Wesleyan Reform Union
Wesleyan Reform Union.
This organization had its origin in the expulsion of the Revs. James Everett, Samuel Dunn, and William Griffith from the Wesleyan Conference, in August, 1849. These expulsions took the people of England, and the Methodist people in particular, so entirely by surprise that the whole press of the country, excepting only two or three papers, took the part of the expelled ministers. Meetings of Methodists were held in many of the great centers in England, and the popular feeling, fanned by the voice of the press, was in a few months manifested by tens of thousands of members and office-bearers signing memorials to the Conference against the expulsions. In response thereto, the Conference ordered the preachers to withhold society tickets from all who signed such memorials, whether officers or members, and that policy was continued for about two years, until the funds of the Connection became so embarrassed that the expulsion policy had to be abandoned.
Seeing the desolation which prevailed in so many societies, all the efforts made by members for redress being repulsed by the Conference, another effort was made in December, 1851, by a large number of influential lay officers in the Connection who had not been expelled, who drew up a memorial to the Conference under twelve heads, asking for the cessation of the severe disciplinary action of the preachers, and also for some form of lay representation in the chief courts of Methodism. This was known as the Mediation Movement, and their memorial was in a short time signed by over two thousand Methodists, chiefly official persons. The Conference of 1852 declined to receive or negotiate with any deputation with regard to the said memorial, and in reply thereto "indulged in rancorous invective against many of the memorialists." Every effort at reconciliation with the Conference having been made by the people, and resistance being the only reply, it became necessary to take care of the thousands of members who, by the withholding of their society tickets, had been cut off from membership.
Not wishing to establish a separate body, early in the year 1850 a large meeting was held in Finsbury, London, of delegates from all parts of England, about four hundred in number, all of whom less than a year before held office in Methodist societies. After several days' deliberation a form of constitution was agreed upon, and the best arrangements made for keeping the members united, till all negotiations were found to be of no avail, when it was resolved, first, that they should exist as the Reform Union, and afterwards as the United Methodist Reformers.
The details of the various steps taken for several years to reform the constitution of the Wesleyan Conference so as to admit laymen into the higher Church courts, and so open the way for the return of thousands into fellowship, having all failed, to avoid, if possible, making another separate body, the Conference of the New Connection was applied to, but that body did not feel disposed to make the concessions asked, so as to open the door for union. Had they done so, their membership might have been doubled immediately. Some local societies did unite with them. Ultimately, in 1856, a meeting was held in Exeter Hall of appointed representatives from the Wesleyan Methodist Association (of 1835) and the Wesleyan Reformers (of 1849), when terms of union were agreed upon which resulted in the amalgamation of the two bodies under the name of "United Methodist Free Churches." At the eighth meeting of the delegates of the Reformers, held at Bristol in August, 1856, the statistics of their society were as follows:
Chapels 1,333 Lay preachers 2,525 Ministers 139 Class-leaders 2,878 Members 46,609 Members on trial 2,179 Sunday-schools 706 Teachers 12,118 Scholars 71,175
Although most of the leading societies belonging to the Reformers resolved on amalgamation, yet during the first year only 19,113 took action; and as there was a strong feeling of independence existing in many places, so long as they were able to maintain the minister of their choice, these societies kept a separate existence, in consequence of which action some members of the Reform Union determined not to amalgamate. In 1857 more than 26,800 members adhered to their original principles. That number was, however, soon considerably reduced. In 1858 nearly 2000 united with the Free Churches; and in 1859 over 5500 acted in the same way, and so the process went on, year by year several separate societies uniting in a body with the Free Churches, still leaving a few who maintained a separate existence as the Reform Union.
This body has had its headquarters at Exeter Hall from its origin. It established a book-room there, and commenced the publication of a monthly magazine in 1851, as The Wesleyan Reformer, the first editor being Mr. Robert Bulman, its second Mr. N.T. Langridge, its third Mr. Nichols. In 1853 its title was changed to the Wesleyan Methodist Penny Magazine. The committee also established a monthly magazine for the scholars in the Sunday-schools. Owing to its gradually diminished numbers, chiefly by amalgamation, it has for more than ten years past been the smallest section of the Methodist family, and its continued existence as a separate body has been a source of regret for some years, seeing that decadence has marked its course almost continuously from the time its members declined to amalgamate. The statistics of the past four years will be sufficient to indicate its position and influence.
Year. Preachers. Members. 1877 19 7703 1878 20 7673 1879 19 7623 1880 18 7728
Their doctrines are identical in all respects with those of the Wesleyan Methodists. The points of polity or discipline in which they differ are, that their ministers may remain as many years in a circuit as the people may desire; and they permit lay preachers to baptize their children, and to administer the Lord's supper, thus placing ministers and laymen on an equality in ministerial functions.
In addition to the serial publications previously named, the committee of the Reform Union resolved to take advantage of the book-room to secure funds for carrying on their work; and as large profits had been made by the sale of the hymn-books used by their societies, the book committee was the first to try the experiment of enlarging the hymn-book which had so long been in use by English Methodists. The Rev. James Everett, who had himself once been employed in the book-room of the parent society, learning that there were only about eight hymns in the Wesleyan collection which were copyrighted, supplied their places by others of Charles Wesley's, and added to them as many more new and popular hymns as made a book of a thousand hymns. To these were added for the first time the authors' names, not in all instances correctly, but as nearly so as was then possible. The book was a success, and as the usual discount was allowed on it to booksellers, which at that time the Wesleyans did not allow, many thousands soon found their way even into the congregations of the parent society. That improved edition in due time led the way to a still better collection being issued by the book-room of the Methodist Free Churches, and since, a still more modern one by the Wesleyan Conference itself. The Reform bookroom has for some years published the Local Preachers Magazine, at two pence monthly, a serial which has for many years, unofficially, been very helpful to many industrious lay preachers. It has also published other Methodist works, chiefly remainders of editions of good books which authors wished to dispose of, but which the rigid rules of the Wesleyan book-room prevented from admission into their sales. (G.J.S.)