Who Were the Calvinistic Methodists?

If you read the works of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, you’ll likely see a reference to men like Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris, or William Williams. These men were 18th century Welsh Calvinistic Methodists and were very influential to the life and ministry of Lloyd-Jones. While some refer to Lloyd-Jones as “the last of the Puritans,” he did not identify himself as such. Instead, he referred to himself as a Calvinistic Methodist.

Lloyd-Jones often found that people viewed a “Calvinistic Methodist” to be a contradiction in terms; he claimed this was because of a misunderstanding of the term “Methodism.” Typically, one might define Methodism exclusively as Wesleyan Methodism. The “Holy Club” was a group made up of men like John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield who met at Oxford beginning in 1729. This group would eventually split, but they were all “serious men, full of the desire to serve the Saviour.”[1] While Charles started the group, the credit for leadership and continued influence goes to John Wesley. These men met amidst a very dark culture at Oxford where atheism was honored and “evil was considered fashionable.”[2] They prayed together and considered how to best fight the evils around them.[3]These men and their devotion to the Lord stood out among such darkness. They were publicly mocked and referred to as the “Holy Club,” “Godly Club,” and “Methodist.”[4] The term “Methodist” became well known and continues to be used today. This was the beginning of Methodism in England.

Around this same time, there was a similar movement happening in Wales. There is not a known link between the Methodism in England and Wales as they seemed to arise completely independent of one another. Wales was also a spiritually dark place during this time. The Puritan age had passed, and a new generation given to immorality and licentiousness had replaced it. This time when “the Puritans were buried and the Methodist were not born” proved to be a godless era.[5] Griffith Jones was born in 1684 and become the forerunner to the Calvinist Methodists; he is referred to as the “Morning Star of the Revival.”[8] Jones was a powerful preacher who is also known for his “Circulating Charity Schools.” Recognizing that people could not read Scripture, Jones began these schools to educate others so they could read God’s Word, and with this “a new era dawned in Wales.”[9] In 1735, the Lord saved both Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris. The two preached and setup “societies,” but would not meet together until 1737. Once they joined together, they became a major force in Welsh Methodism for the next 15 years.

While Methodists in England and Wales rose up independently of one another, they would eventually unite. However, their unity would not last long. In 1740, Wesley published Free Grace, a sermon on Romans 8:32 attacking the Calvinistic doctrine of election. Whitefield and Harris both tried to dissuade the publication of the sermon fearing the division it would cause. The sermon was published and eventually led to the Methodists dividing into two camps.[10] Wales mostly adhered to the Calvinistic Methodism, while England went more in the direction of the Wesleyan/Arminian Methodism, although there were traces of both in each area.[11]

Lloyd-Jones’s Definition and Explanation of Calvinistic Methodists

How does one define Methodist if two different theological systems can be connected to it interchangeably? Lloyd-Jones teaches that Methodism is not a “theological position.” The Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, he argues, didn’t have a Catechism or Confession of faith for a century. Instead, Methodism is “essentially experimental or experiential religion and a way of life.”[15] The rise of Methodism came out of an understanding that religion is personal.[16] There was the conviction of personal sin, a need of forgiveness, and a desire for knowledge of God . . . to know God personally. The Methodist ideal was to make disciples, and this was done through Gospel preaching, Bible reading, prayer, Lord’s Supper, society meetings, and providing edifying literature.[17] Lloyd-Jones argues that all Methodists, whether Calvinistic or Arminian, emphasized assurance of salvation, and this became a distinguishing mark of Methodism. The Methodists wanted to know that they had that assurance personally. They taught that one should start with objective truths but they also sought a witness of the Spirit as determined from Romans 5:15-16.[18] This was referred to as a being “doubled” by the Holy Spirit: “Our spirit tells us this, ‘the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.’ But the Spirit, as it were, doubles it, seals it, guarantees it, gives an extra, an overplus on top of it, confirms it.”[19]

Methodists, according to Lloyd-Jones, also emphasized new life. There was an emphasis on the doctrine of regeneration and rebirth, something that was not as common in the time period when Methodism was born. There was also an emphasis on feeling, they “were not content with orthodoxy, correct belief; they wanted to ‘feel’ Him.”[20]Because of these emphases, the Methodists would often meet together in small groups, often called “experience” meetings.[21] As they met, they would share their experiences together, share how the Lord was at work, and anything else that happened to them since the last meeting. Their hope was to experience the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives.

