The four languages of Methodism

Russell Richey argues in his book Early American Methodism that the early Methodists spoke four “languages” at the same time. They were:

Popular Evangelical – the language of the revival movement and general piety of the late 18th century and early 19th century.

Wesleyan – the doctrinal and practical theology of John Wesley and the hymnody of Charles. One aspect that Richey emphasizes is the conference as a means of grace.

Episcopal – talk of elders, deacons, sacraments, and definitions of church that grew out of Anglican roots and practices.

Republican – small “r” in this case; the language carried over from American politics that emphasized liberty of individuals, the sovereignty of people (especially vs. kings and bishops), and the ethos of the American Revolution.

Early Methodists in America spoke all four of these languages, Richey argues, even when they did not easily co-habitate. And Methodists resisted the impulse to unify or harmonize the various voices.

He argues you can see in divisions and debates within early Methodism the way some groups put more emphasis on some of these languages than on others. The Republicanism of James O’Kelley, who broke away from Francis Asbury’s leadership is perhaps the most obvious case.

Contemporary United Methodists may still speak all four languages. It seems to me we have added a fifth – although it may just be the language of Republicanism carried forward. I think pastors often feel the pull between the episcopal ways of talking about church and the Wesleyan ways of talking about being a mission-driven connection.

Alas, I’m not sure what conclusions arise from these observations. Perhaps they give you something to think about as we all try to speak the languages of Methodism in this 21st century world.

4 thoughts on “The four languages of Methodism

  1. I’m curious as to how the EUB contribution adds to the multilingual character of our church. This is especially pertinent on WV where we have ME South churches, ME North churches and EUB churches, sometimes side by side in a given town. It seems like these variables are still muddling up the conversation.

  2. This makes a lot of sense. I can actually think of specific Methodists I know, both pastors and laity, who adhere to one language more than another. When the four languages become disconnected, it’s no wonder that Methodism is the denomination for the indecisive.

  3. One of Dr. Richey’s great contributions (and often underrated) is his notion of Methodist connectionalism (our ecclesial identity) being one of the greatly unique contributions of the movement to the theological world of North America. It’s a shame he’s retiring this year because I wonder if this isn’t one of the great contributions we could have in a contemporary world where isolation is a new norm.

    Great thoughts, John!

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