by Chris Ritter
Methodism in the United States is a faltering structure with an amazing foundation. As our institutional relationships are re-negotiated, we have both need and opportunity to un-learn bad habits and re-connect with our own DNA. This is not the first time Methodists have had to do so. During its rapid expansion in the Nineteenth Century, British Methodist preachers stood at each conference to recite “The Liverpool Minutes,” a reform agenda developed in 1820 to call Methodism back to its roots.
A generation after the death of John Wesley, Methodism experienced its first significant decline. Meticulous in recording their numbers, British Methodists were alarmed to note a net loss of 4,688 adherents in a single year. It was not at all clear that the movement would survive the passing of its founder and the leaders he personally trained. The next three years, however, would witness a remarkable turnaround leading to a tripling of the movement over the following eighty years. Mathematician John Hayward has chronicled this growth and notes admiringly that the vast majority of the expansion was due to new conversions as opposed to population growth. The preachers in conference in Liverpool successfully developed the first-ever Methodist turnaround strategy.
Although the overall growth in American Methodism during the Nineteenth Century is even more dramatic than the British example, the detailed minutes of the Liverpool Conference provide insight into a uniquely Methodist model of addressing and reversing decline. The approach was aggressive and singular in focus. Chronicler Valentine Ward calls the mood at the gathering a “strong sensation” for reversing decline. It was clear that the group equated loss of numbers with a failure of the mission that must be corrected.
Little time, it seems, was spent diagnosing the causes for the loss. Unfavorable societal factors were not blamed as these had always been present for the Methodists. It was assumed, rather, that the issues were spiritual as were the solutions. The preachers in conference unanimously adopted no less than thirty-one resolutions aimed at recapturing the original flame. For decades after, all 2653 words were read aloud at annual conferences as a type of renewal pledge among the preachers. I group these strategies here under seven headings:
1) Renew the Preachers
You can’t give what you first don’t have. The preachers realized that any solution must begin with them: “We on this solemn occasion devote ourselves afresh to God and resolve in humble dependence on his grace to be more than ever attentive to Personal Religion and to the Christian instruction and government of our own families.” They vowed to eliminate any distraction from the work of saving souls and spiritually shepherding the flock. The pastors prayed for spiritual gifts that would allow them to minister more effectively. They recommitted to study while “taking care that whatever qualification we may acquire and use our ministry shall, by the Divine blessing, be always characterized by sound evangelical doctrine, by plainness of speech, and by a spirit of tender affection and burning zeal.” The solution would begin in the hearts of the leaders.
2) Renew the Preaching
The preachers committed to renewing their preaching. The content of their preaching would be refocused on the vital doctrines of the Christian faith: Repentance, justification, regeneration, and sanctification. The method of their preaching would be evangelistic, experiential (practical), and zealous. They would strive for clarity and simplicity while applying the grand doctrines of the faith to the various people listening. When visitors were present, they would pointedly and passionately offer an invitation to receive Christ. Their preaching would be orthodox, practical, and call for immediate response.
The practice of Field Preaching was reclaimed. Wesley had started out in the highways and the hedges and called his preachers to proclaim the Gospel outdoors twice a day wherever a crowd of twenty or more people could be gathered. Now this generation of preachers would vow to resist the pressure in the more established circuits to do away with the old method of taking the Gospel to the people. (Wesley had called those who wanted to keep the meetings indoors “lazy Methodists”.) The preachers recommitted to proclaiming the Gospel in public: “In order to promote an increase of the congregations and a revival of the work of God let us have recourse even in our old established circuits to the practice of preaching out of doors seeking in order to save that which is lost.”
3) Prayer and Fasting
A special day of prayer and fasting was called across British Methodism for a reversal of the decline and the renewal of the movement. The preachers recommitted to leading quarterly days of prayer and fasting, prayer meetings in the “bands”, and Watch Nights (all night prayer events). “But as we are deeply sensible that the great thing to be desired in order to a Revival and Extension of the Work of God without which no resolutions or labors or regulations will avail is a new and more abundant effusion of the Holy Spirit on ourselves on our Societies and on our Congregations we solemnly agree to seek that blessing in humble and earnest prayer.”
