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Wesley: On the 300th Anniversary of His Birth

 

WESLEY, ON THE 300TH ANNIVERSARY OF HIS BIRTH

 

1] How it all ends has everything to do with what “it” is now.   Wesley’s eschatology of love had everything to do with his understanding of the Christian life. Christian existence, he insisted, is a life of self-forgetful love for God and neighbour as Christ’s people abandon themselves to serve those — God no less than neighbour — who suffer atrociously, are customarily forsaken, and too often are near-friendless.

Eschatologies approach the “end” from different angles. Roman Catholic eschatology traditionally emphasizes sight: we are going to see God in a beatific vision that renders all fuzziness precisely focussed. In Roman Catholic liturgy the gospel is primarily seen rather than heard. The Roman Catholic Church has never lacked those whose visions of Jesus have quickened them to risk everything in a grand venture with him.

Presbyterian (i.e., Reformed) eschatology emphasizes knowledge: while we know but in part throughout our earthly sojourn, we shall know God in a way that dispels all doubt and remedies all ignorance.   In Reformed liturgy the gospel is primarily heard. The Reformed tradition’s emphasis on the revealed knowledge of God, on faith born of hearing the Word, will come to a climax in an apprehension of God that fully satisfies humankind’s hunger to know even as the knowledge never satiates.

While upholding the truth of both seeing God and knowing God, Wesley insisted that our vision of God and our knowledge of God would be gathered up and crowned in our love for God as finally we were “lost in wonder, love and praise.” Whereas Luther had cherished above all Romans and Galatians because they spoke explicitly of justification by faith, and Calvin had cherished Hebrews because it declared the finished earthly work of Christ as atoning One as well as his ongoing eternal work as intercessor and mediator, Wesley relished both yet cherished 1st John above all just because it tolled relentlessly the love wherewith God loves us and the love whereby we must love one another.

In his famous tract, “The Almost Christian” (actually it’s about nominal Christians rather than about those “almost persuaded”), Wesley explores what unbelievers lack specifically when they are said to lack faith generally. When he turns to expound what characterizes believers, the reader expects him to say right off that believers are marked chiefly by faith; i.e., faith in God. Instead he says immediately that believers are those who love God.

Needless to say Wesley agreed with the whole church that faith marks the “faithful”; faith binds us to Jesus Christ. Yet Wesley was always leery of those who seem to “have the form of faith but deny the power of it (2nd Timothy 3:5). He had seen too many who claimed to serve God (as it were) and obey God without ever loving God. For this reason he insisted that there is no faith in God without a simultaneous love for God, and equally no love for God without faith in God.

“No love without faith.” Faith is a matter of trusting the provision God has made in the cross for sinners who can never extricate themselves from the peril into which their rebellion against God has plunged them. If ever we think we can love God apart from faith, apart from owning the mercy-wrought provision that alone meets our most desperate need for pardon, then we don’t know who we are. For in fact we are defiled, helpless, hopeless, condemned. At the same time it’s obvious we don’t know who God is; namely, the righteous judge whose judgement can’t be set aside or sloughed off. What’s more, if we think we can love God apart from admitting our predicament and seizing God’s provision, then we naively think we relate to God on the strength of our natural capacity to give and receive love, thereby overcoming all estrangement and bridging all abysses. Forgotten, of course, is the fact that our alienation from God arises from his judgement upon us, not to mention the fact that humankind’s heart, in the wake of the Fall, is hostile to God.

“No faith without love.” All around him in Eighteenth Century England Wesley saw serious, sincere people who unreservedly endorsed creedal correctness even as no warmth had ever thawed their icy heart or unlocked their frozen lives. Such faith (so-called) Wesley relegated to mere “beliefism”, the condition of those who combined theoretical theism with practical atheism. Thinking themselves the beneficiaries of God’s favour because they “believed the right things”, they were inwardly untouched. They were quick to say they trusted God’s provision for them, yet in failing to love God they exemplified an attitude we display frequently in everyday life: we trust the work or talent of many for whom we feel nothing.

