Mile… Mile & a Half

I struggle with insomnia. The last few weeks have been particularly challenging. Usually, I try to take advantage of my sleepless nights by reading, researching and writing. The other night, I felt like a member of the walking dead, so I perused Netflix for something to watch.

While perusing I stumbled upon Mile…Mile & a Half(The film can also be streamed via Amazon). The film follows’a group of artists who] leave their daily lives behind to hike & record California’s historic John Muir Trail, a 219 miles stretch from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney.’1 Over the span of twenty-five days, the group documents their adventure, while capturing some breathtaking scenery.

Admittedly, I watched the movie, mainly, because it seemed like it would be relaxing. Yet, two days later, I can’t stop thinking about the film. As beautiful as the scenery was, it’s not the spectacular landscapes or the panoramic sunsets that I can’t stop thinking about. Rather, it’s the group’s nature and dynamics.

The group begins small. Five friends hitting the trail with camping gear and audio/video/camera equipment in tow. Days into the journey, one of the five bows out. The remaining four continue. Over the miles the bonds of their friendship are deepened. The hike is a liminal experience, leading to self-discovery and a new group dynamic.

What impressed me the most, however, wasn’t the introspection of the group members or the ways in which the relationship of these four friends was transformed through the experience. The truly captivating thing for me was the way that the group grew. Four became six, as a couple from Colorado decided to complete the John Muir with four acquaintances, who would become their ‘trail family.’ And, over the course of the remainder of their journey, the group continued to grow. The friend who had dropped out would return for a brief while. Two other friends would join up towards the end, completing the journey that their friends had began. A solitary Japanese hiker would conclude her journey by traveling the last few days with a group whose language she couldn’t speak.

By the end of the film, there’s a rag-tag ‘trail family’ sitting around the fire, eating and singing together. They are a diverse group. Old friends and new. They don’t share a common language. Yet, it’s clear that they’ve come to appreciate one another. Care for one another, quite deeply. As they summit Mt. Whitney, the pauses to rejoice. Collectively, they celebrate their shared accomplishment. They sit atop the mountain, singing and making music together.

I’ve found that last scene inescapable. The four who initially set out on the journey have grown. They’re different. The journey has changed them. But, they’ve not just changed as individuals. As a group they’ve grown. Their friendship has deepened. They’ve become a family. A family that has adopted others. A family that has welcomed, with open arms, strangers and vagabonds. Their shared experience has united them––forging bonds that would have possibly taken years to develop under any other circumstance. And, as they reach the end of their journey, together the join in song, as they eat together for one final time. (An act that is ritual in nature and felt incredibly sacramental, as I watched as an outsider looking in).

I can’t help but think: This is how the church should be. The church should be a diverse people, who journey together and through that journey are transformed individually and corporately. Along the way, the group engages in shared rituals––rituals that both shape the group and reflect what is taking place. Rituals that remind us of the sacredness of the journey. And, at the end of the journey, the group shares in an impromptu expression of glory and praise that wells up and explodes from within.

  1. Product Description from Amazon’s listing for the DVD.

[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Chapter 3: Print, Nurture, Missions)

I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In recent posts, I looked at the book’s Introduction, Chapter 1 & Chapter 2. Today’s post looks at Chapter 3, the years 1816-1850s, and the role of print in Methodism’s efforts to nuture congregants, train preachers, etc.

Nathan Bangs & the journey of Methodism from side street to main street

The year 1816 was significant for American Methodism. Francis Asbury died on his way to General Conference. The Methodist historian Nathan Bangs, who eulogized the recently deceased Asbury, provided ‘counsel and leadership [that] guided the church.’ It was counsel, in the eyes of many, that led to a ‘softening of discipline, embrace of the world, compromise of fundamental Wesleyan practices and precepts, abandonment of the evangelistic mission to society’s marginalized, and loss of Methodism’s prophetic nerve.’1 It’s an assessment that not everyone agrees with, but one thing is undeniable: under Bangs’ leadership Methodism aspired toward ‘respectability, progress, recognition, and refinement.’2 In short, Methodism was moving ‘from side street to main street and toward inclusion in the Protestant establishment.’3

