The message of the Wesleys and of the subsequent “Methodist” movement was a message of radical faithfulness to God. It affirmed an optimism of grace which believed that people’s lives could be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and that society could be changed — through the impact of prayer and through the impact of people who were filled with love for God and love for others. It was a movement that saw a progressive and liberating movement in Scripture that made it clear to them that the institution of slavery — the buying and selling of human beings — was wrong. It allowed them to see that God was calling both men and women into the service of Christ. It was a radical message of inward and outward holiness.
It can be hard to sustain a radical message.
It’s been nice to see the interest generated by the posts about the ministry of women in the early Methodist movement: Kevin Jackson’s post on the Women Leaders in the Early Methodist Movement and my post entitled Evangelical, Wesleyan, Egalitarian. They both point out the radical nature of the early Methodist message — and how it was lived out. But, they don’t tell the whole story, either.There is another part of the story. Later generations became embarrassed by the counter-cultural fact that their mothers and grandmothers had been preachers and evangelists — the church pulled back.
It is hard to maintain a message of radical faithfulness to God. When Wesleyan Church professor Keith Drury announced in a 1995 address to the Christian Holiness Association that “The Holiness Movement was Dead” it was more in the nature of a post-mortum than a death announcement — though it may not have been taken that way at the time. The literature that I archive on this site are the relics of a movement that is no more — but one from which (I believe) we can learn so much. (I am very much in the minority on that. I have explained here and here why I feel this message is still relevant and needed.)
Movements often become embarrassed with themselves as the generations come and go, and this seems to be part of what happened to Methodism (and by “Methodism” here I mean the broader Christian movements influenced by the teachings of John Wesley).
In the late 19th and in the 20th centuries Methodism distanced itself from its own revivalistic roots. It embraced the “new” theologies that were influenced by Friedrich Schleiermacher which (at that time) were coming out of Germany. In doing so it also laid aside the difficult and challenging (and frankly, embarrassing) doctrine of Christian Perfection.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to suggest that this was simply some sort of theological subversion. The optimism of the Wesleyan message was hard to maintain in the wake of two World Wars and a Great Depression. And, while enthusiastic, the preachers of the Holiness Movement often embraced an anti-intellectual Gospel. This was a marked contrast to the founders of Methodism, certainly.
The earliest Methodists advocated both education and vital, experiential faith. But, in the light of the American frontier situation, and in light of the failure of Cokesbury College (an early educational effort), leaders like Asbury saw that insisting on an educated clergy was not the way to reach the people.
Thus, to a later generation, some sort of educated Christian theological option seemed very desirable. You know, something not so uneducated, not so backwoods, not so emotional…. I’m sure you can understand. Something not so radical, either.
But, so much is lost in no longer hearing these emotional, optimistic, and radical voices. In a sense I don’t really care that the old holiness movement is dead — it died under the weight of its own excesses — legalism , emotionalism, anti-intellectualism. I have no idea about the future of ecclesiastical institutions like the United Methodist Church. And, that’s really not the point. I just keep hoping that somewhere, someone would pick up where Wesley and his followers left off.
In his 1896 book A Defense of Christian Perfection, holiness advocate Daniel Steele quotes the following words from John McClintock, (who was the very first President of Drew Theological Seminary) from a sermon preached in 1866:
Knowing exactly what I say, and taking the full responsibility of it, I repeat, we are the only Church in history, from the apostles’ time till now, that has put forth as its very elemental thought the great pervading idea of the whole Book of God from the beginning to the end — the holiness of the human soul, heart, mind, and will. . . . It may be called fanaticism; but, dear friends, this is our mission. If we keep to that, the next century is ours; if we keep to that, the triumphs of the next century shall throw those of the past into the shade. . . . There is our mission; there is our glory; there is our power; and there shall be the ground of our triumph! God keep us true!
But, of course neither McClintock nor Steele could have foreseen the vast cultural changes that would occur in the transition from the 19th to the 20th Centuries. The Methodist Episcopal church would set its heart on social & intellectual respectability. The relationship between the M.E. Church and the Holiness organizations would deteriorate — on both sides. The essentially optimistic 19th Century would give way to an essentially pessimistic 20th Century. McClintock extrapolated from the evangelistic and reformist successes of the past — and naturally concluded that the greatest victories of all lay ahead (if only Methodism would stay true to its calling). Alas, he couldn’t possibly have known — or even guessed — what actually lay ahead.
