Methodist General Rules

1729 Oxford Holy Club

While a most plain and simple religion, Methodism has incredible depth. However, unless Methodism’s practical theology is contextualized by Anglican primitivism, this point is usually missed, and something more one-dimensional is left behind. Wesley’s methodism sheds enormous light upon classical Anglican doctrine and its related treatment of ecclesiastical discipline– a fantastic case study for those who take it upon themselves. While contemporary Anglicans often look to the East to reinvigorate Christian mysticism and holiness, Methodism has already tread the path, uniquely adapted for the Anglican Way.

The Holy Club:
When the Wesley brothers, along with Ingham and Gambold, met to study the Greek NT and Fathers in 1729, they mutually agreed upon certain vows of fellowship, amongst which were daily BCP prayer, frequent communion, weekly fasting, social charity, self-examination, and confession. The model of Wesleyans brotherhood was precedented upon late Caroline and Non-juror devotional practice, defined by the peitistic literature of churchmen like Cosin, Tolliston, Taylor, Horneck, Kempis, and Law. Soon the band gained the moniker “Holy Club” (aka. Reforming Club, Bible Bigots, Supererogation Men,  Bible Moths, etc).  The Reforming Club was essentially conformist, and it is curious how this zeal was received by more laxidasical Anglicans,

“They were all zealous members of the Church of England; not only tenacious of all her doctrines, so far as they knew them, but of all her discipline, to the minutest circumstance. They were likewise zealous observers of all the University Statutes, and that for conscience’ sake. But they observed neither these nor anything else any further than they conceived it was bound upon them by their one book, the Bible; it being their one desire and design to be downright Bible-Christians; taking the Bible, as interpreted by the primitive Church and our own, for their whole and sole rule.

The one charge then advanced against them was, that they were “righteous overmuch;” that they were abundantly too scrupulous, and too strict, carrying things to great extremes: In particular, that they laid too much stress upon the Rubrics and Canons of the Church; that they insisted too much on observing the Statutes of the University; and that they took the Scriptures in too strict and literal a sense; so that if they were right, few indeed would be saved.” (Wesley, A Short History)

The General Rule:
In 1738 and 1744 Wesley drew up general rules for bands and classes, a combination of catholic canon and moral uplift. Public vow and consecration (setting apart) of members was necessary to join the ‘class-band’. The guiding principle was the same as St. Benedict’s– providing a structure or Rule of life for the surest way to workout one’s salvation, evidencing good fruit. Moral works required regular participation at class meetings,  keeping the Sunday sabbath, partaking in weekly communion, regularly fasting, and utilizing morning prayer daily without contradiction to the established church. In sum,  “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 salvation.” The methodist society reintroduced particular confession and penance between Anglican laity, compensating, by reason of necessity, for what more puritanical worship deprived in the regular priesthood.

While the Methodist confessional might have given revivalism its  ‘hot seat’, other evangelical counsels or “teetoling” rules also addressed secular evils of the day, for the “avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced”. These rules launched on a large-scale what was known as the 18th-century revolution of manners, aka. christian perfectionism.  This started by suppressing certain rampant social vices like drunkenness, gossip, expensive dress, and family debt.  The text of the 1744 Rule is below, and portions not surprisingly remind us of our own Anglo-Catholic confirmation cards/rules,

“YOU are supposed to have the faith that “overcometh the world.” To you, therefore, it is not grievous, — I. Carefully to abstain from doing evil; in particular, — 1. Neither to buy nor sell anything at all on the Lord’s day. 2. To taste no spirituous liquor, no dram of any kind, unless prescribed by a physician. 3. To be at a word both in buying and selling. 4. To pawn nothing, no, not to save life. 5. Not to mention the fault of any behind his back, and to stop those short that do. 6. To wear no needless ornaments, such as rings, earrings, necklaces, lace, ruffles. 7. To use no needless self-indulgence, such as taking snuff or tobacco, unless prescribed by a Physician. II.  Zealously to maintain good works; in particular, — 1. To give alms of such things as you possess, and that to the uttermost of your power. 2. To reprove all that sin in your sight, and that in love and meekness of wisdom. 3. To be patterns of diligence and frugality, of self-denial, and taking up the cross daily. III. Constantly to attend on all the ordinances of God; in particular, — 1. To be at church and at the Lord’s table every week, and at every public meeting of the bands. 2. To attend the ministry of the word every morning, unless distance, business, or sickness prevent. 3. To use private prayer everyday; and family prayer, if you are at the head of the family. 4. To read the scriptures, and meditate therein, at every vacant hour. And, 5. to observe, as days of fasting or abstinence, all Fridays in the year.”

