“Saturday [March] 25, I went on to Bolton, where the work of God is continually increasing. On Easter Day, I set out for Warrington. Mr. Harmer read prayers both morning and afternoon. We had a large congregation in the morning, as many as the church could well contain in the afternoon, and more than it could contain in the evening. At last there is reason to hope that God will have a steady people even in this wilderness.
“The next evening, when a few of the society were met together, the power of God came mightily upon them. Some fell to the ground, some cried aloud for mercy, some rejoiced with joy unspeakable. Two or three found a clear sense of the love of God, one gay young woman in particular, who was lately much prejudiced against this way but is now filled with joy unspeakable.”
John Wesley’s account of this Society meeting on the day after Easter in 1780 is an example of how Christian conference (or Christian fellowship) is a means of grace. This, for Wesley, is one of the instituted means of grace. It may be the most elusive of that number, though, with the greatest variability in how it can be understood. For instance, there are times where Wesley’s idea of Christian conference sounds more like a one-to-one pastoral counsel, as in when he instructs the preachers in the best approach to such a practice in the Large Minutes.
In other places, however, the effects of Christians coming together “to confer” is depicted in fairly dramatic language. Wesley offers an account of this in the Plain Account of the People Called Methodists, when he characterizes the fruits borne out of the class meetings as nothing less than transformation in holy love. His term here is “Christian fellowship” rather than “Christian conference,” although I think the two terms refer to the same category in Wesley’s mind (i.e., both refer to the same instituted means of grace).
Of course, the journal entry at the top of this post is an example of conference or fellowship as well. Any spiritual practice that so opens a group of believers to the power of the Holy Spirit that they experience joy unspeakable is worth a closer look. It’s also good to remember this about Wesley’s view on such things: powerful experiences of the Spirit are wonderful when the Spirit decides to grant them, but they are never ends in themselves. If the transforming effect of them is true, then the love they fill us with will change us so that we grow to love God and neighbor more fully.
[This post is part of an ongoing series that highlights important themes that emerge in the Journal that John Wesley published throughout his adult life. For other posts in the series, go here.]