« AnteriorContinuar »
.the world. It was a system of propagandism from the beginning; Coke had especially promoted its spread in the West Indies, and it had ventured furtively into France from the Channel Islands, but it had conceived no very distinct missionary scheme till the death of Coke threw it upon that necessity, and the important men who were providentially raised up about the conclusion of its great testing trials, after the death of Wesley, seemed to be designated to this particular development of its power. It was found worthy, by its protracted trial, of them, and of the sublime destiny to which they could lead it.
With the period of Wesley's personal ministry we are all familiar, but not with the ensuing season of hard probation. The latter is a rich study for the historical student, rich in lessons. We can here only glance at it, hoping it will be presented in another and more complete form hereafter.
JOHN WESLEY died in the spring of 1791, and now was to be determined the question, whether or not the great work of his life had coherence enough to survive his personal superintendence. It is a law of history, or rather of providence, that great public bodies, states, or Churches, must, like great individual men, be disciplined by adversity, and derive thence much of their best strength. While Wesley was serenely passing through his last days, both his friends and his foes were anticipating, with anxious or curious speculation, the approaching crisis of Methodism. All supposed that it would be perilous; many that it would be fatal. “Pray! pray! pray!" wrote his traveling companion, Joseph Bradford, from the side of his dying bed, to the preachers, and the alarming word sped over the kingdom, calling the societies to their altars with supplications for the future. The pious throng that gathered around his corpse, as it lay in state in City-road chapel, mourned, not so much his departure to his rest, as the privation and probable peril of the “connection;" and when, in the early morning of the 9th of March, he was interred by torchlight, to avoid the pressure of the anxious crowd, doubtless many a hostile conjecture was uttered in the metropolis, that the hope of Methodism was buried with him. The biographies of the old preachers of the day abound in sad and ominous allusions to its possible fate.
The determination of the problem could hardly have been devolved upon more inauspicious times. Wesley died while the tumults of the French revolution were alarming the civilized world. During the preceding two or three years continental Europe had been surging with the first violent motions of that grand catastrophe. While he was dying the throne of France was falling, and in a few weeks her king was flying from his people only to be brought back to the guillotine. More than twenty millions of Frenchmen were soon after plunged in a saturnalia of tumult and terror, tens of thousands flying to arms or flying before them. The best political doctrines were abused to the worst ends; the worst moral doctrines were consecrated as a religion of vice and honored with hecatombs of martyrs. The throne, the altar, and social order were prostrated, and for a quarter of a century the political foundations of Europe, from Scandinavia to the Calabrias, from Madrid to Moscow, were shaken as by incessant earthquakes.
The American people had presented a remarkable example of self-liberation and self-government. The French Revolution followed in the wake of the American Revolution, and, as it adopted the American democratic ideas, it is not surprising that liberal Englishmen at first hailed it as a new era of liberty and progress for the human race. Such an uprising of a great people for such principles had never before occurred in the history of the world. Generous minds were everywhere too much interested in its sublime energy and promise to perceive at first its radical and disastrous errors. All England became more or less infected with these errors. Liberal and learned divines, like Price and Priestley, sympathized with the revolution and promoted its doctrines in their country; both these clergymen were honored with the rights of French citizenship. Literary men' generally hailed with hope the mighty uprising, especially the new poets of the age, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey. The gentle and pure-minded Wordsworth held in Paris, three years after the death of Wesley, relations of intimacy with the ferocious Robespierre; and Watt, the greatest benefactor the human race has had in the practical arts, shared the poet's friendship with the demoniacal revolutionist. Mackintosh wrote his “ Vindiciæ Gallicæ," and was made a French
citizen; and Leigh Hunt and James Montgomery suffered imprisonment under suspicion of French principles. Horne Tooke was their active partisan. Fox, Sheridan, and other Whig leaders, yielded to the new influence. One month before the death of Wesley, Fox pronounced the new French constitution “the most stupendous edifice of liberty” ever erected. Under such auspices the dangerous doctrines, though generally associated with profound religious errors, could not but spread rapidly among the masses. An extraordinary man, Thomas Paine, a man of the people, direct and energetic in thought, vigorous though often coarse in style, of indomitable persistence, and not without generous purposes at first, suddenly appeared and spread the new opinions over most of the realm. His writings did more to corrupt the moral and political sentiments of the common people of both England and America, than those of any other author of the last or present century. They were scattered over the kingdom by the hundred thousand, sold at a sixpence a volume, or distributed gratuitously into the obscurest corners of the country by revolutionary clubs, which held their head-quarters in London, but had ramifications all over the land, and were in relations of correspondence with the Jacobin club of Paris. England was, in fine, pervaded by the new opinions, Ireland was in rebellion, and the United Kingdom seemed fast drifting toward a disastrous crisis.