Methodist publishing: tracts, Sunday School literature & Advocates

A (more) respectable Methodism necessitated a different approach to educating both the clergy and laity. Enter the burgeoning publishing arm of the Methodist movement. Again, Bangs played an important role when, as as book agent, he ‘transformed what had been essentially a distributing operation for British reprints and official denominational publications into a full-fledged publishing house capable of its own printing and binding.’4 It was a development that would make it possible for Methodists to produce and distribute their own: Sunday School curriculum, tracts, and books of children and youth. While the significance of these developments should not be understated, in many respects they were not quite as significant as the rise of the Methodist paper, the Western Christian Advocate, which quickly became the most successful and widely read paper in its region. Less than a decade later, there were six Advocates, which,

…competed with one another, with Baptist and other denominational voices, and with the secular press. They covered national and world events, scientific developments, medical remedies, farming information, obituaries, and everything Wesleyan, in short, any and everything that would appeal to Methodists as citizens and saints and sustaining a connection-wide textual community.5

In short, the Methodist papers made it possible for Methodist doctrine to make its way into homes across North America.

Pastoring: new expectations, parsonages & education

As Methodism moved to main street, its new address necessitated a reconceptualizing of pastoral life and ministry. It is a reconceptualization that can be seen in three key arenas: expectations, living arrangements and growing educational expectations. We’ll look briefly at each.

Parsonages

As has already been stated, the influence and impact of Nathan Bangs, during this season of Methodism’s growth and expansion, was significant. As Methodism moved from side street to main street, she gained an address. Quite literally. Methodism, whose initial success was largely tied her itinerant preachers, found herself setting up shop and occupying towns and cities. As itinerancy waned, the movement became more established. Establishment meant providing more services and accouterments–Sunday School, weekly worship, regular observance of the sacrament, etc.–things that itinerant preachers had not previously had to worry about. Things that had, until this time, been left to other churches.

As Methodism became established, Bangs advocated that houses were necessary. A house of worship, where Methodists could meet together was necessary and a house for the preacher and his family were also needed. Methodists would heed his plea and by the 1830s, Bangs was able to report that significant progress had been made regarding these items. By 1856, the General Conference made it mandatory for ‘conferences to report on the number and value of church buildings and parsonages.’6 Clearly, change was afoot.

Expectations

An itinerant preacher meant that many of the duties that we now refer to as ‘pastoral duties/responsibilities’ were initially tended to by the class leader. As Methodists purchased property, constructed houses of worship and as pastors and their families settled in parsonages that would change. Many of the responsibilities previously relegated to the class leader were assumed by pastors and their wives. There were two primary reasons for the shift: 1) the class leader, increasingly, had less time that they could devote to such concerns and, 2) in setting up a home, the preacher and his wife, were stationary and able to devote themselves wholly to ministry.7

Education

Cokesbury College was a failure. While Cokesbury’s failure could have resulted in paralysis, instead it seemed to serve as a catalyst for further educational ventures. Over a two year period (1817-1819), Methodists would establish as many schools. In all, by the time of the Civil War, some two hundred schools had been established. Many would close their doors, but approximately thirty have survived and continue to flourish.8

While the recently established colleges served the wider world by providing a broad education, the colleges served the Methodist movement by training her leaders. The men’s colleges, in particular, became the training ground for ministry–with as many as a third of a college’s graduates entering ministry in the Methodist church.9 In so doing, Methodism now had a ‘formal training alternative to the Course of Study.’10 While, the Course of Study would remain the norm, the newly established colleges helped to give shape to what would become ‘the Wesleyan ideal of a scholar pastor.’11

Later, ‘in the Civil War era, Methodism began to think seriously about formalizing its program for ministerial education through the establishment of (post-baccalaureate) theological seminaries.’12 Not everyone appreciated this trend. Some, like Peter Cartwright, thought that on-the-ground training–i.e., ‘brush college’–provided the best training and formation for the Methodist preacher. Despite objections, it is clear that, increasingly, there were growing expectations regarding the education and formation of the pastor.

