In 1680, in the reign of Charles II, an anonymous book titled The Country Parson's Advice to His Parishioners was published in England. This was just two years after the formation in London, by Dr. Horneck and Rev. Smithies, of what came to be called the “London Religious Societies.” These were a group of societies throughout London where young men met to 'edify one another' in their Christian faith. It is likely that the book was written by someone familiar with the societies, quite possibly a member or one of the founders. The “small groups” or “house churches” which have become so much a part of many vital churches today are based on the same approach to Christian fellowship and accountability.
Horneck produced rules for the societies' meetings. A sampling of them is reprinted here to give a sense of what the meetings were about:
1. All that enter the Society shall resolve upon a holy and serious life.
2. No person shall be admitted...until...first confirmed by the bishop, and solemnly taken upon himself his baptismal vow.
3. They shall choose a minister of the Church of England to direct them.
4. They shall not be allowed, in their meetings, to discourse of any controverted point of divinity.
5. Neither shall they discourse of the government of Church or State.
9. After all is done, if there be time left, they may discourse with each other about their spiritual concerns; but this shall not be a standing exercise which any shall be obliged to attend unto.
18. The following rules are more especially recommended to the members of this society, viz. To love one another. When reviled, not to revile again. To speak evil of no man. To wrong no man. To pray, if possible, seven times a day. To keep close to the Church of England. To transact all things peaceably and gently. To be helpful to each other. To use themselves to holy thoughts in their coming in and going out. To examine themselves every night. To give every one their due. To obey superiors, both spiritual and temporal.
Horneck was a genuine evangelical long before the evangelical revival of the 18th century. He spoke of the need for the “new birth,” and declared regularly the need for a “real holiness of heart and life”. He preached to King William and Queen Mary, in November 1689, on “The Nature of true Christian Righteousness,” and emphasized “consistent and holy living.” He also emphasized the need for true charity and spreading the gospel. The renown Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), still a major Christian publisher, is one of the direct products of the societies which he helped found.
Bishop Overton, in his Life in the English Church, quotes Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles, in both a sermon (1698) preached to one of the religious societies, and a letter (1699), to show Samuel Wesley's warm favor toward these groups.
Over the years these societies grew in number and vigor. Shortly after the turn of the 18th century, Dr. Josiah Woodward wrote Account of the Rise and Progress of the Religious Societies of London, &c. (4th edition dated 1712). Most of what we know of these societies comes from Woodward's book, and the book itself began a rapid multiplication of the societies in England, Germany and throughout the continent. The book contained not simply history, but the rules and patterns of conduct for the societies, allowing them easily to be modeled elsewhere. There are many parallels with the spread of small groups throughout the Christian world today.
Several interesting features of the meetings reveal the roots of the eventual Methodist breakaway at the end of the 18th century, and even evangelical practice up to the present era. Woodward assumed that the societies were in relationship with the Church of England, and preferred that each society have an ordained Church of England minister as its director, but the societies multiplied so rapidly that this became impractical. The rule was relaxed so that, in the absence of a minister, an order of service, based on the Church of England liturgy, could be used and led by a layman (recall that Horneck, earlier, had required a minister in rule 3). In the lay-led service, the word “steward” was substituted for “minister” in the liturgy, and each verse read was followed by a long pause to allow any one in the congregation to comment seriously on it. Members were also encouraged to share their spiritual experiences with one another (in contrast to Horneck's rule 9), and fervent singing was the norm:
“Let us, therefore, now strain up our affections to the highest pitch, and so sing the praises of God in heart and spirit, that angels and saints may join with us now, and we with them for evermore.”
Today, we would refer to this layman as a “lay pastor,” the sharing of spiritual experiences as “testimony,” and fervent singing - unheard of and considered unseemingly before the advent of these evangelicals - as “praise and worship.”
In November 1729, John and Charles Wesley and two others, William Morgan and Robert Kirkham, began meeting regularly at Oxford to study the Greek New Testament and Latin and Greek classics. In the summer of 1730, Morgan visited a prison, and returned convinced of the need to bring the gospel inside the prison walls. At his suggestion, the Wesleys began regular visitations to the prisoners, preaching, teaching, and taking care of their families. Books were read to the prisoners, among them The Country Parson's Advice to his Parishioners, followed by conversation and fellowship. Some thirty years later, John Wesley wrote of this book,
“...I met with a book written in King William's time [actually Charles II - Ed.], called The Country Parson's Advice to His Parishioners. There I read these words: 'If good men of the Church will unite together in the several parts of the kingdom, disposing themselves into friendly societies, and engaging each other...it will be the most effectual means for restoring our decaying Christianity to its primitive life and vigour, and the supporting of our tottering and sinking Church.'” (See page )
This sage advice, from this small book and its anonymous author, is as apt today as it was when written, and the church in many parts of the globe - especially in the “civilized” world - is certainly “tottering and sinking.”