Such were the auspices under which Methodism had to meet its great trial—the loss of its founder, the experiment of a new administration of its system, the solution of new ecclesiastical questions which were agitated by the excited people. The country was rocking with political and infidel tumults, its pulpits were resounding with discussions of the French revolutionary doctrines, the masses were maddened with agitations, and breaking out in one island with insurrection, in the other with mobs.
It would be neither interesting, nor is it necessary to record here the details of the internal strifes of Methodism which followed the death of Wesley. It was an age of pamphlets ; printed “appeals” and “circulars," on the questions in controversy in the Church, flew over the United Kingdom, like the leaves of autumn, during the ensuing seven years. Public assemblies, "district meetings,” (which had their origin as an institution of the denomination in these times,) and delegated conventions were held, and were often inflamed with excitement. Good men mourned at the perilous prospect of the great cause, and its enemies congratulated one another on its probable failure. While its guides were exhorting or remonstrating with each other, Churchmen were seeking to draw it into the establishment, and Dissenters exasperated its embarrassments by discussions of its system as incoherent and impracticable.
The preachers met in local conventions to provide for the new exigency before the next Conference. The people clamored for the sacraments from their own pastors, hitherto only partially granted. by Wesley. Hundreds of trustees (who were generally men of wealth or social position, and therefore in strong sympathy with the national Church) issued circulars and pamphlets, and held meetings to demand that no such concession should be made; they also demanded the concession to themselves of greater control of the denominational affairs. They were arrayed against the people and the people against them, and both more or less against the preachers, who, divided in opinion among themselves, were nevertheless disposed to be steadfast, and await deliverance from their apparently inextricable embarrassments, by the providence of God, which had never forsaken them, and which they believed was now trying their faith for some blessed purpose.
At their Conference of 1792 many petitions were presented in favor of the wishes of the people, and also remonstrances against them. The preachers had conflicting opinions on the subject. “For some time,” says one of them, “they knew not what to do. They were sensible that either to allow or to refuse the privilege of the sacraments would greatly increase the uneasiness, and perhaps cause a division.” Profoundly embarrassed by the difficulty of the question, and unable to reach its solution by discussions, an extraordinary measure was proposed by Pawson as the only means of concluding the debate, and as affording at least a common ground of mutual concession till time should bring them nearer to unanimity. They resolved to determine it for the present by lot. However questionable this proceeding may seem, the scene was one of affecting solemnity and interest, as showing the difficulties and the forbearing spirit of these good men. They knelt while four of them offered prayer. “ Almost all the preachers were in tears,” and “the glory of God filled the room,” say the old Minutes. Adam Clarke was then appointed to draw the lot. He stood upon a table and proclaimed it: “You shall not give the sacrament this year!" Pawson, who was present, says: “His voice in reading it was like a voice from the clouds. A solemn awe rested upon the assembly, and we could say, 'The Lord is here of a truth! All were satisfied or submitted, and harmony and love returned.”
But while, in their annual conferences, the preachers generally forbore with one another's opinions for the common good, out among the societies their concurrence with or dissent from the people could not always be withheld. At Bristol especially a sad spectacle was presented. Benson and Moore (two of Wesley's veterans) were appointed to that circuit; the latter was in favor of the administration of the sacraments, the former was opposed to it, under existing circumstances at least. The trustees of the city chapels, including the first erected by Wesley, were stanch against the popular demand. When Moore arrived, they ascended the pulpit before he could enter it, and refused him liberty to preach. They had even served him with a legal notice that he must not intrude into the desk.
They accorded him liberty at last to explain to the congrega. tion why he did not preach. Taking the legal paper from his pocket, he read it to the assembly, declaring that he would not claim his right to preach there, but would go thence to an appointment on Portland-street and preach unfettered. Nearly the whole congregation followed him, not more than twenty persons being left behind. The new Portland-street chapel was erected by them. Benson and some of his colleagues sided with the trustees, others sided with Moore. They did not even “exchange” with one another. The breach seemed irreparable; the circuit was divided. Moore appealed to the district meeting, composed of preachers; it sanctioned his proceedings, and declared Benson and his associates seceders. Pamphlets on both sides rapidly followed one another, and the whole connection was agitated with the question. Pawson declared “We have no government," and that division, if not wreck,
claim his right to rlland-street and preach umore than twent