4) New Places for New Faces
Extension of the work was to be the job of every preacher. They were not only to tend their circuits, but they were to rebrand themselves as home missionaries and begin ministries in any place underserved by the movement. Capable lay leaders of the more established circuits were to be employed in preaching in rural locations. New classes were to be started in neighborhoods as a strategy for involving new leaders and reaching new people. Prayer meetings, likewise, were to be held in homes of various neighborhoods as a sort of nursery to develop new societies and leaders. The Methodists decided to reclaim their roots as an insurgent and entrepreneurial spiritual movement.
5) Recommit to Children and Youth
“Let us at least in every large town establish weekly meetings for the children of our friends according to our ancient custom and let us pay particular spiritual attention in public and private to the young people of our Societies and Congregations.” Wesley had insisted that each preacher be personally involved in the ministry of teaching children. Unless Methodists continually invest in the rising generation, he asserted, ‘the present Revival will be a res unius aetatis,’ a thing of only one age. In light of the decline recorded in 1820, the Liverpool Conference commissioned a new catechism to be used with young people. The training of the rising generation would no longer be neglected. (See “Seven Things John Wesley Expected Us to Do for Kids“)
6) Cultivate the Membership Spiritually
The preachers recommitted to visiting the sick, the “careless”, and the lukewarm. Class leaders were to recommit to visiting the members in their care weekly and inquire personally about the spiritual state of each. This would free the preachers up to personally visit those who had gone AWOL. During pastoral visits, families were to be encouraged to practice private spiritual disciplines. The public spiritual disciplines of worship, Sabbath-keeping, and Holy Communion were to likewise be publicly encouraged.
7) Practical Reforms
A re-commitment was made to “Wesley’s Instructions for Helpers” and the guidelines found in the “Large Minutes”, a collection of best practices developed under Wesley’s guidance. Even as preachers reconnected with their roots, they likewise committed to the “catholic spirit” and pledged to avoid small-minded arguments over theological minutiae. There was a “spirit of strife and debate” that had crept in and the 1820 conference was committed to driving this out. Administrative sloppiness was corrected, especially as it related to organizing the spiritual care of the people. There was a renewed effort to make meetings “interesting and appropriate to… the state of the people.” The need was recognized for high-quality, relevant, and practical instruction.
At the subsequent conference in 1821 and 1822, the preachers revisited and reaffirmed the plan that had led to a numerical turnaround. They particularly commended the continued practice of prayer and fasting. The benefit of prayer meetings in homes was restated as was the value of encouraging members to meet in bands. Slightly smaller, more intimate, and more intense than the regular class meetings, the bands were aimed at accountability and intentionally encouraging spiritual progress.
The first-ever Methodist turnaround strategy worked. The movement tripled in numbers over the next eighty years and proved it could continue without the direct leadership of its founder. Of course, decline eventually did come to the British Methodism and, apart from the Welsh Revival and help from Billy Graham Crusades, the decline has continued unabated since the dawn of the 20th Century. Today British Methodism is on life support. The deeper the decline, the more difficult its reversal. But perhaps the present crisis of American Methodism is a time to work toward the type of consensus achieved at the 1820 Liverpool Conference. Revival may still yet come from our roots.
Imagine a whole conference of Methodists preachers standing to read the following out loud and in unison. This went on for decades in British Methodism:
THE LIVERPOOL MINUTES
- We, on this solemn occasion, devote ourselves afresh to God; and resolve, in humble dependence on his grace, to be more than ever attentive to Personal Religion, and to the Christian Instruction and Government of our own families.
