Friday, August 22, 2014

Demos Sakarian and the His Ecumenical Businessmen

Breakfast with the Holy Spirit: The FGBMFI: [1]

    In many countries of the world one can go to a fashionable hotel and find a Saturday breakfast meeting of the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship International (FGBMFI). There they will see businessmen raising their hands in adoration and praise to the Lord. A speaker, most likely not an ordained minister, would give a talk or Bible teaching, and others would be invited to witness to what the Lord has done in their lives. At times the “MC” - facilitator of these breakfast meetings would ask those present to raise their hands in recognition as he called out the major denominations, Baptist, Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, etc. This ritual makes it clear to all that these breakfast meetings were ecumenical fellowships.[2]

            The FGBMFI has brought the Gospel to millions of men all over the world, and then immediately baptized many of them in the Holy Spirit –something few other churches or para-churches are likely to do. This has been done mostly by the thousands (and ultimately hundreds of thousands) of members taking the trouble to invite unbelieving friends, nominal Christians, and outright skeptics to the meetings with the lure of a free breakfast. In these meeting there have always been a steady stream of healings and deliverance prayer that occurs either across the breakfast table, in a healing line, or in spontaneous prayer groups that form as the official meeting adjourn. This is evangelization as in the Hebrews 2: 1-4 model at its best.

            Most Church historians date the beginning of the Charismatic Renewal at 1960, with the incident at St. Marks in California, when the Rev. Dennis Bennett declared before his congregation that he spoke in tongues. But if by the Charismatic Renewal is meant the coming of Pentecostalism to mainline Christians, a good case can be made that the Renewal really began a decade earlier with the founding of the FGBMFI. It was in these meetings that thousands of men from the mainline denominations met in worshipful, ecumenical fellowship and received the Gifts of the Spirit. In the United States, where the FGBMFI began, thousands of persons received the Gifts of the Spirit in FGBMFI meetings during the 1950s, and hundreds of thousands in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, the FGBMFI was the major institution driving the remarkable expansion of Renewalist (Pentecostal, Charismatic and “Third Wave”) churches during those decades.  But back in the 1950s it served as a “Holy Ghost holding tank” for thousands of persons in the mainline denominations who were baptized by the Spirit, but could not practice the Gifts in their churches, but they could and did at the Saturday breakfast meetings.

From Armenia to California:                      

            This grand and influential para-church ministry had its roots in the Shakarian family, which fled Armenia in 1900 and settled in California.  In Armenia they had belonged to a congregation of believers that had roots in an 1850’s Russian revival which manifested some of the Gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy.  They worshiped in barns and homes and were independent from the majority Armenia Orthodox Church. In 1900 a local prophet warned the fellowship of impending doom, and he urged migration to America. Many did, including the Shakarian family. In fact, after World War I broke out, Turkey began a mass deportation of Armenians to the Mesopotamian desert (1916). This resulted in genocide of perhaps one million Armenians.

            Safe in California, Isaac Shakarian and his wife established a small dairy farm and wholesale vegetable business, and both prospered. Like his father’s home in Armenia, the Shakarian home in California became a house-church on Sundays. The congregation embraced the Azusa St. Revival from the beginning as an extension of their own experiences in Armenia. Into this family environment their boy, Demos was born (1913).

            Demos developed as a faith filled Christian. At thirteen, while attending Sunday church and praising the Lord he experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues. Unlike most others of his generation, he was in a congregation that understood the experience. The shout went out, “Demos’s got the Spirit!”[3]

            Years later Demos’ sister, Florence, was involved in a horrendous car accident. That accident broke many of her bones, shredded her pelvis bones, and left her with third degree burns all over her back. Bone fragments were gravitating towards the internal organs, and the prognosis was not hopeful. The physicians had braced her body in wires and counterweights to keep her shattered pelvis immobile.

            Shakarian’s church went into a day of prayer and fasting. Demos prayed for his sister and was able to alleviate her pain, but there was little healing. His sister was dying. He heard that the anointed Pentecostal healing evangelist, Dr, Charles Price, was at a nearby town and went to fetch hem. Dr. Price came to the hospital, and after laying hands on Florence’s forehead with oil prayed:

            “Lord Jesus” he said, “we thank you for being here. We thank you for healing our sister.”…

            All at once, on the high bed, Florence twisted. Dr. Price jumped back as one of the heavy steel traction weights swung past his head. Florence rolled to one side as far as the wires would allow, then to the other….for twenty incredible minuets Florence continued to toss and roll in her wire prison. ….[Then] Florence lay still on her bed, gradually the weights ceased their circling. For a long moment she stared at me.

            “Demos,” she whispered, Jesus healed me.”[4]

            The hospital staff was astounded at what the x-rays revealed: where the day before there was a gaggle of shattered bones, now there was only the merest trace of bone injures, as if the accident had happened years ago. Florence’s dramatic healing began a life long friendship with the Dr. Price.

            Demos married in 1933. He and his wife Rose decided to rededicate their lives to God and to serve the church. Demos knew he was not called to preach, so he began by renting a tent for a local Pentecostal preacher and sponsoring his revival. The family dairy business began to prosper and grow, and he continued to be both businessman and church booster. This continued throughout the war years (1941-1945) when, due to gas shortages and rationing, running revivals became especially difficult.

Founding of the FGBMFI:

            It was at these revivals where Demos noticed that, unlike his Armenian-American congregation, very few men attended the events. Dr. Price informed him that this was common to the American church. He explained: “Sure, we clergy can give comfort and counsel to a man who’s down and out, but what about the man who makes it?...ministers like me don’t even know the language.”[5] Without knowing it Dr. Price planted the seed that would bear the greatest fruit in Demos’ life.

