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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary

Methodists

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a name given in derision at different times to religious persons and parties which have appeared in this country; but which now principally designates the followers of the Rev. John Wesley. The societies raised up by the instrumentality of the Rev. George Whitefield were also called Methodists, and in Wales especially are still known by that appellation. For distinction's sake, therefore, and also because a number of smaller sects have broken off from the Methodist societies since Mr. Wesley's death, the religious body which he raised up and left organized under his rules, have of late been generally denominated the WESLEYAN

METHODISTS. In the year 1729, Mr. John Wesley, being then fellow of Lincoln College, began to spend some evenings in reading the Greek Testament with Charles Wesley, student, and Mr. Morgan, commoner of Christ Church, and Mr. Kirkham, of Merton College. Not long after, two or three of the pupils of Mr. John Wesley, and one pupil of Mr. Charles Wesley, obtained leave to attend these meetings. They then began to visit the sick in different parts of the town, and the prisoners also, who were confined in the castle. Two years after, they were joined by Mr. Ingham, of Queen's College, Mr. Broughton, and Mr. Hervey; and in 1735, by the celebrated Mr. George Whitefield, then in his eighteenth year. At this time their number in Oxford amounted to about fourteen. They obtained the name of Methodists, from the exact regularity of their lives, and the manner of spending their time. In October, 1735, John and Charles Wesley, Mr. Ingham, and Mr. Delamotte, son of a merchant in London, embarked for Georgia, having been engaged by the trustees of that colony as chaplains; but their ultimate design was to preach the gospel to the Indians. No favourable opportunity offering itself for this pious work, and the strict and faithful preaching of the Wesleys having involved them in much persecution, and many disputes with the colonists, they returned to England, Mr. Charles Wesley in 1737, Mr. John Wesley in 1738. On the passage to America, and while in Georgia, Mr. John had met with several pious Moravians; whose doctrines of justification by faith alone, conscious pardon of sin, and peace with God, confirmed by their own calmness in danger and freedom from the fear of death, greatly impressed him. On his return to England, he was more fully instructed in these views by Bohler, a Moravian minister; and having proved their truth in his own experience, he began to preach in the churches of the metropolis, and other places, and then in rooms, fields, and streets, the doctrine of salvation by faith. In this his brother Charles was his zealous coadjutor; and the effect was the awakening of great multitudes to a religious concern, and the commencement of a great revival of religion throughout the land, which has in its effects extended itself to the most distant parts of the world. At the time of Mr. Wesley's death, the societies in connection with him in Europe, America, and the West Indies, amounted to eighty thousand members; they are now [1831] upward of three hundred thousand, beside about half a million in the United States of America, who since the acquisition of independence by that country have formed a separate church. The rules of this religious society were drawn up by Messrs. John and Charles Wesley in 1743, and continue to be in force. They state the nature and design of a Methodist society in the following words: "Such a society is no other than a company of men, having the form and seeking the power of godliness: united, in order to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they may help each other to work out their own salvation. That it may the more easily be discerned whether they are indeed working out their own salvation, each society is divided into smaller companies, called classes, according to their respective places of abode. There are about twelve persons, sometimes fifteen, twenty, or even more, in each class; one of whom is styled the leader. It is his business,

1. To see each person in his class once a week, at least, in order to inquire how their souls prosper; to advise, reprove, comfort, or exhort, as occasion may require; to receive what they are willing to give to the poor, or toward the support of the Gospel.

2. To meet the minister and the stewards of the society once a week, to inform the minister of any that are sick, or of any that walk disorderly and will not be reproved; to pay to the stewards what they have received of their several classes in the week preceding; and to show their account of what each person has contributed. There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies, namely, a desire to flee from the wrath to come; to be saved from their sins: but wherever this is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits.

It is therefore expected of all who continue therein, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

1. By doing no harm; by avoiding evil in every kind, especially that which is most generally practised, such as taking the name of God in vain; profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work thereon, or by buying or selling; drunkenness; buying and selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity; fighting, quarrelling, brawling; brother going to law with brother: returning evil for evil, or railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling; the buying or selling uncustomed goods; the giving or taking things on usury, that is, unlawful interest; uncharitable or unprofitable conversation, particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers; doing to others as we would not they should do unto us; doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold or costly apparel; the taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus; singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not term to the knowledge or love of God; softness, or needless self-indulgence; laying up treasure upon earth; borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods, without a probability of paying for them. It is expected of all who continue in these societies, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

2. By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power, as they have opportunity; doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men; to their bodies, of the ability which God giveth, by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison; to their souls, by instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine of devils,—that we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it: by doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith, or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another; helping each other in business, and so much the more as the world will love its own, and them only; by all possible diligence and frugality, that the Gospel be not blamed; by running with patience the race set before them, denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ; to be as the filth and offscouring of the world, and looking that men should say all manner of evil of them falsely for the Lord's sake. It is expected of all who continue in these societies, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

3. By attending on all the ordinances of God: such are, the public worship of God; the ministry of the word, either read or expounded; the supper of the Lord; family and private prayer; searching the Scriptures, and fasting and abstinence. These are the general rules of our societies, all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice; and all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually breaks any of them, let it be made known to them who watch over that soul, as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season; but then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us: we have delivered our own souls."