- Let us endeavor, in our public ministry, to preach constantly all those leading and vital Doctrines of the Gospel, which peculiarly distinguished the original Methodist preachers, whose labors were so signally blessed by the Lord, and to preach them in our primitive method, — evangelically, experimentally, zealously, and with great plainness and simplicity; giving to them a decided prominence in every sermon, and laboring to apply them closely, affectionately, and energetically to the consciences of the different classes of our hearers.
- Let us consecrate ourselves fully and entirely to our proper work, as servant of Christ and his Church, giving ourselves “wholly” to it, both in public and in private, and guarding against all occupations of our time and thoughts, which have no direct connection with our great calling, and which would injuriously divert our attention from the momentous task of saving souls, and taking care of the flock of Christ.
- Let us “covet earnestly the best gifts,” to qualify us for an acceptable and useful ministry; let us seek them in prayer from Him who is the Father of Lights and the Fountain of Wisdom; let us “stir up,” and improve by study and diligent cultivation, “the gift that is in us,” and strive in every way to be “workers who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth;” — taking care, however, that whatever other qualifications we may acquire and use, our Ministry shall, at least, by the Divine blessing, be always characterized by sound, evangelical doctrine, by plainness of speech, and by a spirit of tender affection and burning zeal.
- Let us frequently read, and carefully study, Mr. Wesley’s Rules of a Helper, and other parts of the large Minutes which relate to the duties of a Preacher and Pastor.
- In order to promote an increase of the congregations, and a revival of the work of God, let us have recourse, even in our old established circuits, to the practice of preaching out of doors; seeking, in order to save that which is lost.
- In every Circuit, let us try to open places; let us try again places which have not been recently visited; let us be increasingly attentive to the supply and superintendence of the country places already on the Plan; let us not be satisfied until every town, village, and hamlet, in our respective neighborhoods, shall be blessed, as far as we can possibly accomplish it, with the means of grace and salvation; — In a word, let every Methodist Preacher consider themselves as called to be, in point of enterprise, zeal and diligence, a Home Missionary, and to enlarge and extend, as well as keep, the Circuit to which they are appointed.
- Let us, wherever it shall appear to be practicable, especially in the old and large [congregations], employ some active and zealous persons, whose piety and general character shall be approved by the Leader’s Meetings, to attempt the formation of new classes, in suitable neighborhoods, where we may hope by that method to gather into the fold of Christ some persons who are “not far from the Kingdom of God,” but who need special invitation, and are not likely to “give themselves” fully “to the Lord and to us by the will of God” without more than ordinary labor and spiritual attention.
- Let us speak plainly and pointedly in every place, both in those occasional meetings of the Society at which strangers are allowed to be present, and in our sermons, on the duty and advantage of Christian Communion; and exhort all who are seeking salvation, to avail themselves, without delay, of the help of our more private means of grace.
- Let us encourage public Prayer Meetings, especially those which are help at times which do not interfere with our general worship, in the houses of our friends, in different parts of a town or neighborhood; such meetings having been long proved to be , when prudently conducted by persons of established peity and competent gifts, and duly superintended by Preachers, and by the Leaders Meetings, valuable nurseries for our Congregations and Societies, and means of salvation to many who could not have been reached at first by any other method.
- In country places, where a fully supply of preaching cannot be obtained, either by Traveling or Local Preachers, let suitable persons, belonging to the nearest Societies, be encouraged to attend, under the direction of the Superintendent, for the the purpose of public Prayer and Exhortation, and occasionally be read to the congregation a short and plain Sermon on the First Principles of the Doctrine of Christ, until such places can be favored with other and more regular opportunities of instruction in righteousness.
- Let us ourselves remember, and endeavor to impress on our people, that we, as a Body, do not exist for the purpose of party; and that we are especially bound, by the example of our Founder, by the original principle on which our Societies are formed, and by our constant profession before the world, to avoid a narrow, bigoted, and sectarian spirit, to abstain from needless and unprofitable disputes on minor subjects of theological controversy, and, as far as we innocently can, to “please all persons for their good until edification.” Let us, therefore, maintain toward all denominations of Christians, who “hold the head,” the kind and catholic spirit of primitive Methodism; and, according to the noble maxim of our Fathers in the Gospel, “be friends of all, and the enemies of none.”
