meeting renders to many minds most valuable aid in Christian culture. It is the best part of Methodism. However easy it may be to point out its defects, it is very difficult to suggest a way of avoiding those defects while securing its advantages.

The third feature in the form of Wesleyan Methodism—a hierarchy or scheme of spiritual government—brings us into the midst of the principles and practices which are now the subject of fierce controversy, and which have been the cause or the occasion of all the strifes which have at various periods devastated the Connexion. These principles and practices may be thus stated and described :—Mr. Wesley formed not a Christian Church, but a Society, supplementary to Christian churches, and designed to be helpful to their ministers and members. He claimed for himself, and delegated to his 'assistants' or ' helpers,' the power to admit to the privileges of his society, and to exclude from those privileges; but it was most clearly understood that this exclusion was not excommunication from the Church of Christ. Now this society has become the Wesleyan Church, and the Conference takes Mr. Wesley's power over his voluntary association as the model of the power of the superintendents of circuits (subject only to the Conference) over the Church of God. Their prize essayist on the pastoral office claims for them the power,—' 1st. To receive candidates into church fellowship, having first judged of their fitness for that privilege; 2nd. To remove from the body the disobedient and incorrigible; 3rd. To inflict censures in cases of less flagrant transgression; 4th. To appoint to church offices.'

Of this doctrine, Mr. Taylor (though decidedly, almost bitterly, opposed to ecclesiastical democracy) speaks in terms of most severe yet most just condemnation. We observe in various speeches, both of Wesleyan ministers and laymen, recently delivered, indications that this part of his book has been read and studied, and is guiding some of the laity at least to rational and scriptural views of the rights and duties of the whole Church of Christ. We quote Mr. Taylor's stern but wholesome words—

'The doctrine which makes the clergy everything in the church and the people nothing—or nothing but its raw material—this doctrine is not of Christ: a reader who "looks through the vista of history, and sees in what manner this pride-born doctrine has worked, and what have been its fruits, will scarcely hesitate to say, It is of Satan."'—p. 260.


'Little as Wesley could have imagined such a course of things as likely to arise from the constitution he gave to his Conference, there has, in fact, resulted from it this singular state of things—namely, that in respect of the position of the ministers toward the people, which is that of irresponsible lords of God's heritage, the professedly Christian world is thus parted—on the one side stand all Protestant churches, episcopal and nonepiscopal, AVesleyanism excepted. On the other side stands the Church of Rome, with its sympathizing adherents, the malcontents of the English Church, and the AVesleyan Conference! This position, maintained alone by a Protestant body, must be regarded as false in principle, and as n an extreme degree ominous.'—p. 208.

We have stated, that this claim of absolute power in church government has been the cause, or the occasion, of all the divisions from which Wesleyanism has so grievously suffered. That this was the case in the troubles which arose speedilyafter Mr. Wesley's death is proved by the methods which were employed with considerable, though not complete, success, to heal those divisions. 'Authority,' the authority of travelling preachers and especially of 'superintendents,' was shared with the leaders' meeting. There is a dispute, which perplexes even lawyers, as to the terms in which these concessions were expressed; but nothing can be clearer than the fact, that important concessions were made, and accepted, and acted upon; that, practically, for many years, persons were admitted into the 'Wesleyan Church,' and excluded from it, only with the approval of the leaders' meeting. The leaders were rightly regarded as sharing in the duties and responsibilities, and therefore in the authority, of the pastoral office. The popish doctrine and practice, which Mr. Taylor so justly condemns, is the result, partly of gradual encroachment, partly of assertions, made in times of strife, and intended as means of suppressing resistance to the restrictions of Conference on the rights and duties of the lay officers.

Resistance to these encroachments formed a principal part of the struggles which preceded the formation of the Wesleyan Association in 1835; and, at that time, the Conference asserted its prerogatives in a revised constitution, which made the 'Minutes of Conference' the statute-book of Methodism; the leaders' meeting the jury, who should give a verdict on the charge brought against a member of the society; the superintendent—one, that is, of the travelling preachers—the sole judge, by whom the sentence, whether of censure, removal from office, suspension, or excommunication, should be determined; subject to appeal only to courts composed entirely of travelling preachers.

Under this revised constitution, the Wesleyan Church has enjoyed fifteen years of treacherous calm ; and it seems to have been imagined, nay, firmly believed, and fully expected, that in this nineteenth century, in Britain, with the New Testament in their hands, the laity would permanently submit to be excluded from those church functions which the apostolical epistles require all Christians to be at all times ready and fitted to discharge.

The storm which now rages arose, not amongst the Methodist people, but in the Conference itself. We fear, we must confess, that it originated rather in petty jealousies among the preachers, with regard to the distribution of honours and offices, than in generous zeal for the rights of the Christian people. The controversy began with the circulation, in a kind of secret and surreptitious way, of certain anonymous pamphlets, called 'FJy Sheets.' These papers were deserving of grave censure, for the presence in them of many little personalities, and for the absence from them, almost entirely, of appeals to scriptural principles, as guides to the reformation needed in Wesleyanism. This bitter personality, it should in justice be said, was not the characteristic of the 'Fly Sheets' only. It has characterized both sides of the controversy, to an extent which ought to make each party ashamed of blaming the other.

