What is a Methodist, really? How do you know if you are one? Is it someone who is a member of a denomination that has the word Methodist in the name? Or, is a Methodist something other than a member of a denomination?

In a time when Wesley continues to have deep resonance across the spectrum of United Methodism, as well as other Wesleyan/Methodist traditions, it is worth taking a careful look at the way Wesley defined “Methodists,” as well as the advice he gave to this group of people towards the movement’s beginning.

In 1745, when Methodism was still very new on the scene, John Wesley wrote a short essay “Advice to the People Called Methodists” defining what he meant by “Methodists” and offering his advice to the people who met that definition.

Image from Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Wesley began the essay by acknowledging “it may be needful to specify whom I mean by this ambiguous term, since it would be lost labour to speak to Methodists, so called, without first describing those to whom I speak.”

Wesley then wrote a seven-paragraph definition of what he meant by “Methodists.” And he packed a lot into these paragraphs! So, how did Wesley define a Methodist in this essay? (Click here to read this essay online, though there are some inaccuracies with the transcription. For example, the title is incorrect and the first paragraph is missing.)

We should not be surprised that Wesley’s definition of a Methodist began with “holiness of heart and life.” This was the heartbeat of Methodism throughout Wesley’s life. For Wesley, holiness of heart and life consisted of “conformity in all things to the revealed will of God.” Being conformed to God’s will had internal and external aspects. A Methodist is one whose life is conforming to God’s life so that they not only act as God would act in their place, but they think and feel as God would think and feel in their place. Methodists pursue this conformity. Methodists are not typically conformed in an instant to the will of God in all things. Rather, Methodists are being conformed inwardly and outwardly to the will of God.

This should be jarring to us. Wesley is saying here that Methodists are committed to becoming like God. When Wesley talked about Methodists pursuing holiness of heart and life, he meant it. He expected conformity to the will of God in all things to be the primary passion and motivation of a Methodist.

Wesley fleshed out the Methodist understanding of holiness by emphasizing the ways in which a Methodist is one who becomes like God in imitating God’s justice, mercy, and truth. The goal for a Methodist is for “universal love” to increasingly fill “the heart and govern the life.”

Much of the rest of Wesley’s definition emphasized that holiness is not a work that we do in or for ourselves. Wesley stripped away any merit or pretention to works righteousness. “Love of humankind cannot spring but from the love of God.” And this love of God comes solely by faith – a “supernatural evidence (or conviction) of things not seen.” This faith is a certainty, a bold trust and confidence that God the Father has forgiven my sins and reconciled me, through the work of Jesus Christ, to God’s favor. Faith itself is not a work that we do. It is a work that the Holy Spirit does in us. Methodists, Wesley was adamant, believe that there is nothing good in us except what is “produced by the almighty power of God, by the inspiration or influence of the Holy Ghost.”

After laying all of this ground work, he concluded with three big “Ifs.”

If you continually and constantly seek to know, love, become like, and obey “the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”…

If you “abstain from all evil, and labour, as you have opportunity, to do good to all men, friends or enemies”…

If you join together “to encourage and help each other in thus working out your salvation, and for that end watch over one another in love”…

Then and only then, “you are they whom I mean by Methodists.”

Notice that his definition builds on itself. A Methodist must meet every part of the definition, not only some parts of it.

Here is my attempt to put Wesley’s definition in my own words: A Methodist is someone who pursues holiness of heart and life with zeal and laser-like focus. A Methodist believes that holiness requires avoiding all sin. A Methodist believes that holiness requires concrete expressions of love for others, whether they are easy to love or not. Finally, a Methodist believes that holiness requires Christian community because fellowship and accountability are essential for avoiding sin and growing in love for God and others.

The obvious question, it seems to me, is: Would John Wesley recognize us as Methodists? Perhaps this definition is most helpful as an aspiration, an encouragement to seek the Lord on where we have room to grow and take a step in faith. The challenge is that in Wesley’s understanding of a Methodist it is something of an all or nothing proposition. If one is not in a small group where everyone is “watching over one another in love,” for example, Wesley would not expect to see progress in avoiding sin or growing in love for our neighbor.

I see the Holy Spirit at work, and by the power of the Spirit, I’m meeting more and more Methodists all the time!

After being as clear as he could be about what he meant by a Methodist, Wesley then offered these particular (and peculiar!) people five pieces of advice. This advice to the people called Methodists will be the focus of the next post.