Reading John Wesley and about the early American Methodists always gives me a sense of deep conviction. These were people who took God seriously. They knew that what they did was important. They were willing to suffer for it.
It is not that they did not feel the same pull and tug that we feel. John Wesley wrote more than once that if it were up to him he would not have moved around so much, but he felt God had put it on him. He famously described his first round of field preaching with a biblical quote about submitting to be more vile by taking to the fields.
These tensions did not go away when Methodism moved across the ocean. John Wigger reports in his book Taking Heaven By Storm the social pressures on circuit riders not to take up the hard, poorly paid, and disrespected calling of itinerant preaching.
Dan Young’s mother urged him to join the Presbyterians or Baptists rather than the Methodists, and John Littlejohn’s mother threatened to disinherit him if he persisted in his preaching. Benjamin Paddock’s father found the Methodists to be “about as distasteful to him as any thing well could be.” Word that his son planned to join the itinerancy “frenzied him.” John Cooper’s father “threw a shovelfull of hot embers” on Cooper when he discovered him at prayer, but Cooper became a Methodist preacher anyway. Even the audacious Billy Hibbard has his early doubts about the Methodists. Following his conversion, Hibbard was torn between his desire for respectability and his attraction to Methodism. “I wanted to be a Congregationalist, and to be respectable. But I wanted the love and seriousness of the Methodists.”
I know in my own heart the desire for respectability. I fear that too many of us have given into that desire, to the end that Methodism itself is no longer controversial.
In his book Mainline or Methodist?, Scott Kisker argues that is precisely our problem.
We United Methodists have become a privileged lot. We are educated well beyond the majority in our society. We pay our clergy, as distinctly mainline, beyond the majority in our society. If we are to recover Methodism, freed from its addiction to the American mainstream, it will require the kind of conversion Wesley experienced that day in Bristol [when he submitted to be more vile by preaching in the open air]. It is a conversion to god and neighbor because we are witnesses to God’s ultimate kingdom of the new creation. For such a recovery, we must humble ourselves before almighty God, trust in the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and expect a blessing through a miraculous anointing of the Holy Spirit. Following that we must take some risky, perhaps uncomfortable steps.