            After the end of World War II (1945), Demos committed to sponsor and manage a major revival in Fresno. But when the time came for the revival he found himself in a business crisis of the family’s feed enterprise which needed daily attention. He chose to stay in Fresno and attend to the revival and God’s interests first. Miraculously, in the midst of the revival, the Lord sold that business for a profit. Demos then used the money to expand his dairy herd. That business prospered to the point of becoming the largest privately owned dairy in America.

            Demos continued to sponsor Pentecostal events in California and especially the LA area, and as a byproduct created network of Pentecostal businessmen and professionals who contributed their money and skills to various rallies and revivals. Demos’ activities also made him friends with the major healing revivalists of the post-War era. He was especially close to Oral Roberts who had stayed at the Shakarian home several times. In the fall of 1951 Demos chaired and organized a large crusade for Oral Roberts in LA. Demos shared with Roberts his dream of establishing a fellowship for lay persons. Demos explained:

            It’s a group – a group of men. Not exceptional men. Just average business people who know the Lord and love Him, but haven’t known how to show it.”

            “And what does this group do?”

            “They tell other men, Oral. No theories. They tell what they’ve actually experienced of God to other men like themselves – men who might not believe what a preacher said – even someone like you – but he will listen to a plumber or dentist or salesman because there’re plumbers and dentists and salesmen themselves.” [6]

            Oral Roberts affirmed that his dream was from the Lord, and promised to be the first gust speaker. In October of 1951 the first meeting of the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International was held at the upper room of Clifton’s cafeteria in Los Angeles. It was a place that could accommodate several hundred persons. The plan to become international seemed pretentious at the time, but Demos insisted the Lord had given him that precise name.

            Demos had announced the meeting at the end Oral Robert’s LA crusade. They both expected several hundred persons to attend the first breakfast meeting. Nineteen came. In spite of this, Oral Roberts prophesized it would be indeed an international organization to witness the power of God all around the world. But the weekly Saturday morning meetings continued to draw scant attendance - between 15 and 40. Some pastors began opposing the group fearing Shakarian would drain their best people and their money to “another church.” This was most unfair, as Demons continuously called the men to stay in their own congregations, and influence their churches with the power of the Spirit.  But in 1950s the word “para-Church” had not been coined, and the concept of an independent, non-denominational entity that supported other churches instead of competing against them was not understood.

            After a year of meetings, Demos was deeply discouraged. When his evangelist friend Tommy Hicks visited his home, Demos went to prayer over the situation, to see what the Lord would have him do – perhaps it was time to close it down. While Demos was praying Rose Sakarian slipped into the room and began softly planning their Hammond organ. She sang in tongues then prophesied: “My son, I knew you before you were born. I have guided you every step of the way. Now I am going to show you the purpose of your life.”[7]

            At the same time Demos had a two part vision. He was taken up to the sky and from there could the sad state of the word, with men lifeless and frozen in sadness. Then he saw the same men, all over the world, alive, happy and with their hands lifted praising the Lord. Rose understood her prophecy and his vision to mean that the FGBMFI would continue and grow. In fact, the next week Demos was given a $1,000 donation by one of his businessmen friends who had recently advised the Fellowship be closed down. It was used to start the Fellowships’ magazine, Voice.

The FGBMFI Explodes:

            The next year 1952, the FGBMFI grew to eight chapters in the United States. At this early stage many who attended were also associated with the CFOs. By the late 1960s there were three hundred chapters and over a hundred thousand members. The yearly conventions drew thousands, and attracted the best speakers of the charismatic renewal. These were its glory years. In 1988 there were 3000 chapters in the United States and chapters in over 80 counties overseas. It had truly become international.

            It is difficult to over estimate the role of the FGBMFI in the ultimate formation of the Renewalist churches. The FGBMFI was specifically a world-wide conduit for the Faith Idealism developed by E.W. Kenyon and spread by the “Word Faith” evangelists such as Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. Hagan and Copeland were particularly popular speakers for the business men who resonated with the prosperity covenant taught them. The famous healing evangelists of the post-World War II era were also frequent speakers and ministered at their meetings

            By 1993, when Demos died, the FBBMFI in the United States was undergoing a decline – the natural course of a revival institution that succeeded. Its initial message: that God acted in everyday life of ordinary people with the power of the Spirit, and the Gifts of the Spirit, was now common, if not universally accepted. The theology of Faith Idealism, and Christian New Thought prosperity, which it did so much to spread, was well established if still controversial.

            From the 1980s the FGBMFI underwent a tremendous expansion overseas, especially in the 3rd World. In many of these countries the combination of the concepts of “businessman” with “honesty” and “holiness” and the power of the Spirit had never been made. The FGBMFI presence and modeling have been truly revolutionary. It suddenly injects, in a sense, the “Protestant Ethic” and Puritan respect for commercial life in places where those things were unknown. Especially in Africa, the FGBMFI has been a conduit for the spread of the Charismatic renewal and the Gifts of the Spirit.[8] In that continent, where many persons are still under the bondage of witchcraft and almost everyone believes in the spiritual dimensions of dreams and visions, the strong Pentecostal/charismatic message of FGBMFI speakers is readily accepted. [9]  Similarly, the FGBMFI has experienced dramatic successes in Latin America in recent decades.

            But in perspective, it may be that its revolutionary and continued “worship ecumenism” practiced at all FGBMFI meetings is its greatest legacy.

This source shed light on the Armenian and Russian Christian proto-Pentecostals who influenced the Shakarian family in Armenia.
J Eugene Clay, "The Woman clothed in the Sun, Church History (80 no 1 Mar 2011, p 109-138).


The noted Pentecostal scholar Dr. Jon Ruthven wrote a very positive review of my latest book, Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal. You can access it HERE.