The effect produced by the preaching of the two brothers in various parts of the kingdom, and those frequently the most populous and rude, rendered it necessary to call out preachers to their assistance, and especially since the clergy generally remained negligent, and rather opposed and persecuted, than encouraged, the Wesleys in their endeavours to effect a national reformation. The association of preachers with themselves in the work led to an annual meeting of the ministers, then and since called the conference. The first conference was held in June 1744, at which Mr. Wesley met his brother, two or three other clergymen, and a few of the preachers, whom he had appointed to come from various parts, to confer with them on the affairs of the societies. "Monday, June 25," observes Mr. Wesley, "and the five following days, we spent in conference with our preachers, seriously considering by what means we might the most effectually save our own souls, and them that heard us; and the result of our consultations we set down to be the rule of our future practice." Since that time a conference has been annually held; Mr. Wesley himself having presided at forty-seven. The subjects of their deliberations were proposed in the form of questions, which were amply discussed; and the questions, with the answers agreed upon, were afterward printed under the title of "Minutes of several Conversations between the Rev. Mr. Wesley and others," commonly called Minutes of Conference.

As the kingdom had been divided into circuits, to each of which several preachers were appointed for one or two years, a part of the work of every conference was to arrange these appointments and changes. In the early conferences various points of doctrine were discussed with reference to the agreement of all in a common standard; and when this was settled, and the doctrinal discussions discontinued, new regulations continued to be adopted, as the state of the societies, and the enlarging opportunities of doing good, required. The character of all those who were engaged in the ministry was also annually examined; and those who had passed the appointed term of probation, were solemnly received into the ministry. All the preachers were itinerants, and, animated by the example of Mr. Wesley, went through great labours, and endured many privations and persecutions, but with such success that societies and congregations were in a few years raised up in almost every part of England, and in a very considerable number of places in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. The doctrines held by the Methodists, Mr. Wesley declared repeatedly in his writings to be those contained in the Articles of the church of England; for he understood the article on predestination, as many others have done, in a sense not contrary to the doctrine of the redemption and the possible salvation of the whole human race. It will, therefore, be merely necessary to state those views of certain doctrines which it has been thought the Wesleyan Methodists hold in a somewhat peculiar way, or on which they have been most liable to misrepresentation.

They maintain the total fall of man in Adam, and his utter inability to recover himself, or take one step towards his recovery, "without the grace of God preventing him, that he may have a good will, and working with him when he has that good will." They assert that "Christ, by the grace of God, tasted death for every man." This grace they call free, as extending itself freely to all. They say that "Christ is the Saviour of all men, especially of them that believe;" and that, consequently, they are authorized to offer salvation to all, and to "preach the Gospel to every creature." They hold justification by faith. "Justification," says Mr Wesley, "sometimes means our acquittal at the last day, Matthew 12:37 : but this is altogether out of the present question; for that justification whereof our Articles and Homilies speak, signifies present forgiveness, pardon of sins, and consequently acceptance with God, who therein declares his righteousness, or justice, and mercy, by or for the remission of sins that are past, Romans 3:25 , saying: ‘I will be merciful to thy unrighteousness, and thine iniquities I will remember no more.' I believe the condition of this is faith, Romans 4:5 , &c; I mean, not only that without faith we cannot be justified, but also that as soon as any one has true faith, in that moment he is justified. Faith, in general, is a divine supernatural evidence, or conviction, of things not seen, not discoverable by our bodily senses, as being either past, future, or spiritual. Justifying faith implies, not only a divine evidence, or conviction, that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself,' but a full reliance on the merits of his death, a sure confidence that Christ died for my sins; that he loved me, and gave himself for me: and the moment a penitent sinner believes this, God pardons and absolves him." This faith, Mr. Wesley affirms, "is the gift of God. No man is able to work it in himself. It is a work of Omnipotence. It requires no less power thus to quicken a dead soul, than to raise a body that lies in the grave. It is a new creation; and none can create a soul anew but He who at first created the heavens and the earth. It is the free gift of God, which he bestows not on those who are worthy of his favour, not on such as are previously holy, and so fit to be crowned with all the blessings of his goodness; but on the ungodly and unholy, on those who till that hour were fit only for everlasting destruction; those in whom is no good thing, and whose only plea was, ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner!' No merit, no goodness, in man, precedes the forgiving love of God. His pardoning mercy supposes nothing in us but a sense of mere sin and misery; and to all who see and feel and own their wants, and their utter inability to remove them, God freely gives faith, for the sake of Him in whom he is always well pleased. Good works follow this faith, Luke 6:43 , but cannot go before it; much less can sanctification, which implies a continued course of good works springing from holiness of heart." As to repentance, he insisted that it is conviction of sin, and that repentance, and works meet for repentance, go before justifying faith; but he held, with the church of England, that all works, before justification, had "the nature of sin:" and that, as they had no root in the love of God, which can only arise from a persuasion of his being reconciled to us, they could not constitute a moral worthiness preparatory to pardon. That true repentance springs from the grace of God, is most certain; but, whatever fruits it may bring forth, it changes not man's relation to God. He is a sinner, and is justified as such; "for it is not a saint, but a sinner, that is forgiven, and under the notion of a sinner." God justifieth the ungodly, not the godly. Repentance, according to his statement, is necessary to true faith; but faith alone is the direct and immediate instrument of pardon. They hold also the direct internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to the believer's adoption: for an exposition of which See HOLY SPIRIT .