For Wesley, faith in God and love for God penetrated, implied and interpreted each other. His eschatology of love stressed that while faith would give way to sight, and hope to hope’s fulfilment, love would give way to nothing — except more love, for ever and ever.

 

2] Of all the misunderstandings that falsify Wesley and his spiritual descendants none is more defamatory and damaging than the assumption that the Methodist tradition doesn’t think. While it is readily acknowledged that the Lutheran, Reformed, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox families within the church catholic think and have always thought, Methodism merely emotes. “The Presbyterians had scholarship; the Methodists had religion”, an elderly United Church clergyman said as he discussed the two principal strands that formed our denomination. By “religion” he meant sentimental fervour devoid of academic rigour.

Wesley exposes this as a lie. Having insisted that his lay preachers study five hours per day, he certainly did no less himself. Wesley read comfortably in more languages than Luther, Calvin, Edwards, Butler or Kant. He authored grammar textbooks in seven of the eight foreign languages that he knew. On the three-month trip to the New World he taught himself German, and thereafter preached to German refugees in Ireland , becoming as well the principal translator of Paul Gerhardt, German Lutheranism’s finest hymnwriter. In Georgia he came upon a Spanish-speaking Jewish colony from Portugal , and taught himself Spanish so as to converse with them. Finding some Italian settlers who had no priest, he conducted worship from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, reading it silently in English while simultaneously speaking it aloud in Italian.

Eager to describe himself as homo unius libri (“a man of one book”), he insisted this meant that Scripture was normative, not that it alone was authoritative. The mere suggestion that preachers need read only one book he deplored as narrow, ignorant and foolish. Such “rank enthusiasm” (“enthusiasm” squares exactly with “fanaticism” today), he reminded those who failed to grasp that reading only the Bible guaranteed misreading it, placed them “above St. Paul”, for at least he wanted books. (2nd Timothy 4:13). Those who complained of having “no taste for reading” he rebuked on the spot: “Contract a taste for it by use, or return to your trade” — and watched more than a few preachers move back to farm, shop or mine.

Wesley’s Journal shows us an 85-year old man reading logic on four successive mornings — no surprise since he wrote a textbook on logic and deemed the study of logic second only to the study of Scripture in the formation of ministers.

His reading was as broad as it was deep. No area of intellectual endeavour escaped him. All his life he kept abreast of contemporary explorations in natural science. Schooled in classical philosophy while at Oxford University , he probed the empiricist philosophy of John Locke, a star in the Enlightenment firmament. Aware that history is a theatre both of God’s activity and of the Church’s response, he sophisticated himself in the study of history to the point of writing a World History. While many today would smile at the aptness of the title, Primitive Physic, he was obsessed with relieving distress wherever he found it, and therefore had to acquaint himself with the latest in pharmaceutics and pharmacology. In a pre-analgesic era his trademark cure for headache may have helped some: “Pour upon the palm of the hand a little brandy and a zest of lemon, and hold it to the forehead.” In an age that had just discovered electricity and sought applications for it everywhere, Wesley insisted on “electrifying” those whose depression wasn’t the result of setback but rather appeared out of nowhere and alighted for no reason. Such protracted, persistent, psychotic depression he sought to relieve through his “electrical machine”, a crude device for supplying Electro-Convulsive Therapy. (Wesley placed an electrode on either side of the of the patient’s head, and then cranked a handle as static electricity shocked sufferers more jarringly the faster he turned it.) Perceptively he had recognized that this non-situational depression was rooted neither in defective faith nor in demonic possession. His advance here was liberating.

All his life Wesley eschewed mental laziness as he eschewed little else. Sleeping no more than six hours per night and arising each morning at four, he spent the freshest hours of the day expanding his mind, expecting all Methodists, but preachers especially, to follow him. To this end he brought together fifty books in his Christian Library, regarding them essential to the intellectual formation of his people. Methodism loves God with the mind.

