In his journal of June 14, 1779, John Wesley reports with frustration about the meager growth of the Methodist society in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In five years I found five members had been gained! Ninety-nine being increased to a hundred and four. What then have our Preachers been doing all this time? 1. They have preached four evenings a week, and on Sunday morning; the other mornings they have fairly given up. 2. They have taken great care not to speak too plain, lest the should give offense. 3. When Mr. Brackenbury preached the old Methodist doctrine, one of them said, “You must not preach such doctrine here. The doctrine of Perfection is not calculated for the meridian of Edinburgh.” Waving then all other hinderances, is it any wonder, that the work of God has not prospered here?
It is remarkable how often Wesley explains the success or failure of Methodism in various places with the preaching of what he called the “old Methodist doctrine.” As in the quote above, he saw the dropping of doctrines such as perfection and justification by faith were a direct cause of weakness in the local society, even stagnation.
He tied the success of the movement to practices as well, of course. His journals are full of references to field preaching or morning preaching as keys to keeping the spiritual fires burning in Methodism.
But I simply cannot read his journals, letters, and other writings without taking note of how central Wesley considered doctrine to the growth of the movement.
Wesley was sincere in his “think and let think” approach to non-essential doctrines of Christianity. But even if he did not require all Christians to share his beliefs about Perfection or backsliding or other Methodist teachings, he believed they were Scriptural doctrines. And he believed the preaching of Methodist doctrine was blessed by God with a harvest of conversion and sanctification.
In the UMC today, we do not put much emphasis on the “old Methodist doctrine.” I seem to recall Wesley once writing something about Methodism becoming a dead sect if it forgot its doctrine.
Does our decline confirm his prediction?