Nurture: Sunday School, missionary societies & the Tuesday Meeting

As pastors and their wives increasingly assumed the duties and responsibilities of the class leader, the class meeting no longer served as the primary vehicle for spiritual formation in Methodism. Eventually, the class meeting would be replaced by Sunday School, missionary societies, the Tuesday Meeting, and the like.

Sunday Schools

Sunday Schools had initially concerned themselves with education––providing ‘basic literary outreach to children of slaves, servants, the poor, and working folk.’13 Increasingly, Sunday Schools devoted themselves to the spiritual formation and instruction of its members’ children.14

Missionary Societies

Missionary societies proved to be a place of empowerment for women. In these societies, women often took the lead. They would raise funds that would make missions work possible, correspond with missionaries, and promote missions to the congregation.

The Tuesday Meeting

Established by two sisters, Sarah Lankford and Phoebe Palmer, the Tuesday Meeting (for the Promotion of Holiness) revived ‘American Methodism’s perfectionist emphasis, create a space for women to speak publicly… stimulate the revival of 1857-58, and result in the formation of a number of holiness denominations.’15 In short, ‘the practices of the Tuesday Meeting established a new template for religious life, one that stimulated an entire holiness movement.’16

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History, 47.
  2. Richey, et al.,  American Methodism: A Compact History, 47.
  3. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 48.
  4. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 49.
  5. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 51.
  6.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 53.
  7.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 54.
  8.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 62. It should also be noted that Methodists showed incredible forethought, as they advocated and made available college education for men, as well as women.
  9. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 62.
  10.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 62.
  11.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 62.
  12.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 63.
  13.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 55.
  14.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 55.
  15.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 59.
  16.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 60.

[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Chapter 2: Reforming the Continent and Spreading Scriptural Holiness)

I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In recent posts, I looked at the book’s Introduction and Chapter 1. Today’s post looks at Chapter 2 and reforming of the continent and the spread of scriptural holiness.’

Reform

From 1792-1816, Methodism wrestled with issues of identity. While the issues were many, and while they were wrestled with in a myriad of ways, to get a sense of the identity issues facing Methodism at this stage of her development, we need look no further than the Christmas Conference and the decision of the 1800 General Conference to ordain black local deacons.

The Christmas Conference

On December 24th, 1784, there was ‘a preachers-only assembly, effectively a constitutional convention known as the Christmas Conference.’1 The conference, held in Otterbein’s Lovely Lane Chapel, accomplished a great deal. Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes’ were edited and adapted, yielding the first Discipline. The group settled upon a new name, the Methodist Episcopal Church.

While these changes were important and noteworthy, it was the group’s ability to effectively forecast the future of religion in America that proved to be of greatest significance. Anticipating what was to come, the group resolved to embrace disestablishment, proposed an eventual break with European headquarters, and institute voluntarism.2 The break with European headquarters would not occur right away, however. In fact, in response to the proposal, the conference determined to ‘explicitly [concede] final authority to Wesley.’3 What is more, they would agree to accept ‘Wesley’s plan for the church, in principle if not in every detail.’4

At the same time, however, the body made some rather key decisions that would eventually lead to a uniquely North American Methodist experience. For instance, the conference resolve to make decisions by debate and majority rule. It was a decision that seemed rather minor, yet it effectively paved the way for future conferences to revise, alter, adapt and/or reject Wesley’s ‘Large Minutes.’ Additionally, the Christmas Conference determined to add ‘a rubric on U.S. political autonomy’ to the Articles of Religion,5 thus Americanizing the document. Furthermore,  the conference selected elders and provided for the election of superintendents––decisions that further evidenced the establishment of a more Americanized form of Methodism.

Issues of Race

Methodists remained staunch in their anti-slavery affirmation. However, with Methodism thriving in both the North and (slave-holding) South, things were anything but easy and clear-cut. For instance, while Methodists opposed slavery and confronted slaveowners, Methodists classes remained segregated. Additionally, black chapels were established and separate cemeteries established.6 In short, there was often a disconnect between stated Methodist values and reality.