The 1808 American Rule is a bit longer with more detailed ‘teetoling’ provisions for general moral uplift…

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

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as: The taking of the name of God in vain;  the profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling; drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity; slaveholding; buying or selling slaves; fighting, quarreling, 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 [without paying customs duty]; 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 and costly apparel;” the taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus; the singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God; softness and 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, 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 because 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 which is 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 desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation, Thirdly: By attending upon 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; fasting or abstinence.

…If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who 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.

Some thoughts:
Methodism was conceived as a primitive-catholic revival within Anglicanism. Wesley carefully built and restrained the methodist societies so they might resemble a sort of mendicant order within the Church of England. As such, Wesley was a kind of arch-abbot, assigning priors and inducting friars throughout the realm. This was the new Monasticism, the turning of the ‘minster abbey’  inside-out, sanctifying laity by a ‘sure Rule’ of Common Payer that Cranmer envisioned. Wesley’s (attempted) addition was to order the laity, restoring the minor offices of the primitive church. In the same way monastics dubbed their missions ‘households’, the Methodists called their chapel “Preaching Houses”.  Protestants, especially Anglicans, have no bereave regarding the dissolution of the monasteries or religious life in England. The latter would be superseded and intensified by Cranmer and Wesley, holiness leaving the walled-cloister, spreading into the domestic family. Methodism is that beautiful system progressive sanctification, started by Cranmer and finished by Wesley, which builds and girds the vows churchmen given at baptism.

While Cranmer was perhaps too optimistic regarding the general priesthood of common people,  Wesley, I believe corrected this exuberance with ‘band-classes’, and until the break between Methodism and Anglicanism in 1784/1792, the societies were to function  as a corporate and tiered organization amongst laity, hopefully under the direction of Hanoveran Bishops. The tragedy was the Bishops missed a chance to welcome and integrate the great Order Wesley had built. Yet Wesley’s reputation as a great thinker and organizer lives beyond him. When Keble later suggested lay communion as a possible reprieve against national apostasy, Keble was making a similar appeal to lay priesthood, perhaps looking upon Wesley, if not Law’s, example. The difference with non-separating Presbyterian classes, consistories (parallel vestries), and conferences that Puritans like Cartwright proposed would have been proffered conformity to Anglican standards, namely prayer book rather than directory worship.

How these societies were ordered and the kind authority each layer of ministry utilized will be a future post, especially the tough question of Wesley’s odd high church principles against his creation of Superintendents.

3 responses to “Methodist General Rules

  1. As a footnote I want to compare Wesleyan to the Benedictine Rules w/ comments. This also applies to the posting on Lux Mundi where liberal catholics at the turn of the century unnecessarily placed tension between Old and New Testament law, allowing radical liberals to severe their interconnectedness. When the Benedictine Rule is read, chapter 4 discusses the ‘instruments of good works’, starting with the summary of the law. This is interesting because from this point on St. Benedict lists perfections with commandments, distinguishing little between. In fact, the BCP catechism (and longer ones from the same period) expound upon the Ten Commandments in the same way. Secondly, I believe moral perfectionism and Wesleyan covenants certainly had monastic rules in mind. Consider Benedict’s Prologue where the means by which we commune with God are attained,

    “to anyone who would dwell there; it remains for us to fulfil those duties. Therefore we must prepare our hearts an our bodies to do battle under the holy obedience of his commands; and let us ask God that He be pleased to give us the help of His grace for anything which our nature finds hardly possible. And if we to escape the pains of hell and attain life everlasting, then, while there is still time, while we are still in the body and are able to fulfil all these things by the light of this life, we must hasten to do now what will profit us for eternity. And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord. In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome. But if a certain strictness results form the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot be narrow. “

