Bristol’s role in developing Methodist class leaders

Events in Bristol sparked an important change in the growing Methodist movement in the 1740s. At the time, societies led by Oxford Methodists and others were aligning their loyalties: some with the Wesleys, and others with the Moravians or George Whitefield’s Presbyterian teachings. John had just taken on the debt for the New Room in Bristol and the Foundery in London. In his book Wesley and the People Called Methodists, Richard Heitzenrater explains lay leadership developed.

In February 1742, John Wesley met with several leading persons from the society in Bristol to consider ways of paying the debt on the New Room. Captain Foy proposed that everyone in the society contribute a penny a week, a common method of subscription used in the religious societies and already implemented in the Foundery society to assist the poor. But someone protested that many of the members of the society were very poor and could not afford to give that much. Foy’s innovative solution was simple: divide the society into groups of twelve, each with a leader who would be responsible for turning in twelve pence a week, making up themselves whatever they could not collect. He also volunteered to take as his group the eleven poorest of the lot. His offer was accepted; others fell in line; it was done.

The importance of the groups soon superseded their original design. As the leaders began their weekly rounds, contacting every member of the society, they soon discovered problems: domestic disputes, drunkenness, and other sorts of behavior not indicative of the pursuit of holiness. Wesley saw the pastoral opportunity presented by the practical structure of the class: the leaders of the classes became the spiritual overseers of their group. This method helped Wesley overcome the difficulty of coming to know each person in the rapidly increasing societies and extended the personal touch of his pastoral oversight.

Early Methodism in Bristol – Writing of Rev. John Smith Simon. More on this article on p 17 of the acrobat file, or page 64 of the text.

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