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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 congregation 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,
must ensue to the connection if it did not speedily settle its disputes.
Meanwhile Alexander Kilham, a man of invincible energy, was issuing pamphlet after pamphlet in favor not only of the claims of the people to the sacraments, but of other and radical changes of the Methodist polity. He had been a traveling companion to the sainted Robert Carr Brackenbury, a gentleman of property and high social rank, whose sumptuous Raithby Hall had often been Wesley's home, and whose wealth had been liberally used for the spread of Methodism. He became a useful preacher and, with Kilham, founded Methodism amid fierce persecution in the Channel Isles, whence it entered France. Kilham endured the trials of mobs for the cause, and showed himself a brave man and a successful preacher. He was now on circuits in England and Scotland, and having caught the contagion of the ultra-democratic ideas of the day, was determined to reform Methodism. His pamphlets are admitted by his biographer to have been unpardonably severe. He accused the ministry of disregard for the rights of the people, and charged them with abject submission to the national Church; they had “ bowed in the house of Rimmon," and God was visiting the connection with retributive afflictions for this sin. He impeached the conference as perverse, if not corrupt, in several matters of administration. Most of the titles of his numerous pamphlets were of a sarcastic if not vulgar style, and his language generally was offensive and often obstreperous. Coke, Clarke, and others, of London, demanded that the chairman of his district in the north should summon him to trial, but it was at last deemed best to defer proceedings against him till the annual conference. The condition of either the connection or the country would not admit of an immediate trial without dangerous liabilities.
Meanwhile meetings and conventions were frequent among the laymen. The trustees held a delegated assembly at the session of the conference, and demanded concessions; they were treated with much respect by the preachers, and their wishes were accorded as far as was possible. Benson, lamenting the unfortunate example of Bristol, prepared the celebrated “Plan of Pacification,” and it was adopted at the conference of 1795. It gave some relief, but could not appease the public clamor. Cóke, Clarke, Mather, Taylor, Moore, and others, met for counsel at Litchfield, where the American system of episcopal government was urged by Coke. He proposed to ordain the preachers present, and initiate it at once as the only salvation of the connection ; but Mather and Moore demanded that it should be first submitted to the Conference. All of them, however, signed their names to a paper detailing the plan, and pledging them to advocate it at the next session. That body rejected it. Adam Clarke was favorable to the claim of the societies for the sacraments; he declared he would have religious liberty “if he had to go to the ends of the world for it;" but he was as prudent as he was zealous, and bravely opposed all undue haste. Even the good Bramwell sympathized strongly with the proposed reform; he at last became so tired of the protracted conflict that he actually withdrew from the connection, resolved to pursue his powerful ministrations alone; but his good sense returned and quickly led him back. Kilham was finally called to an account before the conference; he was tried, required to acknowledge his errors, and, refusing to do So, was expelled. Two preachers seceded and joined him; they organized the New Methodist Connection, and bore away at once five thousand members of societies. Distraction now spread apace. Kilham traversed the country, and was admitted into many Methodist chapels, dividing their societies, setting people against trustees, and both against preachers.
In these perilous circumstances, so long continued, the preachers maintained their forbearance with each other's difference of opinion, and with the excited societies. With the exception of the three who formed the Kilham schism, and the transient separation of Bramwell, all were steadfast to the common cause; with the exception of the deplorable altercation at Bristol, they presented no bad example to the people. They differed among themselves in theory, but knew that premature measures on one side or the other would, in the immature state of the popular parties, be disastrous. The casual allusions, in cotemporary biographies, to some of their conference sessions, are deeply affecting; they consulted, conceded, wept together; they spent days of their sessions on their knees in fasting and prayer. Benson, Bradburn, Clarke, and similar leaders, preached with power before them in behalf
of their old unity. The formidable difficulty was, that if they conceded to the claims of the mass of the people, they must alienate the trustees and the highest class of the laity, who were generally attached to the Church as Wesley had taught them to be; if they conceded to the latter, they would precipitate the people into schism. Under these circumstances what could they do? three things, as wise and godly men; and they did them nobly. First, stand in unbroken unity themselves, whatever might be their personal differences; secondly, make concessions as fast as the relative state of parties would admit, without insupportable offense to either; third, push forward their pastoral work, preaching, visiting the people, promoting revivals, and waiting for God to send them deliverence.
Their steadfastness and moderation at last brought them that deliverance, and they marched at the head of their hosts, out of the wilderness into the promised land with a triumph which deserves perpetual commemoration, as an example for all their successors. At the Conference of 1797, an imposing delegated convention of laymen was held. It was presided over by Thomas Thompson, of Hull, a man of great influence in the community of that city, and in the Wesleyan Connection generally. Its demands were treated by the Conference with the greatest deference; both bodies exchanged communications, and negotiated by joint committees, through nine or ten days. Both adjourned at last cordially satisfied, passing resolutions of mutual congratulation, and pledging themselves to each other to pray and labor for the peace and perpetual success of their common cause. We have not here time to detail the concessions made by the preachers; suffice it now to say that nothing which was asked was withheld by these devoted and self-sacrificing men, if it could be conceded without an abandonment of the fundamental system left them by Wesley. They sent forth an address to the people, in which they said: “Thus, brethren, we have given up the greatest part of our executive government into your hands, as represented in your different public meetings.” (Minutes, 1797.) ,
The time had arrived for these generous concessions; parties had been modified, especially by the growing majority in favor of the claims of the people; the faithfulness of the ministry, in