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.

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3 thoughts on “Honoring their story

  1. I’m reminded of the young adult who was tweeting her delight about saying “f-ck” in the presence of many UM clergy. I contended that the use of that word was a sign of disrespect and she considered it to be a sign of comraderie and “coolness” on the part of the clergy in her jurisdiction. (Can you guess which one?)

    Yes, Matt, we do need a new holiness movement.

  2. Holly is touching the right sore spot here. Modern Methodism has pickled its holiness heritage for consumption as a garnish alongside coarse new agendas. In this context, both Jesus and John Wesley are shamelessly trotted out as “straw-man effigies” in support of prevailing novelties. Brave (idolatrous) new world, indeed.

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