Do you know who you are, Methodists?

I wonder if that would be one of John Wesley’s first questions for contemporary Methodists. It was a driving concern for him throughout his leadership of Methodism in its beginnings. Over and over again, Wesley defined, described, and reiterated what he did and did not mean by a Methodist. Wesley really wanted Methodists to know who they are!

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

Over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself reading Wesley’s essay “Advice to the People Called Methodists.” I initially read the essay because I was curious to revisit the advice he gave to Methodism in its first decade.

The previous post summarized Wesley’s extensive definition of a Methodist in this essay. Here is my summary of Wesley’s definition of a Methodist from that post:

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.

While the title “Advice to the People Called Methodists” suggests that Wesley’s focus was advising Methodists, more than half of the essay was spent simply defining and clarifying what Wesley meant by a Methodist. Indeed, Wesley’s first words of advice really continued to refine what was (and was not) meant by a Methodist.

I believe Wesley’s purpose in writing this essay could be described like this: “Methodists, know who you are!”

Wesley’s first word of advice was: “Consider, with deep and frequent attention, the peculiar circumstances wherein you stand.”

This first piece of advice provides twenty-first century readers a helpful reminder that Wesley wrote this advice in a particular time and place. That Wesley was writing to a particular context is obvious from the content of the first piece of advice itself. Wesley reminds Methodists that “you are a new people.” Wesley used this to reinforce the core of his definition of a Methodist:

Your principles are new, in this respect, that there is no other set of people among us (and possibly not in the Christian world) who hold them all in the same degree and connexion; who so strenuously and continually insist on the absolute necessity of universal holiness both in heart and life; of a peaceful, joyous love of God; of a supernatural evidence of things not seen; of an inward witness that we are the children of God; and of the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, in order to any good thought or word or work.

Wesley provides further precision to this new people by speculating that “perhaps there is no other set of people (at least not visibly united together) who lay so much, and yet no more stress than you do, on rectitude of opinions, on outward modes of worship, and the use of those ordinances which you acknowledge to be of God.”

This part of Wesley’s advice is essentially a condensed form of Wesley’s well-known (and typically misunderstood) sermon “Catholic Spirit.” Wesley urged Methodists to be generous towards those who are not a part of this particular “people called Methodists.” He was not suggesting that “opinions, outward modes of worship, and ordinances” are irrelevant and a matter where Methodists themselves can agree to disagree.

Wesley’s emphasis on the novelty of Methodists “strictness of life” may be the most jarring part of his first piece of advice. Wesley described a commitment to a way of life that was distinctly unfashionable:

I mean, your making it a rule to abstain from fashionable diversions, from reading plays, romances, or books of humour, from singing innocent songs, or talking in a merry, gay, diverting manner; your plainness of dress; your manner of dealing in trade; your exactness in observing the Lord’s day; your scrupulosity as to things that have not paid custom; your total abstinence from spirituous liquors (unless in cases of extreme necessity); your rule ‘not to mention the fault of an absent person, in particular, of ministers, or of those in authority’, may justly be termed new.

To go back to the beginning of this post: Wesley’s first piece of advice is interesting because it is more of a continued description of what makes a Methodist a Methodist. Wesley is urging Methodists: Know who you are. Be true to who you are.

At this stage I can hear one of my seminary professors: So what? Is there anything that we can glean from Wesley’s definition of a Methodist and his initial advice? Does this have anything to say to Methodists today?

I think it does!

First, Wesley reminds us that context matters. In 1745, Methodists found themselves in a “peculiar circumstance.” Wesley realized that God was doing a new thing and he was determined to do all that he could to support it. This essay can serve as a helpful call to think more deeply about our “peculiar circumstance.” What is God up to in our midst? What is the Spirit doing? How can we best cooperate with the ongoing movement of God to seek and save the lost? How can we best cooperate with the ongoing movement of God to reconcile and heal creation?

Second, in order to answer the previous questions faithfully, Wesley reminds of our fundamental need to know who we are. We cannot be faithful to who God has called us to be if we are not clear about who God has called us to be. Perhaps the real crisis facing Methodism today is a basic identity crisis.

I continue to be convinced that before Methodism can move forward from the various places it seems to be stuck, we must first remember why we were created by the Holy Spirit in the first place. We need to know our own history. We need to return to our calling as a distinct people. If Wesley was right that Methodism was raised up by God, then, it will only continue to have life and vitality as long as it continues to be led by God.

Wesley discussed what may be the major challenge to following God in his second word of advice. This challenge to faithfulness, as well as the solution, is the focus of the next post in this series.