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EDITED BY S. LUCKEY AND G. COLES.
VOL. XX, No. 1.
JANUARY, 1838. NEW SERIES-VOL. IX, No. 1.
ART. I.-WESLEYAN METHODISM IN ENGLAND AND AMERICA NOT CHARGEABLE WITH SCHISM IN SEPARATING FROM THE ENGLISH ESTABLISHMENT.
BY REV. CHARLES ELLIOTT, A. M.
Continued from page 390, vol. viii.
IX. Are Wesleyan Methodists chargeable with schism in separating from the English establishment?
This question, it will be perceived at once, has no reference, except a relative one, to the Protestant Episcopal Church in this country, as neither the Methodist Episcopal Church nor the Wesleyan Methodists were ever in church fellowship with her. Indeed, as a church, she differs more widely from the English than from the Methodist Church; as her ordination and polity are, in a good degree, presbyterial, and not properly episcopal, in the customary sense of the term.
To discuss fully the question proposed above would require much more space than the limits of this Magazine will allow. This is especially so, since a great number of authorities and references would be necessary to present this subject in proper detail. We will be compelled, therefore, to abridge considerably our arguments, and omit the greater part of the authorities, except by mere reference, and this, also, to a great extent. The following brief observations are given in the place of the extended discussion necessary to treat the question in full.
1. That a reformation in religion, in the English church and nation, was much needed in the beginning of the last century, when Mr. Wesley commenced his labors, no person duly informed will doubt or question.
The state of morals and religion among the people was such as to need immediate reform. This appears to be generally acknowledged on all hands, and we need not quote authorities to establish what is conceded.
The character of the clergy, too, was such as to require the labors of Wesley and his coadjutors to make up their lack of service, and even to reform them, not merely to qualify them to be ministers, but to entitle them to the appellation of Christians. Of this, too, there is such ample proof, and the thing is so generally con
VOL. IX.-January, 1838.
fessed, that authorities are uncalled for. Nevertheless, we will give one of out a thousand that might be adduced. Mr. Wesley, in his Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, gives the following incidental sketch of the clergy of his day, which will be a picture of the greatest number of the clergy of the establishment. He is here addressing ministers. "There are among yourselves ungodly and unholy men, openly and undeniably such; drunkards, gluttons, returners of evil for evil, liars, swearers, profaners of the day of the Lord. Proof hereof is not wanting if ye require it. Where, then, is your zeal against these? A clergyman, so drunk he can scarce stand or speak, may, in the presence of a thousand people, (at Epworth, in Lincolnshire,) set upon another clergyman of the same church, both with abusive words and open violence. And what follows? Why, the one is still allowed to dispense the sacred signs of the body and blood of Christ; but the other is not allowed to receive them, because he is a field preacher."*
As it regards discipline, it is well known, as has been already seen, that no gospel discipline is exercised in the English Church. The wicked are received, or rather recognized, as communicants, as well as the righteous and good. Excommunication for immorality is unknown; and where this expulsion takes place, it is rather a civil infliction than an ecclesiastical act. In the foregoing pages, too, the various defects of the Anglican Church have been sufficiently pointed out to convince the reader that the serious departure of this church from the church polity authorized in the New Testament, taken in connection with the religious character of her people and ministry, proves that there was great need of a reformation in the English Church.
2. The great principle which is fundamental in Methodism is, to do good to the souls and bodies of men; to accomplish which every thing was to be subordinate. The design was not to form a new party in the nation; not to form the societies into independent churches, or to draw away those who became Methodists from their former religious connections. The only intention was, to rouse all parties, the members of the Church of England, to a holy jealousy; and to assist them, as far as possible, in promoting Christian experience and practical religion. The design was disinterested and noble; and every part of the Methodist economy corresponded with the professed design. In the first minutes of the conference held in 1744, we have the following: Question. What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the preachers called Methodists? Answer. Not to form any new sect, but to reform the nation, particularly the church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land." Mr. Wesley, in his Journal, under date of April 12th, 1789, says," The original design of the Methodists was, not to be a distinct party, but to stir up all parties, Christians or hea, thens, to worship God in spirit and in truth; but the Church of England in particular, to which they belonged from the beginning. With this view I have gone on for fifty years, never varying from the doctrines of the church at all; nor from her discipline of choice, but of necessity; so in a course of years necessity was laid upon.
