Honoring their story

Why did many of the leaders of the Church of England oppose Methodism? This is a question raised recently in another place. A full answer requires more than a few blog posts, but I did find John Wesley’s letter the Bishop of London, written in 1747, an interesting source of information about this historical question.

In the letter, Wesley reprints the accusation raised by the bishop in a recent address:

Your Lordship begins, “There is another species of enemies, who give shameful disturbance to the parochial Clergy, and use very unwarrantable methods to prejudice their people against them, and to seduce their flocks from them; the Methodists and the Moravians, who agree in annoying the established ministry, and in drawing over to themselves the lowest and most ignorant of the people, by pretences to greater sanctity.”

A couple paragraphs later, Wesley quotes the bishop farther:

Your Lordship adds, “Their innovations in points of discipline I do not intend to enter into at present. But to inquire what the doctrines are which they spread. … Doctrines big with pernicious influences upon practice.”

So, here we see, it is the doctrines and practices of the Methodists that are seen as the root of all their evil. They poison the people against the clergy and lure them away, so the bishop charges, from attending worship and taking the sacraments. As we see elsewhere in the letter, the Methodists also encourage their people to — in the eyes of the elites — to forget their place in the class system of England.

Several of the charges about doctrine leveled by the bishop, Wesley denies. The bishop attributes to Methodists doctrines that Wesley says he never taught and, in many cases, actively opposed. In the course of doing so, Wesley recounts his teaching on what we would call the “open table.” Perhaps in a later post, I will delve into that discussion.

After this exchange, Wesley return to the question of worship attendance. The bishop had accused Methodists of disparaging worship and keeping people from attending the services. (Note: The complaint is not that Methodists flooded the church with dirty newcomers but that they kept people out of church.)

Wesley admits — and cites his own story — that Methodists teach that worship attendance alone does not make a person love God. It is only “the preaching remission of sins through Jesus Christ” that does that.

And he writes that far from keeping people out of church, those who attend Methodist preaching attend church and communion more regularly than they did before they heard the Methodists preach.

Wesley then summarizes the warnings the bishop issues his clergy, the steps they should take to protect their flocks from the depredations of the Methodists:

  • teach the people that the church liturgy is a service of most importance
  • show people that they must not neglect their secular work or duties
  • perform their own duties as clergy with diligence and timeliness
  • live their own lives in ways that will raise the esteem of the clergy in the eyes of the people

The concern of the bishop appears to be that Methodists somehow undermine the ministry of the parish clergy and bring them into reproach by their own example and efforts.

Clearly, part of this reproach is because some of the parish clergy seem unconcerned with or overwhelmed by those who do not darken the door of the church. Near the end of the letter, Wesley appeals to the bishop to explain what he would have done in such cases.

I would fain set this point in a clearer light. Here are, in and near Moorfields, ten thousand poor souls for whom Christ died, rushing headlong into hell. Is Dr. Bulkely, the parochial Minister, both willing and able to stop them? If so, let it be done, and I have no place in these parts. I go and call other sinners to repentance. But if, after all he has done, and all he can do, they are still in the broad way to destruction, let me see if God will put a word even in my mouth. True, I am a poor worm that of myself can do nothing. but if God sends by whomsoever he will send, his word shall not return empty. … Is this any annoyance to the parochial Minister? Then what manner of spirit is he of?

And he continues:

What have been the consequences … of the doctrines I have preached for nine years last past? … The habitual drunkard that was, is now temperate in all things; the whoremonger now flees fornication; he that stole, steals no more, but works with his hands; he that cursed or swore, perhaps at every sentence, has now learned to serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice unto him with reverence; those formerly enslaved to various habits of sin are now brought to uniform habits of holiness. These are demonstrable facts; I can name the men, with their places of abode. …

My Lord, can you deny these facts? I will make whatever proof of them you shall require. But if the facts be allowed, who can deny the doctrines to be, in substance, the gospel of Christ?

I quote this letter at such length, because I want to do justice to Wesley. The tempest that arose in response to Methodism surely had many causes, and I do not want to pretend that the Methodists were somehow not the cause of any of the troubles. But if we would use the experiences of those early Methodists as lessons and examples, it seems to me that we must take the greatest care that we understand their suffering and its causes.

It does not do justice to their memories to have the men and women, who suffered beatings and mud-slinging and the loss of property for the sake of the Gospel, be used by us as straw-stuffed effigies for our own agendas.

Why they threw rocks at the preacher

The RMN blog posts today an interpretation of John Wesley’s ministry that offers the following explanation why he the movement was opposed, sometimes violently:

Why would the leaders of the church attack him and his followers? There may be many answers, but a clear reason is that he sought to include people who weren’t accepted in the churches. They were the coarse workers from factory and field. They were not the respectable folks of the parish. The respectable folks didn’t want to sit next to the unwashed, illiterate rabble that Wesley was sending to church.

See, he took them the word of God’s redemptive love, but he sent them to the churches for communion and baptism. John Wesley was an Anglican until he died. He didn’t set out to found a new denomination; he set out to reform Anglicanism. He sought to expand the church to include all of God’s children – not just the “respectable” ones. Perhaps had he not sent the less respectable folks to church, had he performed baptisms and communion outside of the church, he might not have stirred up such a storm of opposition.

In all my reading of John Wesley’s works, I’ve never found anything that would support the conclusion that he faced rock-throwing gangs because he sent poor people to the local church to take communion. Maybe it is in the histories that I have not yet read.

His own account of the troubles faced by Methodists, written in 1745, goes like this:

1. About seven years since, we began preaching inward, present salvation, as attainable by faith alone.

2. For preaching this doctrine, we were forbidden to preach in the churches.

3. We then preached in private houses, as occasion offered: And when the houses could not contain the people, in the open air.

