Among the several groupings of methodists from Britain, the Wesleyans were distinct for their discipline or form of organization, namely, the class meeting. While George Whitfield’s fame has been passed to us by his incredible gift of public oration, John Wesley’s legacy was secured by the formation of the United Societies and their rather systematic monitoring life and manners.
For the Wesleyans, religious monitoring required the keeping of class papers by lay-leaders. Lay-leaders typically were charged with classes of no more than twelve members. In his class book, the lay-leader would tabulate the spiritual grace of each member, drawing tables with ledgers and rows that registered the progress of each soul.
Within John Wesley’s 1787 sermon on the ‘Duty of Reproving our Neighbor‘ there is a curious part that touches Anglican ‘Degrees of Love’. This is surprising given the stereotype of evangelicals which abstract the physicality of men. Here, Wesley accounts for a certain priority with man’s familial relations as it pertains within the universal commission of the Gospel.
After speaking on the kinds of sin anxious for reproof, Wesley is compelled to identify who properly constitutes our neighbor. He begins with a general and naturally catholic admission that our neighbor consists of all men by reason of a Creator, since “every child of man, everyone that breathes the vital air, all that have souls” may be offered salvation. As part of the salvific plan repentance is a condition where Christians have a brotherly role to call out sin. If we let a fellow man’s sin pass our reproof, Wesley says, “their blood will God require at our hands”.(1)
John Wesley said of himself, “I live and die a member of the Church of England, and that none who regard my judgement or advice will ever separate from it.”. Many times throughout his ministry Wesley exhorted the Methodist people to remain loyal to the services of the Anglican church. As methodism took larger numbers of dissenters,– men and women who never belonged nor had ties to the established church– animosity to Anglican establishment grew, pressing demands upon Connexional leadership to separate. While the Weleys remained alive, Dissenters in the Connnexion were generally suppressed. But Dissent rose to prominence after the brothers’ passing, severing ties to what many ought to call the “Mother” of English Protestantism.
The breach between the young methodists and older religious societies in England can be partially traced to Whitefield’s epistle sent November 1739. Though tensions existed with the established clergy in 1737-8, mainly for the publication of his sermon titled ‘The New Birth’, Whitefield’s visit to Kingswood (in the Bristol area) would leave an irreparable gap.
Inspired by the example of Howell Harris’ who already enjoyed outdoor rivals in South Wales, Whitefield’s first open-air sermon was given to a crowd of 200 miners, bereft of both school and church. As a popular and newly ordained priest in the Church of England, Whitefield imagined it not far to preach outside when crowds were already spilling-out into church-yards to hear his pulpit preaching.
The ‘new methodists’ differed somewhat in both structure and content. Not only was the lively experienced of conversion stressed, but new Methodists were willing to forgo the so-called ‘Woodwardian’ liturgy common to the older societies in exchange for extemporaneous prayer and sermons without notes. I’ve taken a bit of time to highlight some differences apparently arising with the older groups as Whitefield explains them. For example Whitefield says,