John Wesley by Samuel Manning the Younger. [Click on picture for larger image and
additional information about the statue and photographer.]

Obeying the unsought calls of Providence, Wesley visited other towns in the vicinity of London and Bristol. Wherever he preached, powerful awakenings and surprising conversions took place. This success begot new and weightier responsibilities. As the father of these spiritual children; he felt it to be his duly to see that they were properly nurtured. And when he saw many of his converts repelled from the sacramental altar in national churches only because they were his hearers, he felt compelled to provide for their spiritual culture and oversight. His choice lay between making such provision or permitting the fruits of his labors to become a "rope of sand." Being as yet a strong Churchman, he could not fully approve of lay preaching; but, following numerous Church precedents, he did appoint Mr. Cennick at Bristol, and Air. Maxfield at London, to take local supervision of the societies in their respective neighborhoods, to hold prayer-meetings, and to expound the Scriptures, but not to preach.

But, circumstances soon arrayed themselves once more against his slowly declining ecclesiasticism. During his absence young Maxfield began to preach in London with such power and spiritual fruitage as demonstrated his divine call. Wesley hastened back to London, intent on putting a stop to this insularity. His mother, then living in his house, said to him, "John, you know what, my sentiments have been; you cannot suspect me of favoring readily any theory of this kind. But take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are." Thus cautioned, Wesley heard Maxfield preach, carefully observed the fruits of his preaching, was convinced that he was called of God to the work of the ministry, and then authorized him to preach to Methodist congregations as his "lay helper." Yet he would not permit him to administer the sacraments, because he was not episcopally ordained.

This unpremeditated step, so reluctantly taken, contributed immensely to the structure which Wesley was still undesignedly rearing. In taking Maxfield as his helper, he in fact inaugurated the ministry of Methodism on the basis of a divine call. And his other men equally qualified and conscious of that call speedily appeared among his converts in numerous places, he could not consistently refuse to accept their aid, since the rapidly increasing number of his societies and congregations demanded he employment of more laborers. Having once admitted the principle. Wesley did not hesitate to apply it. Hence, in 1742 he had twenty-three helpers preaching under his direction; and in 1744, five years after his first sermon in the field at Bristol, we find him holding his first "conference" in London. It was composed of John and Charles Wesley, John Hodges, Henry Piers, Samuel Taylor, and John Meriton, clergymen in sympathy with Wesley; and Thomas Richards, Thomas Maxfield, John Bennett, and John Downes, lay helpers — in all ten persons. They remained in session five days, conversing freely on questions of doctrine, discipline, and ministerial duty. Among the rules adopted for assistants or lay helpers was one requiring them "to act in all things not according to your own will, but as a son in the Gospel to do that part of the work which we direct, at those times and places which we judge most for his glory." This rule recognised Wesley's authority to appoint, his lay helpers to such fields of labor as he judged best; it, made unqualified submission to this authority the duty of every lay assistant; it put into the rising structure of Methodism the principle of authority which made an organized itinerant ministry possible, and without which, in some form, it is difficult to see how it could be maintained. As exercised by Wesley, this authority was autocratic and practically irresponsible, and his acceptance and use of it cannot be justified except on the ground that he believed it was necessary, as it probably was at first, to the growth of the great work which Providence had thrust upon him. He saw no time when he deemed its surrender consistent with the peace and progress of his societies; but whether one agrees with him or not on this point, one cannot fairly charge him with its improper use. From first to last he sought the highest good of his societies, the best fields of usefulness for his preachers, and the promotion of the glory of God in all his appointments. No doubt he made many mistakes, for he was human; but, if ever mortal man possessed of great power was unselfish and pure in its exercise, that man was John Wesley.

Last modified 30 April 2010