The book may be purchased on Amazon, either print or inexpensive Kindle HERE You can purchase the print version at a discount from the publisher HERE

My wife has written a funny and inspiring story of how she transited from a cessionist and Baptist to a Spirit-filled Believer. The book has many stories of our three decades of ministry together.  It may be purchased HERE.

Watching God Work: The Stuff of Miracles by [DeArteaga, Carolyn Koontz]

[1] The history of the FGBMFI is documented in Demos Shakarian’s autobiography: Demos Shakarian, “as told by” John and Elizabeth Sherrill, The Happiest People on Earth (Old Tappan: Chosen Books, 1975). A later, general history of this important para-church ministry was written by the dean of Pentecostal historians, Vinson Synan, Under His Banner (Gift Publications, 1991). The FGBMFI website has a brief history and wonderful pictures, at:
[2]I first encountered the FGBMFI as a new and very “Catholic” Charismatic about 1975. I was struck by this ritual of denominational ecumenism. Having been well educated in Church history it impressed me immediately that such a multidenominational meeting would not have been held two hundred years ago, and three hundred years ago they might have been at each other’s throats with the cutlery on the table. Catholics would have had all Protestants declared as heretics and worthy of the stake. Calvinists would have attempted the same for the Baptists.  This “worshiping ecumenicism,” where doctrines were NOT discussed, prompted me to reconsider the meaning of heresy, and its over use in conservative theological circles..
[3] Demos Shakarian (“As told By” John and Elizabeth Sherrill), The Happiest People on Earth (Old Tappen: Chosen books, 1975), 36
[4]Ibid., 70-71.
[5] Ibid., 83
[6] Ibid., 118
[7] Ibid., 133
[8] Opoku Onyinah, “African Christianity in the Twenty-first Century.” Word & World, 27 #3 (Summer 2007) 305-314. 
[9] Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, “Missionaries Without Robes: Lay Charismatic fellowship and the evangelization of Ghana,” Pneuma, 19 #2 (1997), 167-188.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Sacramental Dimension of the Wesleyan Revival

 Note: This blog posting is a chapter from my last book, Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord's Supper in Revivals (Zondervan: 2002). I believe it will beof interest to many who follow my blog postings.
Methodist Devotion to the Lord's Supper:

In April of 1781 John Wesley was in Manchester and on the first Sunday of that month ministered to the local Methodist society:
I began reading prayers at ten o'clock.  Our country friends flocked in from all sides.  At the communion was such a sight as I am persuaded was never seen at Manchester before:  eleven or twelve hundred communicants at once...[1]

This type of  large communion service, reminiscent of the Scottish "holy fairs," was common to Methodism under the Wesleys, especially after the 1740s.  In 1756 a young man, son of an aristocratic Swiss family, observed John Wesley minister Holy Communion to a large crowd of  London Methodists.  He was awed at the scene, but his analytical mind also saw the service could be improved and he wrote Wesley a letter, part of which read:

As the number of communicants is generally very great, the time spent in receiving is long enough for many, I am afraid, to feel their devotion languish, and their desires grow cold, for want of outward fuel. In order to prevent this, you interrupt, from time to time, the service of the table, to put up a short prayer, or to sing a verse or two of a hymn; and I do not doubt but many have found the benefit of that method.  But, as you can spare very little time, you are obliged to be satisfied with scattering those few drops, instead of a continual rain.  Would not that want be easily supplied, Sir, if you were to appoint the preachers who may be present to do what you cannot possibly do yourself, to pray and sing without interruption, as at a watch night?[2]

The correspondent, John Fletcher would go on to become an Anglican priest, and John Wesley’s right-hand man and designated successor.  John Wesley considered Fletcher’s suggestions and introduced hymn singing and organ music during the distribution of the elements, one of the many Methodists innovations that passed on to other denominations.[3] What is interesting about his letter is the picture it gives.  Like Grimshaw at Haworth, Wesley was not reluctant about stopping for spontaneous prayers or hymns at the altar.  Certainly the occasion was solemn, but also liturgically flexible.

Fletcher had refused ordination through the Swiss church (Reformed) because he could not subscribe to the rigorous Calvinist doctrine of predestination.  He found in Wesley's understanding of free will precisely what was lacking in the older Reformed theology.  He also shared the Wesley brothers devotion and love of the Eucharist. This was typical of the Methodist leadership as a whole, as shown in an incident that occurred when Fletcher was at the home of a friend, Mr. Ireland:

...we were about to take our leave when Mr. Ireland sent his footman into the yard with a bottle of red wine and some slices of bread upon a waiter, we all uncovered our heads; which he [Fletcher] had no sooner done but he handed, first the bread to each, and lifting up his eyes to heaven, pronounced these words, "the body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve the body and soul unto everlasting life".  Afterwards, handling the wine, he repeated in like manner, "the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ...etc.". A sense of the Divine presence rested upon us all, and we were melted into a flood of tears.[4]

The Wesleys' theology of the Lord's Supper:

It might be argued that the original name of the Holy Club, the “Sacramentarians” was more appropriate for the early Methodist movement. Evelyn Underhill, the famous Anglican theologian of spirituality, described the early Methodist Movement as essentially a Eucharistic revival.[5]  That may be an overstatement, but certainly the Wesley brothers led in stressing the value sacramental worship in both their theology and life. In the brothers’ view sacraments had a primacy among the means of grace, and the Lord’s Supper a primacy among the sacraments.[6]  Charles wrote:

Glory to him who freely spent

            His blood, that we might live,

And through this choicest instrument

            Doth all his blessings give.

Fasting he doth, and hearing bless,

            And prayer can much avail,

Good vessels all to draw the grace

            Out of salvation’s well.

But none, like this mysterious rite

            Which dying mercy gave,

Can draw forth all his promised might

            And all his will to save.

