Not a Synod but a Salon

ALDERSGATE STREET, London. This was where John Wesley, who had launched Britain’s Evangelical Revival decades before, had found his heart “strangely warmed” in May 1738.

But it was not only Wesley’s Methodists who spread that revival. On a frozen Thursday evening in January 1783, in an upper room of the Castle-and-Falcon Pub on Aldersgate Street, John Newton met with fellow evangelical leaders Richard Cecil and Henry Foster, Anglican clergymen, and Eli Bates, an Anglican layman.

Though there is no record of what transpired at that meeting, it is a safe bet that the 57-year-old Newton had his pipe in hand and that he was exuding characteristic warmth and enthusiasm. The four of them agreed to meet on a regular basis—"fortnightly"—the beginnings of the Eclectic Society. As it expanded to include other attendees, Newton’s meeting would gain a reputation as one in which Christian leaders from different strains of evangelicalism could discuss important issues in a relaxed setting.

It was an environment defined by Newton’s signature conversation style, which William Jay remembers as “most easy, and free, and varied, and delightful, and edifying.”

Newton himself called his meeting an “association,” representing a much-needed alternative to the churches’ beloved “assemblies, consistories, synods, councils, benches, [and] boards,” which he cordially disliked. He was, after all, in the habit of receiving scores of parishioners and friends at least twice a week in his home, in the intimacy of his back room—sometimes 40 in a single day.

The Castle-and-Falcon meetings marked more than a change in style, however. Over the next three decades, the Eclectic Society would become a center of English evangelicalism, a place for London clergy and country parsons alike to hang their hats, discuss whatever was on their minds, and dream about reaching the unsaved masses in Africa. It would eventually birth the influential Church Missionary Society and the widely read Christian Observer magazine.

Making it official

Even after the first nine months, the meeting was still a nebulous gathering, which its founder referred to as “the society that bears no name, and espouses no party.” Nevertheless it doubled in size, adding clergy and laity of various stripes, including (despite the fact that Newton had at first distrusted the Moravians) the noted Moravian composer Christian Ignatius LaTrobe, then only 26 years old.

By 1784 the group had adopted its name and grown to about 12 regular attendees. Rev. Cecil offered to host the meetings in a more accommodating venue—the vestry of his own church, St John’s Chapel in Bedford Row.

The initial rules of the society are recorded on the inside cover of Newton’s journal for 1791. The meeting time was every other Monday afternoon at 4:30 P.M. Tea was served from a silver teapot, followed by three or so hours of discussion—"Bible on the table.” Each participant contributed a shilling for food. Potential new members were proposed by one member and admitted only by unanimous consent, though the number of members could not exceed 13.

The meeting’s agenda was driven by a single question, submitted by one of the members at the end of the previous meeting. The members would take turns answering, and Newton kept minutes in a small journal.

Questions deep and wide

The questions were appropriately eclectic. Sometimes they dealt with a theological issue, such as “How should we reconcile Paul and James on justification?” Sometimes a cultural question arose: “What are the particular dangers of youth in the present day?” The inevitable presence of Newton—hymnist, pastor, and former slave trader—gave the evenings a unique character in which anything might be discussed.

In the early period of Eclectic Society meetings, most of the topics were practical rather than theological. Several were family-oriented. In response to the question for December 10, 1787, “What is the nature and obligation of conjugal duties?” the members recommended a “softening” of male headship. “Authority as the remedy” may prove to be the “disease” itself; instead, it is best to “leave some things to the Woman.” “If we stretch our authority,” Newton concluded, “we lose it.”

In discussing “Parents and Children,” the topic for December 24, 1787, the group began with a long list of duties of parents to their children, then turned to a shorter list of children’s duties to their parents: “reverence, obedience, gratitude.” The key to effective child—rearing, the gentlemen agreed, was “the tone and spirit of the family.” Parents’ private habits, tones of voice, and even body language must be the touchstones for effective child-rearing.

The Eclectics applied a similar ethic of gracious self-denial to ministry, response to theological error, dealing with enemies, and preaching style. The common theme in all of these discussions was that kindness always trumps sternness. Persuasion is preferable to browbeating.

