John Wesley and United Methodist renewal
By James V. Heidinger II
Good News, 2013
At the time of the birth of Methodism, eighteenth century England was in a period of both spiritual and moral decline. John Wesley was preaching at a time that observers would consider Anglicanism’s “glacial” era – cold, stiff, and uninviting. Poet Laureate Robert Southey went so far as to say, “There never was less religious feeling either within the Establishment, or without, than when Wesley blew his trumpet and awakened those who slept.”
Today, we revere Wesley, seeing clearly in retrospect the full impact of his ministry. However, we may not appreciate how he was scorned and even hated by his contemporaries. In England: Before and After Wesley, J. Wesley Bready points to the following examples.
• John Kirkby, Anglican rector of Blackmanstoke, wrote in 1750, just twelve years after Wesley’s Aldersgate experience, about “the horrid blasphemies and impieties taught by those diabolical seducers called Methodists.” He said, “They pray in the language of a saint to Beelzebub himself,” and “their religion could be forged nowhere else but in the bottomless pit.”
• Dr. Smollett, in his History of England, wrote: “Imposture and fanaticism still hang upon the skirts of religion. Weak minds were seduced by the delusions of a superstition, styled Methodism, raised upon affectation of superior sanctity and pretention to divine illumination. Many thousands were infected with this enthusiasm by the endeavours of a few obscure preachers, such as Whitefield and the Wesleys.” (Oh, to be so obscure!)
Such was the rancor spewed out at the Wesleys. But years later, historians gave a much different evaluation of what happened during those decades of the Wesleyan Revival. J. R. Green, in his Short History of the English People, claims the revival “changed after a time, the whole tone of English society.” He also spoke of the mighty influence on the Anglican Church: “The Church was restored to new life and activity. Religion carried to the hearts of the people a fresh spirit of moral zeal, while it purified our literature and our manners. A new philanthropy reformed our prisons, infused clemency and wisdom into our penal laws, abolished the slave-trade, and gave the first impulse to popular education.”
Stanley Baldwin, speaking as Prime Minister in 1928 at the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the opening of Wesley’s Chapel, said that historians of the eighteenth century “who filled their pages with Napoleon and had nothing to say of John Wesley, now realize that they cannot explain nineteenth century England until they can explain Wesley.” Then, he added quite poignantly, “And I believe it is equally true to say, that you cannot understand twentieth century America, unless you understand Wesley.”
Permit me one more word about Wesley’s life, this from Bready’s unsurpassed prose, in reminding us of the significance of this one life: “The ‘conversion’ of the one-time don of Oxford, which ‘strangely warmed’ his heart toward God and impelled him forth as the friend and releaser of the outcast, vulgarized masses, was fraught with a succession of results destined finally to change the whole trend of social history throughout the British Empire and the English-speaking world. Nor was the impact of this prophet, who claimed ‘the world for his parish,’ confined even within those spacious limits. Millions of many colors, climates, and tongues, inhabiting the four corners of the earth, have lived richer, happier, nobler, and more serviceable lives because, in 1738, fire from off the altars of God purged and illumined the soul of a downcast and disillusioned English priest.”
Now, I believe we can do more today than look wistfully at our Wesleyan heritage, or reflect on it with nostalgia. I believe that there are certain aspects of it that can guide us today as a church in great need of renewal, especially theological renewal.
It is not uncommon today to hear claims that United Methodism is not a creedal church. We are, rather, a church that focuses on a reasoned faith and on experience. One dramatic example of this claim was seen in a commentary in the United Methodist Reporter written by Rhett Jackson, a layman from South Carolina. He has been to eight General Conferences and 42 Annual Conferences as a delegate. He said he was a part of a group in his church seeking a “religion of reason.” Their problem is that “we do not believe in the virgin birth, physical resurrection, ancient creeds or any of the other magic revealed in much of our liturgy and literature.” He admitted to reading John Robinson’s Honest to God decades ago, and it changed him dramatically. He sees “magic” revealed in our liturgy.