This is the richest legacy

            Thou hast on man bestow'd:

Here chiefly, Lord we feed on thee,

            And drink thy precious blood.

Here all thy blessings we receive,

            Here all thy gifts are given,

To those that would in thee believe

            Pardon, and grace and heaven.[7]

So esteemed was the Lord's Supper in the Wesley brothers spirituality that an entire book of hymns was created, Hymns on the Lord's Supper (1745), to give the Methodists varied and appropriate hymns for their sacramental occasions.  Not well known today, these 166 hymns formed one of the greatest work of Eucharistic devotion ever produced in Christian literature. The hymns were composed by Charles, but John edited them and supervised their theological content. The  relative oblivion of the Hymns of the Lord's Supper may be due to the fact that modern Methodist are not nearly as sacramental as their first generation forefathers, and the Anglicans and Episcopalians have mentally excommunicated Wesleyan writings from serious consideration.

As discussed earlier, the Wesleyan hymns served as worship and as means of education for the (mostly) ill-educated converts.  The Eucharistic hymns tackled the difficult and controversial area of sacramental theology.  Here the Wesleys had to tread gently yet firmly.  The Anglican via media allowed a wide variety of Eucharistic theology, from near Roman Catholic to almost Zwinglian.  At the same time sacramental worship was at a low ebb among Anglican churches, with communion offered only quarterly in most churches.  This was due to the influence of Deism which reduced the sacraments to poetic but graceless events. That viewpoint went beyond the limits of the via media and was unacceptable to the Wesley brothers.  Note how in the following hymn theological ambiguity and mystery mingle with pastoral devotion (as in the Eastern Fathers):

O the depth of love Divine,

            Th' unfathomable grace!

Who shall say how bread and wine

            God into Man conveys!

How the bread his flesh imparts,

            How the wine transmits the blood,

Fills the faithful people's hearts

            With all the life of God!

Let the wisest mortal show

            How we the grace receive,

Feeble elements bestow

            A power not theirs to give.

Who explains the wondrous way,

            How through these the virtue came?

These the virtue did convey,

            Yet still remain the same.


Sure and real is the grace,

            The manner be unknown;

Only meet us in thy ways,

            And perfect us in one.

Let us taste the heavenly powers;

            Lord, we ask for Nothing more:

Thine to bless, 'tis only ours

            To wonder and adore.[8]

This does not mean that the Wesleys had no specific theology on the Lord's Supper.  John in particular had sifted carefully the evidence from biblical sources, the writings of the Fathers, and Reformers to come to his own synthesis.  It was a Eucharistic theology close to the original position of the Reformer, John Calvin.[9]  It affirmed a real spiritual presence, while denying the Catholic doctrine of real physical presence (transubstantiation).  The Wesleyan position was not altogether original, as other Anglican divines had worked out similar positions.  In fact, for the introduction to the Hymns of the Lord's Supper, John imported as its introduction a work written by a great Anglican scholar of a generation earlier, Daniel Brevint (d. 1695), entitled The Christian Sacrament and Sacrifice (1673).   John was not one reluctant to write out new materials when necessary, but he found Brevint's work so satisfactory that he merely edited it down, as he had done with his Christian Classics series.[10] Brevint argued that the Lord's Table was not just a commemoration, but a re-presentation of the original and once only sacrifice of the cross.  The Wesleys' adoption of this understanding of the Eucharist, which viewed it as sacrifice, brought them too close to the Catholic theology for the comfort of his more Evangelical critics.  Partly for this, the Wesleys were labeled as "Papists" by some of their opponents.[11]

The Wesleys also understood the Lord's Table to be a sacrament of the forgiveness of sins, a doctrine from the early church, and definitely not Roman Catholic. In his early sermon "The Duty of Constant Communion" John wrote:

The grace of God given herein [in Communion] confirms to us the pardon of our sins, by enabling us to leave them.  As our bodies are strengthened by bread and wine, so are our souls by these tokens of the body and the blood of Christ. This is food for our souls; This gives strength to perform our duty, and leads us on to perfection.[12]

As we noted in their struggle at Fetter Lane, the Wesleys discovered that the Lord's Supper could also serve as a converting sacrament, capable of moving a person from nominal faith to living, experienced faith and assurance.  During the height of his struggle to with the stillness faction at Fetter Lane John Wesley preached several sermons on the Lord's Table. He fortunately recorded their outline in his Journal:

In the ancient Church, every one who was baptized communicated daily.  So in the Acts we read, they "all continued daily in the breaking of bread, and in prayer."

             But in latter times many have affirmed that the Lord's Supper is not a converting, but a confirming ordinance.

             And among us it has been diligently taught that none but those who are converted, who have received the Holy Ghost, who are believers in the full sense, ought to communicate.

            But experience shows the gross falsehood of that assertion that the Lord's Supper is not a converting ordinance.  Ye are the witness.  For many now present know, the very beginning of your conversion God (perhaps, in some, the first deep conviction) was wrought at the Lord's Supper... Our Lord commanded those very men [the Apostles] who were even unconverted, who had not yet received the Holy Ghost, who (in the full sense of the word) were not believers, to do this "in remembrance of" Him.[13]

Though similar to the theology of Solomon Stoddard (chapter 3), there is no evidence of direct influence by the elder Puritan on the Wesleys. However, it is almost certain that Wesley was aware of the earlier Puritan and Anglican writers such as William Prynne and John Humfrey who had written about the converting power os the Lord's Supper.

