Is there a Wesleyan purgatory?

A post I wrote in January that comes to mind again this morning. I was reading the Didache with its powerful statement that there are two ways we can live: the way of life and the way of death.

It raises again for me the age old question of stark choices. There appear to be two options only. And yet we speak of degrees of faith and call on people to grow in grace. The relationship between the binary choices and the degrees of faith was one that Wesley worked with and through for most of his ministry.

John Meunier

Did John Wesley believe in something like purgatory? Something in a letter he wrote in 1770 to an unidentified recipient has me wondering.

The letter appears to be to a Methodist who has flagged in his faith. In the letter, he describes to the man the two ranks of Christians.

I have frequently observed that there are two very different ranks of Christians, both of whom may be in the favour of God, — a higher and a lower rank.

This statement is similar one in his 1787 sermon “The More Excellent Way,” which also describes a higher and lower path that a Christian may walk. It is worth noting, though, that  even the lower path is much higher than many people in our churches today even long to journey. Here is how Wesley describes the two paths in his letter.

The [lower rank] avoid all known sin…

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4 thoughts on “Is there a Wesleyan purgatory?

  1. Yes… the UM purgatory is General Conference every four years. You know you’re eventually going to get through it, but in the meantime it’s going to be an unpleasant experience.

  2. Purgatory was a part of orthodoxy from the earliest days, even in pre-Christian systems of belief. It is suggested in several passages in the New Testament. Why would you not think that Wesley would hold to such beliefs as well, if even in a not well formulated way? I assume that he, like you and me and most other Christians, prayed for the dead, an activity that doesn’t make sense if there is no purgatory.

    So I think the question really is…..why didn’t he write more directly about purgatory?

    1. Actually, I doubt Wesley prayed for the dead in the way that Roman Catholics do. The Reformed Protestant tradition and Calvinistic Anglicans (which were predominant in Wesley’s day) consider purgatory unscriptural and the notion of praying for the dead as contrary to the notion that salvation is by faith alone.

      The Anglican Article of Faith about purgatory is strongly critical. Wesley preserved that Article when he edited it for the Methodists in America.

      He probably did write about it directly in some of his writings about Roman Catholicism. I just haven’t read them that closely.

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