- Let us, at least in every large town, establish weekly meetings for the children of our friends, according to our ancient custom; and let us pay particular attention, in public and private, to the young people of our Societies and Congregations.
- Let us meet our Societies regularly on the Lord’s day; and frequently on the week-day evenings, in country places, where we do not preach on the Lord’s day: — Let the members be accustomed, on such occasions, to show their Society Tickets; — and let us endeavor to make these meetings interesting and appropriate to our members, as such, — by giving to our addresses an immediate reference to the state of the people, to the circumstances of each Society, and to their peculiar duties: both personal and domestic, as professors of religion, and as Methodists, and be frequently explaining and enforcing our own Rules.
- Let us revive, where it has been neglected, and promote in every place, the observance of those parts of our discipline, which refer to Watch-nights, Private and Public Bands, and Quarterly days for solemn Fasting and Prayer.
- Let us, wherever we have access and opportunity, be diligent in pastoral visits to our people, at their own houses, especially to the sick, the careless, and the luke-warm.
- But as such visits much, in many cases, from our plan of continual itinerancy and village preaching, and from the number of members in the larger Societies, be greatly limited, let us endeavor so to arrange in our several Circuits the Plans for the Quarterly Public Visitation of the Classes, as to allow full time for the more minute examination into the Christian knowledge, experience, and practice of the Members, and for the pastoral inquiries, instructions, and counsels, respecting personal and family religion.
- Let us regularly meet the Class Leaders and examine their Class Papers in town and country and do all we can to engage both them and our respective Brethren the Local Preachers to co operate with us in their respective departments in promoting vital godliness among our people and extending the work of the Lord.
- As much depends under the blessing of God on the piety knowledge zeal activity and Christian temper of our Leaders as well as on their firm attachment to the doctrines discipline and cause of Methodism let us never nominate a new Leader until we have conscientiously satisfied ourselves by previous inquiry and personal examination as to the character and qualifications of the person proposed and let us act uniformly on the Rule respecting the Public Examination of Leaders which is found in our Minutes of 1811.
- Let us whenever a new Leader nominated by us and accepted by the Leaders Meeting shall be first introduced into the Meeting take that opportunity of stating the duties which belong to the office and of enforcing them on all present
- Let us affectionately but firmly enforce on the Leaders as an essential article of our pastoral discipline and one which in consequence of our own constant itinerancy cannot be dispensed with the Rule of the Society in which it is stated to be the duty of a Leader to see every Member in his Class once in every week
- Let us pay particular attention to Backsliders and endeavor in the spirit of meekness to restore them that have been overtaken in a fault and by private efforts as well as by our public ministrations to recover the fallen out of the snare of the devil.
