Finding Wesley in a Broom closet
Te Haahi Weteriana O Aotearoa
Many years ago when I was a doctoral student at the University of Z?rich, I was invited to attend a Methodist Theological Conference at Lincoln College, Oxford University. Following the Conference I remained at Lincoln College, Oxford University to do research on Wesley under the guidance of Vivian Green. From Lincoln I travelled to London and was given access to continue my research at City Road where I worked with John Bower. John introduced me to Raymond George who invited me to spend a term as a guest Fellow at Richmond College, the Methodist Theological College just outside London overlooking the Thames. That year of study and research in England was one of the highlights of my life. It introduced me to the hospitality and generosity of what Wesley called the Connexion and I have been forever grateful to British Methodism for enlarging my understanding and appreciation of the Methodist Church.
One day while at Richmond, I took a break from my research and went for a walk. Quite by accident I inadvertently opened a door which led me into a storage closet where the college cleaners kept their supplies. Just as I was turning to leave I looked up and noticed a number of very old books arranged neatly on some shelves high up on the walls of the closet above the cleaning materials. Being curious I found a small stepladder in the corner and used it to get a better look at the books. The books were covered in dust and obviously had been stored there for a long time. The first book I took down and dusted off was an early Methodist hymnbook containing original hymns by Charles Wesley. I opened it and began paging carefully through it. In the margins I noticed written notes and comments in the unmistakable handwriting of John Wesley. I observed that in every instance where Charles Wesley in his hymn had used the word ‘sinless’, John Wesley had crossed the word out in the margin and replaced it with the word ‘spotless’. The next book I took down from the shelf was a copy of the French philosopher, Nicole Malebranche’s book, The Search for Truth. Throughout its pages I came upon numerous comments by Wesley. Wesley, I later learned, had been very interested in the thought of Malebranche and his philosophy, a cross of Cartesian dualism and Christian Platonism. Malebranche had an enormous influence on the theology and preaching of Jonathan Edwards, one of the formative leaders and shapers of the New England Revival in North America. I can still remember my first encounter with Edwards’ classic sermon Sinners In the Hands of an Angry God in my Practical Theology class. Edwards, an avid Calvinist, portrayed God as an austere, omnipotent sovereign who directed his angels to dangle the damned over the fires of hell and drop them in one at a time. (Read Jonathan Edwards’ sermons alongside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, The Scarlet Letter and you get a good sense of what life must have been like in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries.) As I dusted off and paged through the books on the shelves I gained a new appreciation of the scale of Wesley’s reading and also an insight into the man himself. For example on the front title page of a book by the Deist, John Tillotson, Wesley wrote simply: This book will make good waste paper. It turned out that I had discovered part of Wesley’s personal library in the broom closet of Richmond College. When I informed Raymond George of my discovery, he was shocked and terribly embarrassed that for years these books sat there on those shelves in that broom closet, undisturbed and unnoticed, gathering dust.
That experience has remained with me as both a metaphor and a message. On the one hand as a metaphor, the ‘broom closet and dusty books’ symbolises one of the deep and enduring problems of Methodism: our all too comfortable but ambivalent relationship to Wesley and the origins of Methodism. To some Methodists Wesley remains an icon-like superhero riding from one end of Britain to the other proclaiming the Gospel to all and sundry. This oft uncritical, iconographic hero-worship has sometimes caused Methodists to turn a blind eye to the other side of Wesley: autocratic and driven. As the architect of American Methodism Francis Asbury liked to say, “Whatever big Daddy wants big Daddy gets’. On the other hand if ‘the broom closet and dusty book’ is a metaphor it also contains a message for Methodists. That message depends a lot on whether we are prepared to go into the broom closet, dust off the books, take them out of the broom closet and learn from our past. I would be the first to acknowledge that Wesley had his shortcomings, but that is not a good reason to ignore or even dismiss his relevance to the challenges Methodists face today.
A number of years ago I came across a short article by the Cuban Liberation theologian, Israel Batista. In that article he referred to the Bible as ‘a storehouse of meaning’, a book about a community of people who were blessed with the gift of meaning. That meaning treasured and preserved through the centuries gave the Christian church its identity and purpose. I found that a helpful and insightful way to think about the Bible and the tradition of the church. It was clear to me where Batista was going with the metaphor of the Bible as a storehouse. If we go back to Jesus the source of the Church’s meaning and explore his life, argued Batista, we can debate and discuss what he taught but we cannot afford to ignore where he chose to stand. Jesus, Batista concluded, opted for the poor. This option for the poor, argued Batista, was the subversive aspect of the Bible as a storehouse of meaning.