Despite the disconnect, new African American leaders emerged. Consequently, the General Conference of 1800, ’empowered bishops to ordain Black local deacons.’7 On one hand, it was clearly a step forward. On the other, however, it was further evidence of the disconnect, because while the bishops were empowered to perform said ordinations, at the same time: 1) the Conference did not include a provision for this in the Discipline and, 2) the African American leaders were required to function under white elders. Eventually, this would lead some Black Methodists to split with the Methodist Episcopal Church to form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1816.

The Spread of Scriptural Holiness

Alongside the many reforms of this period is an equally important development: the spread of scriptural holiness. While in some sense linked to matters of race and gender, the spread of scriptural holiness is inextricably linked to the development of the camp meeting. Camp meetings were not unique to Methodism, but they were adapted to Methodist life, for Methodism’s purposes. A clear example of this is the close association between camp meetings and the quarterly meetings of the Methodists. To wit, the authors note, ‘Once the camp meeting emerged and had the church’s blessing, routinely and for several decades, quarterly conferences across the whole church voted to hold one of their warm-weather sessions as a camp meeting.’8

 

Footnotes

  1.  Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 27.
  2. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 27.
  3.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  4.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  5.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 28.
  6.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 31.
  7. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 44.
  8.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 42. Incidentally, in 1802, Francis Asbury ‘directed Methodism’s leaders to establish camp meetings in connection with annual conferences (Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 42).’

[Photos] Ice, Ice (Baby)

 

These were shot with a Nikon D5200. I experimented with the settings, shooting manually vs. auto, and an inexpensive macro lens that I picked up.

[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Chapter 1: Revolutionary Methodism)

I’m currently reading American Methodism: A Compact History by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. In a recent post, I looked at the book’s Introduction. Today’s post looks at Chapter 1 and what the authors refer to as ‘Revolutionary Methodism.’

An attempt to bring order

The era of Revolutionary Methodism (1769-1784) was characterized by growing pains and adaptation, as Wesleyan-Methodism sought to (re)define its identity within the North American context. Methodist societies had already been established. However, at this point, these societies were still in their infancy. As infants in need of solid food, in 1768, the societies pleaded with Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, to send itinerants. The following year, Wesley would send the first of the pairs of itinerants, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmore, with the intent of bringing ‘order to Pietist ferment.’1

While Pilmore and Boardman would bring some order to the societies of Philadelphia and New York, respectively, the societies ‘did not sufficiently heed Methodist discipline.’ Furthermore, the pair ‘did not sufficiently heed the Methodist preachers’ self-discipline––itinerancy.’2

The itinerant ideal & the hallmarks of early American Methodism

The pair that followed in 1771, Francis Asbury and Richard Wright sought to restore itinerancy as the ideal. Asbury, in particular, succeeded in this regard. His success, in large part, stemmed from his ‘remarkable capacity to understand the North American situation, connect with its people, to speak in colloquial language, and to adapt as the unfolding political crisis brought revolution.’3 In short, Asbury was beginning to translate Methodism for the emerging North American context.4

In translating Methodism for the North American context, Asbury helped early Methodist envision and strive for a movement of God that was biracial; emotional, affective and expressive; a family-based; engaged the religious sensibilities of men and women alike; empowered young men to lead; and disparate groups into one people through its multitiered structure.5

During this time, Asbury and the people called Methodists organized into conferences. Quarterly conferences would eventually ‘become a great spiritual festival, the center really of Methodism’s liturgical life.’6 While preaching and love-feasts were part of conference life, the assembled would also discuss matters of polity. One of the foremost issues on everyone’s mind had to do with the sacramental life of Methodists. Specifically, could unordained Methodist preachers administer sacraments. It was a question with far reaching implications. How that question was answered would have profound implications regarding such things as: ‘the nature and structure of the movement, its relationship to the Church of England, the authority of Wesley, the duty of preachers, and the meaning of connection.’7 When Francis Asbury was asked that question, in December of 1772, he conceded, as Boardman had already, at the quarterly meeting, made allowance for unordained Methodist preachers to administer the sacraments. In so doing, Asbury, Boardman, and others effectively set in motion a process to contextualize Methodism (which to this point was quite British) to the North American context.

Debates regarding slavery would further hasten the process.8 But, in many respects, it was the American Revolution and the colonies’ rejection of the British monarchy and aristocracy that would really propel things forward.

