What do Christians believe and why? Why are there so many different Christian churches and denominations? Do we all worship and serve the same God? Do we share anything meaningful in common?
Continuing this Sunday, May 29, with the Methodists, we will explore questions about what Christians believe and why in both Sanctuary and Fellowship Hall worship services. The following is a selection from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Christianity’s Family Tree,” which this sermon series is based on:
Methodism: People of the Extreme Center
Methodism was born out of the struggle of ideas that took place in England from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century. The conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism in England had led to blood-shed and even civil war as England’s monarchs severed ties to Rome, reestablished them, then severed and reestablished them again. Ultimately, England’s church would be Protestant; but the question became, “How Protestant?” The struggle for control of the Church of England was a three-way tug of war among Roman Catholics, more-radical Protestant reformers (Puritans who wanted to purify or purge the English church of Catholic influence), and those who sought a middle way between these two. As we have seen, it was the middle way that ultimately prevailed, but not without tremendous religious turmoil and protest.
We might picture this period of England’s history as the swinging of a pendulum between religious ideas. After two hundred years of turmoil among the three groups described above, a new movement called the Enlightenment offered those frustrated with the old religious debates salvation through knowledge and reason. People ascribing to Enlightenment principles retained membership in the church and formally held that they were Christians, but increasingly their allegiance to Christianity was in name only. Partly as a result of this trend, religious vitality and morals declined during the eighteenth century; and this produced another reaction—another swing of the pendulum—known as Pietism. Among the impulses of the Pietists was the formation of religious “societies” or groups aimed at fostering holiness. These groups often taught that reason was deceptive and that truth was found in the heart and in the spiritual realm, not in the realm of reason.
Knowing something about all these forces is helpful in understanding Methodists because in profound ways Methodism was shaped by them and by their impact on one man: John Wesley.
Introducing John Wesley
John Wesley, born June 17, 1703, was the fifteenth of nineteen children of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, nine of whom died in infancy. Wesley’s grandfathers had been “Dissenters,” also referred to as “Nonconformists” (terms used to describe those who were dissatisfied with the official state church and who formed their own churhes). Wesley’s parents, however, were a part of the established church, his father being a priest in the Church of England. Thus, even in Wesley’s own family the tensions and challenges of theological debates were present.
John ultimately followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry, studying at Christ Church (College), Oxford. There young John felt a desire for God and for a more-rigorous faith than he saw among many of his classmates. In 1725, he wrote that his desire was no longer to be a “nominal” Christian but to be a “real” Christian. Following his ordination and a brief stint in the local church, he returned to Oxford, where he began to meet with a group of college students who also longed for a more-rigorous faith. These students worshiped together and pursued acts of charity in the community. Their methodical approach to the pursuit of holiness earned them the name “Methodist” among their critics. The name stuck.
Wesley was shaped both by the spirit of the Enlightenment and by the Pietist movement that was skeptical of reason, holding these seemingly opposing forces together in tension with each other. This union of reason with the desire for a personal faith would become a defining characteristic of Methodism. To this day, United Methodists see themselves as people who bring together both a reasonable faith that is intellectually satisfying and a passionate and emotionally compelling faith that touches the heart.
In the early years, Wesley’s own faith leaned more toward the intellect, though he had a deep yearning to experience an assurance of salvation. At the age of thirty-five, after a failed mission to America, Wesley became increasingly aware of his own lack of faith. Then, in 1738, Wesley had what he considered to be a profound conversion experience. As he listened to the words of Martin Luther being read—words reflecting upon the teaching of justification by faith—he reported, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley had known a faith of the intellect, but now he knew a faith of the warm heart as well. He demonstrated a new passion and religious zeal following this experience. His passion was at times denounced by his colleagues as “enthusiasm,” a term of derision in the eighteenth century. Yet his ability to hold together reason and a passionate faith has led many to describe him, and early Methodists, as “reasonable enthusiasts.”
When Wesley’s friend George Whitefield asked him to come and preach in the fields, a practice Wesley initially viewed as improper and distasteful, he declined. In April of 1739, however, he finally relented and agreed to preach outdoors. Wesley wrote in his journal, “On Monday at four in the afternoon, I submitted to ‘be more vile’ and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little mound in a ground adjoining the city to about three thousand people!” There was no turning back from this form of preaching. Wesley proclaimed that the “world is my parish.” He would spend the rest of his life preaching in the open air, and in churches when invited. It is said that he rode over 250,000 miles by horseback traversing the British Isles, preaching and calling people to follow Jesus Christ.
Methodism began as a renewal movement within the Church of England. Wesley had no intention of starting a new church. An Anglican priest, no doubt, influenced by his dissenting grandparents and clearly influenced by the Pietism of his day, he believed the Church of England was in need of reformation; and he wanted his ministry to help revitalize it. To that end Wesley not only preached but also published books. He also organized those who had been touched by his preaching.
Wesley invited those who had made a commitment to Christ to join the movement through the United Societies. (“Societies” were religious groups that encouraged members in their pursuit of God and Christian mission. There were many of these societies in the eighteenth century, and several are still active in England today.) Members were called to live by three simple rules, known by members of the Methodist societies as the “General Rules.” Methodists were required to:
- Avoid doing what you know is wrong.
- Do all the good you can to everyone that you can.
- Pursue the spiritual disciplines, including prayer, worship, Scripture reading, and fasting, among others.
United Methodist pastors are still charged, at ordination, with upholding these General Rules.
Three practices shaped the Methodist movement and continue to shape United Methodism to this day:
The first was preaching. Wesley knew that in preaching, people came to faith, heard God’s will, and had their lives changed. He preached thousands of times; and those who became Methodists and had the gift for speaking—both clergy and a large number of laypeople—began following in his footsteps, preaching in the open fields and calling people to faith. Methodists became known for outstanding preaching.
Second, Wesley organized those who had repented of their sin and sought to live for Christ into small groups so that they could hold one another accountable and help one another grow in grace. In the contemporary church, the small-group movement has been very important. In some ways this is the reclaiming of a practice made popular by the eighteenth-century Methodists.
Finally, the Methodists were known for their singing. Wesley’s brother, Charles was a prolific hymn writer, penning what was, at the time, “contemporary” music that captured the theology and practices of the Methodists. He wrote thousands of hymns, many of which are still sung today, including “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” and “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” to name just a few.
In addition to their fervor in calling people to conversion, Methodists were also social reformers. Wesley believed Jesus called his followers to be involved in the transformation of society. Wesley organized a school for children, raised funds for the poor, spoke out against slavery and other social ills of the time, visited the prisons, and called for prison reform. He did not see the concern for transforming society, or the “social gospel” as it would later be called, as being at odds with the evangelical gospel or the invitation for people to put their trust in Christ. He saw these as two dimensions of the same gospel.
What many value most about Methodism is its attempt at holding together so many seemingly disparate ideas and practices: the emphasis on both the social and evangelical gospels; the linking of God’s grace with a call to holiness and good works; the coupling of personal, passionate experience with a serious intellect; the love of both liturgy and simplicity in worship; and Wesley’s firm belief that God is sovereign and yet has given human beings free will, inviting all to receive God’s grace. These beliefs are not necessarily unique to Methodists; many of the families of faith we have studied share them. But for United Methodists these polarities tend to be one of the defining characteristics of their faith.