Holy Love and the Genius of Wesleyanism

By Ryan Nicholas Danker

For some reason, I’m enamored with the scene of the laying of the foundation stone at what was then the New Chapel on City Road, London, in 1777. John Wesley was happy with the rain that day, something anyone who has been to the British Isle knows all too well. There is a reason these islands are so green. He was happy with it, though, not because of the greenery but because it limited the size of the crowds.

Wesley liked crowds to an extent, but he liked them to be controlled. And crowds in London in the eighteenth century were not always the best behaved. It had been a number of years since the last mob attacked a Methodist preacher, including Wesley, but the memories of those events were likely seared in his memory. Early Methodist chapels had been built with rowdy mobs in mind, including ways for any preacher quickly to  exit the building when necessary. 

But by the late 1770s, when the chapel in question was finished, things were different. By then the trans-Atlantic Evangelical Revival, of which Wesley’s Methodism was a part, had been going on for almost forty years. The “showers of grace” as they were called kept falling and the Wesley brothers and so many other evangelicals in the Church of England had done their best to keep up with them, chasing these outbursts of the Spirit around Britain, Ireland, and even into the Americas. There were still concerns that Methodists were out to undermine the social and political order, and the rumblings of revolution on the European continent did not help assuage these suspicions, but most of these concerns were dying down.

Here on City Road, in the rain, on what was then the outskirts of a quickly expanding London, and just a few feet from his mother’s grave, Wesley preached a sermon that outlined his vision for Methodism: “On Laying the Foundation of the New Chapel.”

“What is Methodism? What does this new word mean? Is it not a new religion?” Wesley asked. “This is a very common, nay, almost an universal supposition. But nothing can be more remote from the truth. It is a mistake all over. Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Church of England.”

One of the mistakes of modern Wesleyans is to forget that Methodism began – and to an extent is always meant to be – a movement of renewal or restoration without group or later denominational limits. This is very clearly seen in Wesley’s description, as he believed that what Methodists were doing in their society meetings, their bands, their street preaching, their clinics for the poor, and their continued adherence to the Church of England, was to restore the best of the past by bringing it to the present.

At its best, Methodism, even in its more revivalistic periods, has valued the mind, the contribution of faithful scholars, and the insights learned from years of study and formation. This intellectual gift is not greater than any other, of course, but Methodism maintains its trajectory by means of thoughtful leaders who are attuned to the Spirit’s work and to the gift of wisdom. Unlike Luther, Wesley embraced reason. Knowledge and vital piety, to borrow from Charles Wesley, are not in opposition to one another. 

Wesley believed, however, that Methodism was called to renew or restore the heart of the church’s witness: a transforming encounter with the crucified and risen Christ, a witness that spoke to our transformation here and to the ultimate wholeness that God has for all creation. Proclamation, encounter, and Methodism go together. And in his sermon, he outlined the ways in which, at its best, Methodism was doing just that.

Notice that Wesley wants to make the point that Methodism is not new. We are not doing a new thing. Methodism at its best does old things and does them well. Like so many in our own day that yearn for an expression of the faith with substance, Wesley wanted Methodism to be “the old religion.” But let’s be careful here. This is not the same as “give me that old time religion,” which often points to 19th century camp meetings, as wonderful as they may have been. This – the old religion – is much, much older. It is the term he uses to encapsulate the other three qualifiers that he lists: a religion of the Bible, of the primitive church, and of the Church of England. And this emphasis mirrors comments he makes about the Christian faith elsewhere when he says about theology “if it’s new it’s wrong.” 

Wesley may have been creative at times to promote his evangelistic mission, but his earnest attempts to remain as traditional as possible are often missed by later interpreters who do not understand his context. For example, even his irregular ordinations in 1784 were done according to the rubrics of the Prayer Book! And that is an example of what was probably his most creative moment.