I think Luke Tyreman (biographer of John Wesley) once said that the fortunes of Methodism have always been tied to the fortunes of the idea of “Christian Perfection.” The message of change & reconciliation & hope & holiness fit well with the spirit of an optimistic 19th Century age. But, the 20th Century became an age of despair. Two world wars (the first of which was supposed to “end all war”) and a great depression in the USA left a lasting mark. To me the philosophy of Bertrand Russell seems especially characteristic of this age. He sought to build his world-view “on the firm foundation of an unyielding despair.” Conservative and evangelical Christians embraced a Dispensational eschatology that told us all that the world was simply going to get worse and worse. The neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth and (even more so) Reinhold Neibuhr so exalted and re-affirmed the Augustinian notion of Original Sin that any real redemption and change in human life through faith in Christ was considered practically impossible. The rise of historical Biblical criticism raised serious questions about whether the Bible’s message could be trusted. Fundamentalism became a defensive action: against historical Biblical criticism and against science (especially biology). And where is the holiness movement in all of this? On the outside. Stalled. In decline. In it’s death throes, really.
What we currently have in popular evangelical Christianity is an unhappy mix of Calvinism and Arminianism. On the one hand, people feel they are saved by faith and can never be lost, on the other they think they “sin every day in thought, word, and deed.” So, “salvation” is understood as status with God and special privileges: “Christians aren’t perfect [they say], they’re just forgiven.” But, the message of “holiness of heart and life” is rarely heard. Or, if it is, it is in the form of an unhealthy legalism.
And, then again, Christianity has all too often been presented as a Creedology: Do you believe thus-and-so? Great! You’re saved! Christianity, in this view becomes a matter of “adopting a Christian world-view.” (And, by the way, this is an understanding of faith that John Wesley explicitly repudiated in his day.)
In the United Methodist Church (for a long time) Wesley was largely abandoned as a spiritual mentor. The reigning theologians among my liberal colleagues when I came into the ministry in 1975 were Paul Tillich (a sort of Christian existentialism) and Reinhold Neibuhr (human finiteness = Original Sin).
I don’t mean to draw a hopeless picture. It is not at all. I do not feel at all like a voice crying in the wilderness. There has been a recovery of interest in the theology of John Wesley in my lifetime that continues to today. There are resources appearing all around to help people recover the message. And, I believe there is a widespread interest in hearing the Gospel of Christ in it’s fulness — in both it’s personal and its social dimensions.
Numerous resources have appeared including: Reclaiming the Wesleyan Tradition, The Wesley Study Bible, Discovering Christian Holiness, and so forth. I appreciate voices like Ken Schenck, Kevin Watson, Andrew C. Thompson, Matt O’Reilly, Donald Haynes, and many, many others. The Asbury Seedbed has been very successful and it has spun off another, related site: Wesleyan Accent.
Some modern-English paraphrased versions of Wesley’s works have appeared in print. (The meaning and connotation of many English words has changed since the 1700s, and sometimes Wesley’s meaning is not clear to the modern reader.) Several years ago Abingdon published John Wesley’s Standard Sermons in Modern English – 3 Volume Set by Kenneth Cain Kinghorn. (He also paraphrased Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.) These are currently out of print, so it might be difficult to get a copy at a good price. Volume 1 is here: John Wesley on Christian Beliefs Volume 1. And, Metho-blogger Teddy Ray has been working on some paraphrases of his own: John Wesley’s Sermons for Today.
Also, I highly recommend: A PERFECT LOVE: Understanding John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection By Steven W. Manskar, Diana L. Hynson and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. This book is also an updated paraphrase of Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Some explanatory notes have been added in the margin, and discussion questions for group study. (I recommend finding some people who would be willing to go through the book as a group. Bring Bibles. Check the references that the author lists at the end of each chapter.)
It doesn’t matter if particular movements survive or not. Our precious ecclesiastical institutions do not matter nearly so much as the survival of genuine Christian faith — in communities willing to listen and heed and learn and serve.
This is the moment to re-assert the call to holiness, the message of hope, the real meaning of the Cross. I think our world is ready to hear the Gospel in its fullness again.