In response to the January 22, 1798, question, “What may be done towards the interests of the children of a congregation?” Newton said, a bit impatiently, “What is agreeable to children is agreeable to children of six feet high. . . . Talk to children abstractedly, and it is all in vain. Go through the life of Christ, and all the historical parts of Scripture.”

On another occasion, Newton said, “For an old Christian to say to a young one, ‘Stand in my evidence,’ is like a man who has with difficulty climbed by a ladder of scaffolding to the top of a house, and cries to one at the bottom, ‘This is the place for a prospect—come up at a step.’”

Newton’s approach, which would become the approach of the whole Eclectic assembly, was to discern each person’s needs and respond accordingly. Sacrifice should be on the part of the pastor, of the husband, the parent.

An eventful era

The founding years of the Eclectic Society were years of major political change, not only in England, but throughout Europe. In Paris, on January 20, 1783—four days after that first meeting at Castle-and-Falcon—England signed away one of its best colonial assets to the likes of John Adams and Ben Franklin.

It was also a time of religious change. A grassroots evangelical movement had been growing steadily in the Church of England since at least the 1760s (p. 30). Just two months before the Eclectics’ first meeting, evangelical leader Charles Simeon was installed at Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge (p. 50). In London, evangelical lecturers and chaplains were becoming so popular that people brimmed out into the sidewalks and streets.

The Eclectic Society’s chief importance was that it focused an ethos. In place of the old—fashioned ecclesiastical bureaucracy, here was a “back-room” meeting, an almost revolutionary event in which the Bible lay open on the table and each man had his say.

Instead of a synod, Newton hosted a salon—the kind of intellectual club that had been so effective in focusing philosophical ideas in France during the previous hundred years.

Such meetings had formed the molecular substructure of the Enlightenment; and, with the subsequent rise of other informal gatherings, such as William Wilberforce’s “Clapham Sect,” they would serve the evangelical cause in a similar way.

Missionaries, magazines, and more

The practical effect of the Eclectic Society was first felt in—of all places—Australia. In addition to Newton himself, young zealots like Christian LaTrobe and John Venn had given the assembly a distinct air of missions—mindedness.

Newton had been instrumental in the appointment of Richard Johnson to establish a church in New South Wales, and in 1786 the Society considered the question: “What is the best method for planting and propagating the Gospel in Botany Bay?”

The Society discussed missions again in 1789, when the question was, “What is the best way of propagating the Gospel in the East Indies?”

One evening in 1792, discussion turned to the slave trade—a practice that Newton by then opposed as steadfastly as did his close friend William Wilberforce.

This stirred the group to an ongoing discussion of Africa, which led to the founding of Venn’s Church Missionary Society for Africa and the East (CMS) in 1799. The CMS held its inaugural meeting at the Castle—and—Falcon, as had the London Missionary Society, founded in 1795. Wilberforce himself was asked to be the president of the CMS, though he refused, accepting instead vice-presidency.

Also in 1799, a young clergyman who had been recently recruited to the Eclectic Society, Josiah Pratt, proposed the following question: “How far may a periodical Publication be made subservient to the interest of Religion?” In 1801 Pratt founded the Christian Observer, which throughout the nineteenth century served as a valuable organ for evangelical ideas.

The boom years for the Eclectic Society were really 1799 and 1800. According to Pratt’s register, 24 different members were active at some point during that span.

As he entered his late 70s, however, Newton’s health fell into decline, and after he died in 1807, his society also fell on hard times. Although there were still 16 members in 1814, Pratt resigned in that year because the “discussions were not made latterly with the same fulness [sic] as before.” And the society disbanded.

Of course, the legacy of Newton, Wilberforce, Cecil, Pratt, Johnson, and others lives on, but not due solely to their accomplishments. These were friends, sitting at table, a pipe handy, significant questions to pursue, and a familiar manner of expression. Their lives were knit together not in public but in Newton’s back room and in the pub on Aldersgate Street. CH

By Aaron Belz

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

Aaron Belz is a freelance writer and a doctoral student at Saint Louis University, Saint Louis, Missouri.
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