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THE FIRST CONFERENCE, WITH THE TRIALS AND SUCCESS
For several years the preachers travelled from place to place as circumstances seemed to require, and as Mr. Wesley directed, without any plan. But as they became more numerous, and the work more extensive and complicated, it became necessary to divide the country into circuits, to be supplied by the different preachers according to rules that might be adopted for that purpose. To effect so difficult a task in a way not to disturb the unity of the body, and at the same time secure the greatest possible success, Mr. Wesley invited a number of the preachers to meet him for consultation. The first meeting was held at the Foundry, in London, June 25th, 1744, and consisted of six persons. The preachers thus met, Mr. Wesley denominated “ The Conference," a title that is now better understood, and of high significance, both in Europe and America. The meeting continued five days, and was occupied, first of all, in prayer to God, for his guidance and blessing; and then, in the consideration of the great doctrinal and practical questions particularly involved in their enterprise.
That they might come to right conclusions, it was desired that all should have a single eye, and be as little children, having every thing to learn ; that every point should be examined to the foundation ; that each should speak what. ever was in his heart, till every question should be thor: oughly debated and settled. This being premised, the design of the meeting was stated to be, to consider, 1. What to teach. 2. How to teach. And 3. What to do ; i. e., how to regulate our doctrine, discipline and practice. Whereupon, they proceeded step by step in the form of conversation, beginning with the doctrine of justification, till they had agreed upon inost of the great principles which constitute the framework and strength of our ecclesiastical fabric.
With an improved acquaintance with each other, and a better understanding of, and a stronger attachment to, the doctrines and discipline in which they were so happily agreed, they were now prepared to instruct and regulate the societies as they had never been before. And as the result of these deliberations, the work of God advanced with greater uniformity, and the different societies became moulded and fashioned after the same image, as was necessary to consolidate them into one grand confederacy.
This was the beginning of Conferences, and lies at the foundation of that series of annual meetings of the preachers which has been extended to the present day. The second Conference commenced Aug. 1, 1745, and consisted of ten persons, convened, as before, by Mr. Wesley's invitation, Some years after he gave a general permission to all the preachers to attend, but soon retracted it. At these Conferences the character of the preachers was examined, points of doctrine and discipline reviewed as occasion required, complaints considered, and difficulties settleri. The minutes of the several conversations held, formed the discipline of the societies. The last revision of them, by himself, was made in 1789, two years before his death.
Arrangements now being more fully established, and the
preachers assigned to particular fields of labor for a time, Mr. Wesley took occasion to reason with the established clergy, to whose ignorance and prejudice he attributed most of the persecutions the societies were called to endure. And wishing to do it in a manner the least offensive, he drew up a short state of the case between the clergy and the Methodists, and sent it to a personal friend, to be used as he should see fit. This document sc clearly indicates the principles, character, and condition of the societies at that time, we cannot deny our young friends the privilege of reading it in this connection. Who will say that its demands are unreasonable ?
“ About seven years since we began preaching inward present salvation as attainable by faith alone. For preach ing this doctrine, we were forbidden to preach in most churches. We then preached in private houses ; and when the houses could not contain the people, in the open air. For this, many of the clergy preached or printed against us, as both heretics and schismatics. Persons who were convinced of sin begged us to advise them more particularly how to flee from the wrath to come. We desired them, being many, to come at one time, and we would endeavor it. For this we were represented, both from the pulpit and the press, as introducing Popery, and raising sedition. Yea, all manner of evil was said, both of us and of those who used to assemble with us. Finding that some of these did walk disorderly, we desired them not to come to us any more. And some of the others we desired to overlook the rest, that we might know whether they walked worthy of the gospel. Several of the clergy now stirred up the people to treat us as outlaws or mad dogs. The people did so, both in Staffordshire, Cornwall, and many other
places. And they do so still, wherever they are not restrained by fear of the magistrates.
Now, what can we do, or what can you, or our brethren do, towards healing this breach ? Desire of us any thing which we can do with a safe conscience, and we will <lo it immediately. Will you meet us here? Will you do what we desire of you, so far as you can with a safe conscience ?
“1. Do you desire us, To preach another, or to desist from preaching this doctrine? We cannot do this with a safe conscience.
“ 2. Do you desire us, To desist from preaching in private houses, or in the open air? As things are now circumstanced, this would be the same as desiring us not to preach at all.
66 3. Do you desire us, Not to advise those who meet together for that purpose ? To dissolve our societies? We cannot do this with a safe conscience ; for, we apprehend, many souls would be lost thereby.
6 4. Do you desire us, To advise them one by one? This is impossible, because of their number.
“5. Do you desire us, To suffer those who walk disorderly still to mix with the rest ? Neither can we do this with a safe conscience ; for evil communications corrupt good manners.'
“6. Do you desire us, To discharge those leaders, as we term them, who overlook the rest ? This is, in effect, to suffer the disorderly walkers still to remain with the rest.
“Do you desire us, lastly, to behave with tenderness, both to the characters and persons of our brethren the clergy? By the grace of God we can and will do this ; as, indeed, we have done to this day
“ If you ask, What we desire of you to do? we answer: 1. We do not desire any of you to let us preach in your church, either if you believe us to preach false doctrine, or if you have the least scruple. But we desire any who helieves us to preach true doctrine, and has no scruple in the matter, not to be either publicly or privately discouraged from inviting us to preach in his church.
“ 2. We do not desire that any who thinks it his duty to preach or print against us should refrain therefrom. But we desire, that none will do this till he has calmly considered both sides of the question, and that he would not condemn us unheard, but first read what we say in our own defence.
“3. We do not desire any favor if either Popery, sedition, or immorality be proved against us. But we desire you would not credit, without proof, any of those senseless tales that pass current with the vulgar; that, if you do not credit them yourselves, you will not relate them to others; yea, that you will discountenance those who still retail them abroad.
66 4. We do not desire any preferment, favor, or recom mendation, from those that are in power, either in Church or State: But we desire: 1. That if any thing material be laid to our charge, we may be permitted to answer for ourselves. 2. That you would hinder your dependents from stirring up the rabble against us, who are certainly not the proper judges in these matters; and 3. That you would effectually suppress and discountenance all riots and popular insurrections, which evidently strike at the foundation of all government, whether of Church or State.'
While thus reasoning with the clergy, and other opposers of his movements, he was not unmindful of the conduct of his friends. His advice to them was equally pertinent and