Wesleyanism is two things, not one.
What Defines Wesleyanism?
I lead a bimonthly Church Orientation class for newcomers to my local United Methodist Church. We have a lunch, a presentation on “Methodism 101” by the clergy, a building tour, and then talk about various opportunities for involvement by our laity–including baptism and membership in our local church.
Last time I did this, one of the newcomers asked a question about “What makes Methodism’s theology unique?” One of the well-informed laity jumped in and named two items and I added one to his list and we shared three distinctive things:
- Wesley’s emphasis on Grace: Prevenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying
- Social Holiness and Personal Piety as two sides of the same coin and both important in the life of the Methodist.
- Varied sources of authority, namely Scripture, Reason, Tradition, and Experience (the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” in common parlance)
While satisfactory for an introduction to United Methodism, if the blogging world had been invited to the room, a cacophony of voices would have jumped up and said the above are not “authentically Wesleyan.”
- Regarding holiness, Andrew Thompson critiques the pairing of social and personal holiness. Kevin Watson states that social holiness is not social justice.
- Regarding sources of authority, Kevin Watson further argues that Experience is only defined narrowly as a source of authority by Wesley (which Matt O’Reilly agrees with and Morgan Guyton refutes) and John Meunier argues that the Wesleyan sources of authority are merely used to bolster already-held beliefs.
- Regarding grace, this formulation of grace shared on social media (I lost the reference, forgive me) is in a framework of phrases that I just don’t use:
Preventing grace is the notion that we are all so hopelessly depraved that only an initial move from God can evoke our interest in us for the divine. Justifying grace is the experience of being a depraved sinner in the hands of a just God who mercifully offers up his Son in our stead (yes, Wesley did believe in substitutionary atonement and this part depends on it). Sanctifying grace conveys that we can work with our own salvation, and the corollary is backsliding: the notion that one can work against her own salvation by failing to obey Christ’s commandments.
This consideration started me thinking that there’s really two different things that people talk about when they say “Wesleyan.”
Wesleyan Originalism – What Wesley Did?
Wesleyanism can be known as “WDJWD” or “What Did John Wesley Do?” Such a turn to the original founder of Wesleyanism seeks to have his theological and social beliefs be mirrored in today’s individuals and churches. I call this Wesleyan Originalism.
The Wesley Center online defines Wesleyanism as
“Wesleyanism or Wesleyan theology is the system of Christian theology of Methodism taught by John Wesley.”
To one segment of Wesleyanism, to be Wesleyan is to emulate this founding system of theology as copied from a historical person (John Wesley), which has church structure consequences as well.
We see this perspective dominate the public narrative as authors seek to “save Methodism” by calling us to replicate Wesleyan structures such as the Class Meeting (Kevin Watson), covenant groups (David Watson), and Revivalism (Adam Hamilton), while caucus groups oppose any adaption of Wesleyan thought beyond what Wesley said and did (except when convenient).
In short, Wesleyanism was cemented in place in colonial America, and theological innovation since that great man’s death is in error–and indeed, this drift is responsible for our decline more than any social context.
Wesleyan Today = Wesley’s Evolving Tradition
Alternatively, Wesleyanism can be known as WWJWDT: What Would John Wesley Do Today? Wesleyanism is thus seen as theological praxis informed by Wesley and augmented over time to be integral to the mission of reaching people for Jesus Christ.
The second form of Wesleyanism not only acknowledges the variety of Wesleyan thought in our segment of the Christian family tree, but allows for variety as Wesleyan principles, methods, and beliefs lead to different conclusions.
Wesley’s genius was a focus on praxis: on not only what we believe, but how we live out those beliefs. But this leads to innovation: the lived experience of the spectrum of humanity will lead to different conclusions, even with the same methods. This is the basis of liberation theology. And a changing Christian landscape leads to different practices than whole-hog replicating 18th century structures in a 21st century context.
I believe the sign of a robust theological system is its ability to adapt over time while maintaining fidelity to its core principles. Wesleyanism has proven this robustness through its various schisms and mergers, each of which led to theological innovation while maintaining a unifying force. And I cannot wait for a more inclusive United Methodist Church that can show people what a progressive social witness hand-in-hand with evangelical fervor can do to a world gone mad.