The Aldersgate experience, which generations of Evangelical historians have seen as the demarcation point between the "Catholic Wesley" and the "Evangelical Wesley" was in reality no such demarcation.  Aldersgate gave Wesley the experience of assurance and enriched his faith, but it also enriched their appreciation of the sacrament, and motivated him to more frequent reception of the Holy Communion.[14] By the 1750s John Wesley received communion on the average of three times a week, an incredibly high figure for the times. Charles was equally devoted to the sacrament, and when he celebrated it was often moved to tears.[15]

Although it was the Wesley brothers who educated the Methodists to appreciate sacramental worship, it was the Methodists public who responded with, dare we say, "enthusiasm" to the sacraments.  The people tasted, and found the Lord good (Psalm 34:8).  It was the people who walked for miles to the sacramental services, and then often vilified by the local Anglican clergy even as they received the sacramental elements,  .[16]

Holy Orders:

John Wesley began his ministry with a high church understanding of the role of Bishops and the need for Apostolic succession, but adopted a more Evangelical positions as time went on.  He went to Georgia believing that only a priest in the Apostolic succession had the right to minister the sacraments.  But there he saw the power of God fill the Moravian community and their sacramental occasions.  This was reinforced as he witnessed a devout Lutheran community in Georgia.  All this undermined his confidence in the traditional doctrine of Apostolic succession.

In 1746 John Wesley read a book by the aristocratic scholar Sir Peter Kings, An Inquiry into the Constitution, Discipline, Unity, and Worship of the Primitive Church.  Kings argued against the doctrine of Apostolic succession, that the powers of the priesthood are passed down by an unbroken succession of valid ordinations.  He also presented the argument that there was really only one order of ordained ministry, and that a bishop was really just a priest who supervised other priests.  As a consequence priests could legitimately ordain others to the priesthood.[17]  This was a radical theory for an Anglican, an Wesley held it "in reserve" until the last years of his ministry when he was forced to ordain ministers for the newly independent American states.  A similar shift from High Church sacerdotism occurred in his theology of sacramental confession of sins.  At Epworth with his father, and in Georgia, he believed that a priestly absolution was necessary for forgiveness of sins, but as he observed the Moravians and saw the good that mutual confession was doing in the Methodist bands, he came to recognize the lay role in ministering the forgiveness of sins.

Sacramental Innovations, The Love Feast:[18]

The Wesley brothers not only brought new depth of worship to the Lord’s Supper, they also made use of several sacramental forms to enrich the spiritual lives of their societies.  These included the watchnight service (a monthly prayer service lasting from about eight until midnight), the love feast, and a covenant service of rededication.  These informal “lessor sacraments” were often combined with the Lord’s Supper, and sometimes united one to another.  Hester Rogers, wife of one of John Wesley’s preachers, described the Christmas season of the Dublin Methodists in 1788:

The Christmas festival was a most blessed season. On Christmas morning, at four o’clock, the preaching-house was well filled, and God was truly present to bless; many were awakened, and some converted.  Four were justified at the watchnight on new year’s eve. Several also found pardon at the love-feast, and many witnessed a good confession; but the time of renewing of covenant exceeded all; fourteen souls were that day born of God; some at their classes, and the rest at the sweet, solemn season of the covenant.[19]

We have already seen how the Wesley brothers led the Moravian Love Feats at the Fetter Lane society.  From the beginning of Methodism the Wesleys took this obviously anointed rite and incorporated it into their scheme of  worship. The Love Feasts quickly became an emblem of Methodists, particularly in the United Kingdom.  They also served as a graduation ceremony or confirmation rite for new members into the Methodist societies. Attendance at the Love Feast was carefully limited by Wesley or his circuit preachers to members in good standing only.  Admittance into the rite was by tickets, initialed by the Wesleys or other circuit preachers. In this the tickets functioned as tokens to the Scottish communions.

The Moravian form of the Love Feast was retained.  Biscuits and water were shared, and then members testified to their born again experience, their reception of the "second blessing," or other works of God in their life.  The Love Feast was held quarterly in each circuit and limited to about one and a half hours.  They were intensely emotional and grace filled, with revival "exercises" being common.  As news leaked out about the Love Feasts the enemies of Methodism used the restricted rite to broadcast their suspicions of the radical "enthusiasm" of all Methodists, or in some cases invent salacious gossip.  One ditty of the times ran:

There saints, new born, lascivious orgies hold,

Meek lambs by day, at night no wolves so bold...

Together wanton pairs promiscious run,

Brothers with sisters, mothers with a son:

Fathers, perhaps with yielding daughters meet,

And converts find their pastor’s doctrines sweet…[20]

What is especially significant for our study is that Wesley brothers accepted the love feast in spite of their being no Anglican precedent for it.  As always, the Wesleys claimed they were doing nothing other than restoring an ancient rite, not introducing a modern innovation.  In fact, the biblical warrant for the love feast is clear, although its form of celebration is not. The Love Feast was mentioned in some of the earliest Church documents such as the Didache.[21]  Of course, what could not be proven was that the Moravian-Wesleyan use of it as a witnessing event was biblical.[22]  But the Wesley brothers were practical in their spirituality, and the love feast simply proved itself an tremendously effective "means of grace."  Several local Methodists revivals were triggered by particularly devout love feasts.  The decades long Methodist revival in Yorkshire began and was fueled by successive Love Feasts, and is long remembered in Methodist history.[23]

The Covenant Service:[24]

Another graced and effective sacramental form implemented by the Wesleys was the covenant service.  Unlike the love feast, the Wesleys never saw one before it was  introduced it into Methodist service.  Again, the covenant service was not a Wesleyan invention, rather a development of a previous form.  In this case, the covenant service was taken from Puritan experiments originating a century earlier.

