How Did the Early Methodists Handle Leadership Succession?

John-Wesley

John Wesley, the ‘father’ of Methodism, liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. He felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican apostolic succession. He was also well aware that, having been only an Anglican priest and not a bishop, he could not himself ordain anyone to a higher office than that – but would need to in order to cover Methodism’s spread in two continents.

As a churchman, Wesley still believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter. So it was that, against the advice of some of his inner circle, Wesley contacted Erasmus (Gerasimos), Orthodox bishop of Arcadia in Crete, now living in exile in Amsterdam. Wesley had Erasmus’s credentials checked with the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Smyrna and was satisfied. So, on a visit to London in 1763, Erasmus consecrated Wesley a ‘bishop of the Christian Church’ and ordained several Methodist preachers as priests.

Wesley could not make known his episcopal consecration because of strict laws (Praemunire) forbidding any activity seen to promote foreign powers – in this case, the Pope. But it gave him the authority that he felt he needed for proper ordination in a recognised succession. It was on that basis that he consecrated Thomas Coke to be bishop of the Methodists in America.

At home, Wesley determined to appoint John Fletcher as his successor.  Swiss by birth, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but became an ardent Methodist. From 1757 onwards, when Fletcher was 28, he became Wesley’s coadjutor. Wesley wrote in his journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.

John Fletcher of Madeley

John Fletcher of Madeley

Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them and wrote of Fletcher: One equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So blameless a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America; nor do I expect to find another this side of eternity.

In 1773, Wesley invited Fletcher to become his successor. He told him that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline.” Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. He believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology. In 1776, Wesley repeated the invitation, adding: “Should we not discern the providential time?”

Again, Fletcher declined. He knew that he was in failing health. So Wesley decided on a different path of action. At the Methodist Conference of 1784 (Fletcher’s last before he died aged 55), Wesley announced that, for the British Isles at least, he would nominate 100 preachers to serve jointly as his successors. For America, being a different context, he specifically appointed Thomas Coke to be the first “bishop”. He, in turn, appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury.

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists

Thomas Coke ordains Francis Asbury as bishop of the American Methodists in 1784

It is also noteworthy that the handing on of the Bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.

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About Trevor Saxby

I'm a mentor, friend to many, with a PhD in church history. I love learning from the 'movers and shakers' of the past, as I want to be one today!

6 responses to “How Did the Early Methodists Handle Leadership Succession?”

  1. Al DeFilippo says :

    Thank you for the post on Wesley, Fletcher, Coke, and Asbury. If you interest, here is a link to an article about John Wesley’s Foundry Church in London. The website for the trilogy about Francis Asbury has numerous articles, podcasts, videos, and pictures about these men and more. The Asbury Triptych Series opens with the book, Black Country, detailing early Methodism in England, focusing on Francis Asbury’s early preaching circuits in Great Britain. Enjoy.

  2. Al DeFilippo says :

    Almost forgot, the website is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Thank you.

  3. thesmilingpilgrim says :

    My moms a methodist lol 🙂 Love her to bits

  4. Ike12Stones says :

    That is a difficult issue to deal with – seems like almost every generation of believer has to re-invent the wheel. The Methodists actually seemed to do really well for several generations-worth of believers; longer than most other established ministries/denominations.

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