The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 1
Necessary and justifiable as it is contended the recent expulsions by the Conference were, it cannot be denied, that they have given deep offence to many persons who not only belong to the Wesleyan societies, but who also sustain important offices in them. This is no more than page 53 might have been expected, considering the attempts which have long been made, by a selfish and unscrupulous press, to bring the Ministers of our body generally under suspicion and contempt: so that, if these expulsions had not occurred, occasion would unquestionably have been taken from something else, to give expression to hostile feelings for which many minds have been prepared, by a long course of unblushing misrepresentation. Even the late Conference has been publicly described as disorderly, riotous, capricious, and intolerant, regardless of all propriety, and of the rules by which deliberative assemblies are usually governed. It has been so described in the print to which reference has been just made; and these sinful misstatements have been left to produce their effects. I have been accustomed to attend the Annual Conferences for more than forty years; and I solemnly aver, that on no former occasion of the assembling of that body did I witness more striking indications of devout feeling, a greater regard for order, or a stronger desire to extend mercy to the utmost limit that was at all consistent with the maintenance of its own purity. But the Conference could not suffer its time to be wasted by irrelevant and vituperative speeches, which, after all, were manifestly intended less for its members than for the public; nor could it allow itself and its officers to be treated with insult and contumely.
It is also to be observed that nearly all the men who have put forth Resolutions against the late Conference, have said that the expulsions took place under the rule of 1835, than which there could not be a greater error. Under that rule (or declaratory resolution rather, for it is nothing more) no man ever was expelled, or ever can be, for a reason which has been already stated, and which every one must perceive. The men are said to have been expelled for contumacy. This is true, but it is not the whole truth. The Conference is not wont to visit cases of ordinary contumacy with so severe a penalty as expulsion. The man who was regarded as the principal offender page 54 was expelled for contumaciously refusing either to acknowledge his guilt, or to purge himself from a course of flagrant immorality,—the publication of a series of atrocious libels upon personal character; such libels as no honourable society of professional men would tolerate in any of its members; such libels as have rendered many a British subject amenable to the laws of his country, and have subjected to heavy fines, and even to imprisonment in a common jail. Was it right that such a man should receive the public sanction of the Methodist Conference, as a Minister of Christ? For this exercise of discipline some office-bearers in various Circuits have unceremoniously published censures upon the entire and collective pastorate of the body to which they belong; and even threaten to withhold their support from the several funds by which the cause of Christianity is maintained and extended.
Cases of this nature, however much they are to be lamented, are, unhappily, no novelties, as the records of the church too plainly show. Even the Apostles were not exempted from trials of this kind. "The disciple whom Jesus loved" had occasion to mention at least one person of influence and distinction in the church, who "prated against him with malicious words." St. Paul also speaks of his "perils among false brethren," as well as from Heathens and Jews. In consequence of his extraordinary diligence in his ministry, continued for two years in one particular region, it is said, "All they which dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks." (Acts xix. 10.) That his success among them was great, is manifest from the following chapter, which contains his parting address, and a warning that "from among themselves would men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." These men were successful in their divisive schemes, so that when the Apostle was "about to be offered up," and "the time of his departure was at hand," he had occasion to say to his son Timothy, "This thou knowest, that all they which are in Asia be turned page 55 away from me." (2 Tim. i. 15.) A sad proof this of instability even among religious people. If the "many tears," the public preaching, the pastoral visitation, the devotedness, the self-denial, of St. Paul were thus requited, if he were left to pine in a dungeon, and to die by the hand of the public executioner, without the slightest sympathy from immense bodies of people whom he had instrumentally turned to Christianity, from the guilt and misery of Heathenism,—let not Wesleyan Ministers either murmur or be surprised, if their spiritual children, in the hour of temptation, should listen to the mis-statements of an ungodly press, and traduce the men whom they are bound by every tie to esteem and love. It was not in vain that this inspired servant of Christ said, "Be patient toward all men." Yet the people who were "turned away" from St. Paul were all undeniably in the wrong.
