“Holy conferencing” seems to be one of the buzz words for contemporary United Methodism. This post is the second post on this topic. (It could be seen as the second of three posts, as an earlier post pointed out that Wesley himself did not use the phrase “holy conferencing.”) The first post discussed the contemporary use of “holy conferencing.” This post discusses what Wesley meant by the phrase “Christian Conference,” which is the phrase from Wesley that is usually connected to contemporary uses of holy conferencing.
What did Wesley mean by the phrase “holy conferencing”?
Well, he did not actually use the phrase. Nevertheless, most contemporary appeals to “holy conferencing” ground the phrase in the authority of John Wesley by suggesting that the phrase is synonymous with Wesley’s use of the phrase “Christian Conference.” So, this post is actually a discussion of Wesley’s use of the phrase “Christian Conference.”
In order to understand Wesley’s use of Christian Conference, it is helpful to think about how he uses the phrase as a general concept and how it functions as a practice. When Wesley talks about Christian Conference as a concept, he is generally talking about how Christians ought to converse with one another. However, when he talks about Christian Conference as a practice, it is located within his understanding of “social holiness” or communal formation. My argument here, then, is that Christian Conference should be understood to be a concept that is located within a particular understanding of communal formation. If you divorce the concept from the way it is located in a particular set of practices, you no longer have the full Wesleyan understanding of Christian Conference.
In order to understand Wesley’s use of Christian Conference, then, we will need to discuss the way he used the phrase as a general concept and the way he located it within a particular set of practices.
How did Wesley understand Christian Conference as a general concept? To start, I only found one use of the phrase in Wesley’s corpus. The passage where Wesley discusses Christian Conference is the “Large Minutes,” where it is listed as one of five instituted means of grace (meaning that it has a privileged position because it was instituted by Christ in scripture). The first four instituted means of grace are: Prayer, Searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and Fasting. Here is what Wesley says about Christian Conference:
5. Christian Conference.
Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?
Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?
Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it? (Wesley, Works, 10: 856-857)
This passage is interesting because it consists entirely of questions. It does not clearly define what Christian Conference is. We can only discern what it is by inferring what the questions imply. For the most part, this is relatively easily done with these particular questions. For example, Wesley believes that Christian Conferencing should usually be limited to an hour and it should be started and concluded with prayer. And yet, Wesley also seems to assume that there is clarity about the meaning of this phrase, so he doesn’t define it. Instead of talking about what Christian Conference is, he focuses on a few ways the practice could be improved.
The best passage that I am aware of where Wesley expands on this concept is in his sermon “The First-fruits of the Spirit.” (Thanks to Dr. Andrew C. Thompson for pointing me to this.)
5. They who ‘walk after the Spirit’ are also led by him into all holiness of conversation. Their speech is ‘always in grace, seasoned with salt’, with the love and fear of God. ‘No corrupt communication comes out of their mouth, but (only) that which is good; that which is ‘to the use of edifying’, which is ‘meet to minister grace to the hearers’. And herein likewise do they exercise themselves day and night to do only the things which please God; in all their outward behaviour to follow him who ‘left us an example that we might tread in his steps’; in all their intercourse with their neighbor to walk in justice, mercy, and truth; and ‘whatsoever they do’, in every circumstance of life, to ‘do all to the glory of God.’
6. These are they who indeed ‘walk after the Spirit’. Being filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost, they possess in their hearts, and show forth in their lives, in the whole course of their words and actions, the genuine fruits of the Spirit of God, namely, ‘love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, fidelity, meekness, temperance’, and whatsoever else is lovely or praiseworthy. They ‘adorn in all things the gospel of God our Saviour’; and give full proof to all mankind that they are indeed actuated by the same Spirit ‘which raised up Jesus from the dead’. (Wesley, Works, 1:236-237)
Note that Wesley uses many of the same phrases here that he uses in the questions in the “Large Minutes.” It is also significant that Wesley ties “holiness of conversation” so closely to the rest of a holy life. He wrote, “herein likewise do they exercise themselves day and night to do only the things which please God; in all their outward behaviour to follow him [Jesus].”
