By Dr. Hal Knight
While we focus attention on clergy such as John and Charles Wesley, the truth is that early Methodism was a lay movement. Most of the preachers were unordained lay persons, as were all of the society stewards and class and band leaders. But as important was the role of ordinary Methodists in sharing their faith with others, engaging in ministries of prayer and service, and initiating new ministries to address unmet needs.
One of those needs was care for the large numbers of persons who were pouring into cities like London and Manchester seeking work. As Steve Rankin notes, Manchester had begun the 1700s as a market town of 2,000, but due to people seeking work in the cotton industry, by the end of the century it had gown to have over 100,000 residents. (See his chapter in From Aldersgate to Azusa Street, edited by Henry H. Knight III, 2010).
These workers were desperately poor and as new arrivals were especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of. They often lived in dwellings that were hastily built, many in cellar apartments below ground, with raw sewage running outside a single open window. It is no wonder that such cramped and unsanitary quarters led to widespread disease.
To meet this need Methodist John Gardner organized a Strangers’ Friend Society in London in 1785; Methodist grocer Thomas Fildes did the same in Manchester in 1791. In describing the work of the Society in Manchester, Rankin says they “raised money to provide clean bedding, food, medicine and sometimes larger items like furniture for people suffering these afflictions. They also shared the Gospel with the people they visited combining attempts to tend to both material and spiritual needs.” (p. 40–41).
What enabled ordinary Methodists like Gardner and Fildes to take the lead in forming these ministries? They would say that it is their faith in Jesus Christ through which they not only received forgiveness of sins but also a new heart in which love for God and neighbor had taken root and was growing. Holiness of heart leads to holiness of life, as Wesley would say; They were simply living out the love that was in their hearts.
They also had become aware of the terrible condition of the working poor. No doubt many in England were oblivious of their plight, and others would have said they had brought it upon themselves. But Gardner and Fildes had become personally acquainted with the working poor and knew firsthand their situation. We know Wesley encouraged his Methodists to do just that.
But without a changed heart, this knowledge would not be enough. When love starts to grow in the heart, a new set of motivations and desires begin to govern our lives. We begin to look at situations through the eyes of God and respond with the love for others as we have been loved in Christ.
What is needed is a transforming encounter with Jesus Christ, through which we come into a new life and grow in the knowledge and love of God. Worship, prayer, sacraments, scripture, Christian community and service are all means the Holy Spirit uses to enable that encounter and growth.
It is this that sets us free to be the people God created us to be and is calling us to be. As it did to John Gardner and Thomas Fildes, it is this that sets us free to lead.