What I Saw This Week in Coldwater, Michigan

SMCOn Thursday of this week our daughter, Carolyn, drove me 368 miles from the suburbs of Toronto to Coldwater, Michigan. We went to attend an ordination service during a session of the Southern Michigan Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church-USA.

Eric Rose, a young minister who was to be ordained along with five others, invited us to come as his guest.

Eric had been in touch with me a number of times about different aspects of pastoral ministry, and we had become friends. I knew he was anticipating his ordination joyfully.

The ordaining body was an annual conference. This is a grouping of regional churches that work together under an elected superintendent. Annual conferences meet yearly to review achievements, establish shared accountability, and care for the staffing of the churches.

We arrived at the place of meeting. We discovered there an orderly gathering of ministers and lay delegates in equal numbers. The annual conference was hard at work hearing the reviews of one year’s ministries and anticipating challenges for the year ahead.

We saw instantly that the mood was bright. There were moments of laughter, but at the same time there was evidence of serious work being done.

Annual Conferences are a trademark of Methodism. They trace back to 1744. How did they come into being?

Recall that in 1738 both John Wesley and brother Charles were graduates of prestigious Oxford University and ordained ministers of the Church of England. After periods of spiritual uncertainty and distress they both experienced remarkable evangelical conversions in May of that year.

These conversions seemed to unleash a renewing movement of God’s Holy Spirit across the British Isles. This is referred to as the Methodist or Wesleyan Revival.

After 1738, six years of Spirit-anointed preaching by John and Charles and others had raised up great numbers of new converts. In this mighty movement of the Holy Spirit the revival had awakened the spiritually impoverished, the enslaved, and often the church’s castoffs. As well, many were converted from what today might be called people of the middle class for whom the established church had failed to deliver the bread of life.

John Wesley was the natural leader of this movement. He was faced with the problem of how to bring ordered living to the thousands of the spiritually awakened. Wesley’s administrative gifts brought forth the idea of an “annual conference.”

The first annual conference of 1744 had ten members – John and Charles, four other ordained clergymen, and four lay preachers, not ordained but authorized by John Wesley and his colleagues to preach the gospel.

On the day before the first annual conference convened there was a preaching service, a love feast, and the serving of the sacrament of the Lord’s supper to the whole of the London society of Methodists, which by that time numbered between two and three thousand.

The agenda for the day of the conference was limited to addressing three questions: what to teach; how to teach; and how to regulate doctrine, discipline and practice. This first annual conference was conducted in deep humility. Wesley and these good men agreed that every question raised was to be freely and openly debated, so “that every person may speak freely what is in his heart.”

This first annual conference in 1744 became a template for Methodism. More than 250 years later almost anywhere Methodism exists regional work is administered through annual conferences (though names may vary).

When I saw my friend Eric standing with five other ordinands before the congregation in Coldwater, Michigan, and all six responding affirmatively to the questions for ordination, I was reminded that annual conferences around the world continue to be the body responsible for the conduct of this holy service of ordination.

I myself have administered ordination vows at annual conferences in such locations as Canada, the United States, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brazil, Haiti, and others.

My visit in Coldwater was deeply satisfying. Thanks be to God that the spiritual roots of today’s church sink deep into the soil of Christian history. Fundamentals do not change. And special thanks to God for the declared dedication of six newly-ordained ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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2 thoughts on “What I Saw This Week in Coldwater, Michigan

  1. Your blog about annual conferences brings back floods of nostalgia. Much fellowship and conversation.
    Turkle’s book, Recovering Conversation touches on some of what I miss. Roy

  2. Here in England , we learn about John Wesley and his brother Charles from our earliest school days.Methodism’s birth is a major part of our social and spiritual history.

    John Wesley was born at Epworth, in the summer of 1703. His mortal life was to span almost the whole 18th century.John’s brother Charles was born exactly a week before 25 December 1707. But I don’t think 25 December was Christmas Day back then.

    The new Gregorian calendar of 1582 ,though accepted by Catholic Europe, was not followed by Protestant Europe until 1751.Protestant Europe,including England,kept to the Julian calendar.Until 1751 England celebrated Christmas on the equivalent of the 6th of December ,as Russia still does.

    A few country churches in England still keep Old Christmas to this day , celebrating Christmas on 6 January.Back in 1707, when Charles Wesley was born,Christmas Day was 6 January .

    Charles’ hymn writing is one of our great national treasures and the religious and political life of the nation was changed forever by the Wesley’s Methodist mission.John Wesley was a tireless, lifelong reformer, commited to social justice.

    With Wiliam Wilberforce he campaigned for the abolition of slavery , which was passed much earlier in the British Empire , than in America.

    Most social and political historians argue Methodism led to the waves of 19th century social reforms in Britain.They cite Methodism as giving birth to the British Trade Union ,Cooperative and Labour movements and even to the British Labour Party

    It’s no coincidence that the best modern biography of John Wesley , ‘ A Brand From The Burning: The Life of John Wesley – 2004 ‘ was written by Roy Hattersley ,a former deputy leader of the British Labour Party .

