Our fellowship’s class meeting aims to have no practice without historical consideration or precedent. As a consequence, we’ve examined a number of Protestant Rules (especially Wesley’s) going back to Josiah Woodward’s discipline in the 1690’s. While ultimately adopting Wesley’s 1739 Order for ourselves, we noticed slight variations from local society to society. Recently read was the Rule for the Society at Madeley written by the Rev. John Fletcher. Fletcher’s Rule is fascinating, if nothing else, for his frequent reference to Church authority for the Evangelical Society. And, by this preoccupation with Establishment, we get a glimmer of how Religious Society was inspired by the Prayer Book and exhortations for Holy Communion. In other words, Fletcher hints an older connection between Evangelical and High Church principle.
In case class meetings, or Religious Societies, are unknown to the dear reader, these were Anglican fellowships started by the Revs. Anthony Horneck and William Beveridge during the 1670’s. The fellowships or societies tended to be pietistic in the focus, providing a means of accountability in holiness and prayer at mid-week for select parish communicants. The Rev. Josiah Woodward helped revive the practice of social meeting in London following the Jacobean scare after the same societies were suspect of supporting James II. Nonetheless, they persisted into the early years of Evangelical Revival, and both Wesley and Whitefield emerged from this milieu, initially ministering to these private fellowships and later, in many instances, incorporating them into their new Evangelical societies. I’ve written elsewhere how the old Woodwardian types differed from the newer Methodist societies. But, Fletcher is relatively late on the scene with respect to this history, more properly– despite wanting subordination of lay-preaching to the established church (himself a notable Vicar)– belongs to the Methodist movement, irenic with both Welsh and English sides.
Nonetheless, the debt owed to worthy preparation for Holy Communion by the early Evangelical movement is found within Fletcher’s first-half of advice in, The nature and rules of a religious society: submitted to the consideration of serious inhabitants of the parish (1788). After providing a number of pages filled with scriptural proofs for Christians keeping bonds of fellowship, Fletcher falls back upon church authority, shortly indicating this same private discipline was kept through all ages.
“Encouraged by these apostolic Exhortations, and the practice of spiritual Worshipers in every Age, a few of us purpose to be wise in our Generation, as are the children of this world, who every where associate themselves for the Purposes of Pleasures or Gain.”
Here, I purposely embolden the phrase, ‘to be wise in our Generation’, because it is Fletcher’s use of the church Homily for Rogation (discussed below). However, Fletcher now describes the more exact design of such a Society:
“In Order to this, we design by the Grace of God to unite in a Religious Society, to support and animate each other in the ways of Godliness, and to promote our mutual Salvation, by all the means which Christian Prudence and brotherly Love can suggest.”
This is pretty run-of-the-mill for Experience Fellowships of the period. But the interesting point in now finally made for societal gatherings:
The chief of these, we apprehend to be that which our church recommends, in the first Exhortation of the Communion Service, where ‘Those who see the need of a full and well-grounded Trust in God’s Mercy, and of a quiet conscience by the sense of the Forgiveness of their Sins, are directed to go to their Pastor, or to some other discreet minister, as requiring farther counsel and comfort for the quieting of their consciences, that opening their griefs, they may receive by the ministry of God’s holy Word, the benefit of Absolution, together with ghostly counsel and Advice; to the avoiding all scruples and doubtfulness’ about their interest in Christ and the forgiveness of their Sins through Faith in his Blood.”
Though this quote is somewhat edited by Fletcher– mostly for rhetorical reasons– the fact it’s taken from the first Exhortation in Holy Communion implicates the closeness Religious Society had to Prayer Book devotional practice. Here, Fletcher’s own words are “the chief of these”, meaning the purpose of these Societies is provisioning the Assurance and Confidence of our estate in Salvation. Also, of interest, is what’s omitted from the same Exhortation, “And because it is requisite that no man should come to the holy Communion, but with full trust in God’s mercy…”. The American Prayer Book keeps the same Exhortation, but, going back to 1789, it is placed in the second rather than first place. Nonetheless, the language is identical. Below is the Exhortation from the 1928 Book of Common, not disappearing from our tradition until the 1979 revision:
The early Religious Societies, certainly under Horneck and advised by Beveridge, sought the counsel and comfort from “their Pastor or some other discreet minister of God’s Word”. While most methodists societies were lay-led, Fletcher’s, like other Evangelical Anglicans, superintended the private fellowship meetings, and if not him, then a known or learned layperson. In Fletcher’s case, this happened to be his wife. Nevertheless, the Exhortation sets in motion a pattern that the seed of methodism grew. Consider the account of the first Methodist society with the Rev. John Wesley, similarly described in the preamble to the General Rule of the United Societies:
So. unto whom did these eight or ten mourners go but the Reverend Mr. John Wesley– a minister in the Church of England. A slightly more detailed account is provided by the recent Dr. Hurst where the ‘eight’ are described first as two or three women, later followed by a similar number of men whereupon the first class meeeting or religious society of Wesley’s kind began. From thence Wesley drew up General Rules for their spiritual advice– a practice done by serious clergy as noted with my recent post on the Rev. William Burkitt’s Poor Man’s help.
