Holy Passion, or Why the UMC Needs to Rediscover “Society”

This is the third in a series of posts about following Jesus in the UMC. I am looking back to John Wesley’s three-tiered structure of discipleship for suggestions and hints of how Methodists ought to pray, plan, and proceed in the future.

It all started with desire.

The Methodist movement began with the alluring, impassioned, desperate desire to be holy, to get close to God in an intimate way. And in a way that the local parish church wasn’t providing.

Public worship was not really intended to foster holiness or intimacy with God. The importance of Sunday morning worship has to do with public, corporate expressions of faith and adoration. You stand and sing alongside your peers; you pray with your friends and family; you encounter God in the sharing of Communion, side by side at the altar rail.

But it’s hard to find intimate moments with God in that hour of worship, and even harder to foster the kind of relationships with others that will sustain one during the week. And this hour is certainly not enough to form one in holiness, or to make one a true disciple, someone who actually follows the way of Jesus in this life.

For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this desire was primarily fostered in society meetings.

Society meetings are a thing of the past for the UMC. So is a desire for holiness. The UMC no longer even seeks this as a goal. Instead, we focus our attention on the Sunday morning worship service, where we spend most of our creative energy. Unfortunately, as our culture rapidly shifts away from viewing weekly church attendance as a worthy endeavor, our efforts may largely be a losing venture.

But John Wesley wanted to stir up desire for holiness. So he organized societies. The only requirement to become a member of one of these societies was “a desire to flee from the wrath to come and to be saved from (one’s) sins,” a “desire for holiness of heart and life.”

Wesley did not invent the religious society. Societies sprang up in England in the latter half of the seventeenth century as the result of a craving to go deeper in one’s faith. Dr. Anthony Horneck appears to have been the first to create a society in 1670, when he pulled together a small group of lay persons who had a zeal for “real holiness of heart and life.” These early societies met once a week, with a Church of England priest at the head, to read some Scripture, pray, and have some spiritual conversation. They also agreed to put sixpence in the box every week, which would then be distributed to the poor.

Rules from a different religious society, drawn up by a Dr. Woodward from around the same time period, included the stipulation that members themselves had to be faithful members of the Church of England. Members were warned that, after four unexplained absences from society meetings, they would be expelled. Two stewards were also appointed in order to handle the finances, and to lead the meeting if a priest was unavailable.

By the time Wesley began his ministry, the influence of societies in England had already begun to wane. One historian blames this on the influence of church politics on society meetings, as well as the “fact” that “the clergymen of the second generation of the Societies’ existence were not men of so high a type spiritually as their predecessors.”

But the seed had been planted in English religious life. Wesley took the concept of the society, revamped it, and supercharged it.

In 1738, he and Peter Bohler started the Fetter Lane Society with a small group of friends. They began with only two rules:

  1. That they will meet together once in a week to confess their faults one to another and to pray for one another that they may be healed
  2. That any others, of whose sincerity they are well assured, may, if they desire it, meet with them for that purpose

The society met every Wednesday night from 8 to 10 pm. As this society grew, the membership divided into smaller groups, called bands, which met together up to two additional times per week in order to have even more intimate conversation together.

Unfortunately, Wesley and Bohler fell out over theological and doctrinal concerns. Things became so uncomfortable that Wesley finally had to leave the group. He and a large group of followers ended up purchasing a property on Foundery Lane, and starting the Foundery Lane Society in 1740.

In some sense, this was the true beginning of Methodism. Here is the beginning of a systematic, intentional process of discipleship for interested persons.

At this point, Wesley had begun preaching in public places, sometimes in chapels where he was permitted to speak, other times in open outdoor areas. He was a popular preacher, and always drew a crowd. When he was finished, rather than issue an “altar call,” he invited those who had been “awakened,” or were curious to learn more, to attend a Methodist society meeting.

The society buildings were a beehive of activity and excitement. At Foundery Lane, the society held 5:00 am preaching services every morning. They also held regular love-feasts (simple meals), as well as watch-night services (originally designed to keep workers from drinking their paychecks away in local bars). Stewards were appointed to handle collections, as well as pay the bills. Whenever John or his brother Charles were out of town, Wesley-approved laypersons were permitted to preach and lead services.

But this was not “church,” nor was it “worship,” properly speaking. The point was to provide a safe haven where interested persons could gather for support and encouragement as they began the “way of salvation.” The society was not simply a place of fellowship; it was a serious school of discipleship. Thus, one had to live up to the standards espoused by the society. In fact, Wesley would regularly toss people out of the societies if they did not make a serious attempt to follow Christ!

This was an essential part of Wesley’s ministry. As John Smith Simons wrote in his book, John Wesley and the Methodist Societies:

John was an idealist dominated by the conviction that all men could be saved and brought to a knowledge of the truth. His own experience had shown him that the starting-point towards the deliverance of a man from sin is personal contact with Jesus Christ, and that the meeting-place of the Savior and the sinner is the Cross. His first ambition was to possess the power to persuade sinners to repent and believe the good news of salvation through faith in the Crucified. But he had another ambition. He saw that to lead a man to the Cross and then allow him to wander back into the world was to assist at a soul-tragedy … He admired the original discipline of the Church and was convinced that, if its main features could be reproduced, an opportunity would be given for the deliverance of men from sin and their growth in holiness.

Here is the essential difference between the Methodist way and the UMC way: John tried to lead people to Jesus and then to growth in holiness; we have become content to lead people to the Church, and then to growth in volunteerism.

The UMC today has no firm equivalent of the society meeting, which means that essentially we have no real systematic means to encourage growth in holiness. There are certainly people in our pews who have the desire, and are desperate to grow in holiness of heart and life. But where will they find the means and the mentors?

Is it time to bring back the society?

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4 comments

  1. Cynthia Astle

    Wes, you just keep hitting ’em out of the park this week. I’ve already posted “Why John Wesley Won’t Let Me Leave the UMC” on UM Insight. I’ve collected “Holy Passion” to post next week. Keep up the great work!

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