What can John Wesley teach us about racism?

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Here is a taste of Michael Gerson’s recent Washington Post column:

By instinct and conviction, Wesley was a Tory — the God-and-country, law-and-order party of his day. He was a firm believer in benevolent monarchy and would entertain no nonsense about power originating in the people. After some initial sympathy with the complaints of the American colonists, Wesley became a vigorous, public opponent of the revolution.

According to modern political categories, Wesley would be an unlikely recruit to social justice agitation. But the founder of Methodism became one of the first major public figures in Britain to call for the abolition of slavery for a particular reason: The evangelical conception of salvation dictated a high view of human worth. In Wesley’s view, human beings were created in God’s image, fell into sin and rebellion, but remain universally capable of accepting God’s offer of saving grace. And no human being capable of making such a choice should be treated as less than human.

Wesley’s 1774 pamphlet, “Thoughts on Slavery” remains a remarkable document. Promising to set the Bible “out of the question,” Wesley makes his arguments (generally) in nonreligious terms that would appeal to British readers influenced by Enlightenment ideas. All human beings, in his view, have the right to make decisions about their life and spiritual destiny, and no human institution has the right to interfere. “If therefore you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of the mercy, nor the revealed law of GOD) render unto all their due,” Wesley wrote. “Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature.”

Read the entire piece here.

John Wesley and the Life of the Mind

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“I am an evangelical Christian, so it was nice to hear a lecture about evangelicalism that was not related to contemporary politics.”

This was our intern Annie Thorn‘s response to Bruce Hindmarsh’s lecture “John Wesley, Early Evangelicalism, and Science.” Hindmarsh, the James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity at Regent College in Vancouver, delivered this lecture on Tuesday night at Messiah College.  Hindmarsh is the author of three books published by Oxford University Press: John Newton and the English Evangelical Tradition (1996),  The Evangelical Conversion Narrative (2005), and The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism (2018).  He is the past-president of the American Society of Church History.

Hindmarsh, whose lecture drew upon his 2018 book on early evangelicalism, argued that the rise of evangelicalism coincided historically with the reception of modern science in mainstream eighteenth-century culture.  The new science was generally embraced by evangelicals as a source of what Hindmarsh describes as “wonder, love, and praise.”  Few did more to popularize the new science than John Wesley.

According to Hindmarsh, Wesley accepted the findings of the new science, but he “nested” these new ideas in the “glory of God.” In other words, there was no tension between the two. Wesley was not an anti-intellectual. He wrote a host of books and pamphlets on science. His contemplation of the created order, and his advancement of society’s understanding of the new science, aroused the same kind of “doxology and praise” that stemmed from his conversion experience, that moment in Wesley’s life when his “heart was strangely warmed.”

I left the lecture with several thoughts.

First, like Annie, I was glad to hear again about evangelicals, like Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, who were intellectuals. If you read this blog regularly, you know I have been re-reading Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectual in American Life.  In his chapter on evangelicalism, Hofstadter argues that New England Puritans were people of the mind, but the project integrating faith and learning all but disappeared with the revivalism of the First Great Awakening.  (Edwards, Hofstadter argues, was the exception here).  Hindmarsh is one of several scholars of evangelicalism who has challenged this idea. (Although I am not sure Hofstadter is completely wrong.  I am inclined to think of Edwards and Wesley as outliers).

As I listened to Hindmarsh in the context of my fresh reading of Hofstadter, I realized again that much of the motivation behind the work of the previous generation of evangelical historians–George Marsden and Mark Noll come immediately to mind–was to challenge Hofstadter’s portrayal of evangelicalism as anti-intellectual. Marsden, Noll, and others authors showed us that evangelicals did care about thinking. They also showed us with their lives and work that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Hindmarsh’s lecture, and my post-lecture conversation with Annie, made me think about Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Noll argues that the anti-intellectual populism of present-day evangelicalism was more of a 19th and 20th-century phenomenon than an 18th-century one.  Modern day evangelicals can find serious thinkers in their history.  Noll showed that it is possible to explain the evangelical move toward anti-intellectualism as a rejection of the intellectual pursuits of evangelicals like Edwards and Wesley.