We have seen before (chapter 3), Puritan theologians had great regard for the covenant relationships between God and mankind.  They saw the Old Testament descriptions of covenant renewal as pertinent to Christian life. Certain Puritan writers and pastors urged that Christians write out their obligations to God in the form of legal contracts.  These contracts, often phrased in elegant legal language, would promise faithful conduct, attentiveness to Bible reading, and suppression of personal sins, etc. These contracts were personal, that is, every Christian, depending on his or her spiritual state, promised specific standards of action for the coming year.  This practice continued in Wesley’s time among some Anglicans and Dissenters.  “Mad” Grimshaw of Haworth (chapter 8) was known for writing particularly detailed covenants, and suffered much anguish at his inability to keep them perfectly.[25] Puritan pastors had attempted on occasions to have their entire congregations involved in such covenants. Jonathan Edwards had attempted this in 1742 with disastrous results (chapter 3).

John Wesley was aware and appreciative of this Puritan tradition.  The classic work of this genre, edited by Richard Alleine (1611-1681) was incorporated into Wesley’s library of Christian Classics.[26]  In 1747 John preached a sermon series (now lost) on covenants with God. They were based on examining Old Testament covenant renewals described in Deuteronomy 29, 2 Kings 23, and 2 Chronicles 15. From Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the Old Testament we have an idea of the core message:

…it [the covenant] would help to increase their [the people’s] sense of obligation, and arm them against temptation.  And by joining all together in this, they strengthened the hands of each other.[27]

In these sermons John Wesley urged as the “application” that the people give themselves entirely to God, perhaps he even urged them to write out personal covenants as the Puritans had.  However, after preaching this series (1747) no further sermons on the topic were given until the summer of 1755 when he brought the issue to the attention of the London Methodists.  John Wesley had recently read of how a revival was sparked in Massachusetts in 1680 by a fervent covenant service. He wanted the same renewed fervor and revival for his societies.  Wesley planned and held the first Methodist Covenant Service in mid August of 1755.  He acquired the use of the church at Spitalfields, which was much larger than the chapel at the Methodist Foundry. The service followed Puritan tradition, but involved the Methodists as a congregation, rather than encourage many individual covenants.  It began with hymns and prayers. 

After I had recited the tenor of the covenant proposed, in the words of the blessed man, Richard Alleine, all the people stood up, in testimony of assent, to the number of about eighteen hundred persons.  Such a night I scarce ever saw before.  Surely the fruit of it shall remain for ever.[28]

Note the change from the Puritan services.  Rather than formulate and write individual covenants, a single covenant was read, and everyone affirmed it by standing up.  This was the sacramental action, resembling the altar call as it first developed in the following century. In another innovation, Wesley ended and solemnized the Covenant Service with a celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Naturally Charles Wesley composed an appropriate hymn, the last part of which went:

The bond of sure and promised peace;

Nor can I doubt its power divine,

Since sealed with Jesu’s blood it is:

The blood I trust, that blood alone,

And make the covenant peace mine own.

But, that my faith no more may know

Or change, or interval, or end,

Help me in all thy paths to go,

And now, as e’er, my voice attend,

And gladden me with answers mild,

And commune, Father, with thy child![29]

The first Covenant Service set the pattern for similar services throughout the United Kingdom in the following decades.  The Methodists congregations were first educated on the Covenant Service through sermons.  This was followed with a day of prayer and fasting immediately prior to the service (like the Scottish holy fairs).  In spite of its initial popularity and effectiveness the Covenant Service never acquired a formal liturgy or status. Apparently, the Alliene model was considered satisfactory.

In the last decades of John Wesley's life it became customary for him to celebrate the Covenant Service with his London Methodists in the afternoon of January 1. This was proceeded by a watchnight service.  After 1782 the date was changed to the first Sunday of the new year.  This tradition passed into English Methodism as the sacramental form of welcoming the new year.  Unfortunately the service did not become established in the United States, principally because the rite was not included in John Wesley's modification of the Book of Common Prayer (see below), nor was it included in his Book of Office. Even in England the service declined in popularity and was mostly discontinued by the 1900s.[30]

In developing the covenant service the Wesleys may have been on to something more important that is generally recognized. Certainly the Wesleys did not claim that the Covenant Service was necessary for salvation,[31] and perhaps never even saw it as anything more than another useful "means of grace."  But if the entire Bible is seen as relevant to Christian life, then the covenant renewals that are found in the Old Testament are valid models for similar sacramental acts of the Church. The Puritans understood this partially, and the Wesley brothers made this into a living, corporate sacramental form.  That it did not pass on to the other denominations in Christendom reflects the limitations of the consensus theology of the times which generally disvalued Old Testament practices as totally irrelevant for the Christian. The Wesley brothers, on the other hand, were sufficiently open the Spirit to discern the eternal biblical warrant and pastoral effectiveness of this sacramental form.  

Paradox of Wesley Sacramental Practice

The Wesleyan Revival was the most sacramental revival in Church history, but paradoxically it was not a liturgical revival.  That is, unlike the Anglican Tractarians of the Victorian period, the Wesley brothers had relatively little concern for precise liturgical forms.  Whereas the Tractarians had great interest in investigating the history of Medieval liturgies, vestments and their symbolic meaning, etc., none of these things were of critical importance to the Wesley brothers.  In fact the Wesleyan revival was one of increasing sacramental expression, and descending liturgical concerns.