Wesley was a “traditioned” man, an authentic conservative. Not a right-wing populist, but someone who drank deeply from the wells of the past, who knew that the old wine, or the old story, was best. Attempts today to make Wesley into a sort of unhinged or unmoored pragmatist are profoundly misleading. While it’s possible for formalists to miss out on the life of the movement, many who try to contemporize Methodism miss out on the point of it.

Bear in mind that Wesley envisioned Methodist practice to include a liturgical, Eucharistic service on Sundays, society meetings during the week for preaching and singing, another day for some sort of small group meeting, personal devotions throughout the week, and taking every opportunity to help those in need, all on top of the regular rhythms of everyday life. This isn’t a religion of convenience. It’s almost monastic. Methodism at its best is primitivist, old school, steeped in the historic patterns of Christianity.

The religion of the Bible. In the New Chapel sermon, Wesley is adamant that what the Methodists were doing in the British Isles and even recently in the American colonies was profoundly biblical. They believed in the truthfulness of the Bible. But their focus was the transforming religion of love, that biblical religion, that they were preaching to anyone who would hear.

In his earlier work, Wesley described this old, biblical religion as “no other than love: the love of God and of all mankind; the loving God with all our heart, and soul, and strength, as having first loved us, as the fountain of all the good we have received, and of all we ever hope to enjoy; and the loving every soul which God hath made, every man on earth, as our own soul.”

Wesley continued, “This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men. Wherever this is, there are virtue and happiness, going hand in hand” (Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion).

A truly Wesleyan view of Scripture begins with the question of holiness, and throughout our history we have been convinced that a holy life and a biblical life are one and the same; the Bible is a means of grace, a faithful helper in that journey toward holy love, which is a Christ-like life. And this, as Wesley says, is the message of Scripture “as no one can deny who reads” the Bible “with any attention.” We don’t start with theories about the text, but with the promise of wholeness clearly described in the text.

Wesley clearly believed in the inspiration of Scripture. For Wesleyans, the Scripture was inspired when it was written and inspired for readers in the present. When Wesley published his own annotated version of the New Testament in 1755, one of Methodism’s historic doctrinal standards, he wrote, “The Spirit of God not only once inspired those who wrote it, but continually inspires, supernaturally assists, those that read it with earnest prayer.” To understand Scripture is to see its “general tenor,” the overarching narrative of God’s work of redemption, from the first page to the last. And to see that is to see its beauty, and the equally beautiful life it promises even now.

It is crucial to understand, though, that Wesleyanism’s relationship with Scripture begins with holiness. And as Jesus is the pattern of holiness, so the Scriptures describe his life. The Scriptures not only speak of Jesus from beginning to end, in Wesley’s view, but give us the Gospels, describing his life, ministry, atoning death, and glorious resurrection.

Scripture, and especially the life of Jesus, demonstrates a distinct concern for the poor. From the beginning of the Wesleyan movement, a Christ-like concern for the poor has been at the center of its mission. John Wesley famously preferred the company of the poor, even writing about them as Christ figures. Despite his own Oxonian pedigree, he was notoriously uncomfortable around the wealthy, a distinct difference between him and his younger brother, who worked easily with those across the various classes of their day. 

The religion of the early Church. Just as Wesley believed that Scripture points us to a saving relationship with Christ, so he saw in the early Church those who both contended for the faith once delivered (Jude 3) and even more importantly those who sought the face of Christ.

Wesley’s view of church history looked for what might best be described as “purity points,” or persons, eras, and communities that, in his view, could be seen as patterns of holy love. The early Church, before Emperor Constantine, was his favorite. But we shouldn’t imagine that he lacked an affinity for the church fathers and mothers after the first Christian emperor.

Wesley’s love for the early Church began early in his own life. His affinity for the early Church came to full bloom when he was a student at Oxford where the high church attachment to the church fathers and, at least at Oxford, to the virtue ethics of Aristotle, shaped his thinking for the rest of his life. He did, in fact, have a nickname: “Primitive Christianity.” And it was out of this ancient faith that he, like so many others at the time, came to believe that the atonement of Christ was available to all, that grace was poured out on all people, and that God was seeking to be in relationship with all. This is catholic Christianity at its best, and Methodism is an expression of it.   