Anyway, the point being, the origin and purpose of these Religious Societies– whether of the older Woodwardian type (which I hope to examine soon) or the newer Methodist– is they followed a certain mandate, arguably, from the Prayer Book which Fletcher dutifully invokes. The story of Wesley gives more light respecting the Apostolic and ancient institution Evangelicals like Fletcher believed they rested upon, “keep such through the ages”. Hurst relays Weley’s account of the first making of the Class or Society in this manner,
As we read more of Fletcher’s Nature and Rules we are struck with repeated cross-references to Church standards. Fletcher, further down, compares the Rule to the Baptismal Vow known by readers of his day in both the church Catechism and Confirmation service, ,
“It is plain from the Quotations annexed that these Things are all of them agreeable to the Word of God, and the baptismal Vow, and consequently that to assent to them, is neither more nor less than to assent to the Form of Christianity” Nature & Rules p. 15
Meanwhile, returning to our preamble, Fletcher asks his design for the Experience meeting to be compared to the Communion Service and ‘Homily for Rogation Week’ (3rd part). Referring to the said Homily, we might garner more context or, at least, the ‘good’ the Society was to address. Below I embolden those arguments which resonate with Fletcher’s booklet, especially certain wording (see above). So, Book of Homilies, for the Third Day in Rogation Week, says,
“They know how God of his infinite mercy and lenity giveth all men here time and place of repentance; and they see how the wicked, as Job writeth, abuse the same in their pride: and therefore do the godly take the better hold of the time, to redeem it out of such use as it is spoiled in by the wicked. They which have this wisdom of God can gather by the diligent and earnest study of the worldlings of this present life, how they wait their times, an apply themselves to every occasion of time, to get riches, to increase their lands, and patrimony. They see the time pass away, and therefore take hold on it in such wise that otherwhiles they will with the loss of their sleep and ease, with suffering many pains, catch the offer of their time, knowing that that which is once past cannot be returned again: repentance may follow, but remedy is none. Why should not they then that be spiritually wise in their generation wait their time, to increase as fast in their state, to win and gain everlastingly? They reason what a brute forgetfulness it were in man, induced with reason, to be ignorant of their times, when they see the turtledove, the stork, and the swallow to wait their times, as Hieremy saith: ‘The stork in the air knoweth her appointed times; the turltle and the crane adn the swallow observe the time of their coming; but my people knoweth not the judgment of the Lord'”. Book of Homilies, p. 490
The cure of the soul is, thus, a forefront theme of this sort of literature. How much attention we pay to the soul is a typical talking-point for books like the Whole Duty of Man — a topic exiled Anglicans before the eve of the Restoration dwelt upon by exhortation. Whole Duty was perhaps one of the most popular texts to ever run off an Anglican printing press, a literal staple of SPCK libraries, producing many spin offs as well throughout the course of the 18th century. So the question runs: the value of the soul is greater than the body, so why aren’t men more urgent in mending their Spirit than their own flesh or worldly business? The Rev’d Richard Allestree, the civil war church divine who wrote the Whole Duty, poses danger of the Soul this way,
Given the wicked nature of our heart, man will make lite of their dire condition, so it is better to be watched by the honesty of others– hence, the goodly bands of Christian fellowship or friendship. A true friend, or brother, helps watch the Soul. Thus, Allestree gives us the third duty of Friendship which aligns closely with the role of the Society in rebuking or counsel:
Membership in the societies, even Fletcher’s, had no test except to “flee the wrath to come and be saved from sin”. Obviously, with men like Fletcher or Wesley at the head of the Societies, there was an Anglican bias (to say the least). But, the bands, from which classes grew out, indeed asked questions basic to our baptism. Wesley names these at his 1738 Christmas meeting. I list the first six inquiries:
“Some of the questions proposed to every one before he is admitted among us may he to this effect.
1. Have you the forgiveness of your sins.
2. Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. Have you the witness of God’s Spirit with your spirit, that you are a child of God.
4. Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart.
5. Has no sin, inward or outward, dominion over you.
6. Do you desire to be told of your faults.“
Perhaps its questions, like those reserved for the bands, which induced Fletcher to commend the Articles of Belief in the introduction to the General Rules. Here he prescribes what ought to be understood by those who join the Maledey company:
“In Order to be admitted into the Society, the Plan of which hath been sketched out in the foregoing pages, one only condition is previously required, namely– A sincere desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to seek salvation from the servitude of sin, according to the Gospel and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England; especially the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, and Thirteenth, which are earnestly recommended to the Perusal of every Person who would be a Member“.
While this seems to go a bit beyond Wesley’s Rule, it is Fletcher’s way of exercising a non-denominational test. Notice he says nothing of Article 17, On Predestination. There’s also little on the Trinity or distinctives of Anglicanism. But, beyond the Apostles Creed, especially if we seek the forgiveness of sin, then such Articles seem a natural conclusion and certainly not beyond the terms of Toleration which existed in the 18th century. For sake of purview, they are given below, likely familiar to us by the last pages of our 1928 BCP:
Fletcher’s Rule is strongly Wesleyite, following the plan of the United Socieities closely. As a possible successor to Wesley, this is very natural. However, these Societies were apparently loosely connected to one another– whether by the persons of Mr. John Wesley or another minister of the church clergy– like Fletcher or Grimshaw. Evidently, local adaptations to the General Rule existed. Fletcher’s version not only adds small yet useful details absent in Wesley’s Rule, but it goes the extra length to summon both proofs from scripture as well as invoke critical Church standards. In the 1760’s this sort of defensive approach was predictable for an anxious member of the Establishment, especially if engaged in a semi-irregular ministry, given the controversy around methodism– its allegations with enthusiasm and the employment of itinerant or unlearned lay-preachers. However, Fletcher is trying to make the connections from society to the church stronger– not only for critics judging, mostly on heresay, from the outside, but also for his fellowship members, most of whom already had loose ties to the church. However, a chiefmost reason for the existence of the Religious Society was the Exhortation in Holy Communion, and this reveals a ‘high church’ side to Fletcher and methodism. Worthy reception and the preparation for such is an old theme for Anglicans, easily going back to interregnum literature, and even parts of the Book of Homilies, an Elizabethan era text. This is the high church link with Evangelicalism– nay, even its origin and inspiration.