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THE CALVINISTIC CONTROVERSY, THE DEED OF SETTLEMENT,
AND MR. WESLEY'S STANDING IN THE COUNTRY.
The next general conflict the societies experienced arose from a revival of Antinomianism, which was eating out the vitals of religion all over the kingdom. Though Methodism had excluded none from its fellowship on account of doctrinal errors, it nevertheless had a theory of its own, which was considered important, though not positively indispensable to regeneration. But it now became evident enough that some of those principles, which had been treated with great liberality, were working the death of practical piety. This was particularly the case with that system of error called Antinomianism, which assumes that, as the elect cannot fall from grace, nor forfeit the divine favor, the wicked actions they commit are not really sinful, nor violations of the divine law; and consequently they have no occasion either to confess their sins, or to break them off by repentance. Mr. Fletcher, vicar of Madeley, describes the state of religion in the popular walks of life ir these words :
"At this time we stand particularly in danger of splitting upon the Antinomian rock. Many smatterers in Christian experience talk of finished salvation in Christ, or boast of being in a state of justification and sanctification, while they know little of themselves, and less of Christ. Their whole behavior testifies that their heart is void of humble love, and full of carnal confidence. They cry, Lord,
· , Lord!' with as much assurance and as little right as the foolish virgins. They pass for sweet Christians, dear children of God, and good believers; but their secret reserves evidence them to be only such believers as Simon Magus, Ananias and Sapphira.
To prevent this terrible malaria from poisoning the young societies, which had now become pretty numerous, the Con. ference of 1770 called up the subject, and reaffirmed certain propositions directly opposed to the Antinomian theory. The Minutes of this Conference created great excitement. The Calvinists took the alarm, and the Honorable and Reverend Walter Shirley wrote a circular letter to all the serious clergy, and some others, inviting them to meet at Bristol on the sixth of the following August, the time and place of Mr. Wesley's next Conference, and go to the Conference in a body, and “insist on a formal recantation of the said Minutes," and in case of a refusal, “that they sign and publish their protest against them.” What gave more influence to the letter, was the fact that the proposition originated with Lady Hundingdon, an old friend of Mr. Wesley and of the Wesleyan movement.
Mr. Fletcher, characterized as the “sainted Fletcher," because of his extraordinary piety, on receiving one of these circulars, communicated the contents to Mr. Wesley, proposing to stand by him and his doctrine to the last. He also wrote Mr. Shirley, entreating him to recall his circulars, and wrote other letters he thought necessary to counteract the influence of the plot. But all availed nothing. The opposition to the Minutes waxed warm, and a long controversy ensued, to which we are indebted for Fletcher's four volumes of Checks to Antinomianism ; a work which has, indeed, agreeably to its talented author's promise, stood by
Mr. Wesley and his principles “ to the last.”
Being written in a charming style, and with a power of argument which no sophistry can gainsay, and, withal, breathing the very spirit of heaven in every line, it has been a bulwark of defence to our theology, against which all the fiery darts of opponents have been hurled in vain. How much we che, how much the truth of God owes, how much the universal church and the world owe to this work, we, of course, have no means of exact information ; but in our opinion, there is not a work extant which has done more, under God, for the honor and perpetuity of Christian theology in its purity and power. Under its withering glance error has blushed and fled away, or assumed a new aspect, which, in its turn, has been rebuked, and retired. Its birth was a glorious era in Methodism. We commend the work to the careful examination of all who are in any way troubled with the Cal. vinistic delusion. They will find it a sovereign remedy against it as it was, or now is, when it is properly understood. And it is equally appropriate to those who would understand the doctrines of Methodism, and the grounds on which they rest for defence.
Tuesday, Aug. 6th, the Conference commenced its session, and Mr. Shirley and his friends appeared. The conversation that ensued lasted two hours, and was conducted with remarkable good temper; but there was no “recantation” or satisfaction ; and the controversy ensued, to which we have referred; Mr. Fletcher managing the Arminian side of the question, and various gentlemen of distinction the Calvinistic; thus relieving Mr. Wesley from a task that in other controversies had devolved upon him, and leaving him at liberty to prosecute the great work of which he was the acknowledged leader.
Methodism had made a fair beginning in Scotland, also.
Many had been converted, and several societies formed. But in the midst of the work this question arose. The excellent Mr. Hervey, author of the Meditations,” and an old pupil of Mr. Wesley, had formerly been induced to write some letters, which being now published and scattered among the young believers did much harm.* “0,” said one of the preachers then in Scotland," the precious convictions which these letters have destroyed! Many, that have often declared the great profit they received under our ministry, were by these induced to leave us.” “Though the preachers met with no mobs in Scotland to oppose their progress, they encountered prejudices that were more formidable.” Says Dr. Whitehead : “ They found the Scots strongly entrenched within the lines of religious opinions and modes of worship, which almost bade defiance to any mode of attack.”
Mr. Wesley was now considerably advanced in life. But though his health and strength remained undiminished, he regarded his dissolution as near, and deliberately applied himself to provide for the government of the multitudes he had drawn around him. Who was to take his place and do his work, without his influence, (and no man could have it,) was a question which occupied, not his attention only, but that of the preachers, who already trembled for the unity of the body when Mr. Wesley should be called to his reward.
From reference already made to Mr. Fletcher, the reader would naturally infer that he occupied a high place in the affections of the whole body. This was the fact, in proof of which Mr. Wesley was frequently solicited to secure him for his successor. Accordingly, in January, 1773, he wrote Mr. Fletcher a very emphatic letter, urging him by high
* These letters were not published till after Mr. Hervey's death, and then against his dying prohibition; to serve two objects, viz.: the covetousness of one man, and the bigotry of another.
considerations to enter into the itinerant work, and be prepared to succeed him in office. Mr. Fletcher replied with his usual modesty, declining the overture, but promising such assistance as he might be able to afford in certain contingencies. This was construed into encouragement hy some of the preachers, and Mr. Fletcher was addressed a second time ; but to no purpose. He was a great man, an excellent scholar, and an eminent Christian ; but he was alot prok ably “ born to command.” He could not fancy the position offered him. “I am," said he facetiously to a friend, " like one of your casks of wine : I am good for nothing till I settle.”
Methodism had found its way to America some time before. It now appeared in the Isle of Man, in Holland, and other places, and Mr. Wesley presided over the whole, travelling from country to country in his regular course with the same apparent case and energy he had displayed in former years. But the question must be settled, “ what is going to be done when Mr. Wesley dics?” Most of the trust deeds secured the right of appointing the preachers to the several chapels to him, some made no provision for their appointment after his demise, while many vested the right to appoint in the Conference. But who were the Conference ? As before stated, it was composed of such preachers as Mr. Wesley called together to counsel with him, and none others. Here was a difficulty which many feared, and some hoped, would prove fatal to the union of the societies.
To avoid so great a calamity Mr. Wesley took legal advice, and prepared a “Deed of Declaration,” constituting one hundred preachers, whom he named therein, the Conference of the people called Methodists - making provision for the filling of vacancies occasioned by death, superannua