The final chapter of Frank Baker’s From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in Early American Methodismpoints to several key emphases of early Methodism, pointing to ways in which the heritage of American Methodism can inform contemporary Methodism. (This book was first published in 1976. Still, I found much of what Dr. Baker had to say in this final chapter to continue to be relevant.) The particular characteristic that Baker discussed was piety. He argues that “the first characteristic of the brand of religion that John and Charles Wesley brought Georgia was piety” (184).
Baker cites the early American Methodist affirmation that ‘God’s design in raising up the preachers called ‘Methodists’ was ‘to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over these lands’ as evidence that in the late 1700s Methodists embraced holiness (or piety). However, when Baker looks a hundred years down the road, he finds that the emphasis has changed:
A century later the Methodists, both in Britain and America, became too respectable for holiness, especially when it was overemphasized and underillustrated by fanatics. It is good to know that after the passage of still another century Methodist theologians are once more exploring the important truths underlined in Wesley’s teaching on Christian perfection. So much for our thinking. But what about our Christian living? Do we not still place too much importance on respectability, rather than on warm piety? Let us remember that piety does not mean a particular set of supposedly religious actions, but lives completely integrated with God’s purposes, or (as Wesley once described it), ‘loving God with all our hearts, and serving him with all our strength.’ In that sense our Methodist forefathers – even John Wesley before his heart was strangely warmed – can furnish us with both a message and a challenge. (186)
I find this to be a jarring quote. One that asks deep questions to contemporary United Methodism – and all denominations that claim a share in the Wesleyan tradition. There seems to be a growing interest in “reclaiming Wesley” in United Methodism. I remember being surprised in my Methodist History and Doctrine class that people all over the theological spectrum in the class seemed to feel that Wesley was articulating something that they believed, but hadn’t been able to previously articulate. On the one hand, I rejoice at the renewed interest in Wesley. On the other hand, I am sometimes alarmed at how often I hear people on opposite sides of the same issue trying to claim the Wesleyan high ground.
Baker pierces this in a profound way. One of the things that people should be able to agree on about what Wesley believed, or what it means to be a standard bearer for the Wesleyan tradition, is the central importance of holiness of heart and life for the Christian life. I think most armchair Wesleyan theologians can articulate this. However, in brilliant Wesleyan fashion, Baker pushes us past what we think to what we live. The question, then, is not: Did the early Methodists believe in the importance of holiness? Rather, the question is: Are Methodists today becoming holy? Nevermind what we say – what about our lives. What are we becoming?
I believe it is the answer to this question that will determine the future of Methodism: Are our lives, both individually and corporately, being “completely integrated with God’s purposes”?
Initially, Baker’s words rang true for Methodism “out there,” for the Church that I love, but is sometimes desperately trying to finds its way again. But then it came home. What about me? I am working to become a Methodist/Wesleyan scholar. Because of the quality of the school I am attending and the wisdom and knowledge that is being imparted to me through the people I am working with, I am confident that I will be able to reasonably articulate, as Baker says, “some of the important truths underlined in Wesley’s teaching on Christian perfection.” But if that is where it ends I may be a scholar of the Wesleyan tradition, but I would not be Wesleyan. And more importantly, I would miss out on the fullness of the Christian life.
Wesley also reminds me that my growth in holiness comes by God’s grace. May God grant me, you, and all who seek to follow Christ, the ability to cooperate with God’s sanctifying grace. May we not merely be a people with a holy past, but may we become a holy people. May we respect the gospel and our Savior too much to refuse to be sanctified through and through. May it be so, for Jesus’ sake.