This essay has reminded me how difficult Wesley is to read well, especially when groups with quite different perspectives seek to use Wesley as warrant for their position. The challenge of letting Wesley speak for himself is especially visible in his final words of advice. Nevertheless, I think Wesley is an essential conversation partner, particularly as United Methodism wrestles with the extent of agreement that is necessary to maintain unity.
If you are just joining the conversation, this is the final post in a four-part series on an essay John Wesley wrote in 1745, “Advice to the People Called Methodists.” These posts are designed to be read together. I hope you will check out the first, second, and third posts!
Wesley’s fourth word of advice for the people called Methodists was “Keep in the very path wherein you now tread. Be true to your principles. Never rest again in the dead formality of religion. Pursue with your might inward and outward holiness, a steady imitation of him you worship, a still increasing resemblance of his imitable perfections, his justice, mercy, and truth.”
Wesley urged Methodists to avoid superstition and bigotry. He defined superstition as placing “religion in doing what God hath not enjoined, or abstaining from what he hath not forbidden.” Bigotry was defined as “confining our affection to our own party, sect, or opinion.” Wesley also wanted Methodists to “stand fast in obedient faith” and “avoid enthusiasm” (expecting to encounter God without using the means of grace).
Wesley continued by encouraging Methodists to “be true also to your principles touching opinions, and the externals of religion.” Here, Wesley once again pressed Methodists to know who they are and hold fast to their identity without condemning anyone “for not thinking as you think.” Methodists should do all that they can to persuade others, but they should never try to force someone to think like them. “If love will not compel him to come in,” Wesley wrote, “leave him to God, the Judge of all.”
After encouraging Methodists to be generous towards others regarding “opinions, and the externals of religion,” he warned them that they should not expect that “others will deal thus with you.” He wrote:
Some will endeavour to fright you out of your principles, some to shame you into a more popular religion, to laugh and rally you out of your singularity. But from none of these will you be in so great danger as from those who assault you with quite different weapons – with softness, good nature, and earnest professions of (perhaps real) goodwill. Here you are equally concerned to avoid the very appearance of anger, contempt, or unkindness, and to hold fast the whole truth of God, both in principle and in practice.
This indeed will be interpreted as unkindness. Your former acquaintance will look upon this, that you will not sin or trifle with them, as a plain proof of your coldness toward them; and this burden you must be content to bear. But labour to avoid all real unkindness, all disobliging words, or harshness of speech, all shyness or strangeness of behaviour. Speak to them with all the tenderness and love, and behave with all the sweetness and courtesy you can, taking care not to give any needless offence, to neighbour or stranger, friend or enemy.
Wesley concluded the essay with a final piece of advice and a prayer. His final piece of advice was: “Perhaps on this very account I might advise you, fifthly, Not to talk much of what you suffer, ‘of the persecution you endured at such a time, and the wickedness of your persecutors.” Instead of talking about what Methodists suffer at the hands of others, he exhorts them to pray for them.
He concluded by himself praying for Methodists:
I have now only to commend you to the care of him who hath all power in heaven and in earth; beseeching him that in every circumstance of life you may stand ‘firm as the beaten anvil to the stroke’; desiring nothing on earth, accounting all things but dung and dross, that you may win Christ, and always remembering, ‘It is the part of a good champion to be flayed alive, and to conquer!’”
Wesley wrote “Advice to the People Called Methodists” in a context where Methodism was under tremendous pressure. (For more information on the serious internal and external pressures Methodists faced in the first half of the 1740s, I highly recommend Richard P. Heitzenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodists.) In a time when my own denomination is in a crucible, it is helpful to know what was important to Wesley in the midst of the pressures he was facing.
In controversy, Wesley worked to be as precise as he could be about who a Methodist was. The question of identity was one that Wesley came back to again and again throughout his leadership of this new movement. He was not interested in maintaining something for its own sake. The details of belief and practice were of immediate concern to Wesley.
I think this is the part of our own history that may be most often misunderstood by denominational leaders. It is common in our current crisis to hear bishops and other key leaders appeal to the importance of unity in the midst of disagreement about marriage and human sexuality. Appeals to unity are often grounded in Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” or quotes like the ones found in this essay. Indeed, Wesley regularly called for Methodists to show tolerance and charity towards those with whom they disagreed. He insisted that Methodists should not anathematize Christians due to disputes related to nonessentials.
Does this mean that we can assume Wesley would advise us today to agree to disagree on the matters that presently divide us? Would he passionately exhort us to focus on what unites us and work to find ways to remain externally united?
The best way I can think of to frame this is in the form of a question: With whom were Methodists disagreeing?
If Methodists disagree with Catholics, Baptists, Eastern Orthodox, or any other Christians, then Wesley is rightly used to call us to charity and to go as far as we can to see the best in these other groups of Christians and work as much as we can with them.
If Methodists disagree among themselves, then Wesley is rightly used to call us to clarity about the inevitably concrete focus on holiness of heart and life. Wesley repeatedly called Methodists to “be true to your principles.” He exhorted them to do this regardless of how those outside of Methodism reacted to these principles. And, to his credit, Wesley was honest that the most likely result of clinging to their principles would be some form of suffering and rejection.
Wesley’s own history shows that he did indeed divide from others due persistent and ongoing disagreement about matters of faith and practice (which he would have put in the category of nonessentials or opinions). Wesley divided from both the Fetter Lane Society and from George Whitefield for these reasons. And both divisions were very difficult for Wesley, damaging relationships that were deeply important to him.
“Catholic Spirit” and other similar statements were not intended to be a guide for dealing with disagreements with Methodism. Methodists had clear positions on all manner of opinions. And Wesley expected Methodists who were in connection with him to hold fast to their doctrine and discipline.
Wesley has been misused for so long by so many that it is very difficult to read him well here. While Wesley presses Methodists to love those with whom they disagree, that is not the same thing as encouraging a broadening of perspective or a watering down of concrete moral and ethical commitments. Contemporary United Methodists too often incorrectly include loving those with whom we disagree with compromise on beliefs and practices. Wesley cannot be used to support such a position. He can be used (and should be!) to remind us that it is essential that we do all we can to love and respect those who do hold such a position.
Wesley’s “Advice to the People Called Methodists” is a relentless call to know who God has called them to be and to be faithful to it. Within that understanding, Methodists are exhorted to treat non-methodists with love and affection.
This essay has reminded me that, for Wesley, the power of Methodism comes from its detailed commitment to a particular way of life in order to pursue holiness of heart and life. Methodists always pursue holiness together expecting growth in holiness to occur in the context of intimate and vulnerable community. For Wesley, the concrete details of practical holiness are simply indispensable because they, by the grace of God, provide the thrust for the very mission of Methodism.
Rev Scott Meeker said:
I think a great failing within the UMC is the lack of teaching our theological heritage. I beleive most congregants in the UMC have little to no undertanding of Wesley’s teaching. My wife and I came to the UMC arounf 1997. I became a local pastor in the UMC in 2007. As I began my studies, I was amazed at how much I had never heard or seen present in the UMC churches we had been a part of. The more I learn, the more it changes my understanding of how to better live out my faith.