Death is a topic that few of us care to think about, but in my current study of John Wesley’s theology of death, I find myself contemplating the subject on a daily basis. Some people would view this as unhealthy or perhaps even neurotic; however, I stand among good company if I consider earlier generations of the church. For centuries, the ars moriendi tradition held a prominent place in the life of believers. The ars moriendi (or “art of dying”) was a body of literature that helped Christians prepare for death. Although practice of the ars moriendi was beginning to fade during Wesley’s era, he discovered the riches of the tradition by reading Jeremy Taylor’s book, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying. Wesley’s mediation of the art of dying was so successful that the early Methodists were known for their “good deaths.” A physician who treated several Methodists made the claim to Charles Wesley, “Most people die for fear of dying; but, I never met with such people as yours. They are none of them afraid of death, but [are] calm, and patient, and resigned to the last.”
What did John Wesley and the early Methodists know that allowed them to die with such grace and assurance? First, Wesley faced the reality of death. We live in a death denying culture. Not only does death tend to be a taboo subject, but we isolate ourselves from the sick and dying. Most of us find it relatively easy to ignore our own mortality until tragedy strikes close to home. Wesley, however, sought out the dying because he desired not only to help them in their final days, but he wanted to learn from those who were going through the dying process. In his journal, Wesley recorded the following sentiment, “Here I found E- R- weaker and happier than ever. Her life seemed spun out to the last thread. I spent half an hour with her, to teach her, at once, and learn of her, to die.”
Furthermore, Wesley realized that ignoring death cheats us of the opportunity to examine the condition of our soul and to attain peace with God. “Do you never think about [death]?” he asked in his address titled, “A Word to an Unhappy Woman.” “Why do you not? Are you never to die? Nay, it is appointed for all men to die. And what comes after? Only heaven or hell. Will the not thinking of death, put it farther off? No; not a day; not one hour.” Contemplating the end of our earthly existence allows us time to examine our standing with God in a focused and honest way. To leave such matters until the very end of life unnecessarily burdens the dying process with uncertainty and anxiety.
Most importantly, Wesley knew the secret to dying well was living well. Keeping our end in view reminds us that life is a precious gift from God and should not be squandered on penultimate pursuits. Wesley admonished his followers,
You have no time to lose; see that you redeem every moment that remains. Remove everything out of the way, be it ever so small… that might anyways obstruct your lowliness and meekness, your seriousness of spirit, your single intention to glorify God, in all your thoughts and words and actions.
Those who fully invest their lives in the pursuit of glorifying God have nothing to fear from death; rather death becomes yet another opportunity for the grace of God to be made manifest.
The Spirit of God was so clearly evident in the deaths of the Methodists that Wesley regularly published various accounts of deathbed scenes to encourage believers in the faith. A common theme among these accounts was this: the manner in which the Methodists died was simply a continuation of the way they had conducted their lives. Reflecting on the death of William Green, a steadfast believer who trusted God through the storms of life, Wesley mused, “He died, as he lived, in the full assurance of faith, praising God with his latest breath.” Of another believer Wesley penned, “She was a woman of faith and prayer; in life and death adorning the doctrine of God her Saviour.”
Just as learning the “art” of any worthwhile craft takes time and effort, so the art of dying well requires our full attention. This does not mean we become fatalistic or develop an unhealthy fixation on death. Rather, as believers, we abide in the knowledge that a good death is a culmination of a life lived for the glory of God – no matter what the length of that life may be.
The same gifts and graces that enabled Wesley and the early Methodists to lead victorious lives and die triumphant deaths are available to us today. In “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion” Wesley declared,
What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and crying out at their death, in calm assurance, ‘O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory, through my Lord Jesus Christ.’
Let us also be marked by a “religion of love” so that in living and dying we may bear witness to the vibrant hope of redemption found only in Christ—a hope that transcends even the grave.