* Wesley's Works, vol. v, p. 24. New-York, 1831.
me, (as I have proved elsewhere,) 1. To preach in the open air. 2. To pray extempore. 3. To form societies. 4. To accept of the assistance of lay preachers; and, in a few other instances, to use such means as occurred to prevent or remove evils that we either felt or feared."
The rise and progress of Methodism are nothing less than the rise and progress of primitive and Scriptural Christianity. Its doctrines and discipline are rational in themselves, and founded on the New Testament; comporting with the usages of the first Christians, as well as calculated to promote the love of God and man with its proper fruits and effects; that is true Christianity which is the proper tendency of Methodism. And that the Methodists do not differ materially from the primitive Christians, we have the testimony of an able defender of Christianity, Archdeacon Paley, who, in his View of the Evidences of Christianity, says," After men became Christians, much of their time was spent in prayer, devotions, in religious meetings, in celebrating the eucharist, in conferences, in exhortations, in preaching, in an affectionate intercourse with one another, and in corresponding with other societies. Perhaps their mode of life, in its form and habit, was not very unlike the Unitas Fratrum, or modern Methodists.”
The Methodists were a kind of middle link between all the religious parties in the nation; gently drawing them nearer together by uniting them all in the interests of experimental and practical religion. They formed a kind of central point, from which the rays of gospel light issued forth, not in one direction alone, to irradiate only one point of the circumference; but in all directions, equally enlightening every part of the periphery. It was highly gratifying to see rigid churchmen, and equally rigid dissenters of all denominations, assembled together in a Methodist preaching-house, hearing the truths of the gospel preached, and all feeling the beneficial influences of them on their own hearts. This tended gradually to lessen their prejudices against each other; and however they differed as to modes of worship, it brought them nearer together in Christian charity. And every candid man must acknowledge, that since the Methodists have generally prevailed, the violence of party spirit, in matters of religion, has much diminished. But Methodism was too pure, and too near the New Testament model of the Christian Church, to receive much favor or be received by the parliamentary or regal Church of England, as is manifest from the result. Indeed, the Church of England is irreformable. If it be reformed according to the New Testament, its existence is lost; for that moment the parliament ceases to be her supreme ecclesiastical legislature, the supremacy of the king ceases, the usurped powers of her prelates vanish, the powers and privileges of her presbyteries are restored, the rights of the people are respected, false doctrines are banished, discipline exercised, &c. The reformation, therefore, of the English Church would totally overturn her. And this was the greatest mistake into which Mr. Wesley ever fell: that of supposing the Church of England could be brought back to primitive Christianity without razing her to the very foundation, as it regards her government and discipline.
3. It will be necessary for us, at this stage of our discussion, to
trace out briefly the rise, progress, and establishment of the Methodist societies.
(1.) The rise of Methodism is thus described on the larger minutes:-"In 1729 the late Mr. Wesley and his brother, upon reading the Bible, saw they could not be saved without holiness. They followed after it, and excited others to do the same. In 1737 they saw that holiness comes by faith. They saw, likewise, that men are justified before they are sanctified; but still holiness was their point. God then thrust them out wholly against their will, to raise up a holy people."
(2.) With Mr. Wesley and his first associates, as well as with all his followers, the Holy Scriptures were reputed, received, and followed practically, as the rule, and only rule, of faith and practice. Next to Scripture, the example of the apostolic churches was counted worthy of imitation; and any church of modern times whose doctrines, practice, and usages approached nearest to the Scriptures was considered as most worthy of being followed. Whatever, then, was taught by councils or divines, or by the Church of England herself, Mr. Wesley and his assistants thought themselves at liberty to reject, unless it could be proved by Scripture, or was consistent with Scripture.