Both groups of Methodists also had a passion for evangelism. Both the Calvinistic George Whitefield and the Arminian John Wesley possessed a great evangelical zeal. This was common on both sides of the Methodist divide.[22]While there was much in common between the two groups regarding the aforementioned emphases, they still divided over their theological systems. The Calvinistic Methodists being primarily in Wales while the Arminian Methodists were primarily in England.[23]

There were some basic characteristics of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism that Lloyd-Jones emphasizes. The first quality of the movement he mentions is great preaching. Preaching was important to Lloyd-Jones and an aspect he admired in the Welsh Methodists. He argues that in order to deliver great preaching, one must have a great theme (content), and the great theme of Calvinistic Methodism was, according to Lloyd-Jones, God himself. The greatness, power, authority, beauty, etc. of God provided an endless source of content that led to the great preaching of the movement.[24]

Another great characteristic of the Welsh Methodist is great singing. William Williams produced many hymns that helped carry the movement. In fact, a revival broke out in 1792 after the publication of many of Williams’s hymns: “In singing these glorious hymns, which are so full of exalted and evangelical views, the believers’ souls were filled with worship, and the rejoicing spread throughout the surrounding areas.”[26] Lloyd-Jones argues that there is not a greater hymn-writer than William Williams: “You get greatness and bigness and largeness in Isaac Watts; you get the experimental side wonderfully in Charles Wesley. But in William Williams you get both at the same time . . . He taught the people theology . . . ”[27] The Welsh Methodist placed much importance on singing.[28]

A third characteristic is the importance of revival. Lloyd-Jones clarifies that he is not referring to planned “revival” meetings, but rather a great pouring out of the Holy Spirit in a way that cannot be manipulated or forced.[29]The Calvinistic Methodist desired this, prayed for it, and even experienced these kinds of revivals.[30]

While Lloyd-Jones agrees that there is much in common with both streams of Methodism, he goes on to argue that he believes Calvinistic Methodism is true Methodism. While he has much respect for those like John Wesley, he sees a contradiction in Wesleyan Methodism. He explains that they place much emphasis on rebirth and regeneration, but “go on to deny it by saying that we can lose it. Rebirth is the action of God, and yet they say that we can undo this and we can lose it.”[31] Wesleyan Methodists preached often about grace, but for Lloyd-Jones the ability to lose one’s salvation means that it is not entirely a work of grace. He argues that assurance of salvation is such a core teaching of Methodism, but one cannot have a true felt assurance if the possibility of losing one’s salvation exists.

Lloyd-Jones recognized that the Methodist’s emphasis on feeling could present a hazard of slipping into mysticism. But, “Calvinistic Methodism saves us from that because of its great emphasis upon the doctrines.”[32]Feeling is important, but if not grounded in truth then it becomes empty. Calvinistic Methodism, for Lloyd-Jones, is “a perfect combination of both.”[33]

Not only does Lloyd-Jones argue that Calvinistic Methodism is true Methodism, he also argues that it is true Calvinism.[34] To take the Methodism out of Calvinism will lead to certain dangers, such as intellectualism. Passion about doctrine and theology, if not balanced with experience, often leads down this path of talking “more about ‘the Truth we hold,’ rather than about ‘the Truth that holds us.’”[35] Another danger of Calvinism without Methodism is elevating Confessions of Faith instead of keeping them subordinate to Scripture. The Calvinistic Methodists only preached through Scripture, not through a Catechism. The emphasis was on preaching a message from the text alone.[36]

Lloyd-Jones lists a third danger of Calvinism without Methodism: lack of prayer. He warns of Calvinistic churches that do not have a prayer meeting and unintentionally discourage prayer. “The Calvinistic Methodist,” he argues, “were great men of prayer, and their churches were characterized by prayer meetings –warm, moving prayer meetings, which would sometimes last for hours and where great experiences would come to people.”[37] This leads to the last danger of Calvinism without Methodism, which is the tendency to produce a joyless, hard, and cold religion. This is birthed out of mere intellectualism. The way to keep from this is to have a good balance of the objective and subjective knowledge of God: “True Calvinism not only does justice to the objective side of our faith and our whole position, it does equal justice to the subjective . . . Calvinism of necessity leads to an emphasis upon the action and the activity of God the Holy Spirit.”[38] Lloyd-Jones cannot fathom how one could hold to a theology that places so much emphasis on the Holy Spirit without that same person walking in the Spirit, praying in the Spirit, displaying the fruits of the Spirit, and enjoying a deep fellowship with God.[39] Both of the terms in “Calvinistic Methodism” provide meaning and, for Lloyd-Jones, a proper balance.

 

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Footnotes:

[1] Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, vol. 1, 51.

[2] Ibid., 55.

[3] They decided to eat only what was necessary, and they would refrain from eating meat for the sake of having more money to give to the poor. There were detailed rules to be kept, including spending two hours a day in prayer, going to church, and speaking to others of religions things everyday. While very religious, they seemed to lack knowledge of some of the foundations of the faith at the very beginning, including justification by faith. Ibid., 56.

[4] The term “methodist,” given in a derogatory way, was a “reference to an ancient Roman sect of physicians who were notably methodical in their prescriptions.” See Ibid., 55.

[5] Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, vol. 1, 1-2.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Ibid., 33.