With the official men among the Methodists, who have published Resolutions against the Conference, it may be hoped, however, that the dispute will soon terminate; for most of them declare an inalienable attachment to Methodism as it was administered by Mr. Wesley. Now we have shown that in the very first Conference Mr. Wesley laid down the principle of personal examination as applicable to all the Preachers that should labour in connexion with him; upon that principle he acted with respect to every one of them to the end of his life; he devolved upon the Conference the task of carrying out his plans after his death; and in the "Deed of Declaration," by which he invested the Conference with its powers, and defined its duties, he distinctly intimated that the annual examination of its members was to be no matter of mere form, but a means of preserving the body, in every respect, pure and uncorrupt: for he thus stated his purpose: "The Conference shall and may expel and put out from being a member thereof, or from being in connexion therewith, or from being upon trial, any person, member of the Conference, or admitted into connexion, or upon trial, for any cause which to the Conference may seem fit or neces- page 56 sary; and every member of the Conference so expelled and put out, shall cease to be a member thereof, to all intents and purposes, as though he were naturally dead."* In the fulfilment of its trust, the late Conference, in the examination of its members, found three who were deemed unfit to be any longer intrusted with this ministry, and therefore dismissed them, agreeably to Mr. Wesley's own practice and arrangements. This mode of dealing with men who are regarded as unfaithful is therefore no novelty, and no innovation; but is as old as Wesleyan Methodism itself. It cannot be then, that men who revere the memory of Mr. Wesley, and in reality approve of his plans, will long persist in raising a clamour against the Conference on account of its late expulsions. The extracts which we have given from the Minutes of Conference, published by Mr. Wesley himself, clearly prove that he required from his Preachers answers, which were quite as stringent and searching as any that were proposed by the late Conference to the men whom it was reluctantly compelled to disown.
* Wesley's Works, vol. iv., pp. 508, 509.
* Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity, book i., see. i.
It has also been said that as the system of questioning, as it is practised by the Conference, is liable to abuse, it would be well, on this account, to abandon it, and thus prevent all future occasion of offence and excitement, such as now prevail. Men have thus expressed themselves in public meetings; but it is difficult to believe that they are serious. If we ought to renounce everything that may be abused, what are we to retain? We must neither eat nor drink; for both have been abused to the purpose of intemperance. We must not profess religion; for this has been used as a covering of base designs. Class-Leaders are to see the members of their classes once a week, to inquire how their souls prosper. Is this also to be given up, because it may be abused by impertinence? But then this practice, so far as the Conference is concerned, never has been abused. It has been in use for more than a century; and no instance of its abuse has been recorded; nor was any complaint against it ever heard of till the late Conference, when it was applied to parties who shrunk from the test. They, of course, complain of it; but others regard this instance of its application as a public benefit, and would not, on any account, reverse what has been done, especially considering the spirit of the men on whom these acts of discipline have been passed.page 59
* Wesley's Works, vol. viii., p. 205.
Besides, if the Conference were to be so infatuated as to discontinue the practice of examining the Wesleyan Ministers, it would at the same time abandon its great trust, the trust for the execution of which it was itself created; and in this case it would be bound in honour to dissolve itself. A Conference sending forth from year to year unexamined Ministers, who should be at liberty to preach what they pleased, and to live as they pleased, so as not to outrage public decency, and to provoke an impeachment, would not be the Conference that John Wesley constituted. But the evil would soon work its own cure; for pious people would refuse to receive such men, and to submit to their pastoral rule; so that the appointments of a faithless Conference would be null and void.
And as Wesleyan Methodism, founded on the connexional principle, has worked well in respect of the maintenance of Christian doctrine and morals; so it has worked no less beneficially as to the spread of divine truth, and the advancement of spiritual religion. We have no quarrel with Christians of the Independent denomination, some of whom at present, through the medium of their recognised organs, load us with abuse; nor should we ever publicly animadvert either upon them or their system, if they would allow us peacefully to follow our own plans of evangelical labour. But they force us to a comparison of their ecclesiastical system and our own. Christianity is intended by its Author to be the one religion of mankind: for He has commanded that his Gospel should be preached to every creature; and therefore to the retired villager, as well as to the inhabitant of the crowded city. page 61 But what has Independency ever done for the scattered peasantry of either this or any other nation? It has ranked under its banners many Ministers equally eminent for scholarship and piety; it has erected large chapels, and collected large congregations, in populous districts and towns; and their influence in their several localities has been and is now a public blessing, in which every good man is bound to rejoice. Independency took its rise in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, more than a century before the Wesleys were born; but where are its trophies among the thinly-scattered population of our agricultural villages? In less than half the time during which the principles of Independency have been in operation, Wesleyan Methodism, with its connexional form, and its Conference, has erected thousands of chapels in these villages, and raised up in connexion with them thousands of societies and congregations, with their Sunday-schools, their Missionary associations, and all the apparatus of a living Christianity. Ten thousand Methodist peasants at this day, in the midst of poverty and privation, present as fine examples of spiritual religion, both in life and death, as the church of God has ever seen, even in her best and palmiest days.