As I began my writing project on Wesley I asked myself what was it that was subversive about Wesley. The obvious distinctions immediately came to mind: his distinction between the ordinary call to ministry and his extra-ordinary call; his concept of the whole world as his parish in contrast to the parish-based polity of Anglicanism; his ambivalent relations with the established Church of England in spite of his constant professions of being loyal to it; his theological synergism which went against the confessional theological mood of the time; his deep understanding of Eastern Christian traditions such as Macarius, often ignored and suppressed by Western Christianity; his borrowing of church organisation models from the Lollards and the Moravians which undermined the traditional polity of the Church; when theological language had become esoteric and remote,his call for plain truth for plain people; his emphasis on universal redemption as opposed to traditional reformed, particular redemption; his catholic spirit as opposed to the sectarian spirit of the age. The list went on and on. Gradually, however, what became most apparent to me was Wesley’s decision to step outside the boundaries of accepted church polity and socio-cultural reality and engage in ministry from a base among those who had been excluded. Especially enlightening in this regard are the oft-quoted words of the Duchess of Buckingham after attending Methodist gathering in the parlour of the Countess of Huntingdon,
‘I thank your ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers. Their doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting, and I cannot but wonder that your ladyship should relish any sentiments so much at variance with high rank and good breeding.’[i]
Unlike his colleague, George Whitefield, Wesley was never comfortable in the parlours and homes of the rich and privileged but rather preferred the simplicity of his modest lodgings at the Foundry. Perhaps there was a tinge of arrogance in this choice, but I think one would be hard-pressed challenging that choice by trying to reduce Wesley’s brand of Christianity to Victorian morality. In his own words, Wesley would have said that he was simply following the way of Providence as it opened out before him. He believed he was doing what he believed Jesus would have done. And in doing that, there was no place to stand except alongside those who had been marginalised, in spite of his own innate political conservatism. Douglas Meeks in his book, The Portion of the Poor, has observed that ‘Wesley’s turn to the poor:
‘was not simply service of the poor, but more importantly life with the poor?. He actually shared the life of the poor in significant ways, even to the point of contracting diseases from their beds?’[ii]
So with this underlying premise, I set out to take another look at Wesley’s life and ministry, not to articulate a particular Wesleyan theology or to establish his place in history, or even to add another informative biography to the already long list of Wesley biographies. In this task I looked for those characteristics of Wesley’s life and work and the emergence of early Methodism that were particularly ‘subversive’ of the dominant paradigms of the age. From the start it became clear to me that Wesley, unlike his theological contemporaries, chose what the American poet, Robert Frost, has called the road less travelled. The contradictions began to pop up everywhere: Instead of the usual extracurricular activities of student life at Oxford, Wesley chose the discipline of the Holy Club spending his time with a few others gathering food for the poor, visiting the prisons and helping those in need. Instead of a comfortable and well-provisioned life as a lifetime Fellow of Lincoln College, Wesley chose the company of those who worked in the mills, mines and factories of a rapidly industrialising England. Instead of the liturgy, sacraments, the decency and order of the polity of the Church he loved, Wesley chose the unpredictable ‘paroxysms’[iii] (a term used by Robert Southey to characterise early Methodist worship) of Methodist chapels and societies. Gradually it became apparent to me that there were clear ‘political’[iv] choices embedded in early Methodism that shaped the praxis of the movement. These political choices form the substance of the first part of the book.
After reflecting on these clear choices Wesley made in his life and on the peculiar polity of Methodism that arose because of those choices, I identified at least four criteria embedded in the praxis of early Methodism : Expedience or the rule of necessity; Experience or the rule of sensibility; Consensus, the rule of cooperation and finally Vision or the rule of integrity. As rules, these criteria guided Wesley as he sought to provide direction to the Methodist movement.[v] They were not always easy to follow and implement, and, as Wesley often discovered they led him in directions he hadn’t anticipated – sometimes at great personal cost. Nevertheless they gave the developing Methodist movement some of its enduring qualities: a democratic spirit, a flexible polity, an evangelical heart and an ecumenical latitude that was rare, in an age characterised by continual discord not only over religious doctrine but also over political and social realities.