The conferences of 1777-1779

By the late 1770’s Anglicanism was on the verge of collapse. American Methodists heard the death knell and, consequently, during the conferences of 1777 and 1778 found themselves debating whether or not to separate from the church. Furthermore, ‘the conference contemplated a future without Wesley-appointed preachers and laid the groundwork for authority exercised through committee in presbyterian fashion.’9 Change, it seemed, was on the horizon.

In 1779, two conferences took place. The first was held in Kent County, Delaware,––i.e., ‘The Delaware Gathering’––and the second, at Fluvanna. At the Kent County conference (where the preachers of the north assembled), Francis Asbury was affirmed as ‘General Assistant in America.’10 In short, the Kent County conference, ratified and reaffirmed Wesley’s decision to appoint Asbury and, in so doing, they affirmed Wesley’s authority over the movement. At Fluvanna, those assembled ‘recognized the Episcopal Establishment as dissolved.’11 In so doing, those who were assembled, in essence, resolved to become dissenters. Furthermore, ‘a committee created through election by the preachers, took the authority that had been bested in Wesley or his general assistant.’12

The two conferences effectively divided the church along the lines of north and south. The northern party remained Anglican and loyal to Wesley, while the southern party resolved to redefine itself.13

Two Superintendents

In 1784, John Wesley appointed Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to serve as joint superintendents over the North American Methodists. Coke was equipped with an outline for a new church, from Wesley. It was a church that would be constructed on a foundation that had been prepared and put into place by Asbury.

 

Footnotes

  1. Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 9. In reality, the ‘Pietist ferment’ was just one many challenges. It was far from the greatest challenge, however. The authors cite three, more pressing, challenges: 1) how to remain within the Church of England; 2) how to advice Methodist doctrines in what was primarily a predestinarian context, in which people ‘took pains to keep their families and servants from hearing the Methodist gospel;’ and, 3) how to navigate the social and class structures of North America, particularly in the South (Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 10).
  2. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 11.
  3.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 11.
  4. I say ’emerging’ because Asbury proved to be quite forward-thinking. He had the foresight to see and address very early issues of race, gender, etc.
  5. See: Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 12.
  6.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 13.
  7. Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 13.
  8. See: Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 21-22.
  9.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 19.
  10.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 19.
  11.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History, 20.
  12.  Richey, et al., American Methodism: A Compact History,20.
  13.  Asbury and the northern conference would ultimately prevail.

[Book] American Methodism: A Compact History (Intro)

As I’m reading, researching and writing my doctoral thesis, one of the books that I am reading is American Methodism: A Compact History, by Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt. What follows, both in this and forthcoming posts, is a summary of the chapter and some reflections.

Introduction: Spontaneous Beginnings

The Introduction focuses on the years 1760-1768.

Summary

The authors suggest that the narrative of ‘United Methodism’ began with ‘disparate evangelical initiatives [that] belong… within the broad Pietist movement.’1 As such, United Methodism shared with Pietism a ‘prophetic critique of established, more priestly, and unregenerate forms of Christianity and leaders so characterized.’2 Pietism was a critique that ‘provided a new way for its adherents and motivation to tackle society’s ills,’ as it ‘spoke of corruption, of power, of authority, of legitimacy.’3 In short, Richey, et. al., suggest that United Methodism, in the United States, is inextricably linked to Pietism. The consequence of which was a lowering of ‘the gateway into ministry and [raising] of the expectations of the laity, thereby drawing women as well as men, black as well as whites into public witness, lay preaching, and eventually formal ministry.’4 Not surprisingly, this would later lead to fellowship with the likes of William Otterbein and Martin Boehm, two Pietists whose association therewith would eventually result in the United Brethren in Christ.

