Methodists in the wildernss

Do you think John Wesley was very good at the wilderness?

This week, I’ve been carrying around the gospel lectionary about Jesus being driven out into the wilderness and returning to preach the gospel. It is the wilderness that has taken hold of my attention. What is the wilderness? What do we do in the wilderness? What happens in those days? Why are Americans so bad at wilderness?

And I found myself this morning thinking about John Wesley.

On the one hand, he clearly had a long wilderness experience. It drove him to the colonies and nearly to despair. His response seemed to be to put his head down and bull rush through. Wesley did not appear to do Sabbath very well. He did not wait in the wilderness for 40 days to pass.

Or at least not so far as I can see from his letters, journal, sermons, and other writings. Although he often spoke of “waiting in the means of grace” for the work of the Holy Spirit, I never get the feeling from reading him that there was ever anything passive about this waiting.

In his sermon “The Wilderness State,” Wesley dismisses the notion of writers such as Henri Nouwen who teach the necessity of spiritual darkness and wandering in the wilderness. Wesley instead confronts the wilderness with his full array of spiritual diagnostics. He examines the various causes of spiritual darkness and proposes a series of cures depending on the cause. None of these cures, however, is to wait and be still. This just is not in Wesley’s spiritual medicine cabinet.

Richard Foster’s very helpful book Streams of Living Water places Wesley in the Holiness stream of Christianity, which is not a surprise. Nouwen, to the surprise of no one, is a contemplative in Foster’s typology.

These thoughts and observations raise for me questions about the nature of our denomination. Are we a home for all six of Foster’s streams of Christianity? Should we be? Or should we be an expression of our founding stream, holiness?

Of course, there is no simple answer to this question, but I do think some of our denominational struggles these days are over this set of questions. They are questions of identity. I wonder if having a more explicit appreciation of that fact would help us deal with the tensions created by our own wilderness wandering.


One thought on “Methodists in the wildernss

  1. I think your reading of John is mostly accurate. I think Charles, also a founder of our tribe, expresses other views in his hymnody, even if John does not in his sermons.

    I might suggest that early Methodism proper was a holiness practice, in ways the congregations its members were primarily also members of (The Church of England) was not. But I don’t see either Charles or John insisting that persons be “all holiness all the time.” Quite the reverse– I see them constantly commending learning from and gaining other things they need precisely by their participation in Anglican (and other!) parishes. So while Methodism may have been primarily about holiness, Methodists were not to be ONLY about that, but also were intended to draw on the other faithful streams of the Christian tradition.

    There were perhaps two streams of that wider tradition, however, that the Wesleys (especially John) did reject outright. One was any notion of “holy solitaries”– as in things along the line of the “Desert Fathers” (yep, wilderness!). But it wasn’t the “wildernessy” part of their witness he found untenable. It was the notion that one could grow in holiness apart as solo individuals. This is why he said one could not more reasonably speak of “holy solitaries” than one could speak of “holy adulterers.” (Yep, Fr. John was not one to mince words!).

    The other stream he rejected, quite clearly, was “quietism”– and specifically its anti-nomian tendencies. One sees this even in the General Rules where among the “good things” all Methodists were to do was to drive out the false teaching that we need not or even ought not do particular good works unless we first feel a specific leading to do so. Again, it was not the “contemplative” or the “wilderness” per se that John was rejecting, but the notion that one could fail to do the kinds of things Christ or the scriptures clearly commanded by a resort to saying one didn’t feel led to do so. This was a matter not of not paying attention to the inner promptings of the Spirit, but rather of being in active disobedience to what our Triune God had clearly established as “good works in which we have been prepared to walk.”

    So I think we can safely say that given John’s primary concern for Methodism per se, no, there isn’t much of the wilderness in how he approached his primary work with societies, classes, bands and the like. But Methodists themselves, who would also be part of the larger life of other congregations (again, primarily but not exclusively Anglican) certainly had access to other streams, and I see no evidence at all the Wesleys (or our EUB forebears for that matter) ever actively discouraged Methodists (or those who would become EA or UB) from drawing on them, too– with the two notable exceptions above.

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