Reclaiming the Anglican John Wesley: Part I

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Anglican history is rife with notable theologians and champions of reform, and while the political events of the past few decades may have caused us to pay too little attention to our illustrious shared intellectual and civil history, we are nonetheless proud of Cranmer, Hooker, Wilberforce, Lewis, Stott, N.T. Wright, and many more. Yet one son who remained a lifelong Anglican is constantly overlooked. In terms of the honor accorded him by his own people, one might say that he has been the victim of his own success. Perhaps it is time for us as Anglicans to reclaim John Wesley.

At a time when English society was comprised of petrified strata of peers and gentry, tradespeople and labor, paupers and vagrants; when the working class and poor were neglected and blamed for their difficulties[1]; when church preaching was poor and, among theologians, Thomas Trahern was waxing lyrical, William Law was shaking his finger to little effect[2], and religion was regarded as anti-intellectual by the educated class of the enlightenment[3], John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. The year was 1703.

Wesley was a seer: not of otherworldly apparitions, but of the anguish of the disenfranchised, invisible to those around him. He wrote about the suffering of the poor and sick[4], the suffering of African slaves[5], even the suffering of animals[6] – which must have seemed preposterous to agrarian and industrial 18th century England, dependent on livestock and beasts of burden. His tenet of the “imago dei” [7] applying to the uneducated and dispossessed was an affront to a society addicted to personal privilege. Wesley preached the liberation of all into the freedom of Christ, a threatening concept to 18th century England[8]. His outlook and audacity were extraordinary, coming 13 years before William Wilberforce took up the anti-slave-trade cause in England, and more than a half-century before Charles Finney and Thomas Weld spoke out against slavery in the United States[9].

He came to his views gradually. Initially following in his father’s footsteps as an Anglican priest, Wesley believed himself duty-bound to preach in churches, and thought it improper to take his message to the unchurched masses[10]. As invitations to preach in English parishes became scarce, however, due to the provoking nature of his message — with George Whitfield urging him on — he realized that reaching the greatest number of the most spiritually deprived required going beyond church walls[11]. It was essential Pauline thinking in: “. . .I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16b NIV) The Church of England did not appreciate Wesley’s epiphany[12]. On one occasion, Joseph Butler, Bishop of Bristol, came upon Wesley preaching in an open field to a gathering of coal miners. Bishop Butler thought it outrageous that Wesley claimed divine inspiration from the Holy Spirit, and he said so loudly in front of Wesley’s audience. Butler announced that Wesley was not licensed to preach in his diocese and that he must move along[13]. Move along Wesley did; stop he did not, and a flavor of audacity and confrontation with the status-quo laced Methodism wherever it spread.

What came to impact Wesley above obedience to church hierarchy was the spiritual hunger of the working class, who, in his view, were made in the same “imago dei” as the finest English person. Yet their living conditions and attire did not suit them for formal English liturgical decorum and the polished literacy of Cranmer’s prayer book – although Wesley never abandoned Anglican liturgical practice and recommended it as a means of grace to all Methodists.[14] Coming to faith in Christ through Wesley’s message, the newly justified became the foundation of the Methodist movement, which stirred up the revival of the entire English-speaking world.[15] Where wealth and complacency lag in their laziness, the Holy Sprit delights to gallop.

That same Spirit often seems to convict its recipients about the importance of church unity, and Wesley was no exception. As United Methodist scholar Thomas Oden has written, “Wesley regarded schism as a pernicious evil; since it ‘brings forth evil fruit; it is naturally productive of the most mischievous consequences,’ including ‘severe and uncharitable judging of each other offence . . . anger, and resentment,’ which ‘may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.'”[16]

Today one reads about Wesley and his followers taking the gospel to people, and it is familiar historical fact. Yet who now is willing to do likewise? Why do our hearts not bleed with the same compassion? The few movements in the United States so dedicated are treated with the similar derision by the mainline church as were the early Methodists. Vocational Christians today lament plummeting church attendance, proposing this or that largely ineffective remedy to draw people in. Modern culture offers unbelievers aplenty: the fields are white with them. Yet like most 18th century English clergy, we mainliners seem unwilling to be fools for Christ in the publically mortifying fashion of Wesley and his followers. Why is this, and how can we change?

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the Anglican legacy of John Wesley, who offers us an example of how to revive the church and our world. The next post in this series will address how the legacy of John Wesley can transform our modern-day Anglican witness to one of radical, Christ-like power.

[1] English Social Structure in the Early 18th Century, unsigned online source, Wittenberg University Department of History, www4.wittenberg.edu/academics/hist/crom/brit/socstruc.html.

[2] Schmidt, Richard H. Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 84-98

[3] Plumb, J.H. England in the Eighteenth Century, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 [1950]. 44-45

[4] Wesley, John, On Visiting the Sick, sermon, 1786.

[5] Wesley, John, Thoughts Upon Slavery, sermon,

[6] Wesley, John, The Great Deliverance, sermon,

[7] Wesley, John, The Image of God, sermon ,1730.

[8]Schmidt, 119.

[9] Dayton, Donald W. Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011. 18-31

[10]Schmidt, 118.

[11] McTyeire, Holland N., A History of Methodism, Nashville: Publishing House of the M.E. Church, South, 1914. 153

[12]Schmidt, 117.

[13]Schmidt, 109.

[14] Headley, Anthony J. Christian Perfection and Wesley’s Purposeful List. Lexington: Emeth Press, 2013. 21

[15]McTyeire, 179.

[16] Oden, Thomas. “Do Not Rashly Tear Asunder.” First Things. The Journal of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2012/04/do-not-rashly-tear-asunder

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Vivian Ruth Sawyer is a Master of Divinity student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The founder and former president of VRS Associates, a marketing firm, Vivian has had a wide range of experience within business and philanthropy. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Music History and English from Florida State University and a Master's degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Passionate about ministry, Vivian is active within her local Episcopal church and has been involved in several ministries in the Greater Louisville area.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for this informative and important article. These are the same passions that I have and are compelled to do. Kudos to the author!!

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