What is our Methodist DNA?

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What is our Methodist DNA?

When an advert came to my attention for “The Stamford Circuit Study Day” I almost passed it by; life is busy enough without adding additional study to the mix as well as an hour’s drive each way.  But then the title caught my eye: “What is our Methodist DNA?” which struck me as intriguing.  And the clincher was in smaller type just below…”A Presentation by Rev Lord Leslie Griffiths”.

So it was that David and I set off at crack of dawn (well, early for a Saturday anyway) to Lincolnshire on 9 February.  Anyone who has heard Leslie Griffiths will know what an entertaining and engaging speaker he is – indeed I have previously been heard to say that “I could listen to him all day” and here we were pretty much doing just that – and we weren’t disappointed.

As a former Superintendent Minister of Wesley’s Chapel in London, Leslie has a wealth of knowledge about Methodism and he led us on a fascinating exploration of our Methodist roots, with suitable witty and perceptive asides about the current state of our country and the political scene.  Here is a brief summary which we hope you might find interesting:

The founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley, had quite a revolutionary background.  Both their parents had a non-conformist heritage, but their father, Samuel, was a reasonably successful Church of England Rector and their mother, Susannah, a passionate educationalist and strict disciplinarian. The boys were born in the early 1700s, a time when the monarchy and political scene was undergoing major change.

The family were very well connected and the boys, who were very able pupils, were sponsored to attend secondary schools in London at a time when most children left education after primary school.  John went to Charterhouse School and Charles to Westminster School where their eldest brother Samuel was, by that time, a teacher.  The boys were very well educated and were exposed to High Church Anglicanism.  Both went on to study at Christchurch College, Oxford. 

It was while Charles was at Oxford that he started the “Holy Club” with like minded friends for study, worship and outreach activity.  Once older brother John also arrived at Oxford he quickly assumed leadership of the group that was nicknamed “Methodistical” poking fun at it’s disciplined approach to Christian life.  But before you get an impression that they were very pious Leslie reminded us that John liked a glass of wine and had an eye for the ladies which occasionally got him into trouble!

In the 1730s an opportunity arose for them to travel to Georgia in America, Charles as secretary, and John as Chaplain, to General Oglethorpe.  Although they only stayed there for a couple of years two things particularly impressed themselves on the Wesley brothers.  Firstly, the awful slavery that Charles witnessed in the Carolinas as he travelled through before his journey home.  And secondly, the impressive calm that John witnessed of the Moravian passengers in the midst of the dreadful storms they all encountered on their passage back across the Atlantic.

When they returned to London John was displaying the signs of being a very disturbed man, riddled with doubt about his worthiness before God.  Charles meanwhile was preaching a very fiery message challenging people to turn away from their path of hell.  And it was against this backdrop that we reach May 1738 and the conversion experience when John “felt his heart strangely warmed” and Charles too came to a new understanding of his relationship with Jesus.

They started worshipping with the Moravians but soon found a major difference in theological understanding.  The Moravians believed that once a person had reached the point of conversion to the faith then they had gained the height of their spirituality and nothing more was required.  The Wesleys however were sure that the spiritual fire that had been caught during conversion needed constant tending and stoking, just as in a real fire.  They also adopted the theology of Jacob Armenius that grace is for all and believed that there were three “means of grace”, daily prayer and Bible study, regular worship at a church, and regular participation in Holy Communion.  Having therefore parted company with the Moravians they decided to set up their own headquarters.

Whilst John had been at Charterhouse a nearby gun factory, known as the Foundry, had exploded.  He established that the ruined site was available for rent and arranged for some refurbishment work to be carried out.  And so it was that in 1738 the first headquarters of Methodism took the form of a derelict factory with a leaking roof in which a series of ad hoc ministries responding to the need of the local community were established.  These included a “Ragged School” for 75 boys from the slums of London, soon followed by a sister school for girls, at which food would be provided for those who were clearly not being fed at home.  Pastoral support was given to prisoners on death row at Newgate Prison.  The sermons of John Wesley and a journal were published and distributed to Methodist Societies across the country to help in improving literacy amongst members.  A micro-finance loan fund was established to help people with cash flow issues, or to help set up small businesses.  Health care was provided free of charge to people at the point of need, originally administered by John Wesley himself until suitable people were engaged to lead this ministry.  And of course they continued to travel widely to undertake the outdoor preaching for which they were famous, and that enabled everyone who wanted to hear the message of the gospel.

Key milestones in the life of Methodism from these beginnings are that the first hymn book was published in 1780.  In 1784 the Deed of Declaration was signed to formalise the Church and around this time the first Methodist Ministers were ordained to go to support the ongoing work in the USA, as the Anglicans had refused to send Priests following the declaration of Independence.  And in 1791 John Wesley died.

The early 1800s saw a lot of missionary activity as Methodism spread across the globe, largely following the British flag around the Empire, and by 1881 the World Methodist Council was established with their first meeting taking place at Wesley’s Chapel in London.  Leslie described this era as “Methodism’ s Mahogany Phase” symbolised by the marble pillars donated by Methodists in other parts of the world to enhance Wesley’s Chapel.  You may draw your own conclusions about the implications of that phrase!

Leslie summarised by saying that Methodism was founded on an optimistic theology with a clear understanding that there was a need to express this in a practical, social way.  He suggested that we need to rediscover our Methodist DNA which is to always be prepared to go the extra mile, to offer practical support and love to all in any sort of need.

As one other participant in the study day put it:  “There is no better time than now to be a Methodist!”  Are you up for the challenge?

Eleri & David Bristow


District Office

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