In full: the problem of Originalism
While it is easily assumed that I fall in the second category, I’m even more clear than that: I believe Wesleyan Originalism is a useful tool in determining John Wesley’s intent, but apart from that, Wesleyan Originalism is self-defeating as an ecclesial strategy to save The United Methodist Church.
If you want to understand the intent of Wesley’s sermons, journals, and commentaries, then you begin by examining the original meaning of the words they used in the context in which they wrote. Just because Wesley’s works are written in English doesn’t mean all the words have the same meaning they do today or the cultural context has no bearing on its applicability today (especially in post-Christian America where I live)
Wesleyan Originalism has its purpose as a hermeneutic tool. But it is less helpful — perhaps disastrous — when it is raised to the level of a philosophy, or worse, ecclesial ideal, a direction to which United Methodism has began to drift since the 1980s.
The notion that to be “Wesleyan” should be set in 18th-century stone, and be unadaptable to later circumstances is belied by the fact that Wesley himself was malleable and changed over time. For example, in his 1744 sermon On Scriptural Christianity, Wesley names a whole list of false ideas and terrible moral choices that keep people from Heaven, but by his 1789 sermon On Living Without God, Wesley says it’s the heart not the head that matters most and focuses more on good intent. A Wesley Originalist would have a hard time with such discrepancy, as do Biblical Literalists with regard to the differences in Scripture.
Wesley was an intelligent man, aware of the fact that language changes, as do the times. To suspect he regarded his words as inviolable and unalterable, fixed in meaning and application only to what they intended, is to attribute an almost sacral quality to Wesley, which is nothing short of idolatrous. I would imagine that even some of the authors of Scripture itself would be shocked to think people of a later time would regard what they intended as topical advice (Paul’s writings on women in church) to be unalterable divine mandate for all time. How much less would Wesley, a man of the Enlightenment, regard his sermons and commentaries to be immutable and fixed for all time?
In conclusion, I believe we are called to go to the sources, read the contemporary commentary, study the context…absolutely! One cannot make jazz without knowing classical music intimately. But I believe there are starting points for understanding and application, not the ends.
If the Wesleyan spirit is to live — let it live. Do not suffocate it in the bonds of originalism’s lack of imagination and understanding of the mission field.
Special note: this particular section is a rewording/expanding of Tobias Haller’s article “On Originalism” and adapted for consideration by Wesleyans. Read his for the better context.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and your shares on social media.
Two challenges with Wesleyan originalism off the bat: The first, John Wesley was not a systematic theologian, any system is superimposed onto his theology. I see no issue with doing this, just claim it and admit to it (expand this to concepts of open table and women’s ordination, for example– both foreign to Mr. Wesley). Second, if classes and covenant groups worked so well for early Methodists, why did they eventually move away from them? Certainly becoming more institutionalised is one answer, but could another be that they were no longer serving the Methodists of their time very well? I’m not advocating against either, but let’s give the early Methodists some credit for adapting to their context and following the Spirit’s call. Why try to recreate what no longer worked for our Methodist forebears instead of something new?
Clint, I would respectfully disagree with both points you are making.
First, Wesley was systematic in everything else he did. He organized and developed a system for organizing Methodists, providing public healthcare and social welfare for children and widows, educating lay preachers, and keeping the entire Methodist people in connection. His theology may not be a centrally collected as other theologians, but it was very systematic. His understanding of early church sources connected him to earlier attempts at organizing the theologies that shaped the first 1300 years of the Church. His constant defense of Methodism against Calvinist presupposes exposure to the Reformer’s writings. He formed a theology that was presented through homiletics and practical application instead of didactically. But his theology was very systematically developed.
Second, the original organization of societies and classes began to fall apart as they were removed from Wesley’s direct influence. The American Methodists moved away from them as a central feature fairly early. The British Methodists followed after John’s death. Without his direct influence, the driving force for them led to their being replaced with a lesser form: Sunday school classes. It wasn’t that the Society or Class or Band weren’t serving the people. The people didn’t have the driving force needed to maintain those structures within the system. There is ample evidence that, in particular, the Class and Band were working throughout Wesley’s life.