Second, it was good to listen to a scholar talk about the 18th-century. I told Bruce that his lecture made me long for the days when I used to spend most of my time doing early American history. Indeed, it’s a lot safer there. 🙂 I hope to return to this world once this whole Trump thing dies down!

Third, I left with a question about Messiah College, the school where I teach.  Messiah is rooted in the Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Pietist traditions of the Christian faith. Of these three traditions, Anabaptism seems to be the one that gets the most attention.  I think this is because Anabaptism’s commitment to peace and social justice often fits well with the progressive mindset of many academics.  But if there are Anabaptist and Pietist intellectual traditions, they often get overshadowed by a kind of activism (Anabaptism) and experiential religion (Pietism) that does not always draw heavily on the life of the mind. (This, I might add, is changing–especially on the Pietism front). But Hindmarsh made me wonder if Wesleyanism, at least as articulated by Wesley himself, might help us with the heavy intellectual lifting necessary for a Christian college to sustain a robust life of the mind.  I will continue to ponder this.

Why John Wesley Opposed the American Revolution

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During last weekend’s #ChristianAmerica? tweetstorm I wrote:

Of course it is difficult to capture the nuance of Wesley’s view in 140 characters.  I wrote about his opposition to the American Revolution briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Today at The Anxious Bench, David Swartz does an even better job of explaining why Wesley was not a big fan of the Revolution.  He boils down Wesley’s opposition to four points:

  1. The colonies enjoyed the same liberties as the rest of the British empire.  Rebellion was not necessary.
  2. The colonial opposition to the British was too passionate and angry.
  3. The colonists did not allow “liberty of conscience” to those in America who did not support the Revolution.
  4. The colonists were hypocrites.  They said they were “enslaved” by the British, yet they owned African slaves.

See how Swartz develops these points here.

Did Hillary Clinton Just Quote John Wesley?

Clinton MethodistDuring her victory speech tonight, Hillary Clinton urged her followers to “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”  (Or something similar to that).

She said that this was an “old Methodist saying.”

In Methodist circles, this quote has long been attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley.  Unfortunately, Wesley never said it.

Here is Kevin Watson, a professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology:

You may have seen this quote in a nice frame on the wall of a Methodist Church, or even published in a book, citing John Wesley as its author. (For example, it was cited in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.) Despite the persistence of the quote being attributed to John Wesley, you will not find in anywhere in his writing.

You can add this quote to other quotes that are stubbornly connected to John Wesley despite the fact that there is no source that connects them to Wesley’s pen. Two I have previously written about here are:

“I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” [Original post here.]

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” [Original post here.]

There are many things I have come to appreciate about twitter, but one of the things that I find the most frustrating is the persistence of misquotes of historical figures. And due to my own area of specialization, misquoting John Wesley gets to me the most. Wesley and others were frequently misquoted before social media, but with the advent of twitter misquoting Wesley seems to be more regular. Wesley said enough interesting, surprising, and even controversial things that we should not need to attribute things to him that he did not actually say. Historical accuracy matters.

Richard P. Heitzenrater discussed these quotes and some other ways Wesley is misquoted or misunderstood in a piece published in Circuit Rider in 2003. You can view a PDF of that article here.

The United Methodist Reporter also wrote a similar piece titled “Wesley, misquoted” in 2011.

In any event, regarding this particular quote, there is no evidence that Wesley said this. We should stop saying that he did.