 

3] After may 24th May 1738, when he “felt my heart strangely warmed” in the course of hearing Luther’s Commentary on Romans read at worship, he knew that justification by faith is the beginning and the stable basis of the Christian life. Unhesitatingly he announced that where justification (free forgiveness of sins, rooted in God’s mercy, without consideration for human merit) isn’t upheld, the Church doesn’t exist. In 1766 he was still declaring, “I believe justification by faith alone as much as I believe there is a God.” His coolness toward Quakers continued in that for decades he hadn’t found “ten Quakers whose experience went so far as justification.”

Undeniably Wesley was Protestant. He regarded the Church of England as thoroughly Protestant, rooted as it was in such English Reformers as Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer. Cranmer, the consummate Anglican liturgist, remained especially dear to him in that he always looked upon Cranmer’s Prayerbook as the finest devotional aid in Christendom. The Protestant conviction concerning Scripture — it is the “un-normed norm” of Christian understanding and conduct, tradition remaining a subordinate norm — he endorsed without interruption.

At the same time he never doubted that tradition is a norm, and is therefore never to be taken lightly. He insisted that his generation were not the first Christians, that Church tradition was a storehouse of wisdom from which sorely pressed and perplexed Christians could draw. Unquestionably the fire of the Eighteenth Century Revival blessed thousands; left-handedly it also precipitated problems that Wesley knew had appeared at several points in the Church’s turbulent history. Wesley always knew that a church which disdains tradition (i.e., Christian memory) resembles a sailing ship without a keel. The ship’s keel is below the waterline, not readily visible, and frequently encrusted with unsightly accretions. Still, the great weight of the ballast in the ship’s keel keeps the vessel from capsizing when unforeseen squalls howl suddenly upon it. Without a keel, moreover, a ship can only be driven before the prevailing wind. With a keel, on the other hand, the boat can sail across the wind or even against it. Wesley knew that his movement, opposed by magistrates, merchants, and ecclesiastical officialdom, had to be able to use unfavourable winds if it was going to make headway.

In light of his appreciation of tradition he was without the acidulated anti-Catholicism found in too many Protestants. When Samuel, his brother Charles’ son, became a Roman Catholic, Wesley wrote Samuel’s brother and reminded him that Samuel had merely “changed opinion and mode of worship” while remaining no less Christian. Always quick to exploit whatever providence had brought before him, Wesley then challenged Samuel’s brother, Charles jr., as well as the other members of the family: “Whether you are Protestants or Baptists (sic), neither he nor you can ever enter into glory unless you…perfect holiness in the fear of God. I am, dear Charles, your affectionate uncle.”

In the same spirit Wesley bridged the theological orientation he had inherited from the West to that of the East. Whereas the Western Church , both Reformed and Roman, had understood original sin, for instance, largely in terms of a massive original guilt that was somehow transmitted to posterity, the Eastern Church had understood it characteristically as the introduction of death, inward corruption, and loss of the Holy Spirit. And whereas the West had highlighted the aspect of transaction in the work of Christ (what was done outside of us for our sake), the East had always acknowledged transaction while underscoring transformation: all that’s been done outside us has been done for the sake what needs to be done inside us. It was the latter emphasis that quickly became and continued to be the throbbing “bass note” of Wesley’s theology and spirituality.

Because of his capacity to “bridge” what would otherwise remain a fissure in Christ’s body, Wesley remains the figure in the Protestant orbit who can “dance” with virtually anyone in the Christian family. Appreciating the East (especially the Eastern Fathers, whose luminary, Athanasius, Wesley always preferred to the West’s Augustine), he also included in his Christian Library eight works by Roman Catholic mystics from the Counter Reformation. While the Sixteenth Century Reformers had denied fasting as a means of grace (Zwingli, the leader of the Reformation in Zurich , had eaten sausages in Lent to publicize his disavowal of fasting), Wesley unambiguously declared it to be a means of grace, fasting weekly himself and urging his people to follow him.