Part of the reason for their liturgical disinterest was the brothers understood how deceitful liturgy and sacraments without faith could be.  That is, much of their Deist opposition came from churchmen who were "liturgically correct" but not born again, nor even Christian in a historic sense.  Rather they enjoyed the beauty, poetry and decency of a good Anglican service.  Similarly, many Anglicans who went to church for the social benefits and liturgical beauty were scandalized when the Wesleys demonstrated that faith in Christ was a necessary basis of real Christianity.  Wesley identified this sub-Christian form of sacramental and church practice as "formalism" and saw it as a serious danger and counterfeit to the Church.[32]

We allow, though it is a melancholy truth, that a large proportion of those who are called Christians, do to this day abuse the means of grace to the destruction of their souls.  This is doubtless the case with all those who rest content in the form of godliness, without the power.  Either they fondly presume they are Christians already, because they do thus and thus, -- although Christ was never yet revealed in their hearts, nor the love of God shed abroad therein:  - Or else they suppose they shall infallibly be so barely because they use the means.[33]

In their dispute with the Moravians at Fetter Lane the Wesleys had failed to act quickly against the "stillness" doctrine precisely because the Moravian insights were partially true: sacramental worship without any faith is deception:

It cannot be supposed, that these holy and venerable men [the Moravian leadership] intended any more, at first, than to show that outward religion is nothing worth, without the religion of the heart; ... that the outward ordinances of  God then profit much, when they advance inward holiness, but when they advance it not, are unprofitable and void, are lighter than vanity; yea when they are used, as it were in the place of this, they are an utter abomination to the Lord.[34]

What mattered to the Wesleys in regard to the Lord's Supper, was faith, even weak or exploratory faith, and desire to receive a blessing, not the particular liturgical expression of the sacrament. This is shown in the fact that the Methodists societies accepted the Eucharist from local Anglican churches, high or low.  Also, John Wesley discerned that the Scottish Presbyterian communion service, tokens, white linens, etc., was a valid form of communion regardless of how different is was from any Anglican practice.  He allowed the Scottish Methodist to commune in that tradition.

Significantly, when John Wesley was finally forced to ordain Methodists ministers for America (1784), after the Anglican bishops all refused to do so, he ordained them with a simple rite of prayer and laying on of hands, not the full rite of the Book of Common Prayer.  John Wesley also knew that the frontier situation of the American Methodists demanded simplicity in liturgy.  He prepared for the American Methodists an edited and reduced version of the Book of Common Prayer, in which everything was simplified.  Even the Sunday service was cut down to allow more time for preaching and extemporaneous prayers.[35]  The Wesleys understood that liturgy is necessary to corporate worship, but its refinement did not become a major concern.[36]

In the end, the Wesley brothers wound up being sacramental revolutionaries.  Like Luther and the Reformers, the Wesleys pled that they did nothing but reestablish "primitive Christianity," and that indeed was their goal.  By being open to the leading of the Spirit and observing the "good fruit” of renewed worship, they resurrected and recreated two sacramental forms, the love feast and the covenant service, that were little noticed in the historic denominations.


The Wesleyan Revival as Via Media:[37]

Although it was not noticed at the time, the Wesley brothers presented the Anglican Church with a grand opportunity to reestablish and refresh its central ideal, the via media.[38] In the vision of Richard Hooker and the other founders of Anglicanism, the via media was the special grace of the Church of England.  It was to take the best insights of Reformation theology, especially is evangelical stress on salvation by grace alone, and combine them with the spiritual disciplines and sacramental worship of the traditional church.

The Wesley brothers did exactly that, and more. They brought passion to both the Evangelical and Catholic sides of the balance. They were better Evangelicals than most Protestants, and, at the same time, better at the disciplines of the spiritual life and more loyal to sacramental worship than most Catholics.

The Anglican clergy did not notice.  Instead they were irritated by the unusual means that this new via media was using.  They disliked by field preaching, which threatened clerical authority. They felt extemporaneous prayers a presumption, and an insult to the Book of Common Prayer. Hymn singing was vulgar, and most of all, the Methodists were "enthusiasts." One can understand in historical terms why they took these attitudes.  Yet, it is the responsibility of the clergy to practice discernment of spiritual matters beyond the immediate moment. By not embracing Methodism, the Anglican church failed in discernment at a great moment of grace and opportunity.  In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was met with a similar challenge with the ministry of St. Francis and his brothers, and to its credit it managed to welcome them into the structure of the church.

The final separation of Methodism and Anglicanism after 1784 meant that both camps would fail to sustain the via media that the Wesley brothers offered, and was actualized in such parishes as St. Michael's at Haworth (Grimshaw) and John Fletcher’s church at Madaley.  The Anglican church did reform in the Nineteenth Century, partly through the influence of the Methodists and other Evangelicals, and partly through the Tractarian movement.  But the Tractarian movement stressed renovation through the traditions and liturgy of the pre-Reformation church, and ultimately lost the Evangelical passion for preaching salvation by grace. It was not by accident that its most notable advocate, John Henry Newman, abandoned the via media altogether and passed over into Roman Catholicism.

On the other side, the Methodists, away from the Anglican Church, eventually lost the Catholic component of the via media. This is not to say that Methodism was in any way a failure, for the Nineteenth Century would see its spectacular triumph in America (next chapter), as well as its substantial growth and influence in the United Kingdom. But the Methodists at the end of the Nineteenth Century were far from what the Wesley brothers had planned or imagined.  Most significantly there was a serious decline in sacramental worship as the Methodists began looking more and more like other Protestant groups.

This is clearly demonstrated in the history of the Primitive Methodist Church in England.  This was a split off from Methodism, one of many in the Nineteenth Century, and was led by  pious and uneducated laymen.  It was a Methodism of the exhorters without the Wesley brothers.  The Primitive Methodists developed a worship life that included love-feasts, prayer meetings and class meetings, but the Lord' Supper was celebrated only once a quarter, like other good Evangelicals!  They were a fine denomination which continued to minister among the poor the way the Wesleys had a century before, but their separation from Anglicanism meant there was no one in the denomination educated to the high standards of the Wesley brothers who would teach the richness of the Church's sacramental understanding.[39] We will note similar tendencies in American Methodism.