Whence arises this difference? Are such men as James and Leifchild less zealous for the honour of Christ and the salvation of men than Methodist Preachers are? Far from it. The difference is doubtless to be found in the systems. In the extension of the work of God, Independency is comparatively powerless, because it is single-handed. The strength of Wesleyan Methodism lies mainly in its connexional unity. Its Ministers are stationed, generally two or three of them together, in large towns, where they are principally supported by numerous societies, and are therefore able, upon a regular and systematic plan, to extend their labours into the surrounding villages and hamlets, without imposing any oppressive burden upon the humble peasants, to whom they minister the word of life; and if, after all, these country Circuits are unable fully to support their own ministry, the deficiency page 62 is usually supplied out of a general fund, to which all the societies and congregations contribute.
* "Whenever the said Conference shall be reduced under the number of forty members, and continue so reduced for three yearly assemblies thereof successively, or whenever the members thereof shall decline or neglect to meet together annually for the purposes aforesaid, during the space of three years, that then, and in either of the said events, the Conference of the people called Methodists shall be extinguished, and all the aforesaid powers, privileges, and advantages shall cease, and the said chapels and premises, and all other chapels and premises, which now are or hereafter may be, settled, given, or conveyed, upon the trusts aforesaid, shall vest in the Trustees for the time being of the said chapels and premises respectively, and their successors for ever; upon trust that they, and the survivors of them, and the Trustees for the time being, do, shall, and may appoint such person and persons to preach and expound God's holy word therein, and to have the use and enjoyment thereof, for such time, and such manner, as to them shall seem proper." (Wesley's Works, vol. iv., pp. 510, 511.)
The question therefore naturally arises, "Will the Conference, in consequence of this pressure both within and from without, either violate its trust, or abandon it?" It is bound, by God's blessing, to provide for the Wesleyan pulpits a ministry which is at once evangelical, spiritual, and morally pure. It has hitherto fulfilled its trust, and stands pledged to the continued fulfilment of it. In the faith of this pledge millions of money have been expended in the erection of Methodist chapels, and of Ministers' dwelling-houses; and upwards of three hundred and seventy thousand people, in the United Kingdom alone, have enrolled themselves as members of the Wesleyan societies, in the faith that they should have an itinerant ministry possessing these characteristics. Shall all these interests be sacrificed? Shall the Conference either dissolve itself, or cease with conscientious care to examine the Ministers whom it sends forth with its sanction? Shall it force upon a confiding people men of doubtful orthodoxy, or of doubtful morals? Will the Conference so succumb to the clamour of worldly, infidel, or even Dissenting journalists, as to betray a trust so sacred and momentous, and involving the interests of generations yet unborn? The united heart of the Conference, and of its pious and intelligent societies throughout the world, responds, as with a voice of thunder, Never, no Never, no Never! a Thousand Times, Never!
Thank God, the Methodist Conference yet stands, after the changes and the lapse of a hundred years, as one of the most important institutions of the country, a witness to the truth, a conservator of vital Christianity, of social page 64 order, and of religious freedom; a breakwater against the intolerance of Popery and of its twin-sister Tractarianism, on the one hand, and against the equally violent intolerance of ultra-Dissent, on the other. The Conference was never stronger than it is at this day. It is strong in the religious and sanctified unity of its own members: it is strong in the consciousness of its own integrity, of which it has given demonstrative proof by expelling the men who know its affairs, and charge it with unfaithfulness and abuses; thus challenging and compelling its accusers to tell all that they know. The Conference is strong in the confidence, affection, and loyalty of the societies generally, of which they have given and still give substantial proof. Above all, the Conference is strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might; for, while in the fulfilment of its trust it is acknowledged to have fallen into inadvertencies, and has shown such infirmities as are incident even to the wisest and best of men, it has never, at any period of its existence, tolerated "either error in doctrine, or viciousness of life."
Let history then record the fact, that when a large portion of the British press combined to assail the Wesleyan Conference, and some of the Methodists themselves joined in the clamour, the mighty charge which they preferred against that venerable body was, that, in accordance with its own recognised principles and usages from the beginning, and to which it was solemnly pledged to adhere, it expelled one of its members, because he would not, when under general suspicion, purge himself of the meanness and the sin of propagating falsehood and slander by means of a clandestine press; and two others, his accomplices, because they would not promise to abstain from a similar system of annoyance and agitation.