Note: I’ve wanted to write about Rev. Wesley for some time, because I think that his method of evangelism and discipleship will be important to us in the near future. Unfortunately, his life experience was too diverse to compress into just one article, and I wonder if I have emphasized the appropriate points. If any of the Methodist clergy among you can clarify, correct or expand upon what I have written, I would be truly grateful.
John Wesley was born in 1703 to Samuel and Susanna Wesley. He studied at Oxford and was priested in 1728. While at Oxford, he joined his brothers and friends in a prayer group called the Holy Club for their practice of weekly Communion, fasting, Bible study and social outreach. The average Oxford student at this time was expected to attend chapel only three times per year. By contrast, Wesley and his friends didn’t appear pious; they appeared obsessive and unhealthy, and their peers often reminded them of it.
Wesley felt called to mission, and in 1735 he went to Georgia to convert native people and minister to white settlers. He hoped that frontier churches in primitive circumstances would be a perfect laboratory to revive certain ascetical practices of the primitive Church. Neither ministry went as planned. The only priest in Savannah, Wesley seems not to have had much contact with Indians. I can find no record of precisely which tribes he even meant to reach. Further, though whites were well served by their new priest and his innovative prayer groups, his strict High Churchmanship made parishioners feel judged. He was forced to flee Georgia after he denied Communion to a well-liked local.
On his return to England, Wesley had his famous conversion experience in which his “heart was strangely warmed” at a Moravian meeting. Like many cradle Christians, he felt he had never truly understood the Gospel until this moment in his later life. His experience of unmerited grace inspired the priest, then 35, to preach, but his “enthusiasm” caused most C of E churches to reject him. As a result, Wesley reluctantly took to open-air preaching, though he “could scarce reconcile [him]self to this strange way of preaching in the fields… having been all [his] life till very lately so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that [he] should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”
Wesley established groups both in England and her Colonies, not respecting parish boundaries, and the groups he established increasingly organized themselves as a denomination of their own. Mainstream churchmen were enraged (and, of course, technically had a right to be). Yet Wesley, like certain other Anglican revivalists who would follow him, could and did reach those whom the rest of the Church could not or would not reach. The Methodist movement came to be characterized by the same spiritual disciplines that Rev. Wesley himself engaged in: Fasting, prayer, Bible study and prison ministry.
Though Wesley demanded that Methodist societies remain loyal to the Established church, their faction was far more distinct than any other that had yet been established in Anglicanism. They set out alone (and with debatable Holy Orders) after his death. Had the Methodists remained a “party” within the Church, Anglicanism may have comprehended not only Low, High and Anglo-Catholic parties, but a Methodist party that was High, which was concentrated in the American heartland and evangelized through small groups that lived according to a regula. Further, America would have been a plurality-Anglican country, perhaps, to the present day.
Wesley teaches us many things as Anglicans:
- Righteousness has no relationship with achieving organizational goals. Wesley died in the Established Church, and his dying wish was that his followers do likewise. It was not to be. I wonder what America would have been like if the Methodists had remained among us.
- Sacramental Christianity can “make it” in America. We just need to figure out how to reach people. Remember the figure of the circuit-riding preacher, who was such a fixture in America’s founding myth. He will be important later.
- Don’t be too far ahead of the curve. Wesley was so revolutionary that the spiritual revival of which he was chief pastor was rejected by the Church. The Oxford Movement had this issue as well. As did St. Francis. And many others. Yet such revivals do best when they occur within and maintain existing structures.
- The domestic monastery is the key. Wesley’s concept of Methodist societies sounds an awful lot like the domestic monasteries and parish regulas that Rev. Martin Thornton wrote about in English Spirituality. I wonder what Thornton would have thought of Wesley’s societies, had he viewed them in this light.
For giving us ministry ideas, reviving the Church and infuriating the Church of England, Rev. John Wesley is Anglo-Catholic of the week.