If you look at Wesley’s ministry, he arguably saw the Methodist movement as an attempt to live out the best patterns and practices of the early Church, to bring what he saw as the best of the past – in this case the first few centuries of Christian witness – to the present. And in this case, his vision was a radically different one than either a pragmatic American evangelicalism or that of Protestant liberalism, both too modern in their assumptions and practices. Wesley had a love for the early church because he believed it to be close to Jesus, not just chronologically (although that was important to him) but also in the way the early Christians lived.

The intentionality of the early church struck Wesley profoundly. Their commitment to the faith – even in the face of sporadic persecution – and their commitment to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ inspired him. This can clearly be seen in his desire for small groups and how these small groups, both classes and bands, evolved over the course of his ministry. They almost always entailed both a serious desire to grow in Christlikeness combined with a familial concern to “watch over one another in love.” Wesley was adamant that true Christianity was communal in nature. He once wrote, “‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers” (Hymns and Sacred Poems).

The sacramental vision of early Christianity also inspired Wesley. As a good Anglican, he avoided too fine a definition of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but he believed wholeheartedly that Christ was present. This is no mere memorial, a view that he actually described as heretical in the preface of Hymns on the Lord’s Supper. And this is why he took the administration of Holy Communion so seriously, both in terms of the basic historic requirement that it be celebrated by validly ordained clergy, and also that, like the Church throughout time, it be celebrated with reverence and care.

The religion of the Church of England. Wesley’s triptych concludes with the Church in which he was born, lived, ministered, and died. One of the most damaging failures of contemporary Wesleyan thought is the belief that Wesley was not actually an Anglican, to see him and his movement as somehow impervious to time and place. We rob Wesleyanism of its riches if we take it – and Wesley – out of the ecclesiastical tradition that gave it life and content.

The genius of Wesleyanism can be seen when Methodism retains the sacramental and liturgical patterns of historic Anglicanism, a tradition that sought to retain the best of the Protestant world while also retaining the very best of the catholic inheritance. This isn’t a cookie cutter approach to a worldwide movement, but rather the acknowledgement that Wesley’s vision of holiness of heart and life was itself sacramentally driven and that the ancient dictum lex orandi lex credenda – the rule of prayer is the rule of belief – is profoundly true. The way we worship does, in fact, shape the content of our belief.

With the emphasis that the Wesleyan tradition places on personal experience, itself a good thing, this lack of sacramental and liturgical formation fails to provide the believer with the communal foundation that the Wesley brothers believed necessary to guide our experience toward ultimately fruitful lives. And the problem with this failure isn’t just that we’re not taught our own heritage, but that it is inevitably replaced by something else, most likely the shifting and untried opinions of an ultimately secular pragmatism.

Thankfully, we have a rich, beautiful, tried, and ultimately scriptural tradition right at our fingertips. And whether we’re aware of it or not, the content of classical Wesleyan thought was forged within the communal life of English Christianity. Everything from our sacramental theology to Christian perfection, or even the very definition of grace used in Methodist preaching, comes from this historic wing of the Church.

For example, see the sacramental theology of Charles Wesley. With the same focus on holiness that is central to the Wesleyan message, he describes the Eucharist using the language of poetical theology, a profoundly Anglican description using an Anglican pattern of theological communication. It communicates mystery without holding so tightly to it that the mystery is lost:

O the depth of love divine,
Th’ unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys?

How the bread his flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits his blood,
Fills his faithful people’s hearts
With all the life of God!

It’s a complete historical fallacy to imagine that Wesley thought that he was called to rejuvenate a moribund church. Like the church throughout history, the Church of England in the 18th century had its successes and its areas of needed growth. One of the ways that the 18th century church can teach us today is through its engagement with a rapidly changing culture. These Christians developed ways to promote the historic faith in an age of reason, while also defending it against Deism, Unitarianism, and other forms of rationalist reductionism.