Taylor Burton-Edwards (@twbe)
I agree with Todd on both points.
To expand on the latter (about the demise of class meetings– documentable by the 1820s over here, by the way, and all but conceded by the General Conferences in 1848 both North and South), I see this as the direct result of trying to ADD fundamentally ecclesial structures (congregations and the processes for endorsing clergy) to the society structures Methodists were still trying to work from (where the congregational structures were handled by Anglicans or others) at the separation of Methodists from the CoE in 1784. I use a metaphor of “institutional physics” to describe the result. If you have a structure with about 1400 years of active support (the congregation) and you collide it with one that has maybe 40-50 years (the Methodist societies in North America), who will win? This is why rather than continuing the synthetic and symbiotic model of congregations AND discipling groups (societies) that had defined Methodism in England, America, Ireland, and Germany to that point, what the 1784 separation in North America effectively did was convert societies into congregations. And congregations don’t do discipling all that well– and haven’t since at least the 6th century in most places.
So I see this “merger” of “modalily” (congregation) and “sodality” (society) as a sociological experiment pretty well destined to lead to the end of the effective work and even existence of the sodality. In other words this wasn’t simply about a “fall” of Methodism (if it even was that) or it’s being “lured” into respectability. I see it as a more or less inevitable outcome of this merger itself– unless more had been done, intentionally, from the beginning, to keep the function and structure of the societies as interdependent with congregations. This did not happen. Frankly, I think it unlikely it could have happened.
So I’d say it’s not at all a matter of “mere originalism” that there has been a growing chorus of folks saying we need structures like class meetings, bands, and even societies connecting these ALONGSIDE what our congregations are doing today to live out in our context what the Wesleys were doing and promoting in 18th century England and beyond. Rather, it’s a recognition that if we want to be about the process of discipling people, congregations don’t do this well, and generally haven’t now for over 1600 years, but intentional discipling groups and structures that support them do.
And, Jeremy, really, the context in the West isn’t all that different in terms of church affiliation and participation than the situation in 18th C England when Methodism was getting off the ground with its discipling structures ALONGSIDE congregations. In those days, church participation rates in England were maybe 10%. So maybe, if anything, the WJ could be a laboratory for trying these sorts of things out again so when the rest of the country becomes similarly “de-churched” (as I think you’re right to claim it will) we’ll already have some living models of what may work elsewhere as well.
Jeremy, I agree completely with your final evaluation of Originalism. It is a horrible system for the entire denomination to be framed within. There is no structure in Wesley’s original approach to the people called Methodist that could come close to organizing the United Methodist Church. But I don’t believe Wesley was trying to create a denominational structure. On the surface, the connexion (John’s spelling) was about local organization with provision for leadership. The only source of authority for the Methodists was John himself. He was the final authority for what was happening. The local leaders and preachers had operational authority at the local level. The entire body of Methodists, though, were bound to the word (written and proclaimed) that Wesley issued.
And, given that Wesley did not provide for a successor, it could be likely he did see that his writings would be held as authoritative. There is evidence of this in establishing his sermons, notes, and order of worship as necessary for the American Methodist churches. And there is some sense that, at least Coke and Asbury, also considered those to be authoritative. There doesn’t seem to be much question to Wesley’s sole authority at the very beginning.
And Wesley may have refined his approach, but to call him malleable is questionable. He remained very focused on his understanding of the work of grace throughout his ministry after 1738. And the development of his thoughts over time do not necessarily negate any of their earlier expressions. His “definition” of what was a means of grace did not replace examples. They were given at a particular time and could be seen as reflection on the moment, not as reflection of changing the idea of what was or wasn’t a means of grace. Your example of false ideas or moral choices does not necessarily mean he changed his view on those ideas later in his life. I believe it would be better to assume that, unless he explicitly renounces a previous statement, any later statement should be read with the later. If they are directly contradictory, then it is worth discussing how Wesley may have changed.
And I agree with the distinctive features that you name. But I believe they should be not limited to those three, nor stop with the limited expression of them. Wesley’s understanding of grace needs to be approached through his entire way of salvation and understanding of sin, God’s work in restoring the image of God, and the process of salvation through the entirety of life.