4. For this, many of the Clergy preached or printed against us, as both heretics and schismatics.

5. Persons who were convinced of sin, begged us to advise them more particularly how to flee from the wrath to come. We replied, if they would all come at one time (for they were numerous) we would endeavour it.

6. For this, we were represented, both from the pulpit and the press, (we have heard it with our ears, and seen it with our eyes) as introducing Popery, raising sedition, practicing both against Church and State; and all manner of evil was publicly said both of us, and those who were accustomed to meet with us.

7. Finding some truth herein, viz., that some of those who so met together walked disorderly, we immediately desired them not to come to us any more.

8. And the more steady were desired to overlook the rest, that we might know if they walked according to the Gospel.

9. But now several of the Bishops began to speak against us, either in conversation or in public.

10. On this encouragement, several of the Clergy stirred up the people to treat us as outlaws or mad dogs.

11. The people did so, both in Staffordshire, Cornwall, and many other places.

12. And they do so still, wherever they are not restrained by their fear of the Magistrate.

In neither this letter nor any any of the other of Wesley’s works that I have read — journals, letters, sermons, pamphlets — do I recall the issue being about who was sitting next to whom in church.

The matter at hand was doctrine. Wesley preached a strict holiness and a justification by faith in Jesus Christ that saves from the guilt and power of sin. Wesley preached this gospel to all would hear, but his journals are replete with cases of him ejecting from the Methodist society those who were “disorderly walkers.” This was not movement of blind inclusivism. It was a movement of egalitarian spiritual renewal. All need to be saved from sin.

Wesley did preach to the poor, the in prison, the illiterate, and the unloved people of the British Isles. He did care for their spirits, their minds, and their bodies. He did encourage them to partake of constant communion, but I can find no evidence at all that it was the unwashed showing up for communion that got him in trouble with the establishment.

It was doctrine that started all the trouble. It was preaching moral and spiritual holiness that enraged the well-heeled and the powerful. It was calling on sinners to “flee from the wrath to come,” to repent of their sins, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling that upset the comfortable church people.

If you know of evidence that contradicts my reading, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Until then, I’ll close with another quote from John Wesley’s journal about the redemptive love of Christ he preached in the fields and public squares:

I had a great desire to visit a little village called Placey, about ten measured miles north of Newcastle. It is inhabited by colliers only, and such as had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s day; on which men, women, and children met together, to dance, fight, curse and swear, and play at chuck, ball, and span-farthing, or whatever came next to hand. I felt great compassion for these poor creatures, from the time I heard of them first; and the more, because all men seemed to despair of them. Between seven and eight I set out with John Heally, my guide. The north wind being unusually high, drove the sleet in our face, which froze as it fell, and cased us over presently. When we came to Placey, we could very hardly stand. As soon as we were a little recovered, I went into the Square, and declared Him who “was wounded for our transgressions,” and “bruised for our iniquities.” The poor sinners were quickly gathered together, and gave earnest heed to the things which were spoken. And they did in the afternoon again, in spite of the wind and snow, when I besought them to receive Him for their King; to “repent and believe the Gospel.”

Division creates doctrine, not the other way around

United Methodist mega-church pastor Mike Slaughter asks in a tweet:

As Wesleyans, we United Methodists should all agree with the spirit of the question. John Wesley famously wrote time and again that it was not doctrine that defines true Christianity but holiness of life and heart. “If your heart is as my heart,” he preached from Scripture, “give me your hand.”

But, of course, the trick here is that Wesley had some pretty high standards regarding his own heart. It was no easy matter to have your heart in the same place as John Wesley’s. It is a severe misreading of John Wesley to think his downplaying of doctrine translates to a low standard for Christian life or an eagerness to turn a blind eye to vice.

So when we join together and say “We should not divide over doctrine,” we often mean different things by the statement.

But, perhaps more to the point, we cannot avoid dividing over doctrine. As George Lindbeck has argued, most of the doctrine we have is the direct result of division and debate. The church’s beliefs only solidify into of formal doctrine because controversy requires careful articulation of what we believe and the drawing of lines. We do not divide with each other because of doctrine. We have doctrine in the first place because we were divided with each other and needed to spell out the boundaries of those disagreements.

Because we all see “through a glass darkly,” we are perhaps unavoidably going to disagree about what we believe. This should call us to humility about our differences, but it should not lead us to pretend differences are unimportant or that doctrine has no purpose in the life of the church.

To say this is not, of course, an appeal for conflict and controversy, but I do think we do disservice to our own history to forget why we have doctrine in the first place.

Better to be terrified now

In his “Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley replies to several objections raised by critics of the movement known as Methodism. One of the criticisms was that Wesley insisted on things that caused doubt and turmoil among those who had long considered themselves good Christians.

Wesley replies by defending Methodism as nothing more than Church of England Christianity lived out according to its own standards. To the charge that he has introduced new doctrines, he replies:

Do you say that any man can be a true Christian without loving God and his neighbour? Surely you have not learned so from Christ! It is your doctrine as well as mine and St. Paul’s: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels; though I have all knowledge and faith; though I give all my goods to feed the poor; yea, my body to be burned, and have not love, I am nothing.”

Whatever public worship, therefore, people may have attended, or whatever ministry they have lived under from their infancy, they must at all hazards be convinced of this, or they perish for ever; yea, though that conviction first unhinge them ever so much; though it should in a manner distract them for a season. For it is better they should be perplexed and terrified now, than that they should sleep on and awake in hell.