The man whose “The world is my parish” was no exaggeration exemplified a theology as wide as the world he knew God to love and as deep as the sin he knew God to redeem.

 

4] Glad to identify himself with the wider Church, Wesley characteristically acquainted his people to “holiness of heart and life.” Always suspicious of a Christian understanding of forgiveness that relieved people of sin’s guilt but left them in its grip, he judiciously matched “relief” with “release.” The habituated (all sin is addictive) could know deliverance.

The habituation was not imagined. By 1750 England ‘s annual per capita (children included) consumption of gin stood at 2.2 gallons. Intoxicated children, even children with delerium tremens, were a common sight. The infant death rate, already high on account of disease, skyrocketed on account of neglect. Of the 2,000 houses in St. Giles, London , 506 were gin shops. The sign in shop windows read

Drunk: one shilling
Dead drunk: two shillings
Free straw

— the latter feature a “perk” for those who didn’t want to sleep in someone else’s vomit.

Parliament often foreshortened its debates “because the honourable members were too drunk to continue the affairs of state.” Gambling took down rich and poor alike. The degeneration accompanying all of this need not be detailed. Its dimensions are sufficiently attested in one advertisement, ” Champagne , Dice, Music, or your Neighbour’s Spouse.” Wesley knew something more than forgiveness was needed. It was his conviction, and soon his people’s experience, that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it.

“Holiness of heart and life”, then, was yet another of the balances that Wesley maintained judiciously.   Holiness of heart is release from inner evil tempers or dispositions (one of which Wesley spoke of repeatedly, “resentment at an affront.”) Holiness of life is release from evil conduct as believers, now freed, “do the truth.”   Both are needed. Holiness of Holiness of life alone (as it were) is no more than self-serving legalism or moralism wherein a reputation is gained that isn’t deserved. Holiness of heart alone (as it were) is self-indulgent religious romanticism.

The Puritans of the preceding century had convinced Wesley that holiness or sanctity was God’s ultimate purpose for God’s people. Yet while he gained enormously from the Puritan insistence on sanctity, the work of renewal that privileges believers, Wesley felt that the Puritans had undervalued the work of the Spirit in a God-wrought deliverance, and had arbitrarily narrowed the extent of deliverance in this life. In Wesley’s era all Christians agreed that “without holiness no one shall see the Lord.” (Hebrew 12:14 ) All Christians similarly agreed that Christ’s people would be delivered “in the instant of death.” Since Christ’s people are going to be delivered in the moment of transition, Wesley contended, why not a milli-second before? Why not a month before? Why not now? To say that we are not going to be delivered until the “instant” is to impose limits on God’s willingness or desire to release people; it is to say we must continue in sin; it is to deploy shabby excuses and undercut human responsibility.

Agreeing with the Puritans, however, that God’s commands are all “covered promises”, and noticing that the root command in Scripture is “You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), Wesley discerned that the “uncovered” promise of God was the unblemished, perfected holiness of God’s people. Such a deliverance was the grand, overarching promise that gathered up and guaranteed the fulfilment of all other promises. For this reason Wesley was fond of saying that all of Scripture was “one grand promise”: a salvation that remedied all the ravages of the Fall and rendered God’s people resplendent.

Unlike many of his successors, Wesley renounced all efforts at “driving” people in this direction, insisting that the promise of the gospel had to be announced in the spirit of the gospel. In other words, people were always to be drawn.   God’s promise had to be heard not as threat, not even as announcement, but always as winsome, attractive, comely. This “Christian Perfection” (found in every family of the Church except the Reformational) is anything but a neurotic perfectionism that leaves people worse off than ever. It is, said Wesley, nothing less than perfection in love as people forgot their self-preoccupation as a consequence of living in and losing themselves in the two luminosities that now filled the horizon of their lives: the immensity of God’s love and the immediacy of their neighbour’s need.

Of course criticisms can be put forward here or there concerning Wesley’s articulation of the doctrine. The truth is, however, that without deliverance now — known, enjoyed, commended to others — Wesleyanism would have been stillborn.

