lived in the service of the gospel.

A lot was expected of the preachers. Notes on the New Testament were prepared for their guideline and Wesley’s sermons became a summary of Methodist emphases. Some grumbled that he expected too much of them.

The Conference of 1766 reminded travelling preachers that they should “be diligent. Never be unemployed for a moment. Never be triflingly employed” and then went on to encourage them to spend 5 hours a day reading “the most useful of books.” Those who said they read only the Bible were told “you need preach no more.” Those who complained they had no taste for reading were told “contract a taste for it or return to your trade.” To those who had no books, Wesley agreed to give them books to the value of £5.

At the 1749 Conference the question was asked “How may provision be made for old or worn out preachers?” The answer: “Let every travelling preacher contribute 10 shillings yearly. . .out of this let (an annual amount) be paid to old or sickly preachers and their families, to the widows and children of those that are dead.” The supernumary fund was born.

Present day preachers might heed the advice from the 1768 minutes: “Let the preaching at 5 in the morning be constantly kept up, wherever you can have 20 hearers ... Rising early is good for soul and body.” Wesley’s questions for persons seeking to preach are still timely: Have they grace - have they the love of God abiding in them? Have they gifts - have they a clear, sound understanding? Do they speak justly, readily, clearly? Have they fruit - are any converted to God by their preaching?

The Class Meeting

John Wesley was no fly-by-night evangelist, exciting people then leaving them stranded on a spiritual “high”. Conversion, he claimed was the first step in a continuing life of discipleship and of growth in love for God and for neighbour. Unlike other evangelists of his day and since, he gave careful attention to the nurture and education of converts. The vehicle of this care was the class meeting - a group of about 12 persons who under the care of a leader, met each week to help each other live in a Christian manner.

Although the class meeting became a central part of the structure of Methodism, its origins were somewhat accidental.

Early in 1742 the Methodists in Bristol discussed how they might pay off the debt on their meeting house, the “New Room” and a retired seaman, Captain Foy, suggested that each member should donate a penny a week. To enable this the society was divided into groups of 12 with a leader whose task was to collect the money. The idea grew and spread beyond Bristol. The groups met each week and their role expanded to include prayer, pastoral oversight and spiritual testimony.

By 1743 Wesley had published rules for class meetings. The task of the leader was to watch over the spiritual progress of each member and to receive their offering for the relief of the poor. Note how love of God and love of neighbour were held together. The leaders met each week with the minister or local preacher informing him “of any that are sick or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved”. Quarterly tickets conveying The Band, usually six or so members, consisted of those more advanced in their Christian faith. Wesley could advise them directly on how to attain Christian perfection. The class meeting was more the introductory house group, although much more strict in discipline than those of today. Continuing membership of a class was granted following discussion with the local minister. The key to the whole exercise was the selection and support of the leaders and whenever Wesley visited a town he would gather the leaders to encourage and sometimes to discipline them.

“The Bible knows nothing of solitary religious Christianity” wrote Wesley and so the most obvious outward mark of Methodists became their practice of meeting weekly in neighbourhood groups to encourage one another in Christian living. It was here that new Christians learnt Christian love, began to pray and to believe in themselves as persons loved by God. It is worth reflecting on the fact that almost every significant renewal movement in the life of the church down the years has included some form of small group life.

Many of the hymns of Charles reflect the experience of Christian love that was generated in these meetings. Have a look at the section entitled “Christian Fellowship” in M.H.B. (709-722) and read and meditate on M.H.B. 745 “All praise to our redeeming Lord.”

With the passing of the class meeting it could be argued that the most distinctive feature of Methodism was lost.


Links to NZ Methodist history/theology resources

Go to the John Kinder Library online church newspapers out of print will also take you to the Outlook, the Methodist and Presbyterian newspaper in the colonial period.

The best freebie in New Zealand Methodism: a very high quality PDF reproduction of William Morley's History of New Zealand.

Go to Wesley Historical Society NZ

Go to Sung and Unsung Personalities by Rev Donald Phillipps, Rev Dr Susan thompson, Rev Dr David Bell

Go to Rev Dr James Stuart, video and associated resources, including links to the John Wesley Code Study Guide, PGPL