    In reality, all three main British political parties – Conservative,Labour and Liberal ,frequently claim Wesley as one of their own.

    The fact is ,Wesley was no LiberalAs for and social democracy ,this was an unknown political philosophy in his day.John was adamantly a lifelong Tory,a Conservative as we call them today.

    Yet the reforms Wesley campaigned for were considered radical to the point of revolutionary by the political establishment of his day.I see no paradox here .John Wesley was guided by the Bible, not by any political doctrine.

    From within the Anglican church, Methodism renewed the Christian life of the nation, and launched a great awakening, a new spirituality and a deeper social concern for the poor and oppressed.

    An hour from here, lies Oxford .There,John Wesley was a student of Christ Church , from the age of 17, between 1720 and 1726 .In 1726 he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College.By then, his younger brother Charles was an Oxford University student .

    In 1728, John was ordained an Anglican priest and the following year John ,his brother Charles and a few like – hearted Christians ,formed the Holy Club at Oxford, a gathering of young men who took their Christianity seriously and wanted their faith to impact on all aspects of their daily life.They studied the bible together and prayed together.

    From this Holy Club ,came a firmly bible based Christianity ,an opening of hearts to the Holy Spirit ,which transformed many hearts and minds within the Anglican communion, and inspired a new evangelism far beyond anything the Church of England had previously seen.There was born a new Holiness based Christian movement.

    At the same time, as among the earliest Christians (Jesus’s disciples and the church born at Pentecost) ,there was a deep concern for social justice ,for the poor,the hungry and the sick and Wesley and his circle excluded no one. Wesley preached to the most excluded, the prisoners in an Oxford prison.

    Many Oxford students mocked the Wesleys and their Holy Club members ,laughing at their ‘overly Christian’ lifestyle , their devotion to bible study,and their concern for the less fortunate in society.

    The first Methodists took Lord’s supper far more frequently than was the custom at the time.One can read in his journal, that one Christmas season ,John took Lord’s supper every single day .This was considered over zealous by middle of the road Anglicans ,who didn’t like their faith too fervent.

    Wesley’s circle were dubbed ‘bible moths’ , ‘methody men’ and ‘methodists’.This for their systematic approach to Christian living.They were scolded for entering the houses of the poor and for feeding ,clothing and nursing the poor sick. Just so, Jesus was mocked for His concern for the welfare of the poor , the sick and the least fortunate.

    The Holy Club were not deterred by any label meant to insult them.They even adopted the tag methodist, as a badge of honour.

    John Wesley and other earliest Methodists created a new Christian based political spirit in England,strengthening the movement to abolish slavery and deepening concern for ill used and deprived children and poor families. John managed to live on £28 a year ,in order to give away the rest.

    A new concern and kindness toward others emerged in politics .It changed the nation forever.Jesus’s great second Law,to love others as ourselves ,was followed more closely.

    In 1735 the two Wesley brothers set sail for America , in the first Methodist overseas mission. They embarked aboard the ‘Simmonds’ ,bound for Georgia.John hoped to share the good news of the gospel with native Americans.

    He served as parish pastor at Savannah.But many settlers didn’t take to the piety and holiness movement of these earnest Englishmen.Perhaps John Wesley wasn’t ready yet,not fully spiritualy prepared .

    When I first began to enthusiastically study John Wesley’s life in greater depth, I was astonished to learn that John’s experience of the new birth came some time after his ordination as an Anglican minister.

    Until his new birth ,John Wesley ,by his own admission ,and in his own words,was only a partial and not an altogether Christian.

    Despite being ordained ,John Wesley’s entire Christian conversion didn’t come til his return from Georgia.

    It happened in 1738, at Aldersgate Street ,London.At this Aldersgate conversion everything changed for John.

    In 1738 ,on Whit Sunday ,as the English call Pentecost Day,John was suddenly overwhelmed by a warm feeling of God’s love.John Wesley experienced the New Birth, his spiritual birthday.How wonderful that God the Holy Spirit chose the day we commemorate Pentecost ,to convert John Wesley.

    On May 24th 1738 , John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed by the love of God.

    ”I felt I did trust in Christ,Christ alone,for salvation;and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins,even mine ,and saved me from the law of sin and death” John Wesley in his Journal.

    Up to now John had believed in God and feared God. Now he experienced ”the love that casts out fear”

    ”There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” 1 John 4:18 NIV.

    From this moment on 24 May 1738,John Wesley was a new man,completely effective in spreading Christ’s message of love.

    Around this time, other Methodists also experienced the same life change,this great pouring out upon them of the Holy Spirit.From around this time Charles Wesley’s heart poured out the first of his glorious hymns.

    The very next Sunday, after his new birth, John preached at two London churches,the first of many great sermons.His words were now so powered with the Holy Spirit,so effective,that some Anglicans felt unsettled by their fervour.Yet Wesley was no tub thumper ,unlike his contemporary ,George Whitefield.

    Nevertheless,Wesley was forbidden from ever preaching in those London churches again.

    The Anglican establishment were alarmed by this new Holiness ,so commited and charismatic.
    Had not Christ’s words alarmed the Temple authorities in the same way ?