 

5] Wesley’s efforts on behalf of disadvantaged people are almost the stuff of legend, so very remarkable are they. His heart had broken at the spectacle of poor people won to the Methodist movement, neither church nor state having addressed their plight.   Poor people, he knew, are more frequently ill and more wretchedly ill than the socially advantaged, even as their poverty ensures less access to treatment. Quickly Wesley gathered to himself a surgeon and an “apothecary.” He paid for their services by scrounging money wherever he could. In the first five months of his program his apothecary distributed drugs to 500 people. The drugs alone cost 40 pounds. He raised all the money himself. By 1746 he had established London ‘s first free pharmacy. (Again, it should be noted that he was always eager to use the most recent developments in science and medicine.)

Distressed at the predicament of aged widows, most of whom had survived amidst scarcity while their husbands were alive only to stare at the spectre now of death by starvation, exposure, or loneliness, he purchased houses for these women and refurbished them. (“We fitted them up so as to be warm and clean.”) “Would the widows who had to live in them feel themselves demeaned as charity cases, much beneath the social position of their benefactor? Every time he was in their neighbourhood he ate from their table and ate the same food. He also informed his preachers that if they wanted to avoid dismissal they should be found doing as much.

When bankers refused to lend money to sobered, industrious Methodists who now wanted to start up small businesses, Wesley scrabbled 50 pounds and dispensed small loans. In no time those who had borrowed were able to lend money to his “bank” so that the next wave could be helped. In the first year he helped 250 people make a fresh financial start.

Well-educated himself, and aware that education admits people to a world otherwise forever inaccessible, Wesley developed the Kingswood School . Educating the children of coal miners and straitened Methodist preachers in its earliest years, it operates to this day.

Yet in all of this it mustn’t be thought that Wesley’s zeal for social amelioration came from the British radicals’ rant for societal dismantling. The “levellers,” left-wing extremists rooted in the preceding century, had never persuaded Wesley, a life-long Tory, that their agenda was sound.   Instead the Kingdom of God — present, operative, crying out to be lent visibility — was the corrective lens through which Wesley saw the creation transfigured as “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2nd Peter 3:13) Societal dismantling, he knew, ultimately benefited no one as chaos overtook the stability needed for social existence of any kind. At the same time, the doggerel —

The rich man (sic) at his castle,
The poor man at his gate;
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate —

 

Wesley knew to be a parody of God’s providence, and a huge impediment to that redistribution without which socio-economic differences expand and harden into cruel disparities.

Never quick to blame “them” for those inequities that were also iniquities (he at least knew the difference), he preferred to urge his people, “Earn all you can; save all you can; give all you can” — and did as much himself. When he drew 30 pounds per year as an Anglican clergyman, he lived on 28 and gave away two. When book royalties boosted his income to 120 pounds, he lived on 28 and gave away 92. He never understood hoarding. While he agreed that the scriptural text pronounced the love of money to be the root of all evil, he maintained that no one could hang on to superfluous cash without coming to love it — and perpetrate the evil it guaranteed.

In all of this he was aware that it’s always difficult to help without degrading those helped. Wanting to assist poor women by means of something less than “cold charity,” he purchased yards of fine black cloth with which, as the custom was, to cover church windows on the occasion of his funeral. Then he informed his assistants that they were to have the cloth sewn into elegant dresses and given to women who would otherwise never be able to afford a good outfit.
It must never be thought that Wesley mere directed others or made social pronouncements. He paid the price himself. See him at age 81. He has been trudging from door to door for four consecutive days, begging money.           It is wintertime, and as he tells us himself, his feet have been immersed from morning to night in ice-cold slush. He stops begging at the end of the fourth day inasmuch as he has been overtaken by what he calls a “violent flux.” (Today we should say “uncontrollable diarrhoea.”) Only his own sickness stops him “wasting” himself for those needier still. Love is a spendthrift.