Works of Piety and Mercy are the two sides of a Methodist life, but I agree with Kevin Watson on the definition of social holiness. Read in context, it does not read as a replacement for Works of Mercy. There are social actions that are required to exhibit fruit in keeping with salvation. But Wesley’s words of social holiness have more to do with the connexion of people and less to do with the transformation of society.
And the sources of authority, from Wesley’s perspective, are not equilateral but vary in weight. Scripture always stands above and in authority over the others. Tradition (Anglican to lesser degree, classical Christian to greater degree) would be higher than Reason due to Wesley’s approach to original sin. Experience is a significant source of authority, but even Wesley was clear that it is to be discerned most closely. His denouncements of enthusiasm, stress of accountability to the system and leaders, and the ever present place of Scripture all served to check Experience as a leading form of authority.
I am not advocating the wholesale adoption of a Wesleyan Methodist structure into the United Methodist Church. But I am reading your post with a caution light going off in part of my mind. There is a lot of room in this for discounting all of the positive influence of Wesley’s approach to doing church at the local level that is offered by examining Wesley’s Methodists as a model.
Thanks to Jeremy for another fascinating blog entry. Thanks also to Tom, Clint, Todd, and Taylor for all the prior responses. You all seeded my mental fields on Methodist history in ways that will continue to grow into a wonderful harvest, I am sure..
What I can only begin to dwell on at this time but would love to ask some of your responses about in order to get more detail about follows:
How does everyone see these concepts in relationship to John’s personal discipline through his coded diary (cracked and published by Richard Heitzenrater)? Any thoughts are welcome, but my primary focus is how his diary relates in your minds to the question of originalism.
(a) I believe it adds emphasis to John’s systematic sense of discipleship.
(b) I believe it shows that he knew the reality of thoughts evolving over time and tried to find ways to always speak as appropriately as he could.
(c) I believe it shows Wesley probably prioritized class structure with its ability to help an individual track themselves over time
(d) I believe his tracking of spontaneous prayer shows that he had complex “voices” even within his own relationship to human language and its reflection of the Word.
Daniel, I will confess that I have never focused on the coded aspects of Wesley’s diaries. I tend to concentrate on the sermons and published writings as of first importance and use the personal writings of the the Journals and diaries to offer supporting information. Given that priority, I would respond to your statements:
(a) I would agree. He saw the “method” of discipleship through his own experience. He considered himself as a “not yet but moving toward” disciple. His emphasis on sanctification as a life experience was his goal. He never gave up on the pursuit of holiness throughout his life. The major change was moving from a “I must do this to find God” to “God must do this so I may find”. His methods of discipleship are what he passed along to the Methodist people.
(b) Wesley was intelligent and introspective enough to know he was evolving in thought. I haven’t found any major divergence of thought over the course of his public ministry, though. He may have broadened his net to become more relevant to the people he encountered, but his fundamental message as consistent.
(c) I agree that the class/band structures were his primary form of systematic spiritual development. The were the practical, applicable, and accountable. People had to be personally invested. They couldn’t just float through. And even for those who were slackers, there was a system for them to either be returned to the fold or allowed to leave the society. The class/band is not a denominational system, though. It is only practical and effective within the local experience of the community. We do not have a culture of accountability within the UMC to make this a mandate across the denomination. It would have to arise much as it did in Wesley’s day: people have to want it bad enough to commit to it.
(d) Wesley was a product of history and Tradition. He produced writings that were reflective of the past development of Christian thought. He also could not escape the language of his time, nor can any of us. We are all bound to the complexity of language in our contemporaneous experience. 200 years from now, historians of that age will be dissecting how we use words. But Wesley was interactive with the Word. He didn’t bind himself to English. He pulled from the best early language sources he had available to him. He used the most logical approach to what he was saying given the logic of his day and the Tradition of the Church. And he had a dynamic relationship with his own understanding of the revelation he presented. He struggled at points throughout his life to see himself as progressing in holiness. He bemoaned his doubts and struggles of spirit as “never really loving God”. He was complex and it shows through his writings.