    Down to today, evangelist and charismatic preachers disturb some folk.Some reacted against Billy Graham the same way,when he first preached here in England.

    Sadly, many in the Anglican church feared ,mocked and even persecuted Wesley and his movement.More and more Anglican churches closed their doors to his preaching .

    When he was prevented preaching in Anglican churches , John preached in the open fields, to mass congregations,reaching even those who normally avoided church.

    He got on his horse and rode up and down the land ,preaching to masses of ordinary folk in the fields.He became a ‘field preacher’.

    Just as Christ’s authority to speak God’s word was challenged ,so they challenged Wesley,sometimes even using the very words the Sanhedrin had used while persecuting Jesus.

    ”By what authority do you do these things” challenged foppish dandy Beau Nash ,so called ‘King of Bath.’

    ”By the authority of Jesus Christ” answered John Wesley,and a poor woman in the crowd supported him.

    ”You,Mr Nash,take care of your body .We take care of our souls : and for the sake of our souls we come here” she said.

    These simple honest words have become part of our British heritage ,our history,learned at primary school.

    Soon Wesley was employing twenty lay preachers to assist him. He adopted,for his Methodist headquaters – London in the south,Newcastle in the north east and Bristol in the south west , from which he set out by horse on preaching road trips.Stabling,everything was strategically planed for ,methodically.

    Anglican methodism grew and grew. But while Wesley remained an Anglican pastor,he was denied a parish .It didn’t matter. He looked upon the world as his parish,just as Saint Paul did.

    In fact ,as an Oxford university fellow,Wesley was entitled to preach wherever he chose,by right.Many Anglican churches ignored this right.So he preached outdoors.Then founded special Methodist chapels.

    At Bristol ,a few hours train journey from where I type this, John Wesley laid the foundation of a chapel in the Horse Fair,called the New Room.This remains the oldest Methodist church in the world.

    The early Anglican methodist movement had many enemies from within the Anglican church. Some spread false rumours – that Methodists were Jacobites and secret Catholics in disguise ,out to overthrow the government.

    Methodists were suspected and feared,for meeting privately, yet most Anglican churches were closed to them.How else cold they meet ?

    Some Anglican clergy and landowners even raised local mobs to beat up Methosists.John Wesley would courageously enter the centre of such drunken hired mobs , and face the ring leader with a rue heart.

    At Falmouth ,the mob withdrew in shame.At Wednesbury, in Fall 1743 , besieged ,John talked with the mob and by the end he won their hearts and minds. They turned and swore to defend him with their lives.Such was the working of the Holy Spirit.

    Among common people, John Wesley became known as the best loved man in England.

    In the end,after John Wesley’s death, many Wesleyan Anglican’s found it impossible to follow,from within their mother church ,their bible – based,Holy Spirit inspired,new birth Christianity Prevented from preaching ,many,both here and in America, had to break away from the Anglican Communion to practise their faith and preach.So various Methodist churches were formed.

    Some of these, themselves turned away, from bible based , Holy Spirit inspired faith and Christian living .Some came close, almost, to apostasy.They even locked those faithful to early Methodism out of church, or expelled them. So new Methodist churches had again to break away ,to keep Methodism alive.

    In New York,in 1860,Benjamin Titus Roberts and others, founded a new church based on original biblical Christian principles,free from worldliness. This church now has it’s own 156 year history of making disciples for Christ and transforming lives.

    Ironically, nowadays, the very Anglican church which prevented Methodist Anglicans from preaching ,now welcomes Methodists to preach from it’s pulpits, even requesting them.Anglican preachers regularly quote John Wesley’s sermons and most weeks we sing at least one Charles Wesley hymn.

    We keep a special day in church , each year, to celebrate the lives of John and Charles Wesley. It’s part of our Common Worship, the book which replaced the Book of Common Prayer, written by Thomas Cranmer in Tudor times to order Anglican worship through the year.

    In my church,St Michael’s cathedral church, Coventry,we have heard many Methodist preachers from our pulpit. Methodist pastors regularly have presided at Lord’s Supper in St Michael’s.

    The Anglican church is now reconciled with it’s Methodist offshoot churches and values them,accepting we have much to learn from Wesley’s spiritual descendants.

    Similarly,the Methodist Episcopal Church recanted taking away Benjamin Titus Roberts’ ordination ,at their 1858 annual Conference .17 years after B.T.Roberts’ death,the Methodist church that took away his ordination,returned his ministerial papers to his son,formerly acknowledging they had wronged his father.

    By then ,the new church founded by B.T.Roberts had grown and spread ,and won many disciples for Christ.Through good mission work,they had spread the Christian gospel to many parts of the world.The Free Methodist Church continues it’s outreach to this day.It’s future looks assured.

    Now,ordained as pastors in this very church ,are Eric Rose and his fellow ordinants.May they continue spreading the Gospel and the Wesleyan way of Holiness.

    Best wishes to Eric Rose and his five fellow ordinants .May the Holy Spirit securely indwell each of them. May they speak their Spirit inspired hearts with freedom. May God bless their pastoral ministries and empower them to change lives and make new disciples for Christ, as they spread His gospel.

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