John Simon, in John Wesley and the Religious Societies (London: the Epworth Press, 1921), says:
Among the books in Wesley’s library was The Country Parson’s Advice to his Parishioners. It had made a deep impression on his mind at Oxford, and the little volume was highly prized and widely distributed by the members of the Holy Club. Its well known suggestion as to the formation of ‘Societies’ had been accepted by many ernest men, and a striking example of the wisdom of the suggestion had been furnished by the founding of the ‘Religious Societies,’ whose character and work we have described. The formation of Societies became one of Wesley’s fixed ideas; he was not committed to the precise form they should assume, but he was convinced that, apart from the ordinary public services of the Church, it was expedient that opportunities should be provided for the more serious parishioners to assemble in private and informal meetings in which they might pray, sing, search the Scriptures, and help each other by religious conversation. He lost no time in forming such a Society in Savannah. He tells us in his Journal, that it began in April, 1736.
The small group at Oxford grew somewhat, and was widely known there, and ridiculed, for its efforts at personal holiness and its work with the poor and imprisoned. It was nicknamed the “Holy Club” by its critics, and John Wesley, with an eye for irony, adopted the name for the group. The group “carefully read and industriously distributed” the “Country Parson's” book, modeling their own activities, and their focus on personal holiness, on the methods given in the text. Among other suggestions given in the book is the complete application of personal fortune to God’s work. This is precisely what the English evangelicals did during the 18th century. Typical were those known later as the “Clapham Sect,” including William Wilberforce, John Venn, Zachary Macaulay, Lord Teignmouth, Henry Thorton, Granville Sharp and Hannah More, who gave unsparingly of their time and wealth to charitable work. Many of them had given away virtually all they owned by the time of their deaths. In addition to their lengthy opposition to slavery, much of their money and attention was focussed on local missions for the poor, the blind, the imprisoned, foundlings, widows, sailors, Germans, Russians, Spaniards, and many more. The list of their charitable Christian works is lengthy and nearly unbelievable to modern sensibilities.
Whether this great willingness to give everything for the Gospel can be traced to the influence of this book we can only speculate. Consider this little vignette about George Whitefield, from Gordon Rupp’s book Religion in England (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986):
“...George Whitefield was a latecomer [to the Holy Club] and very much the ugly duckling. One morning in September 1732 Charles Wesley got a message, passed on by an old apple woman, and invited the sender to breakfast. He recognized him as one he had seen mooching about Oxford by himself, but the thin young man with a cast in his eye, woollen gloves, patched gown, was not prepossessing. Rightly suspecting fear of ridicule had kept him away, he lent him Francke’s Nicodemus, the Fear of Man and the much praised Country Parson’s Advice to his Parishioners, and promised to keep an eye on him.” (p. 339)
Clearly, it seeded and inspired the Wesleys and the Holy Club, as well as many others whom they taught, with a vigor and passion for God which was virtually unknown in the church of their day, as it is in ours.
We see in the remarkable 18th century the roots of much modern evangelical practice, as well as the reawakening of religious societies, clearly inspired and undergirded by this notable book, The Country Parson's Advice to His Parishioners. Yet no evidence can be found that this book was ever reprinted after its first edition in 1680.
This new edition is therefore the only opportunity most of the Christian community will have to see what it was that so inspired the Wesleys and the evangelicals of their time. It is extraordinarily challenging and difficult, in that it issues a call to repentance and obedience that most modern Christians - even those we would judge as serious and mature - would regard as impossible to fulfill.
Even so, it provides insights into our conduct, and the depth and nature of our faith, that can’t but change the manner in which we respond to our Lord’s calls to perfection, in particular in Matthew 19:21- Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
Great Christians, including John and Charles Wesley - who have so formed evangelical thought and community even to this day - found this book of fundamental and enduring value. They used it and taught from it - prisoners and scholars alike. It is only simple wisdom that tells us to study and heed it well.