I’m currently reading the recently-released book, Lift Up a Standard: The Life and Legacy of Ralph C. Horner, by Laurence and Mark Croswell. Although Horner is not exactly a household name, he is definitely one of the most significant figures in Canadian church history, and perhaps the most significant in the 19th century Canadian holiness movement.
That is not to say that he was universally admired – on the contrary, he was a controversial person, and the dramatic and emotional nature of his services raised concerns from some of his colleagues. Nevertheless, he was a very effective evangelist, and his ministry generated a lot of excitement in late nineteenth century Eastern Ontario.
Horner began his career in the Methodist Church, and as I’ve been reading of his conflict with the Methodist Conference (the governing body) I have been struck by the similarities between Horner’s story and that of William Booth, about 30 years earlier. Both men desired to be itinerant evangelists, but came up against a Conference that was unwilling to allow them the freedom they were looking for in ministry.
Booth had joined the Methodist New Connexion in 1854 and was initially appointed as an evangelist in London. He would have been happy to stay in this type of ministry, but after two years, the Conference began giving him circuit appointments – first to Brighouse, and then upon his ordination in 1858, to Gateshead. Booth continued to communicate his desire to be free from pastoral responsibilities so he could focus on evangelism, but Conference continued to deny his requests.
Finally, in 1861, Conference attempted to appease Booth by appointing him to an important circuit in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and suggesting that he could engage in evangelistic work so long as he had properly arranged for the pastoral responsibilities of the circuit to be taken care of. The Booths were not satisfied with this, however, so William resigned from the Connexion and went to work an independent evangelist.
Horner’s story is a bit different, but it centres around the same basic conflict between evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities. Beginning in 1886, Conference appointed Horner to a series of circuits, however, every time, he refused to accept the appointment, arguing that he was called to a special ministry of itinerant evangelism. Horner’s Conference, however, seems to have been much more forbearing, for in several instances they gave in to his requests and appointed him as Conference evangelist.
Conflict continued, however, and Conference used various methods in attempting to curtail Horner’s activities, including leaving him without an appointment at one time, and at another juncture instructing him to conduct services only under the direction of Conference. Horner, for his part, was never willing to submit to restrictions on his “special” evangelistic activities. As Croswell and Croswell summarize it:
It appears that the Methodist Church had no place for Ralph Horner’s ministry, and Horner had no place for the constraints of the Methodist Church (Lift Up A Standard, 62).
Unlike Booth, however, Horner was unwilling to resign, even when formally asked by the Conference. Both sides seem to have genuinely desired to avoid a rupture of the relationship, but eventually it became clear that no resolution was possible.
It does seem Horner genuinely did not want to leave the Methodist Church, and to their credit the Methodists were doing all they could to keep Horner. But Horner saw the church as drifting from the preaching and practice of early Methodism and consequently was trying to bring the church back to her roots…The Methodist Church was heading in a different direction and did not have a place for Horner’s interpretation of old-style Methodism. Horner meant for his holiness revivals to be a renewal movement in the church, but the Conference saw Horner’s actions as insubordination and they could not treat him differently than any other minister (75).
So, after many years of conflict, the 1894 Conference again appointed Horner to a circuit, and decided that he would be removed from their Conference if he refused. Of course Horner did refuse, and was suspended, before being formally deposed in 1895. Horner would go on to found two denominations – the Holiness Movement Church and the Standard Church of America.
In part, of course, the stories of both Booth and Horner are part of the age-old conflict between established leadership structures and what are often called “charismatic” leaders. Both men wanted to work outside the box of the established Methodist polity, and denominational leaders were unwilling to abide their apparent insubordination.
Croswell and Croswell also point to another issue, however (pp. 33-34), which I hadn’t thought of: the difference between the role of a “mass evangelist” (what Booth and Horner wanted), and the more traditional Methodist structures of ministry. On the one hand, the early Methodist preachers were certainly evangelists rather than pastors. Pastoral care and visitation in early Methodism was carried out mostly by class and band leaders, not preachers. However, the early Methodist preachers were not free-ranging evangelists, like the “superstar” preachers of nineteenth century – Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, James Caughey, and later, Dwight L. Moody. Methodist evangelists worked under the direction of Conference, and were appointed to specific circuits. By the time of Booth and Horner, Methodism had clericalized to the point that the small-group structures were no longer in operation, and the circuit preachers had come to take on more traditional pastoral roles.
Influenced by revivalism, Booth and Horner wanted to exercise a truly itinerant and independent evangelistic ministry – something like the ministry of Finney. Although these revivalistic evangelists had a significant influence in Methodist circles, their free-ranging evangelistic ministries were actually foreign to Methodist polity. This helps to explain, in part, the conflict that both Horner and Booth faced with their respective Methodist Conferences.