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[1]JWJ April 1, 1781.
[2] Cited in: L. Tyerman,  Wesley’s Designated Successor. (New York; Phillip and Hunt  1883), 25.
[3]John C. Bowmer, The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper in Early Methodism (London: Dacre Press, 1951), chapter 7, "The Communion Service in Early Methodism."
[4]Bowmer, The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, 195.
[5] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (n.p.: Harper & Brothers, 1937). For discussion of Underhill’s influential sacramental theology, see: Todd E. Johnson.  “Pneumatological Oblation:  Evelyn Underhill’s Theology of the Eucharist,” Worship 68 (July 1994), 313-332.
[6] Steven T. Hoskins, "Eucharist and Eschatology in the Writings of the Wesleys," Wesleyan Theological Journal 29 (Spring/Fall, 1994), 71.  This article is magnificent for its interpretation and depth of research. Unfortunately,  Evangelical writers have tended to minimize the role of the sacraments in early Methodism, on this see: Bowmer, The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, ix.  
[7]#42, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.
[8]#62, Hymns on the Lord’s Supper.
[9]Paul S. Sanders, "Wesley's Eucharistic Faith and Practice," Anglican Theological Review 48 (April, 1966), 165.
[10]Henry Robert McAdoo, "A Theology of Eucharist: Brevint and the Wesleys," Theology 97 (July/August, 1994) 245-256.
[11]See: Augustus Toplady,  Arminianism: The Road to Rome! (1754).  Available on the Internet:
[12]"Duty of Constant Communion" I, 3.
[13] JWJ, Nov.1, 1739.
[14]Sanders, "Wesley's Eucharistic Faith," 159.
[15]Robert A. Leaver, "Charles Wesley and Anglicanism," in: S.T. Kimbrough, Jr., ed. Charles Wesley: Poet and Theologian (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1992).
[16]On this point see: Hoskins, "Eucharist and Eschatology,"  70.
[17]Linda M. Durbin, "The Nature of Ordination in Wesley's View of the Ministry,"  Methodist History 9 (April, 1971), 3-20.
[18]An excellent general article is: William Parkes’ “Watchnight, Covenant Service, and the Love Feast in Early British Methodism,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 32 (Fall 1997), 35-58. The standard source on the Methodists love feasts is: Frank Baker's Methodism and the Love-Feast (data, 1957).  An useful summary article on the origins and celebration of the love feast throughout the ages is found in Paul Miller, "Let Us Break Bread Together,”  Touchstone 8, (Sept., 1990), 29-33.
[19]Hester Ann Rogers, The Experience and Spiritual Letters of Mrs. Hester Ann Rogers.(Halifax: William Milner, 1855), 141-142 Cited in: Parkes, “Watchnight,” 35.
[20]Cited in: Parkes, “Watchnight,” 39.
[21]Now available at several web sites, for one: In some form the Love Feast continued in use in the Western church until the Eighth Century. 
[22]Dom Gregory Dix, in a influential study of the early liturgy, The Shape of the Liturgy , argues that the Lord's Supper and the love feast were one original Jewish-Christian sacrament, formed in imitation of the Jewish fellowship meal (chaburah). The Diadache, rediscovered in the 1880s, pictures a love feat of the Second Century in which people remain silent and listen to a lector reads the scriptures while eating a full meal.  
[23] Parkes, “Watchnight,” p. 43, note 19.
[24]This section is based on the following articles: Rupert E Davies, “The History and Theology of the Methodist Covenant Service,” Theology 64 (February 1961), 62-68, and especially Frank Baker’s, “The Beginnings of the Methodist Covenant Service,”  The London Quarterly and Holborn Review #180 (July 1955) 214-220.
[25]Frank Baker, “”Mad Grimshaw” and His Covenants With God.” The London Quarterly and Holbourn Review 28 (1958), 211-212.
[26] Richard Alleine, Vindicie Pietatis: or, A Vindication of Godliness… (London: n.p., 1664), the actual “example” covenant of this work was written by his son in law, Joseph Alleine.
[27]Cited in Baker, “The Beginnings,” 215.
[28]JWJ, August 11, 1755.
[29]Hymn 909, A Collection of Hymns for Use of the People Called Methodists…”
[30]The new year covenant service was reintroduced by the English Methodists in the 1930s and the rite is reprinted as an appendix in the anthology, John and Charles Wesley.
[31]Rupert E. Davies, "The History and Theology of the Methodist Covenant Service," Theology 64 (February, 1951) 62-68.
[32]On this see the superb work by Henry H. Knight, III, The Presence of God in the Christian life:  John Wesley and the Means of Grace (Metuchen: The Scarecrow Press, 1992). Fr. Mark Pearson, the theologian and chaplain of the House of Bishops of the CEC (see chapter 15 below), has pointed out a modern parallel. He has noted that e has noted Hmany charismatic Episcopalians distrust sacramental worship because they see liberal, gay "high church" bishops lead flawless liturgies while holding the scriptures and Church tradition as disposable.
[33]John Wesley, "The Means of Grace," Sermon #16, II, 5.
[34]John Wesley, "The Means of Grace" Sermon # 16, I, 4.
[35]Frank Baker, in his John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), calls the Wesley's edited Book of Common Prayer, "low church," 251.
[36]Baker,  Wesley and the Church of England, chapters 14-16.
[37]There is surprising little modern literature on the Via Media.  I have found two articles helpful: John K. Yost, "Hugh Latimer's Reform Program, 1529-1536, and the Intellectual Origins of the Via Media," Anglican Theological Review 53 (April, 1971), 103-113, and, John E. Booty, "Hooker and Anglicanism," in: W. Speed Hill (ed.), Studies in Richard Hooker: Essays Preliminary to an Edition of His Works (Cleveland: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1972).
[38]On this point see: Frank Baker, John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), "Introduction."
[39]Herbert A. Marsh, "The Cultivation of the Spiritual Life in Early Primitive Methodism,"  The London Quarterly and Holbern Review (July 1952), 180-184.