It is also significant that the discussion of holy conversation occurs within a sermon about “walking after the Spirit.” Holy conversation, then, is a part of a greater whole, where people are “filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost” and “possess… the genuine fruits of the Spirit of God.” Moreover, “holy conversation” is the result of being led by the Holy Spirit. It isn’t something that we bring with us to difficult conversations, it is something God does for us and in us.
So, how was this concept situated within the particular practices of early Methodism?
This is where, in my view, there is a clear divergence from the way that “holy conferencing” is most often used or understood in contemporary United Methodism, where it largely remains an abstract concept that generally applies to talking to other people, particularly about difficult topics.
For Wesley, Christian Conference was grounded in his emphasis on the importance of Christian communal formation, or social holiness. Several of the questions where Wesley discusses Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace suggest that Wesley was thinking of something like the class and band meetings. Wesley believed that the class meeting served to “minister grace to the hearers” through talking about the state of each person’s soul. He also pointed to the need to limit the duration of the meetings. And the “Rules of the Band Societies” include instructions to begin and end the meetings with prayer.
Consider, for example, the following passage where Wesley discussed the benefits of the class meeting:
It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to “bear one another’s burdens,” and “naturally” to “care for each other.” As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for each other. And “speaking the truth in love, they grew up into him in all things which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love.” (Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” Works 9: 262)
Scholars have argued that for Wesley Christian Conference and Christian fellowship are nearly synonymous. (Thanks, again, to Andrew Thompson for pointing me to this.) So, when Wesley talked about Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace, he most likely had in mind a way of conversing that occurred within a particular context, where something like “bearing one another’s burdens” or “speaking the truth in love” was happening for the sake of growing in holiness. The place where this kind of conversation was expected to happen in early Methodism would have been obvious: the class meeting and the band meeting.
My sense, then, is that the early Methodist classes and bands would have been in the back of Wesley’s mind when he talked about Christian Conference, and not merely generic polite conversation. This becomes even more plausible when it is noted that immediately following Wesley’s list of the instituted means of grace, Wesley lists the “prudential” means of grace (because they are prudent, even though not explicitly instituted by Christ). Under the prudential means of grace “As Methodists” Wesley asks: Do you never miss any meeting of the society? Neither your class or band?” (Wesley, Works 10: 857)
As I began working on this, I emailed Dr. Randy L. Maddox and asked him for his thoughts on Christian Conference. In his response he said, “When Wesley refers to Christian Conference as an instituted means of grace, I think the class meeting is the best example of what he has in mind. This is particularly the case if we assume his primary focus in ‘means of grace’ is sanctification” (quoted with permission).
But why is the class meeting listed explicitly as a prudential means of grace for Methodists, and not also as an instituted means of grace for all Christians?
Wesley clearly acknowledged that the class meeting was not prescribed by Jesus. However, he did believe that something like the class meeting was. So, Wesley did believe that the general idea of small groups focused on our lives as followers of Christ was a general principle for all Christians. The class meeting was simply the particular way that Methodists were living out this principle.
So, what did Wesley mean by Christian Conference?
Christian Conference was honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness. These conversations were most obviously situated within the weekly class meetings and band meetings. This relates to the first post on the contemporary use of holy conferencing, then, because Christian Conferencing was not generally understood to be having a one-time polite conversation about a controversial subject. Rather, it was focused on the details of individual people’s lives, where they were experiencing God and growing in faith and holiness, and where they were not experiencing God or failing to grow in faith and holiness.
The goal of Christian Conference, then, is to “walk after the Spirit,” and to be “filled with faith and with the Holy Ghost.” The means to this end, then, was through weekly meetings for prayer and “watching over one another in love.”
Now that is a practice worth reclaiming!
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.