by Rev Ivan Tan (MDiv, 2006)
John Wesley wrote “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” (PA) to give a detailed account of the practices of the early Methodists. The term was derogatory, and referred to their systematic approach of meeting to help one another grow in grace, and serving those who are at the margins of society.
The Methodists wanted to share with others what “true Christianity was, and to persuade them to embrace it.” By true Christianity they meant having the mind of Christ evidenced by inward righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; being repentant towards God and having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; being justified freely by his grace; and experiencing a “taste of heaven,” i.e. being holy and happy, treading down sin and fear, and sitting in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus.
There was no such thing as a “solitary Christian.” It was a contradiction in terms (Sermon 24, Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 4.) No one could live out their faith by themselves. Following the practice of the early church, they devised three types of groups: the Society, Class and Band.
The Society: As people heard the gospel, many “wanted to ‘flee from the wrath to come,’ and assist each other in doing so.” These people came together in a gathering called a Society “to pray together, to receive the word of exhortation, and to watch over one another in love, that they might help each other to work out their salvation.” They had three general rules (PA, 256-7):
First, by doing no harm, by avoiding evil in every kind…
Secondly, by doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power ….
Thirdly, by attending upon all the ordinances of God: Such as the public worship of God, the Supper of the Lord, private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence.
The Class: Fallen human nature meant that some who joined them began to backslide. So it was decided to form the Class of about twelve persons. The responsibility of the Leader included inquiring how members’ souls prosper, and advising, reproving, comforting, or exhorting, as occasion may require. As a result of such accountability, “Evil men were detected, and reproved. They were borne with for a season. If they forsook their sins, we received them gladly; if they obstinately persisted therein, it was openly declared that they were not of us” (PA, 261). This is the precursor of the modern day small group.
The Band: As the number of Classes and Societies grew, some members “wanted to pour out their hearts without reserve, particularly with regard to the sin which did still ‘easily beset’ them, and the temptations which were most apt to prevail over them.” Wesley divided them into smaller groups of the same gender, called Bands. Members shared the true state of their soul, faults committed in thought, word, or deed, and temptations felt since their last meeting (PA, 267). They lived the injunction in James 1:17, “Confess your sins to one another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed”.
The early Methodists wanted to “help each other to work out their salvation” (PA, 256). Not only did they work on personal holiness, they were also systematic in social holiness, outreach into the community. Class Leaders collected contributions towards the relief of the poor every time they met (PA, 261). These contributions were used to set up schools for the poor, dispensaries to relieve the sick, build homes for the destitute to take refuge.
More than that, they agreed to do all the good they could within their power. One important task was to visit and care for the poor, the sick and the prisoner. They were expected to make the visit personally, bringing with them food, money and words of encouragement. This was reiterated by Wesley in his very practical sermon, On Visiting the Sick (Sermon 98).
They were also deeply involved in society, and sought to alleviate the plight of those men and children working in the squalid conditions of the factories of newly industrialising Britain. They referred to this as “the reformation of morals” of their society. One important contribution was made by Lord William Wilberforce, who after many years of campaigning succeeded in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. Shortly before his death in 1791, John Wesley wrote a letter to Wilberforce encouraging him to persist in the campaign against slavery.
Winning [Gaining] Christ
The early Methodists wanted to live as true Christians, and were determined to do this in loving, accountable and caring communities. The main concern Wesley had towards the end of his life was that the Methodists were becoming wealthy and in danger of losing their zeal for God. So he concludes his sermon, The Danger of Riches (Sermon 87):
20. Thus have I given you, O ye gainers, lovers, possessors of riches, one more (it may be the last) warning. O that it may not be in vain! May God write it upon all your hearts! Though “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven,” yet the things impossible with men are possible with God.” Lord, speak! and even the rich men that hear these words shall enter thy kingdom, shall “take the kingdom of heaven by violence,” shall “sell all for the pearl of great price:” shall be “crucified to the world, and count all things dung [rubbish], that they may win [gain] Christ!”
May the Methodists of today not forget the teachings and the zeal of the early Methodists! May we be truly crucified to the world, count all things dung and win Christ for all eternity!
First published in the 1st Quarter 2012 issue of OnTRAC by the Trinity Annual Conference of the Methodist Church in Singapore.