The 'Fly Sheets' were suspected to come chiefly from the pen of a minister, to whom the Conference had previously endeavoured, by very unwise and undignified methods, to bring home the authorship of an anonymous book called ' Wesleyan Takings.' Internal evidence justified very strong suspicion that this minister (the Rev. James Everett) was a principal contributor both to the ' Takings' and the ' Sheets;' but no external proof could, even by the most desperate efforts, be obtained, and this question of authorship still remains one of the unsolved problems of literature, though it is not quite so doubtful as the authorship of Junius's '.Letters.'

The efforts to prove the authorship were indeed desperate. One preacher was censured severely by the Conference, because he refused to furnish evidence at the expense of a dishonourable breach of confidence. Another preacher was commended because he did divulge, in violation of every feeling of propriety and honour, part of the contents of a paper of which he had obtained a glance while in a friend's study. But even these methods failed; and the suspected author of the 'Fly Sheets' and two other preachers, who would not join in denying participation in the authorship, and in denouncing the publications Themselves, were expelled on suspicion, or for contumacy, though proof against them could not be, and was not, produced.

The effect of these proceedings, so revolting to those instincts of English Christians, which demand that every one shall be dealt with as innocent until he has been proved to be guilty, was to awaken general and strong sympathy with the expelled ministers. Before these expulsions, the ' Fly Sheets' and their anonymous writers had been blamed rather than approved. The Conference might have profited by some wholesome, though unwelcome, truths which they contained; have refuted, in Christian and conclusive argument, whatever in them was false; and tranquilly allowed them to pass into oblivion.

The contrary course, so unhappily taken, placed the expelled ministers before the Christian public not as criminals, but as martyrs. The pecuniary loss entailed by their expulsion was made up to them by generous subscriptions. Multitudes of the lay officers and members of the Connexion espoused their cause, and thereby transgressed the preposterous law which forbids the holding of meetings, the writing of letters, the doing, or attempting to do anything new until it has been appointed by the Conference—a law of which the prize-essayist on the pastoral office affirms (not ironically !) that it is ' a high compliment to the good sense of the people.' For the transgression of this, or of kindred Methodist laws, thousands of persons were expelled, and still larger numbers withdrew, preferring fellowship with those who were unjustly excommunicated to fellowship with those who had pronounced sentence against them. The mournful result was a decrease of about 55,000 members previously to the last Conference, and the alienation of a vast, probably a larger, number of persons in judgment and affection from Methodism, so administered. Of these many will withdraw, unless retained by wise concessions which we fear the leading ministers (and a large portion of the wealthy laity as their supporters) are resolved shall not be made. The temper of the last Conference was the reverse of conciliatory. Mr. Walton, one of the preachers, was sternly censured for the publication of a pamphlet entitled 'Counsels of Peace,' the only real fault of which was a want of boldness in distinctly proposing needful reforms. The eloquent Dr. Beaumont was degraded, because he had failed to carry out fully the Conference policy in the expulsion of the reformers in his circuit. The results of the course of conduct pursued to Dr. Beaumont might seem providentially designed to show the Conference that their censures are accounted by Christians of almost every denomination to be utterly destitute of all moral weight. Throughout the country the Conference sentence of degradation has been regarded as a certificate of honour. The doctor's services as a preacher and speaker have been valued and sought by the Wesleyan people, as well as by other Nonconformists, more than they ever were before. His popularity,

N.s.—VOL. IV. D

previously great, has everywhere increased. The Conference attempted to fix upon him the brand of shame. It unconsciously entwined around him the garland of triumph.

Very many persons have remained in connexion with the Conference in the faint, but dearly cherished hope that 'the Memorial Committee' would recommend to the ensuing Conference concessions such as would prevent the necessity of their final separation from the religious home of their youth, and, indeed, of their whole Christian life. These hopes have been bitterly disappointed. The disappointment is the more bitter because the concessions generally desired are so exceedingly moderate. A constitution with less of the democratic element than that of the Free Church of Scotland would satisfy nearly all parties among the Wesleyans, restore peace to the old Connexion, and might even reunite all the sects of Methodists in one powerful and harmonious church. Very many would be satisfied with a concession of power to the laity very much smaller than is possessed by laymen in the Presbyterian churches. Full security against being expelled by the superintendent, in spite of the protest of the class leaders, would remove the only grievance which very many of the members feel; but even this is absolutely refused—refused with an infatuation which almost surpasses belief. The Memorial Committee has met, deliberated, and published its report. As might have been expected from the exclusion from it of Dr. Beaumont, whose presence was necessary to a fair representation of different opinions, this report is thoroughly one-sided. Trivial alterations, in details, are proposed, but the sole authority of itinerant preachers, in excommunication, is distinctly reasserted. More recently, four hundred laymen have assembled, not as the freely chosen representatives of the Methodist "people, but as nominees of the president, and they have deliberately assented to provisions which amount to this, namely, that if all the lay officers and members throughout the entire Connexion were opposed to the expulsion of a member, against whom his superintendent had pronounced tlie sentence of excommunication, it would be in the power of the Conference to carry out the sentence in spite of them all! This is the justification of Mr. Taylor's strong sayings,—'that the clergy is everything, the laity nothing,'—that the power of the Methodist Conference is equalled only by the power of the priesthood of Rome. That an assembly of Methodist laymen should give their sanction to such a church system is at once wonderful and mournful. It is less wonderful, but more mournful, when we learn that, from this lay meeting, there was deliberately excluded every person, however distinguished for intelligence, experience in Methodist affairs, and piety, whose name was

« ForrigeFortsett »