Ironically, perhaps, Wesley praises the Church of England and its Prayer Book – his common companion every day of his life – in the preface to his 1784 revision of that revered text, The Sunday Service. He wrote, “I believe there is no liturgy in the world, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational piety, than the Common Prayer of the Church of England. And though the main of it was compiled considerably more than two hundred years ago, yet is the language of it, not only pure, but strong and elegant in the highest degree.”

It is in the Book of Common Prayer that we can find the basis for the Wesleyan vision of grace as the dynamic and relational power of the Holy Spirit. This alone is a treasure that we must not forget. The life-shaping work of grace is central to the proclamation of holiness.

The Church of England equipped Methodism with an historic link to the ancient church as well as to the great emphases of the reformation era: the new birth and justification by faith.

Wesley’s relationship with the Church, and its hierarchy, was not always an easy one. But his 1786 claim that “I still think, when the Methodists leave the Church of England, God will leave them” should rightly haunt us – primarily as a reminder that Methodism at its best is a movement of renewal, not a self-serving institution. Methodism must be engaged with the larger Church in order to remain authentically Methodist. And this engagement must include the Church of our own day as well as those who have gone before. 

The Genius of Wesleyanism. What I hope that I’ve described is an historic, faithful, dynamic, and Spirit-enabled community organized around the attainment of Christian perfection. Without it, it’s hard to call any of this Wesleyan. Whether looking at Methodism as the old religion, the biblical faith, the belief and practice of the early Church, or even the Church of England, what lies at the heart of an authentic Wesleyan witness is the sure hope that the restoration of the image of God in each and every one of us begins now, not just in a future state. The promise of Scripture can be experienced now. The wholeness that God has for us can, and should be, lived now. The freedom that we have in Christ is a freedom we can have now.

But Wesley also knew that human frailty is real, therefore we need one another. And we need the formative power of the church’s historic patterns of worship and witness. We need fellow believers now, just as we need the tried and true formation of those who have gone before us. Our need includes, among so many other things, the church fathers and mothers, the councils of the Church and the creeds they formulated, the English reformers and their witness, and the liturgical practices of two thousand years. Christianity is not a solitary religion, and that includes the idea that we can be somehow solitary in the present, without need of our forebears.

What Wesley envisioned for Methodism as long as it exists in this world is that it can be a community of holy love where the wholeness promised in Scripture and lived by the saints is a common expectation. He once wrote that he wasn’t afraid that Methodism might cease to exist, but that it might “have the form of religion without the power.” In fact, this expectation that God continues to work today in human hearts and communities is a hallmark of Methodism that should never be lost. That expectation is not simply an intellectual one, but one given present reality by the encounter of the risen Christ, in the cleansing waters of baptism, in the means of grace, in Scripture read and proclaimed, in works of mercy, and in that “grand channel of grace,” Holy Communion.

The genius of Wesleyanism is that it takes the best of the past and brings it to the present that all might experience the freedom and wholeness found in holy love. Yet as Wesleyans we know that this isn’t a song exclusive to us, but the song of all those who have gone before us in the faith. Wesley knew this. He was adamant when he said that Methodism was nothing new.

The song starts with Jesus, the embodiment of all the promises of God. He taught this song to his apostles who in turn taught it to the early Church, and on through the centuries. Our task is to join the faithful chorus, to harmonize with the song of holy love that has been sung long before we were born and will continue well after we have joined the heavenly chorus. In so doing, we will faithfully communicate the Wesleyan message, because it is nothing less than scriptural Christianity, a beautiful hope for us all.

Ryan N. Danker is the founding director of the John Wesley Institute, Washington, D.C., and Assistant Lead Editor of Firebrand. Dr. Danker is the author of Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism. This article originally appeared in Firebrand (www.firebrandmag.com) and is reprinted by permission.


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