Also of note during this time period are the efforts Robert and Elizabeth Strawbridge. After emigrating, they established a Methodist class meeting in their home, in Sam’s Creek.5 Later, Robert would baptize (1762/63) and offer the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper to his flock.6

The work of Barbara Runkle Heck should not be overlooked, as she ‘enjoys credit for initiating New York Methodism.’7 Vexed by the trivializing of time by her family, Barbara Runkle Heck would invite her cousin to preach to her and her family. As a result, a class was formed, and continued to grow beyond the confines of Embury’s room. 8

Reflections

  • Richey, Gwang Seok Oh, et al.,  cite a connection between Wesleyan-Methodism and Pietism.
  • Barbara Runkle Heck serves as an example of the importance of women in the expansion of Wesleyan-Methodism.
  • From the beginning one of the genius aspects of the Wesleyan-Methodist movement was its orientation toward and inclusion of the family.
  • In North America, it wasn’t long before sacramental matters came to the fore. For example, the Strawbridges would, out of necessity, do what John Wesley, for decades, was unwilling to do in England. In other words, Robert would baptize and offer the Lord’s Supper, whereas Wesley was reticent to do so.
  • The role that Otterbein and Boehm would play is anything but unsignificant.

 

 

FOOTNOTES

  1. Russell Richey, Kenneth Rowe and Jean Miller Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 1. The authors define ‘Pietism’ as ‘a transatlatic, transconfessional, diffuse reform to recover the authentic (and personal) witness of the faith.’
  2. Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History2.
  3. Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History2.
  4. Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History2.
  5. Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History5.
  6.  Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History, 5.
  7. Richey, Rowe and Schmidt, American Methodism: A Compact History, 5-6.
  8. Philip Embury was Barbara Runkle Heck’s cousin. He was an Irish preacher who plied his trade in North America.

[Photos] Burning Incense

This evening I was burning some incense in my office. With the smoke dancing around, I couldn’t help but play with my new camera. These were shot with a Nikon D5200. I experimented with the settings, shooting manually vs. auto, and an inexpensive macro lens that I picked up.

(Apart from the copyright, these photos are untouched.)

[Theology/Ecclesiology] The Church: A Grace-filled Community

The following is part 2 of a paper that I presented to the Centre for Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham. Part 2 provides a brief overview of the impact that John Wesley’s soteriology had upon his ecclesiology. To read part 1 of the paper, which briefly explores Wesley’s soteriology, please click here.

The Church: A Grace-filled Community

One of the striking aspects of Wesley’s ecclesiology is the manner in which the three, aforementioned, graces give shape to the life, ministry and practice of the Church. This should come as no surprise given Wesley’s belief­––drawing from the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians at Ephesus (Eph. 4.1-6)––that each Christian is called, individually, to walk ‘with all lowliness’ and ‘endued with power from on high.’[1] Yet, the Christian life, in Wesley’s estimation, was by no means a solitary life. The Christian life was, and is, a life lived in community to others. Thus, it necessarily involved: ‘not injuring, hurting, or grieving each other…the bearing of one another’s burdens…and lessening them by ever means in our power.’[2] Furthermore, it was the charge of every Christian to strive ‘to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”’[3]

These beliefs were not merely ideals. Rather, Wesley believed that they should be some of the defining characteristics of the body of Christ. To this end, he suggested, that within the body of Christ there should be room for differences of opinion. All that truly mattered, according to Wesley, was whether a person’s heart was right. (By this, Wesley intended to suggest that what mattered was whether a person believed in Jesus Christ and was living with a ‘heart right toward [their] neighbour.’)[4] Therefore, rather than arguing and fighting over trivial matters, the Church should be a place where different and disparate individuals are united by a spirit of love.

One of the key reasons for this was Wesley’s belief in the prevenient (preventing) grace of God. Because he believed that God’s grace was freely available to all, he argued in favour of making allowance for those whose beliefs may be different from one’s own, but who, all the same, were growing in the grace and knowledge of God. Once again, however, this was not an abstract ideal that God’s people were to aspire to. Wesley envisioned concrete ways that the preventing love of God could characterize and give shape to the life and ministry of the Church. For instance, he believed that God’s grace could be experienced through ordinary channels: hearing and reading Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, fasting, baptism, etc. These ordinary channels––whether a sacrament, work of mercy or work of piety––could be real means of grace, whereby God conveys his grace to the hearts and souls of humanity.[5]

Undoubtedly, this helps to explain Wesley’s repeated encouragement to members of Methodist societies to observe the sacrament of communion as often as they could. As a ‘means of grace,’ Wesley believed that people could powerfully experience God’s love (and even God’s presence, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) as they ate of the bread and drank of the cup. Likewise, Wesley believed that the sacrament of baptism could serve as a means whereby a person could experience the grace of God in a profound way.

