Formulation of a Doctrinal Platform
The doctrinal platform of the Wesleyan societies was formulated, at least in its essential outlines, at this first conference. Wesley himself had, after diligent study while at Oxford, conclusively accepted the Anninian theory of general redemption, and learned to regard the doctrines of selection and reprobation, as held by Calvin, with very deep abhorrence. His adhesion to what he believed to be the teaching of Holy Writ had brought him into an unpleasant conflict with Cennick, his lay helper at Bristol, and with his friend and fellow-evangelist Whitefield. The latter, having while in New England become enamoured with its then prevailing Calvinism, took grave ofirnce at a sermon preached by Wesley in 1740 "on "free grace," and protested against it very severely in a letter to Wesley, which Whitefield's friends published in England. Cennick espoused the opinions of the letter, and, though in Wesley's employ, sowed the seeds of dissension in the Bristol society. The consequence was Cennick's separation from Wesley, Whiteifield's temporary estrangement from his old friend, and the division o fMethodism into two branches, the Calvinistic and the Wesleyan. Subsequently the two friends "agreed to differ," though they henceforth wrought in separate paths. But during this controversy the creed of the coming Wesleyan Church was practically settled; and when Wesley assembled his first conference, and its members conversed two days on "what to teach," they found themselves in substantial agreement on the atonement, election, justification by faith, the witness of the Spirit, entire sanctification, and other leading doctrines. Thus Wesley's theological views became the accepted platform of the great ecclesiastical system which he was unconsciously organizing.
During the five vears preceding this first conference great things had been accomplished. Starting from London and Bristol as the centres of his movement, Wesley had traversed the country from the Land's End to Newcastle, and had formed societies in numerous towns and cithes. In London alone those societies numbered not, less than two thousand souls. Their number elsewhere is not known, but it must have been several thousands. Forty-five preachers, including two ordained clergymen, were la boring under his direction. Unnumbered thousands were accustomed to listen to the quickening words which fell with unwonted power from his lips, and from those of his devoted and laborious lielpers. They had much bitter opposition and harsh persecution to contend with, and very little public sympathy to encourage them. The lower orders were steeped in brutality, the upper classes were hardened by scepticism and devoted to o pleasure. The clergy were frozen amid the formaliies of the Establishment. The Dissenting churches, with their ministers, were too lukewarm to breast the swelling tide of immorality which overflowed the land. They were, as Isaac Taylor remarks, "rapidly in course to be found nowhere but in books." And the peculiar characteristic of the English nation was, to use the words of Wesley, "universal, constant ungodliness." Against this triumphant wickedness Wesley, with his brother Charles, a handful of spiritual clergymen, and his little band of lay helpers, inspired by heroic faith, had entered the lists, determined to overthrow it and to establish the reign of scriptural holiness in its stead. It looked like an unequal and hopeless strife. But he threw himself with more than a hero's daring into the midst of the fray and led the van of a host which, if it did not wholly purify England, wrought a great reformation in public morals, poured fresh tides of spiritual life into both the Established and Dissenting churches, raised up that great body of spiritual men and women who finally constituted the Wesleyan Church, and effected a reformation which broke the sceptre of ungodliness and made England a comparatively godly nation.
Last modified 30 April 2010