The Author’s Corner with Geordan Hammond

Geordan Hammond is Senior Lecturer in Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College (Manchester, UK) and Director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre. This interview is based on his new book, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford University Press, July 2014).
JF: What led you to write John Wesley in America?
GH: The book has its origins in my doctoral thesis at The University of Manchester. I initially wanted to write on John Wesley’s relationship with America and Americans in his lifetime. Studying the two years he spent in the colony of Georgia as an Anglican missionary was the natural starting point for this project. When I got into the work on Georgia I increasingly became fascinated with the subject and realized that a lot of sources are available, many of which had scarcely been used by past biographers of Wesley and some never before used by them. Studying Wesley in Georgia fit well with my interests in history, theology, and missionary work.   
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of John Wesley in America?
GH: I argue that the Georgia mission, for Wesley, served as a laboratory for implementing his views of primitive Christianity. His aim of restoring the doctrine, discipline, and practice of the early church in the primitive Georgia wilderness was the central motivating factor in his decision to embark for Georgia and in his clerical practice in the colony. 
JF: Why do we need to read John Wesley in America​?
GH: This question could be answered in a variety of ways depending on the interests of the individual reader. It is the first book-length study of John Wesley’s experience in America. In the past, the majority of Wesley scholars have seen his Georgia mission as a ‘failure’ leading to his evangelical conversion not long after he returned to England from the colony. I argue for the importance of evaluating Wesley’s time in Georgia in its own right. I think a contextual study of Wesley in Georgia presents more areas of ‘success’ than scholars have often realized, and also helps to reveal more continuity with Wesley’s post-Georgia ministry and theology than has often been recognized. For those interested in the eighteenth-century Church of England, the book demonstrates the depth of influence of Anglican High Churchmen and Nonjurors on Wesley’s conception and practice of primitive Christianity. I document the connections between Wesley’s participation in the revival of patristic scholarship at Oxford and his clerical practice in Georgia. Wesley’s vision for restoring primitive Christianity had a dominant effect on his relationships in Georgia. For anyone interested in the history of colonial Georgia, the book contributes to our knowledge of religion and politics in the colony.   
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
GH: Thanks for calling me ‘an American historian’! I decided to become a historian as an undergraduate at Point Loma Nazarene University after a long process of discernment and elimination of other possibilities. When I chose a vocation in history it felt like coming back home as I recalled the interest in history I developed as a child through the stories my grandfather told me. At Fuller Theological Seminary I combined my love for history and theology. So I became a church historian—a vocation that includes the history of American Christianity. While I teach a wide-range of church history from early to modern, my primary areas of research and writing are on John Wesley, early Methodism, the Church of England in the eighteenth century, and the Evangelical Revivals in their international contexts. Being a historian gives me the tools to better understand my heritage in the Wesleyan tradition and to help shape it for the future.
JF: What is your next project?

GH: I am one of the organizers through the Manchester Wesley Research Centre of the ‘George Whitefield at 300’ conference this June 25-27 at Pembroke College, Oxford (where Whitefield was a student). The conference will feature over forty papers on aspects of Whitefield’s life, context, and legacy. My next publishing project will be co-editing a book featuring select papers from the conference. Part of my ongoing publishing work includes serving as co-editor of the journal Wesley and Methodist Studies.   

JF:  Thanks, Geordan!

"Early Evangelicalism: A Reader"

I finally made it to my Messiah College mailbox today after some time on vacation and was pleased to find a copy of Jonathan Yeager’s Early Evangelicalism: A Reader (Oxford, 2013).  Yeager has put together a wonderful collection of eighteenth-century sources related to the rise of evangelicalism in the Atlantic world.   Scholars who are teaching courses in American evangelicalism or religious history will find this book invaluable.  It is the only book of its kind.

The book includes documents written by Isaac Watts, Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf, Jonathan Dickinson, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Howell Harris, Charles Wesley, Gilbert Tennent, Samuel Finley, Hannah Heaton, Nathan Cole, William McCulloch, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, James Robe, Thomas Prince, Susanna Anthony, Thomas Gillespie, Philip Doddridge, John Cennick, David Brainerd, Benjamin Ingham, Joseph Bellamy, Hugh Kennedy, John Witherspoon, Jonathan Edwards, Sarah Prince Gill, John Maclaurin, Sarah Osborn, James Hervey, Esther Edwards Burr, Samuel Davies, Anne Steele, Eleazar Wheelock, Henry Venn, John Newton, William Romaine, John Erskine, Mary Fletcher, John William Fletcher, William Williams, Samson Occom, Isaac Backus, Phillis Wheatley, Samuel Hopkins, John Newton, John Ryland Jr., Henry Alline, Andrew Fuller, Charles Nisbet, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, Olaudah Equiano, Francis Asbury, Thomas Coke, William Carey, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Richard Allen, Charles Simeon, William Wilberforce, Lemuel Hanyes, and Jedidah Morse.

Yeager offers short introductions to each document and a more extensive introduction to the entire volume.

I am already thinking about how I will use this book.  Yeager’s collection is so comprehensive that he might convince scholars to design entire courses around the book rather than trying to fit reader into already existing courses.