(3.) The primitive Methodists, as well as their present followers, in interpreting Scripture, sacredly regarded and adhered to the principles of private judgment and the rights of conscience. In the first conferences every doctrine was fully sifted, and the great principles of a godly discipline were drawn out into special regulations, as circumstances required. The free and pious spirit in which these inquiries were entered into was strikingly manifested at the first conferences, in the commencing exhortation:-"Let us all pray for a willingness to receive light; to know of every doctrine, whether it be of God." And the principles of private judgment and the rights of conscience were never better guarded nor more clearly defined, than in the following questions and answers :-" Quest. How far does each of us agree to submit to the judgment of the majority? Ans. In speculative things each can only submit so far as his judgment shall be convinced; in every practical point each will submit so far as he can, without wounding his conscience. Quest. Can a Christian submit any farther than this to any man, or number of men, upon earth? Ans. It is plain he cannot, either to bishop, convocation, or general council. And this is that grand principle of private judgment on which all the reformers, at home and abroad, proceeded: Every man must judge for himself, because every man must give an account of himself to God.'" Never was the formation of any Christian society marked by the recognition of more liberal principles, or more fully in the spirit of the New Testament.
(4.) The subject of church government received the early attention of Mr. Wesley and the first conferences. Their sentiments on the subject it will be necessary to give, in order to answer satisfactorily the question now under solution.
At the second conference, in 1745, the following question was proposed and the subjoined answer given:-" Quest. Is episcopal, presbyterian, or independent church government most agreeable
to reason? Ans. The plain origin of church government seems to be this:-Christ sends forth a person to preach the gospel: some of those who hear him repent and believe in Christ: they then desire him to watch over them, to build them up in faith, and to guide their souls into paths of righteousness. Here, then, is an independent congregation, subject to no pastor but their own; neither liable to be controlled, in things spiritual, by any other man or body of men whatsoever. But soon after some from other parts, who were occasionally present whilst he was speaking in the name of the Lord, beseech him to come over and help them also. He complies, yet not till he confers with the wisest and holiest of his congregation; and, with their consent, appoints one who has gifts and grace to watch over his flock in his absence. If it please God to raise another flock in the new place before he leaves them, he does the same thing; appointing one whom God hath fitted for the work to watch over these souls also. In like manner, in every place where it pleases God to gather a little flock by his word, he appoints one, in his absence, to take the oversight of the rest, to assist them as of the ability which God giveth.
"These are deacons, or servants of the church; and they look upon their first pastor as the common father of all these congregations, and regard him in the same light, and esteem him still as the shepherd of their souls. These congregations are not strictly independent, as they depend upon one pastor, though not upon each other.
"As these congregations increase, and the deacons grow in years and grace, they need other subordinate deacons, or helpers, in respect of whom they may be called presbyters or elders, as their father in the Lord may be called the bishop or overseer of them all." This passage shows that Mr. Wesley regarded the itinerant preachers of his day parallel to Scriptural deacons and presbyters, and himself as a Scriptural bishop.
At the conferences held from 1744 to 1747 inclusive, the question of church government and discipline was examined to the foundation. This was necessary in order to justify the formation of societies, calling out preachers, and originating a distinct religious community, governed by its laws. The following questions and answers passed under review, and were adopted :
"Q. Can he be a spiritual governor of the church who is not a believer, not a member of it?
"A. It seems not; though he may be a governor in outward things, by a power derived from the king.
"Q. What are properly the laws of the Church of England? "A. The rubrics: and to these we submit, as the ordinance of men, for the Lord's sake.
"Q. But is not the will of our governors a law?
"A. No; not of any governor, temporal or spiritual; therefore if any bishop wills that I should not preach the gospel, his will is no law to me.
"Q. But if he produce a law against your preaching?
"A. I am to obey God rather than man.
"Q. Is mutual consent absolutely necessary between the pastor and his flock?