As far as how all of this relates to originalism: Wesley is just as vulnerable to changes in thought over time. Luther and Calvin became much different theologians in the generations after their deaths. Wesley was not given credit as a theologian until recent years. The change in thought regarding Wesley has been removed by about 2 centuries. He was talented and thoughtful proclaimer of the Word before he was considered a theologian of any standing. Now that he has been accepted as such, his writings and their meaning are being challenged through the critical process. That is healthy and useful in many ways.
I approach Wesley from a more historical traditional manner. What he said in those days to those early Methodists is relevant to our generation. There weren’t that many differences between his age and ours. And what worked then still has merit in our culture. I cannot say that it would work in a global setting, even though it could probably be adapted. But in our time of skepticism regarding religion and science, our age of disconnection from one another, and in this age of narcissism, there could be a lot of room for applying the methods of Wesley as he did in our local churches.
Thanks for the extensive reply, Todd!
I, similarly, complete put the diaries off my mind for…well..essentially two decades.
I think this area came to my mind most predominantly due to its synchronicity with the recent discussions about the impossibility of privacy in the digital age. As any good student of history, cryptography, steganography, literature, and (well, probably) common sense knows that a personal code with no external key is nearly impossible to crack within a human lifetime. The fact that John’s coded symbols could be cracked comes down, essentially, to generations worth of preceding biographical research. Similarly, I bet, Charles’ unique shorthand was probably cracked using frequency analysis.
As for my interest in the connection to Originalism: I have long wondered what Christian congregational leaders could better do to help congregants understand that Christ is the sole head of the church and that each believer, despite being saved by grace rather than merit, and despite being still on the path to allowing themselves to be fully sanctified by God’s guidance, is nevertheless robed as the royal preisthood.
I have sometimes thought of this problem as a need for a ”headless” movement…something like Anonymous or Occupy…that could be claimed by others but never truly defined by any one voice. You can see why I find interesting parallels in the class system and the circuit rider “days”!
A headless movement is an interesting concept, especially in these days of “superstar” preachers and worship leaders. But the class system wasn’t exactly headless – the leader was a very specific role with responsibilities, and to some degree authority.
In my opinion, a return to the circuit rider system would be a tremendous boon for the Oklahoma Annual Conference. I see the circuit rider system relieving the pressure of having to appoint multiple pastors to churches that struggle to maintain financial support for a single or two-point shared pastor. One Elder assigned to a circuit can accomplish the tasks of evaluating spiritual growth while the local leadership of the congregation assumes the day to day tasks of discipleship. It would be a herculean task to reorient local lay leadership in many places, but it may also take some pressure off of the system.
Morgan certainly refuted no argument. He merely argued a preference as did Prof. Watson in the great UM theater of the absurd. Barbershop arguments over sports teams make more sense then the fruitless struggle between Protestant evangelicals and liberals or whatever they wish to call themselves.
You touched on one of my pet peeves which is the constant misuse of the idea of refutation as if we are merely speaking of dispute. Simple disagreement doesn’t mean you’re right, because you’ve only made an assertion. Only when you PROVE that the other party is mistaken have claims been refuted.
Repeating history is not the same as honoring tradition. In fact, repeating history can, at times, be antithetical to honoring tradition.
For example, in the case of Wesleyan hymnody, what is history and whar is tradition? I would argue that the hymns themselves are historical record that points to a tradition. I would argue that part of the tradition they point at involves an engagement of an experiential theology in a highly artistic/lyrical fashion able to reach, touch and transform the hearts of people within a concrete socio-cultural environment.
In my understanding, engaging Hymns written, edited, translated, adapted, etc by the Wesley brothers is helpful but in itself misses the mark of engaging the tradition that wanted to be passed on. On the other hand, engaging current winds of an experiential theology (imperfect as, by definition they will always be) in a highly lyrical/artistic way able to be received by people in particular socio-cultural contexts IS “traditional. ”
Identifying the essence of a particular tradition is not always an easy task. A helpful first step can be unhinging it from mere historical reference by asking questions of the historical record that go deeper than a simple “what did Wesley say or do” into “why did Wesley say or do” something at a particular time in his life and what would the dynamic equivalent be for us gifted as we are with this most excellent tradition.
Could “changing our minds” in terms of both belief and strategy in response to the Spirit’s ever evolving action be a deep part of the Wesleyan tradition?