Wesley’s beliefs regarding prevenient grace led him to charge members of the Methodist societies to do a number of things that may appear to strange, and confounding, to modern readers. For instance, he encourages society members to remain a part of a parish even if the cleric was corrupt. Why would he suggest such a thing? Quite simply, he believed in the preventing grace of God so strongly that he could claim with confidence that God ‘can and doth send salvation to men [and women] even by those who will not accept of it themselves.’[6] In so doing, Wesley envisions the corporate worship of the Church, even when bankrupt or corrupt, to be a means by which God may convey grace to the hearts of men and women.

Another implication of Wesley’s soteriology was that God’s grace is manifest in and through the lives of ordinary men and women. What this meant, practically speaking, was that God could, and often did, work through ordinary people––just as God might extend grace to an individual through the sacraments, liturgy, homily, etc. A natural, but important, consequence of this line of thinking was that he commissioned untrained lay-people to be ambassadors and/or bearers of God’s grace. Some would receive the distinction of being commission to serve as a lay preacher for the Methodist societies.

In many respects, Wesley believed that an untrained, uneducated Methodist preacher was preferable to the educated, ordained clergy of the Church of England. He believed the Methodist preacher was particularly suited to the task, because their only qualification, and the one that mattered the most, was that they were supernaturally raised up by God to serve as extraordinary messengers.[7] Consequently, the message that these extraordinary messengers preached was: genuine and unmixed;[8] the pure and simple word of God;[9] spoken with ‘plainness and boldness’ without any attempt ‘to reconcile it to the tastes of men.’[10]

A further consequence of Wesley’s soteriology, which suggests that God employs a variety of means whereby the grace of God is conveyed to humanity, was that, in addition to such means of grace as the Eucharist and baptism, God’s grace can, and often is, conveyed through ‘works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace.’[11] Thus, in Sermon 98, which concerns the practice of visiting the sick, Wesley singles out two groups––the wealthy and woman––as particularly suited (gifted?) for the task of conveying God’s grace to the sick. While it was not surprising that Wesley envisages the rich as having an important part to play in the church, the part that he envisioned them playing was not the typical, expected role of financial benefactor. Instead, and this is where Wesley turned convention on its head, he taught that the rich were particularly suited for this task as they both have the means and the time to do so.[12]

Equally noteworthy was Wesley’s insistence that women have a part to play. He writes, ‘Undoubtedly they may; nay, they ought; it is meet, right, and their bounden duty.’[13] He goes on to call upon them to,

Let all you that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of God, as you have time, to do ‘unto all men.’ Be ‘not disobedient to the heavenly calling.’ Whenever you have opportunity, do all the good you can, particularly to your poor, sick neighbour.[14]

Wesley believed that women could bear the grace of God, were called of God, and could be used by God to minister to others––a belief was nothing short of revolutionary in his day. But a belief that was very much in step with, and informed by, his soteriology.

Footnotes

[1]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 6, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 398.

[2]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[3]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[4]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 5, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 497-8.

[5]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 7, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 117.

[6]. Wesley, Volume 7, 181.

[7]. Wesley, Volume 7, 277.

[8]. Wesley, Volume 7, 471.

[9]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[10]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[11]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. Emphasis added.

[12]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. The rich, he observes, are ‘not under a necessity of working for [their] bread; [they] have [their] time at [their] own disposal!’ Because of this, he believes they may ‘allot some part of it every day for this labour of love.’

[13]. Wesley, Volume 7, 125.

[14]. Wesley, Volume 7, 126. Emphasis added.

Recent Sermons

Since 2007, I have served as pastor of the Mount Union Wesleyan Church, in Mount Union, PA. If you were to drop by for a visit, on most weekends, you would find me up front, delivering the message. Unable to attend? I’m pleased to make my recent sermons available for your listening pleasure.

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