We also recall retired Bishop Joe Sprague’s speech in January of 2002 at Iliff School of Theology, where he shared with the students “candidly and vulnerably” about just who “Jesus the risen Christ is for me.” In his message, the bishop denied the classic understandings of Jesus’ full and unique deity, virgin birth, blood atonement, and physical [bodily] resurrection. To believe these, he cautions, is “idolatry.”
In response to this, we must say that theological indifference cannot be justified by an appeal to Wesley. He was theologically informed and deeply concerned about maintaining a solid doctrinal foundation for the people called Methodists. One good example of Wesley’s insistence on doctrinal faithfulness is his provision governing the purchase of “preaching houses.”
In 1763, Wesley drafted a Model Deed which stipulated that the pulpits of the Methodist chapels were to be used by those persons who preached only those doctrines contained in Wesley’s New Testament notes and his four volumes of sermons. The provision stated that if a majority of the trustees felt any preacher was not conforming to these standards in either doctrine or practice, then another preacher was to be brought in within three months. Wesley was not at all broad-minded in this regard, and it was an effective way for him to maintain doctrinal fidelity in his “preaching houses.”
In 1808, American Methodism gave further prominence to doctrinal standards. At that year’s General Conference delegates adopted the first “Restrictive Rule” which provided that the General Conference “shall not revoke, alter, or change our articles of religion, nor establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
However, in the early 1900s, during the Modernist/Social Gospel era, there developed a growing antipathy toward creeds. A. H. Goodenough wrote in the Methodist Review in November, 1910: “Creeds have had their day. They are no longer effective. Without doubt, they were well intended. Possibly they have done some good—they certainly have done much harm. The church has been loyal to her creeds, and has spent much good blood and splendid brains in the defense of them. All this was considered the very essence of Christianity. It was child’s play, as we now see it, and in some instances paganism….The creeds are retired to the museums and labeled ‘Obsolete.’”
This antipathy to creedal formulation was also seen in the changing requirements for membership. Since 1864, the Methodist Episcopal Church had required members to subscribe to the Articles of Religion, but in 1916, this requirement was removed. Belief in the Apostles’ Creed continued to be required beyond 1924 because it was in the baptismal ritual, but it, too, was dropped in 1932.
It may well have been in response to General Conference’s dropping of the Apostles’ Creed in 1932 that led to Dr. Edwin Lewis’ article of alarm about “The Fatal Apostasy of the Modern Church.” He was a professor of systematic theology at the Theology School at Drew University, and wrote stinging words about these changes: “But what does the modern church believe? The church is becoming creedless as rapidly as the innovators can have their way. The ‘Confession of Faith’ – what is happening to it? Or what about the ‘new’ confessions that one sees and hears – suitable enough, one imagines, for, say, a fraternal order. And as for the Apostles’ Creed – ‘our people will not say it any more’: which means, apparently, that ‘our people, having some difficulties over the virgin birth and the resurrection of the body, have elected the easy way of believing in nothing at all – certainly not in ‘the holy catholic church.’”
It is no surprise that a Methodist bishop would claim in 1908 that since 1812, there had been no definite content given to that particular phrase (“established standards of doctrine”). However, Dr. Robert Chiles claims there are, indeed, “existing and established standards of doctrine” with definite content. He contends, “According to reputable scholars, it can be historically demonstrated that the standards referred to in this Restrictive Rule are the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, and Notes Upon the New Testament.”
In light of the present claims today that Methodism has never been a doctrinal or creedal religion, but only an experiential one, we should begin with Wesley and recover those basic core doctrines which have generally been considered essential and non-negotiable for Wesley – those basic doctrines which represent what Methodists must believe. In doing this, we discover our core differs little from the major beliefs of historic, ecumenical Christianity. Or as Thomas C. Oden would say in citing Vincent of Lerins, our doctrines simply represent “what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all.”
What are those core doctrines? Robert Chiles agrees with Methodist theologian Colin Williams (author of John Wesley’s Theology Today) and lists the doctrines which Wesley insisted on at various times in his ministry as “original sin, the deity of Christ, the atonement, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit (including new birth and holiness), and the Trinity.” These were non-negotiable and nothing less than the great historic tenets of catholic Christianity through the ages. Take away any one of the six and you have something less than classic Christianity. Nor will it do to interpret them in such a way that they are scarcely recognizable when weighed against Christian teaching across the centuries.