The second part of the book seemed to follow naturally out of the first part. As I reflected on Wesley’s unusual praxis, I came to see that Wesley was forced by the context of emergent Methodism to reduce Christian theology to what he believed were its defining teachings. As he often said, he wanted plain truth. Methodist theology was done ‘on the run’ or more precisely on the back of a horse – thus it’s eclectic and synergistic character. From this one should not construe that Wesley was a second-rate theologian. Given the time and inclination Wesley could have put together a theological system as coherent and as compelling as any of the Reformers. However the constraints of the Methodist movement did not afford him this luxury. Instead much of his operative theology was embedded in traditional reformed and Anglican theology with strong emphases on such doctrines as original sin, salvation by faith, predestination and Christian perfection. Holding Methodist theology together was Wesley’s deep commitment to the conventional Trinitarian theology (cf. doctoral dissertation: A theology of Experience). Contained within these traditional theological themes I identified a set of theological imperatives that permeated early Methodist theology. I decided to call them the principles of Methodism, but in reality they were much more than principles. They were the driving and shaping forces at work in the way Methodists did their theology. The first imperative I identified was the principle of providence, a principle rarely understood or acknowledged today. Wesley frequently referred to ‘the ways of Providence’ to explain the emergence and growth of Methodism and he regularly thought of the direction of his life as due to the leadings of Providence. The second imperative was the principle of compassion, what the Roman Catholic theologian, Matthew Fox, has called our most underused human resource. The third principle was that of grace, which if taken seriously radically changes the traditional paradigms of contemporary Christianity. Finally the fourth imperative I identified was the principle of unconditional love which it seemed to me was the integrating factor between Christian praxis and reflection; between what Methodists did and said, between talking the talk and actually walking the talk. As Wesley himself often observed ‘we may not know much in this life, but we can love much’. It was this emphasis on love, love of God and love of others, love as the end purpose of life and love as the reason for life – love which was both universal and unconditional, that made the message of Methodism sound like a new gospel to those oppressed and weighed down by the forces of privilege, class and power. To people displaced by the many enclosure acts of eighteenth century England, to miners, millworkers and factory workers who worked from sun up to sun down, to the poor trapped not only in the poverty of their class but also in a poverty of spirit – the words of God’s grace being free in all and free for all must have struck the notes of forgiveness, healing and freedom in their ears, for the first time .
Finally, I turned my attention to what Wesley called the Character of a Methodist. Methodist behaviour and practice often brought criticism and derision. In my book I include an appendix identifying over thirty documents in the corpus of Wesley’s writings that are apologies for Methodism. These writings served a twofold purpose: first, to defend Methodism before its critics and second, to help Methodists recognise and appreciate the significance of belonging to a faith community seeking personal and social transformation.
Some of you may remember, that a number of years ago I addressed Conference on the theme: The Character of a Methodist. In that address I described Methodists as persons with warm hearts, catholic spirits and a whole gospel. I still think that best describes the spirit of Methodism which Wesley sought. However, after revisiting the sources, I realised I had omitted something important. Wesley often grew impatient with the constant strife among Christians over opinions. As I pointed out earlier, he wanted ‘plain truth for plain people’ and, consequently, he sought to inculcate into Methodist practice and polity considerable tolerance and understanding. Methodists needed to know who they were and what they stood for – but that did not give them the right to act or to think that they were better or superior to others. Methodists ‘think and let think’, affirmed Wesley, but, at the same time, they recognised and respected the opinions of others. Furthermore respect for others and their opinions especially when those opinions appeared contrary to the essentials of Christianity did not give Methodists permission to ignore, condemn or dismiss those opinions or the person who held them. As his four Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion so aptly illustrate Wesley took the opinions of others very seriously and tried to understand them. In so doing he accorded others who differed with him a much higher level of respect and tolerance than just acknowledging differences. And he expected the people called Methodists to do the same. Thus I added a fourth quality: an open mind. A Methodist is one then who expresses four qualities: a warm heart, an open mind, a catholic spirit and a whole gospel.
In the concluding chapter of the book I have attempted to re-imagine these enduring themes of Wesley and the early Methodists to see how they might affect our practice, inspire our theology and renew our lives as Methodists. Methodism was first a movement and it is that sense of movement I believe we need to recapture. While I fully acknowledge that most movements, from a sociological perspective, eventually institutionalise themselves, I also recognise that institutionalisation dramatically changes a movement. We can become so ‘captured’ by the priorities of property, programmes and finances that we forget what gave us birth, that we lose sight of the rules that first guided us, that we distrust the theological imperatives that once led us and that we lose those qualities that made us who we are. When that happens, we spend most of our time on what I call ‘holding patterns’, trying desperately to hold on to what we may have already lost and are afraid to acknowledge. In regard to his Fellowship at Lincoln, in regard to his time in Georgia as a missionary, in regard to his constant struggle with Whitefield and his Calvinist followers; in regard to Methodism in the Americas and finally in regard to his relationships to the Church of England and with his brother Charles, Wesley learned over and over again; letting go of the old can make space for the new to take its place. Isn’t that what the Christian faith is all about: new life and resurrection?
© 2003 Jim Stuart
I recommend Roy Hattersley’s recent biography of Wesley, John Wesley: A Brand for the Burning
, Little Brown, London
[i] W E H Lecky, History of England in the 18th century
[ii] Meeks, M D (ed) The Position of the Poor, p 10
[iii] Paroxysm: an uncontrollable outburst, a sudden attack, a fit or convulsion?
[iv] Political: I use the term in reference to the creation of polity or policy-making.
[v] Cf Jeremy Taylor: The Rule and Exercise of Holy Living and Dying