John Wesley’s Historical Context

Posted: March 4, 2012 in John Wesley
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In reading about Wesley’s history, I have found several things to be interesting and instructive.  First, we have to understand that Wesley was bound in some ways by his historical context and yet empowered by his historical context.  Wesley really was, in some sense, re-inventing the wheel.  He was quite an ecumenist.  He borrowed bands and classes from the Moravians and went back to Protestant roots in preaching and teaching.  His devotion to being a man of one book and being justified by faith alone became his mantra.  In many ways, he was a man of tradition, given that he never left the Anglican Church.  I believe Wesley tried to maintain the Methodists as a movement within that framework, not outside it.  Only as it became more evident that this could not be sustained did Wesley move to prepare steps for that body to move outside of the Church of England.  This was especially true where the Church of England no longer, or did not previously, hold sway.

What was truly phenomenal about Wesley was his use of lay preachers.  At first, his Anglican roots revolted against this until tempered by the advice of Susanna, his mother.  After this initial crisis, the process of empowering lay preachers became a fundamental part of the Methodist movement.  Wesley went so far as to allow women to also participate in this role.  I feel like this is the logical conclusion of the priesthood of believers.  We can find this very instructive in how we participate in pastoral ministry, as well as, our mission as a Church body.  Pastoral ministry is not about elitism or even proper education (ouch!), it is primarily about God’s call on people and reaching our communities.  Obviously, Wesley strongly encouraged his lay preachers to read and study, but this ultimately was not the defining qualification of a minister.  I think this helps us be aware of the ways that the Anglican Church has influenced our polity, both good and bad.

One of the things I did not realize until reading more about Wesley is how difficult it is to situate him in his context.  Of course, is history ever really clear cut and neat?  But, the social forces that coalesced in the 1700’s provided a wonderful kindling for revival fire.  There definitely seemed to be an air of progress and advancement in many areas of learning.  Granted, there were many challenges faced as a result of the Enlightenment.  The Enlightenment didn’t see equality gained for everyone.  There were marginalized groups in abundance.  From the slave trade to the working poor, there was a huge delineation between the wealthy and the poor.  The Church, by the estimation of many (although this is disputed), had become quite lax enjoying its seats of power in Parliament.  The result, in some cases, was a catering to the upper class.  Wesley, in this case, did something extreme.  He began field preaching under the suggestion of Whitefield.  As Wesley increasingly became limited in preaching in a regular church setting, he began to view the “world as his parish.”  Although his message did reach some of the upper echelons of society, the lower classes were the ones that responded in droves.  A note of interest, this is the same type of ministry (to the poor) that Phineas F. Bresee participated in… and that eventually caused him to begin ministry outside of the Methodist Church.  Both Wesley and Bresee did not start sectarian movements.  They started movements to revitalize the Church, but the Church often misunderstood them.

The key to both of these movements, both Wesley and Bresee, is heart holiness.  We read about the Great Awakening and the wonderful revivals that spread throughout the trans-Atlantic region during the 1700-1800’s.  We believe that the Spirit of God moved in tremendous ways in those moments because people not only hungered for such a message, but we believe that God had wanted to communicate this all along!  Wesley, and for that matter Bresee, did not re-invent the wheel as much as they used common convention.  They were much more concerned about the message and the continual propagation of that message in the lives of people, not necessarily the conventions they used.  For our current context, I think it is appropriate that we stop and realize that we do not always have to “re-invent the wheel.”  We are called to be faithful to the message that we are justified by faith alone and that God desires for us to be holy, made perfect in love.  On the other hand, I think we can learn a great deal from Wesley in that he was willing to do things differently than had been done before.  Granted, it was done so that many more could be reached and not simply to do the latest fad.  They used contemporary music (what!).  Not to mention, these weren’t simply theological tools for teaching their congregants: “the hymns were ‘rather the result of the revival experiences with the poor and unlettered.’  ‘The whole area of the operations of the Spirit in the heart is there charted out with firmness and precision.’  As sung by the believer, What we have felt and seen With confidence we tell was nothing more nor less than the literal truth” (Maddox 92).

There is a side of me that worries a little bit in looking at the continued history and heritage that has been passed down.  It is awesome that God is not restricted in moving His plan forward by using people who want nothing more than to be faithful.  Methodists, the Holiness movement, and the Nazarene Church all started out as small movements for reform that made huge impact on their culture.  What is worrisome is that so often the Church (obviously I’m speaking in generalities) rejected this movement out of hand.  The result is schism and fragmentation.  This is hardly what the Body was meant to be.  Rather, the evidence of our discipleship is that we love one another.  Be that as it may, it worries me that quite often the institutionalized Church becomes so comfortable that it misses the movement of God’s Spirit… so, as is evidenced in our history, God bypasses the institutional Church to make way for His Kingdom (these two elements are not always at odds).  We have seen it happen, we believe, in the Protestant Reformation, the Great Awakening, and the Second Great Awakening.  I hope the Nazarene Church is prepared to move in accordance with the Spirit so that our community might experience revival, while maintaining unity in the Body.

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