Now, the revisionists have been hard at work with Wesley. Liberal, or perhaps naïve, United Methodists have often quoted Wesley’s well-known dictum that Methodists “think and let think.” We’ve heard it again and again. However, what is not quoted is his qualification at the beginning of that statement in his tract “The Character of a Methodist”: “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”
Another famously misquoted statement from Wesley is the statement from his sermon “Catholic Spirit,” which says “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? Then give me thy hand.” This sermon is very helpful but is notoriously abused. In this sermon, Wesley shows a gracious, non-dogmatic view toward opinion, but not toward basic doctrine. Under “opinion,” Wesley includes modes of worship, forms of church government, prayer, baptism, and specifics about the Lord’s Supper. But then he goes on to explain what he means by the question, “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?” He spends no less than seven lengthy paragraphs, some 64 lines in my edition of the sermon, asking, “Do you believe…? Do you believe…? Have you the divine evidence…?”
For John Wesley, right doctrine was a vital ingredient for a right heart. Your heart could scarcely be “right” in Wesley’s terms if you denied, for example, the deity of Jesus Christ or the bodily resurrection. In fact, Wesley goes on to make his ringing, clarion charge that United Methodists today very much need to hear, saying, “A man of truly catholic spirit, has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.” Wesley allowed pluralism in matters of “opinion,” but certainly not when it came to essential doctrine. In these understandings, Wesley is exceedingly relevant for our reductionist and revisionist age.
Primacy of Scripture
In 1988, the United Methodist General Conference approved a new theological statement from the Theological Commission headed by the late Bishop Earl Hunt. The significance of this new version, “Our Theological Task,” is that “theological pluralism” was intentionally removed and the phrase “the primacy of Scripture” was inserted numerous times. In this way, we moved back toward our Wesleyan roots.
Wesley continually subjected tradition and experience to the “written Word of God.” In the “Character of a Methodist,” he wrote “We believe, indeed, that ‘all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God’…We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice” (Works, VIII, 340).
Wesley was not a simplistic proof-texter, casually pasting together texts from here and there. In his words is his own practice: “I want to know one thing – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri. Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: only God is here. In His presence I open, I read His book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights…I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, ‘comparing spiritual things with spiritual.’ I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach” (Preface, Standard Sermons, 1746).
Being homo unius libri did not mean that Wesley rejected all other books, learning, and writings. To the contrary, Wesley stressed also the importance of reading the works of the saints of the Church down through the centuries in order to share in the insights God gave them into his (God’s) revelation.
Williams points out that Wesley must be placed with the Reformers in his principle of sola scriptura, in the sense that Scripture is the final authority in matters of faith and practice; not in the sense that tradition and experience have no value, but in the sense that those further sources of insight must be congruous with the revelation recorded in Scripture.
Wesley said in fact, “It is no part of my design to save either learned or unlearned men from the trouble of thinking.…On the contrary, my intention is to make them think, and assist them in thinking.” But his own mind and heart was so full of Scripture that he scarcely gets through a sentence without including a phrase or portion or a verse of Scripture. His life, mind, and writings are saturated with the sacred text of Scripture.
The teaching of perfection
There is no question about the importance of the doctrine of perfection in the history of Methodism. Wesley believed that this emphasis was a peculiar heritage given to the Methodists in trust for the whole Church. He wrote in 1790, just a year before his death, “This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up” (Letters, VIII, 238).
For Wesley, the work of salvation was not completed with conversion, justification, adoption, the new birth, or assurance. These were the beginning. From there, the believer needed to go on to Christian perfection. Our discomfort with this doctrine today is seen in services of ordination when candidates are asked, “Are you going on to perfection?” Our misunderstanding about this often brings uneasy chuckles and quick disclaimers that we certainly don’t claim to be “perfect” in our Christian life. When asked about “going on to perfection,” Dr. Bob Tuttle used to respond, “Well, what’s your alternative?”