They maintain also that, by virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ, and the operations of the Holy Spirit, it is their privilege to arrive at that maturity in grace, and participation of the divine nature, which excludes sin from the heart, and fills it with perfect love to God and man. This they denominate Christian perfection. On this doctrine Mr. Wesley observes, "Christian perfection does not imply an exemption from ignorance or mistake, infirmities or temptations; but it implies the being so crucified with Christ, as to be able to testify, ‘I live not, but Christ liveth in me,' Galatians 2:23, and ‘hath purified their hearts by faith,' Acts 15:9 ." Again: "To explain myself a little farther on this head:

1. Not only sin, properly so called, that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law; but sin, improperly so called, that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law known or unknown, needs the atoning blood.

2. I believe there is no such perfection in this life as excludes these involuntary transgressions, which I apprehend to be naturally consequent on the ignorance and mistakes inseparable from mortality.

3. Therefore, sinless perfection is a phrase I never use, lest I should seem to contradict myself.

4. I believe a person filled with the love of God is still liable to these involuntary transgressions.

5. Such transgressions you may call sins, if you please; I do not, for the reasons above mentioned."

The rules of the Methodist societies have been already given; but, in order to have a general view of their ecclesiastical economy, it must be remarked, that a number of these societies united together form what is called a circuit. A circuit generally includes a large market town, and the circumjacent villages to the extent often or fifteen miles. To one circuit two or three, and sometimes four, preachers are appointed, one of whom is styled the superintendent; and this is the sphere of their labour for at least one year, or not more than three years. Once a quarter the preachers meet all the classes, and speak personally to each member. Those who have walked orderly the preceding quarter then receive a ticket. These tickets are in some respects analogous to the tesserae of the ancients, and answer all the purposes of the commendatory letters spoken of by the Apostle. Their chief use is to prevent imposture. After the visitation of the classes a meeting is held, consisting of all the preachers, leaders, and stewards in the circuit. At this meeting the stewards deliver their collections to a circuit steward, and every thing relating to temporal matters is publicly settled. At this meeting the candidates for the ministry are proposed, and the stewards, after officiating a definite period, are changed. A number of circuits, from five to ten, more or fewer, according to their extent, form a district, the preachers of which meet annually. Every district has a chairman, who fixes the time of meeting. These assemblies have authority,

1. To examine candidates for the ministry, and probationers, and to try and suspend preachers who are found immoral, erroneous in doctrine, or deficient in abilities.

2. To decide concerning the building of chapels.

3. To examine the demands from the poorer circuits respecting the support of the preachers and of their families, from the public funds.

4. To elect a representative to attend and form a committee to sit previously to the meeting of the conference, in order to prepare a draught of the stations of all the preachers for the ensuing year. The judgment of this meeting is conclusive until conference, to which an appeal is allowed in all cases.

The conference, strictly speaking, consists only of a hundred of the senior preachers, according to the arrangements prescribed in a deed of declaration, executed by Mr. Wesley, and enrolled in chancery. But the preachers elected at the preceding district meetings as representatives, the superintendents of the circuits, and such preachers as the districts allow to attend, sit and vote usually as one body. At the conference, every preacher's character undergoes the strictest scrutiny; and if any charge be proved against him, he is dealt with accordingly. The preachers, are also stationed, the proceedings of the subordinate meetings reviewed, and the state of the connection at large is considered. The conference is commonly held in London, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, and Sheffield, in rotation, at the latter end of July.

