Christian History Home > Issue 81 > Not a Synod but a Salon
Not a Synod but a Salon
The evangelical underground plotted England's and the world's salvation at a London pub.
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.
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