If you are United Methodist and have attended seminary since 1995, you have (or should have) read Wesley and the People Called Methodists. This book is the standard history of John Wesley and early Methodism and it is required reading in every Methodist History course for which I have seen a syllabus. I have also used the book both times I have taught the Wesleyan Movement course in Course of Study.
Abingdon has just released a second edition of Wesley and the People Called Methodists. The new edition, according to the preface, “entails many significant revisions and emendations, based on twenty additional years of research, teaching, thinking, reading, publication, and lecturing” (ix). This is particularly significant when the author of the book is taken into account. Richard P. Heitzenrater occupied the William Kellon Quick chair of Church History and Wesley Studies at Duke Divinity School and is the General Editor of the Bicentennial Edition of The Works of John Wesley. Heitzenrater is considered by many to be the foremost expert on eighteenth-century Methodism.
In reading the second edition, I have been delightfully reminded of Heitzenrater’s beautiful prose, which makes Wesley’s life and the broader context of early Methodism accessible to the reader. It is a rare book that is both accessible to a novice to the topic and challenges and advances the understanding of more advanced readers. Wesley and the People Called Methodists pulls this off admirably.
In the preface to the first edition, Heitzenrater proposed to “tell the story of the rise of Methodism as a narrative of unfolding developments, without describing subsequent consequences until they occur” (xiii). He continued, “The history of early Methodism is best understood in terms of the emergence and interrelatedness of theological, organizational, and missional developments – each aspect is shaped over a period of many years, and none of these elements is fully understood without seeing its dependence upon the other two” (xiii). Heitzenrater is one of very few historians who has been able to narrate the significance of the connection of theological, organizational, and missional developments for the development of early Methodism. And he does so with an unsurpassed attention to detail.
Edgardo A. Colón-Emeric’s endorsement of the book provides another perspective on its contribution:
We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Richard Heitzenrater for this book. Its elegant prose and presentation, supported by years of primary research, offer a clear and compelling picture of John Wesley and the spiritual renewal with which he is forever associated. Reading this book will help you understand Methodism better and, perhaps, even be caught up in its movement toward holiness.
The only criticism I have of the book relates to its production, which is beyond the author’s control. The print quality of the copy of the book I received is poor. The ink on several pages is much too light, as happens on a printer that is running out of ink. And even when this problem is not present, the combination of ink and paper makes the book feel like it is a photo-copied version of the original. Consistent with Heitzenrater’s attention to detail, the first edition contained dozens of illustrations that further illuminate key pieces of the history of early Methodism. The second edition is also illustrated, but the quality of the images is not as good as the first edition. It often feels like the resolution of the images is too low, or that the printer was not of high enough quality. In comparing the first and second editions of the book as a print volume, the first edition appears to me to be of significantly better quality. These are admittedly picky, but they are disappointing detractions from an exceptional book.
I would recommend the second edition of Wesley and the People Called Methodists even if you have already read the first edition. And if you haven’t read the first edition, this book should be moved to the top of your reading list. I could not recommend this book more highly for anyone who wants to better understand the beginnings of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.