Wesley was very serious about this teaching. He used various terms to describe a new, deeper stage or relationship in the life of the believer—perfection, holiness, entire sanctification, perfect love, full salvation. This teaching came to Wesley from his careful reading of the Apostolic Fathers. In fact, their writings formed the first volume of his Christian Library.
It was in these writings that Wesley saw the theme of perfection as an important one for the Christian, especially with their discussion as to whether a second repentance is needed, which shows an expectation of a deeper change in the life of the believer, such as was described in Wesley’s doctrine. We sometimes call it a deeper cleansing or full surrender. Wesley had become convinced that the spread of Methodism depended on the preaching of this doctrine. He wrote in his journal, “Wherever this is not done, the believers grow dead and cold. Nor can this be prevented but by keeping up in them an hourly expectation of being perfected in love.”
For Wesley, the holiness about which he spoke and preached was one in terms of unbroken relationship to Christ the Holy One. The perfect Christian is holy, Wesley would say, not because he has risen to a required moral standard, but because he lives in this state of unbroken fellowship with Christ. Wesley stated what perfection is: “We mean one in whom is ‘the mind which was in Christ,’ and who so ‘walketh as Christ also walked;’ a man ‘that hath clean hands and a pure heart,’ or that is ‘cleansed from all filthiness of flesh and spirit;’ one in whom is ‘no occasion of stumbling,’ and who accordingly, ‘does not commit sin’” (Works, XI, 384).
Those made perfect in love by faith were never so perfect that they did not still need forgiveness and were not perfect in such a way as to be able to live independently from Christ. Little wonder that he saw this doctrine as a key to his movement.
The Wesleyan legacy
In our quest to renew the United Methodist Church, we should rely upon the unique strengths that marked the ministry of John Wesley – theological seriousness, doctrinal precision, reliance upon Scripture, Christian perfection, and aggressive social ministry. These were the key elements that sustained the birthing of early Methodism and distinguished John Wesley throughout his life.
We also should note in closing that we can learn much from Wesley about dying. These poignant words from the last hours of his life tell a deeply moving story. “The strength of his body being spent, long periods of sleep ensued. As the fever waned, his countenance would kindle, and his eyes sparkle, as though beholding some wondrous vision, afar,” Bready wrote of John Wesley’s final hours. “No murmur, no complaint, escaped his lips. The lines which focused his consciousness, and which again and again he sang, were: ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath; And when my voice is lost in death; Praise shall employ my nobler powers.’
“On the evening preceding his death, he smiled benignly on all about him, and with great effort, raising his hand, exclaimed calmly and clearly, ‘The best of all is—God is with us!’ About 10 a.m., on the morning of March 2, 1791, casting his eyes again slowly from person to person around his bedside, he whispered: ‘Farewell!’ Instinctively, all present fell on their knees; and as Joseph Bradford led in prayer, the holy man’s soul, without struggle or groan, sped forth to the spirit centre of the Kingdom of God. A winsome smile enwreathed his face. No sooner was his spirit released, than those who had come ‘to rejoice with him,’ burst into an anthem of praise.”
In plans for his passing, Wesley remembered the poor. He directed that “Whatever remains in my bureau and pockets, at my decease,” was to be equally divided among four poor itinerants, whom he named. To each of the traveling preachers within the connection six months after his death, he left copies of the eight volumes of his sermons. He also requested that neither hearse nor coach take any part in his funeral, but desired that six poor men, in need of employment, be given a pound each to carry his body to the grave. And while multitudes filed silently by Wesley’s body, which lay in state in his City Road Chapel, the funeral and interment were kept secret among his inner circle, being conducted by torchlight before the dawn of day.
“Do you think we shall see John Wesley in heaven?” an over-aggressive Calvinist had inquired of George Whitefield years earlier (Wesley outlived Whitefield). “I fear not,” replied the fellow evangelist, musing about his long-time friend. “No! – he will be so near the throne, and we at such a distance, that we shall hardly get a sight of him.”
Bready concludes his moving account with this: “If spiritual values and spiritual attainments be the ultimate standard of greatness, few greater than this little English preacher have yet trodden the earth; and none greater, has spoken the English tongue.”
James V. Heidinger II is president emeritus of Good News.