The Wesley Pilgrimage: The method of early Methodism
Second in a series
As in other areas of life, being part of a group helps us grow as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many achieve fitness goals by participating in a weight loss or exercise group. Writers and artists join collectives where they regularly comment on one another's work. Others become better moms and dads as part of a parenting group.
Sharing with a group that celebrates our victories, supports us through struggles, and shares tips they have learned along the way increases our chances of improvement.
During the Wesley Pilgrimage in England, participants learn about the rich history of disciple-making and disciple-shaping groups in The United Methodist Church.
Where it all began
Pilgrims travel to where it all began, Christ Church in Oxford, the alma mater of John and Charles Wesley.
When John Wesley was a student at Christ Church (no one calls it Christ Church College), he longed for, but never quite found, a group with whom he could share his spiritual growth.
When his brother Charles arrived in Oxford to also study at Christ Church, John may have hoped they would support one another in their discipleship. Their mom, Susanna, had instilled in her children from an early age a routine of spiritual accountability.
Unfortunately, that didn't quite work. Charles fell into a routine similar to other college students, putting his spiritual growth on hold.
John, now studying to become ordained a priest in the Church of England, was elected a fellow at Lincoln College, also in Oxford. As a fellow, Wesley received a room, meals, students to teach and an annual stipend for life, as long as he remained unmarried.
Lincoln College proudly remembers John Wesley. A bust of him adorns an exterior wall and a room is decorated in the style of his study. Etched into the glass of the entrance doors of the chapel are the words, "John Wesley, Fellow, 1726-51."
While serving as the curate (associate pastor) of St. Andrew's Church where his father, the Rev. Samuel Wesley, was rector (lead pastor), John received a letter from Charles.
"I ... awoke out of my lethargy," the younger brother wrote of his renewed desire to focus on his spiritual growth. Charles also asked for tips on keeping a spiritual journal, a practice John found helpful.
After John visited Oxford and spent a few more weeks of working in his home church, Lincoln College asked John to return to the campus and resume his duties as a fellow.
Reunited in Oxford, the brothers periodically met with Charles' friend William Morgan for prayer, Bible study and conversation. They also received the Lord's Supper at least once a week, earning themselves the nickname "Sacramentarians."
Slowly, the group added members.
When Morgan invited the group to join him in visiting the debtors and felons incarcerated at the Castle prison, the Wesleys immediately saw the value of this ministry. After their first visit, John and Charles vowed to return at least weekly.
The group later joined Morgan in other ministries with which he was involved. Soon these young Oxford men were teaching children, visiting the elderly and caring for the poor as part of their Christian formation.
Other students, who didn't understand their zeal, gave the group mocking nicknames including, Bible-moths, The Holy Club, Supererogation-Men and Methodists. Undeterred, they continued their meetings and ministries.
The Oxford Holy Club, the name by which the group is remembered today, studied the Bible, prayed and worshiped together. They also served together, reaching out to those in their community who were in the most need. This holistic approach of Christian formation remained at the heart of the Methodist movement.
Expanding beyond Oxford
As the Holy Club members graduated from college, they formed similar societies wherever they went. The Wesleys, for example, organized societies in America during their missionary journey to Georgia, and continued meeting with other societies on their return to London.
At the invitation of George Whitefield, a former Holy Club member and fellow priest in the Church of England, John traveled to Bristol to continue Whitefield's ministry of field preaching. Whitefield was leaving for his own missionary journey to America.
Wesley preached and began forming the faithful of Bristol into a Methodist Society. The members pursued "holiness of heart and life" by practicing both their love of God and love for their neighbors.
Under Wesley's leadership the Methodist Society in Bristol grew quickly. Just months after his first sermon there, the Methodists began building a meetinghouse called The New Room, which the Wesley Pilgrimage in England visits.
The New Room reflects the holistic approach of the Methodist Society. From the pulpit in the chapel, John Wesley and others preached during the Society meetings, which also included teaching and singing some of Charles Wesley's hymns.
The pilgrims sit in fixed pews that are not original to the building. In Wesley's day, the furniture was removable because the meetinghouse was also used to feed the poor, teach children, distribute remedies to those who could not afford to see a doctor and to serve the community in other ways.
The Class: Small group ministry
Wesley stumbled upon one of his great innovations while serving the people of Bristol.
When a leader suggested that each Society member give a penny a week to pay the debt incurred in construction of the New Room, Wesley divided the society into groups of 12 called classes. Each class was appointed a leader who agreed to collect the money each week, and to pay for those who could not afford it.
The weekly visits of the class leaders soon uncovered something unexpected. Methodists attended worship every Sunday. They also came to Society meetings during the week. Some additionally attended a band meeting, a small group of approximately five people of the same gender and marital status, to confess specific sins and struggles to one another. Yet, many struggled in their pursuit of holiness.
Soon, weekly class meetings where members reported on the progress and struggles in holiness replaced the one-on-one visits. In those classes, Methodists watched over one another in love.
Becoming everyday disciples who pursue holiness of heart and life, who long to have the universal love of God filling their hearts and governing their lives, was the historic goal of the Methodist movement, and continues to be the objective of United Methodists today.
Like many other areas of life, we know that we grow best when we share the journey with others who share our goals. Wesley formed classes to help the early Methodists live as disciples of Jesus Christ. Many United Methodist congregations are reimagining the class meeting for today by organizing covenant discipleship groups that help form leaders in discipleship.
Because this formation happens as part of a group, we are not simply recipients of holiness. We are also helping others love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and love who God loves, as God loves them. Together we worship and celebrate the sacraments. Together we reach out in love and service to the world. Together we are transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ who participate in God's work of transforming the world.
The Rev. Joe Iovino, UMC.org content manager, and photographer Kathleen Barry joined 35 other clergy and laity from Liberia, Nigeria and across the United States on a July 11-21 Wesley Pilgrimage in England. Discipleship Ministries, the General Commission on Archives and History and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry sponsor the pilgrimage annually.
This article is adapted from a series of articles originally published at UMC.org. Find related articles there.