It all started with desire.
The Methodist movement began with the alluring, impassioned, desperate desire to be holy, to get close to God in an intimate way. And in a way that the local parish church wasn’t providing.
Public worship was not really intended to foster holiness or intimacy with God. The importance of Sunday morning worship has to do with public, corporate expressions of faith and adoration. You stand and sing alongside your peers; you pray with your friends and family; you encounter God in the sharing of Communion, side by side at the altar rail.
But it’s hard to find intimate moments with God in that hour of worship, and even harder to foster the kind of relationships with others that will sustain one during the week. And this hour is certainly not enough to form one in holiness, or to make one a true disciple, someone who actually follows the way of Jesus in this life.
For John Wesley and the early Methodists, this desire was primarily fostered in society meetings.
Society meetings are a thing of the past for the UMC. So is a desire for holiness. The UMC no longer even seeks this as a goal. Instead, we focus our attention on the Sunday morning worship service, where we spend most of our creative energy. Unfortunately, as our culture rapidly shifts away from viewing weekly church attendance as a worthy endeavor, our efforts may largely be a losing venture.
But John Wesley wanted to stir up desire for holiness. So he organized societies. The only requirement to become a member of one of these societies was “a desire to flee from the wrath to come and to be saved from (one’s) sins,” a “desire for holiness of heart and life.”
Wesley did not invent the religious society. Societies sprang up in England in the latter half of the seventeenth century as the result of a craving to go deeper in one’s faith. Dr. Anthony Horneck appears to have been the first to create a society in 1670, when he pulled together a small group of lay persons who had a zeal for “real holiness of heart and life.” These early societies met once a week, with a Church of England priest at the head, to read some Scripture, pray, and have some spiritual conversation. They also agreed to put sixpence in the box every week, which would then be distributed to the poor.
Rules from a different religious society, drawn up by a Dr. Woodward from around the same time period, included the stipulation that members themselves had to be faithful members of the Church of England. Members were warned that, after four unexplained absences from society meetings, they would be expelled. Two stewards were also appointed in order to handle the finances, and to lead the meeting if a priest was unavailable.