- Let us afresh enforce on all our people a conscientious attendance on the Lord’s Supper
- Let us earnestly exhort our Societies to make the best and most religious use of the rest and leisure of the Lord’s Day let us admonish any individuals who shall be found to neglect our public worship under pretense of visiting the sick or other similar engagements let us show to our people the evils of wasting those portions of the Sabbath which are not spent in public worship in visits or in receiving company to the neglect of private prayer of the perusal of the Scriptures and of family duties and often to the serious spiritual injury of servants who are thus improperly employed and deprived of the public means of grace let us set an example in this matter by refusing for ourselves and for our families to spend in visits when there is no call of duty or necessity the sacred hours of the holy Sabbath and let us never allow the Lord’s Day to be secularized by meetings of mere business when such business refers only to the temporal affairs of the Church of God
- With a view to promote in the families and schools of our connection the uniform and regular practice of catechetical instruction which especially in the present state of our body and of our country at large we deem to be of the highest importance we agree that a series of catechisms shall be prepared and recommended for general use among us and we earnestly request Mr Benson and Mr Watson to draw up such catechisms and to submit them to the examination of the next Conference
- In conducting our leaders and quarterly meetings and all other official meetings amongst us let us affectionately and steadily discountenance the spirit of strife and debate and promote in the management of all our affairs both by our advice and example the temper and manner of men who are acting for God in the service of His Church Let the introduction of all topics of useless or irritating discussion not legitimately connected with the proper business of such meetings be prudently repressed Let us remember that in a large body the only way to live in peace and comfort is to walk by rule and to use the language of Mr Wesley not to mend our rules but to keep them for conscience sake And while we readily and cheerfully protect all our members in meetings in which we preside in the exercise of such functions as belong to them according to our laws and general usages let us not forget that we are under solemn obligations to conduct ourselves on such occasions not as the mere chairmen of public meetings but as the pastors of Christian societies put in trust by the ordinance of God and by their own voluntary association with us with the scriptural superintendence of their spiritual affairs and responsible to the Great Head of the Church for the faithful discharge of the duties of that trust
- We affectionately exhort those of our own people who are laudably active in various benevolent institutions while they persevere in every good word and work to guard against the danger of expending all their leisure and influence to mere local and subordinate charities so as to neglect God’s own direct and immediate institutions such as the public preaching of the Gospel or to deprive themselves of the opportunity of regularly attending their classes and of private prayer and reading of the Holy Scriptures It should not be forgotten that the great spiritual work of God depends under the Divine blessing on the general and conscientious use of His institutions and that in the success of that work all other good undertakings among us had their origins and must ever have their principal support These things ought ye to have done and not to have left the other undone
- In order that the state of the work may be constantly under the eye of the preachers we agree to revive uniformly the good old custom of keeping quarterly schedules in every circuit each of which shall contain a correct statement for the quarter to which it belongs of persons admitted on trial new members fully admitted into society after due probation removals into other circuits deaths backsliders conversions number in the bands and total number of members then in the Society The book steward shall prepare and furnish to every circuit a sufficient number of printed forms of such a schedule to be filled up by the preachers in reference to every distinct class during their quarterly visitations And from these each Superintendent shall draw up every quarter one general schedule containing an account of all the societies in his circuit in relation to the several particulars above mentioned These general circuit schedules each Superintendent is expected to produce whenever required so to do at the annual district meeting or at the Conference
- Every Superintendent is required to leave for his successor in the circuit book not only a list of the town and circuit stewards and of the annual subscribers to our several funds &c but especially an exact list of the names of all the members in his circuit arranged in their several classes and societies as found at the preceding Midsummer visitation
- But as we are deeply sensible that the great thing to be desired in order to a revival and extension of the work of God without which no resolutions or labors or regulations will avail is a new and more abundant effusion of the Holy Spirit on ourselves on our societies and on our congregations we solemnly agree to seek that blessing in humble and earnest prayer And we hereby appoint that the day of the next quarterly fast namely the Friday after Michaelmas Day October 6th shall be observed in all our circuits as a day of special fasting and prayer to Almighty God Let meetings for public supplication be held in as many places as possible in every circuit and let the preachers speak largely and particularly on the subject of their sermons on the preceding Lord’s Day
- The various articles included in this Minute shall be read by every chairman at the next regular annual meeting of his district and shall then be made the subject of serious conversation among the brethren with a view to their particular bearing on the spiritual state and circumstances of each district respectively.
Breathtaking, enlightening, sobering. The scope of Methodism’s pratfall is mindboggling. A thousand excuses and excurses will explain it. I don’t think Methodism can revive itself on programmatic ideals. There will have to be leaders called to the fray. There will have to be an Asbury outpouring on our preachers.
The link to Rules of a Helper seems to be broken. Other than that, excellent article!