[10] There were many attempts to reconcile and reunite Wesley and Whitefield, especially by Howell Harris, who loved them both. “The attempts were not successful as far as any visible union and co-operation were concerned. The two men were too far apart, and too conscientious to sacrifice what each considered to be the truth for the sake of friendship. But they did succeed in reconciling them. The two met; each believed that the other was sincere in his desire to save souls and to extend the kingdom of the Mediator; they agreed to differ, and they remained friends to the grace. Whitefield said later of Wesley, ‘Mr. Wesley I think is wrong in some things…yet I believe that [he] will shine bright in glory.’” See Ibid., 60.

[11] Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 195.

[15] Ibid., 195.

[16] There was “a desire for a more emotive and practical spiritually: one that preferred action over passivity, feeling over intellect, and informality over order, and where the clergy encouraged lay participation. Each new tradition, in its own way, endeavored to bring about religious renewal through persuasive rather than the more coercive state-driven methods of Christianization that had been customary.” In David Jones, Boyd Schlenther, Eryn Mant White, The Elect Methodist: Calvinistic Methodism in England and Wales 1735-1811 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2016), 1.

[17] Eifion Evans, Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn (Bryntirion: Bryntirion Press, 2010), 53.

[18] Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 195-199.

[19] Ibid., 199-200.

[20] Ibid., 196.

[21] William Williams wrote an introduction to the experience meetings that was published into English for the first time by Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s wife, Bethan. In the Introduction, Martyn Lloyd-Jones reflects on the need for Williams’s book: “The experimental or experiential aspect of the Christian life has been seriously neglected during the present century . . . All this has greatly impoverished the spiritual life of both the individual Christian and the churches, and led to coldness, barrenness, and loss of power. The greatest need of the hour is a return to the emphases of the Evangelical Awakening. It is in the belief that this classic of the spiritual life and warfare can greatly stimulate and hasten that return that I encouraged my wife to translate it, and am now happy to commend it, and to advise all Christians to read it.” See William Williams, The Experience Meeting: An Introduction to the Welsh Societies of the Evangelical Awakening, trans. Bethan Lloyd-Jones (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003).

[22] Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 201.

[23] Lloyd-Jones suggest that there might even be a national element in this. He argues that John Wesley grew up in England which had a vogue toward Arminianism. In the same way, Wales was bent toward Calvinism, which is where Harris become one. Of course, he argues, we cannot know this for sure, but he says it is worth considering. See Ibid., 201-202.

[24] Lloyd-Jones states that they went through a legalistic phase, but it did not last long. See Ibid., 202; When Lloyd-Jones began preaching in London, he centered the services around preaching and held ‘simple services.’ Many, even his friends, wondered whether “the primitive simplicity of church life in Calvinistic Methodism could succeed in London. Dr. Johnson later confessed, ‘when I saw that he was (without choir, musical entertainment and any external aids) set to preach the Chapel full, I wondered if he could – with his away preaching in the week – sustain the load.’” See Murray, The Fight of Faith, 106.

[25] Murray, The First Forty Years, 88-89. Elsewhere, he argues, “Point to a preacher in Wales whose ministry was accompanied by anything like the effect produced by Rowland, Harris, and Williams, Pantycelyn . . . They are not to be seen. The membership of most chapels is dwindling and Sabbath observance is rapidly going out of our lives. We see things today that were unknown in the Wales of the past.” See Ibid., 91.

[26] Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, vol. 1, 84.

[27] Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 203.

[28] “They would interrupt the preacher, they would cry our their ‘Amens’ and ‘Hallelujahs,’ and sometimes the excitement was quite marked. This joy and rejoicing and singing and assurance was the great characteristic of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism.” Ibid., 202.

[29] Ibid., 202-203.

[30] Jones, Schlenther, and White, The Elect Methodist, 123-141.

[31] Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 207-208.

[32] Ibid., 209.

[33] Ibid., 209. His early views of Calvinistic Methodist were not so favorable, as the churches in Lloyd-Jones’s early childhood had become lifeless. Murray states, “…he had been misled into identifying the lifeless traditionalism of Calvinistic Methodism with the real Christianity which it had once represented, and in his reaction to that kind of formal religion he had come to imagine that Christianity’s best work lay in achieving social change through education and political action.” See Murray, First Forty Years, 4.

[34] “My argument is, that cold, sad, mournful, depressing Calvinism is not Calvinism at all. It is a caricature; something has gone wrong somewhere. It is mere intellectualism and philosophy. Calvinism leads to feeling, to passion, to warmth, to praise, to thanksgiving.”         Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 212.

[35] “Calvinism without Methodism tends to lead to intellectualism and scholasticism­–that is its peculiar temptation.” See Ibid., 209.

[36] Ibid., 209.

[37] Ibid., 210.

[38] Ibid., 210.

[39] “When did Christ last make Himself ‘real’ to you? What do you know about ‘withdrawings’ of the Spirit, and the feeling that your Bridegroom has left you and that He has not visited you recently? This is of the essence of true Calvinism; and a Calvinism that knows nothing about visitations and withdrawings is a caricature of Calvinism, I object to its using the term with respect to itself.” See Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 210-211.

James Williams

Trying to live this life to the glory of God and help others in the process. Only by His grace!

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