    So, the Rule, and its monastery, are established as a ‘school’ to ensure our best communion with God. I believe Wesley’s class-bands were analogous to the above. Benedict says of the ‘narrow way’ (which is Wesley’s moral perfectionism),

    “…by those are moved with the desire of attaining life everlasting. That desire is their motive for choosing the narrow way, of which the Lord says, ‘Narrow is the way that leads to life’, so that, not living according to their own choice nor obeying their own desires and pleasures but walking by another’s judgment and command, they dwell in monasteries…” (ch. 5).

    Also, interesting is Benedict’s explanation of ‘certain strictness’ resulting from ‘dictates of equity’. This is the precept behind ‘teetolin’ or ‘Wesleyan covenanting’ which is equivalent to ‘evangelical vows’. The ‘dictates of equity’ is an important concept. Just like civil law, monastic may set certain strictures according to the maturity (or lack thereof), measure, and personality of men. I think the important point to make here is that such ‘counsels’ or strictures cannot contradict the commandments, but if they are legislated for a higher good then it be understood their base in ‘equity’ and ‘temporary form’ not divine right or eternal law. This is a very fundamental point to Anglicanism, how we treat aspects of tradition and scripture vs. Rome and Geneva’s method.

    Benedict’s 12 degrees of humility express the idea of moral perfection by route of Rule as sure confidence of eternal life,

    “Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear. And all those precepts which formerly he had not observed without fear, he will now begin to keep by reason of that love, without any effort, as though naturally and by habit. No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin” (ch. 7)

    The purpose of the Rule is that saintly fellowship better preserve us for the final destination of commune with God and salvation. Benedictine offers his rule to make us more certain of this most important reality. Yet benedict describes the rule only as a minimum aid, but for the fullness of monastic thought, Benedict points to the fathers who preceded him. It’s important to reflect the huge impact monasticism has had on christianity, even Anglicanism which defines itself by this period, i.e., first three to five centuries. But monasticism also has its built in synergistic extremes/emphases which men ought to scruple. Nonetheless, I leave two quotes. The first regarding the writings of Fathers as ‘better completing the Rule’ (yet note the purpose of the Rule remains a means by which we reach heaven) and, second, the zeal which Benedict hopes to fan.

    “Now we have written this Rule in order that by its observance in monasteries we may show that we have attained some degree of virtue and the rudiments of the religious life. But for him who would hasten to the perfection of that life there are the teachings of the holy Fathers, the observance of which leads a man to the height of perfection. For what page or what utterance of the divinely inspired books of the Old and New Testaments is not most unerring rule for human life? Or what book of the holy Catholic Fathers does not loudly proclaim how we may come by a straight course to our Creator? Then the conferences and the institutes and the Lives of the Fathers, as also the Rule of our holy Father Basil– what else are they but tools of virtue for right-living and obedient monks? But for us who are lazy and ill-living and negligent they are a source of shame and confusion. Whoever you are, therefore, who are hastening to the heavenly homeland, fulfil with the help of Christ this minimum Rule which we have written for beginners; and then at length under God’s protection you will attain to the loftier heights of doctrine and virtue which we have mentioned above.” (chap. 73)

    Perhaps Wesley adapted the Bendectine Rule to modern times, it being informed by the same doctrine (i.e., suggested reading) that Benedict mentions– the Conferences, Institutes, Lives of the Fathers, and Rule by Basil. We see the ‘minimum’ rule as deeply motivated by a hope of pastoral care and guidance, i.e., “the sure or better way”, framed by constant fellowship and oversight. In this age of individualistic devotion (and sometimes isolation), we forget the importance of saintly merit, namely the help and charity which from other christians which spur us on in our daily sanctification. Finally here is Benedict’s zeal, which we certainly can use more today,

    “Just as there is an evil zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal which separates from vices and leads to God and to life everlasting. This zeal, therefore, the monks should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honour; most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another– no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another–; tender the charity of brotherhood chastely; fear God in love; love their Abbot with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!” (chap. 72)


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