How Did the Early Methodists Handle Leadership Succession?
Leadership succession in early Methodism was marked with a certain theological ambiguity, which stemmed from its founding father, John Wesley. Throughout his long life, he liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. As a true churchman, he believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter.
Wesley felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican branch of 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.
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 in England (statutes of 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.
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 free of laws of Praemunire meant Thomas Coke could act appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury, to succeed him as the head of transatlantic Methodism.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the handing on of the bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.