By the minutes of the last conference, 1831, it appears that this religious body had three hundred and sixty-three circuits in England, Wales, and Scotland; forty-five in Ireland; and a hundred and fifty-six mission stations, most of them being also circuits, in Sweden, France, the Mediterranean, Continental India, Ceylon, the South Seas, Africa, the West Indies, and British America. The number of members in the societies were, in Great Britain, two hundred, and forty-nine thousand one hundred and nineteen; in Ireland, twenty-two thousand four hundred and seventy; in the foreign stations, forty-two thousand seven hundred and forty-three. Their regular preachers were eight hundred and forty-six in Great Britain; in Ireland, a hundred and forty-six; in foreign stations, exclusive of catechists, a hundred and eighty-seven.

[The preceding account, so far as it respects the original history, the doctrines, and the moral discipline of Wesleyan Methodists, is equally applicable to those in America and in Europe. The Methodist Episcopal church in the United States, however, which became a distinct and independent church in the year 1784, differs considerably in its organization, and in the details of its ecclesiastical economy, from the British Wesleyan connection. The circuits, into which the whole field of labour occupied by the itinerant ministry is divided, are in general much larger, nor is any preacher allowed to remain on them more than two years successively. Of these circuits, from five or six to fifteen or more, according to circumstances, constitute a district. Of the districts, from four or five to six or eight, usually, comprise the tract of country embraced within the boundaries of an annual conference; and of annual conferences, the whole of the United States and Territories, agreeably to the minutes of the last year, (1831,) were divided into nineteen. From all these annual conferences, delegates, in a certain prescribed ratio, are sent once in four years to constitute a general conference, the highest ecclesiastical assemblage among American Wesleyan Methodists. The minister or preacher first named of those appointed to each circuit or station, is thereby invested with the pastoral charge thereof, and is usually denominated the preacher in charge. Each district is committed to the care of an elder, denominated the presiding elder, who is appointed, annually, and may remain four years successively on a district, but not longer; and all the districts comprising the whole extent of the church, are under the general superintendence of the bishops. These at present, (April, 1832,) are four in number, and like all others of our stated ministry, are required to be itinerant. If they cease to travel at large, without the consent of the general conference, they forfeit the exercise of their episcopal functions. Their visitations are annual and alternate, on a preconcerted plan, through the bounds of the entire work. They preside in the annual and general conferences, station the preachers, with (by established usage) the counsel of the presiding elders, and are jointly and severally responsible to the general conference for their administration and conduct. (See also the articles " See EPISCOPALIANS ," and " See IMPOSITION OF HANDS .")

For a more minute detail of the ecclesiastical economy, spiritual and temporal, of American Wesleyan Methodists, (which would lead us too far for a work of this sort,) reference may be had to the small volume published at the Conference Office, entitled ‘The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church.' By the minutes of the annual conferences for the last year, (1831,) there were in the communion of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, five hundred and thirteen thousand one hundred and twenty-four members; of whom four hundred and thirty-seven thousand and twenty- four were whites, seventy-one thousand five hundred and eighty-nine coloured, and four thousand five hundred and one Indians. The number of itinerant ministers was two thousand and ten, of whom one hundred and thirty-four were superannuated, or worn out. In addition to these, there are also several thousand local ministers and preachers, many of whom were once itinerant; and who, though not statedly devoted to the work of the ministerial office, as the itinerant ministers are, yet, by their valuable services on the Sabbath, or at other times occasionally in their respective vicinities, constitute an important auxiliary branch of the system, and contribute much to its compactness and efficiency.

Beside the above, there are in the United States several smaller associations of persons bearing the name of Methodists, who hold and teach, in general, the doctrines of Wesleyan Methodists, but are not in connection with the Methodist Episcopal Church, and differ from it in various points of ecclesiastical economy and discipline.

The Wesleyan Methodists in Upper Canada, who were formerly in connection with the church, in the United States, have recently, with the consent of the general conference of the latter body, been constituted a distinct church, under an episcopal form. Its organization, however, has not yet been completed by the consecration of a bishop, though we understand that a reverend individual has been selected, who will probably shortly be set apart for that holy office. This branch of the American Wesleyan Methodists, agreeably to their minutes for the year 1831, consisted of sixty-five itinerant ministers, and twelve thousand five hundred and sixty-three members; of whom one thousand two hundred and thirty- three were Indians.]


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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Methodists'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wtd/m/methodists.html. 1831-2.

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