 

6] Small group nurture was the heart of the Methodist movement. While Wesley is imaginatively (yet correctly) associated with huge outdoor gatherings yet he spoke far more frequently to smaller congregations in parish churches, in fact his genius had most to do the smallest gatherings that provided the setting for mutual confrontation, correction and encouragement.

The “Society”, the largest grouping, consisted of all the Methodists in a city or town or village. The “Class”, consisting of a dozen people, was a geographically ordered as people were gathered into “twelves” in light of their physical proximity to each other. The “Band” was the smallest of all.

Because the classes were ordered only by geography, they were the most comprehensive. Here mothers and miners met each other, shopkeers and soldiers, the learned and the unlettered, spiritual neo-nate and mature saint, young and old, prominent and penurious.

Each class met once per week under the supervision of the “Leader.” The only condition for membership was “‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins’. But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”

The first fruit was “doing no harm, and avoiding evil of every kind. Here Wesley included what anyone would expect; e.g., “the taking of the name of God in vain.” He also included what no one would expect; e.g., the using of many words in buying or selling.” (He was aware the more garrulously people speak in the course of conducting business, the more their speech is a smokescreen that cloaks deception.) Also included were “softness, and needless self-indulgence.”

The second fruit was “doing good”; e.g., feeding the hungry, clothing the ill-clad, visiting the sick and imprisoned. Not to be overlooked, however, was the Methodists’ “submitting to bear the reproach of Christ, to be as the filth and offscouring of the world.”

The third fruit was “attending upon all the ordinances of God”; e.g., public worship, private prayer, and fasting (every Friday.)

The bands differed significantly from the classes. The former were smaller, consisting of only four or five people organized according to occupation (there were bands for sailors, for seamstresses, for labourers); or organized according to desperate need (for alcoholics, for gamblers, for “whoremongers”.) The bands had to be gender-segregated in light of the laser-like probing and the frank confession essential to them. For the purpose of the band was to “Confess your faults to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed.” (James 5:16) The “Rules” of the bands, drawn up on Christmas Day, 1738, suggest a self-disclosure that couldn’t be cloaked. E.g.,

Rule #7: “Do you desire to be told of all your faults, and that plain and home?”
Rule #9: “Consider! Do you desire we should tell you whatsoever we think, whatsoever we fear, whatsoever we hear, concerning you?”
Rule #11: “Is it your desire and design to be on this and all other occasions entirely open, so as to speak everything that is in your heart, without exception, without disguise, and without reserve?

And then there was the question that Wesley insisted be put to every band-member at every meeting: “Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?”

The confrontation was severe. Yet Wesley knew that love worthy of the name has to be severe, or else it is nothing more than a polite indulgence which finally profits no one.

 

7] While public worship was essential to the spiritual health of his people, Wesley, unlike most evangelists, insisted especially on Holy Communion. It was nothing less than God’s command. Therefore, all who neglected it were disobedient (“no piety.”) It was also God’s provision in the wake of huge human need. Then all who neglected it were foolish (“no wisdom.”) When some people complained that they weren’t “worthy”, Wesley told them that Christ’s mercy eclipsed all considerations of merit. When others returned from the communion rail complaining that they didn’t feel any different, he was quick with five “benefits”:

-we are strengthened “insensibly”;
-we are made more fit for the service of God;
-we are made more constant in the service of God;
-we are kept from backsliding;
-we are spared many temptations.

Unquestionably for Wesley, to receive Holy Communion was to receive Christ himself.

 

The small man (5’4″, 120 pounds) had feet of clay. All his life he lacked self-knowledge, particularly in his relations with women. He was autocratic. Often he irked his brother Charles. When he was provoked he could spew sarcasm. Still, he was wonderfully used of God. He was living proof of Luther’s dictum: “God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick.” In fair days and foul he never ceased having a heart as big as a house for sinning, suffering, sorrowing humankind.

Wesley was evidence of two miracles: the first, that someone with his social and educational superiority could communicate with the disadvantaged. The second miracle, the greater one, of course, was that he wanted to.

V. Shepherd