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What Would Wesley Think?

John Wesley statue in Savannah, GA, GA

Rev. Glenn Wagner asserts, “It can be fruitful to approach today’s challenges with guidance from Methodism’s visionary founder, John Wesley.”

GLENN M. WAGNER
Michigan Conference Communications

John Wesley in thought
~ drawing of the Thinker, John Wesley, courtesy of Ann Rhodes, artist cousin of Glenn Wagner

WWWT? What would Wesley think? 

What would John Wesley think about how United Methodists should be dealing with critical issues of our time?

It may be a stretch for any of us to pretend to know what a person who died 229 years ago on March 2, 1791, would have to say on contemporary issues of consequence or even believe that Wesley’s posthumous wisdom would be heeded. But I think we can deduce Wesley’s thoughts based on his writings, which include 400 volumes of sermons, notes, commentary, and correspondence. Many of the books written by John Wesley are still available in print. There are also many informative books about Wesley by authors interested in his life.

Under John Wesley’s leadership, Methodism grew from a small group of devoted believers into a global movement for Christ. The clear imprint of John Wesley’s spiritual ideas and personal devotion to the gospel of Jesus is still discernable in the organization, people, and spirit of the Church.

Just as Jews, Muslims, and Christians still honor the wisdom of biblical ancestors and Americans still seek guidance from our national founders, it can be fruitful to approach today’s challenges with advice from Methodism’s visionary founder.

Question:
What would the founder of the world Methodist movement, that touches the lives of 80 million people globally and over 12 million people in the United States, say if he could be called upon to offer his advice today to United Methodists during a deadly pandemic?  

Wesley response:

John Wesley was no stranger to upsetting circumstances. Wesley remembered the fire in February of 1709 when, at the age of five, he was rescued from the burning parsonage of the St. Andrews Anglican Church in Epworth, England. His father Samuel served as rector there for 40 years. John was saved in a dramatic rescue from the flaming upper floor. It happened after previous failed attempts to rescue him prompted an emergency family prayer for his survival and, brave onlookers made an impromptu human ladder by balancing on each other’s shoulders to reach John just in time. His parents reminded John that he was “a brand plucked from the burning.” Wesley learned under challenging circumstances to look for the presence of God amid each trial.

Plagues that caused massive loss of life were also a remembered part of life in England at the time of Wesley. In response to recurrent epidemics of bubonic plague, authorities in London instituted the tradition of publishing a Bill of Mortality each week. The “Great Plague of London,” which hit the city in the summer of 1665, is estimated to have killed between 75,000 and 100,000 Londoners (out of a total population of about 460,000). This Bill of Mortality was still being published in 1723 while John Wesley was a student at Oxford and he noted in a letter home that an outbreak of smallpox took the life of one of his university classmates.[1] 

Because of his conviction that healthy living is assisted by responsible life choices made in gratitude to God, John Wesley studied and shared the latest information about ways persons can work to maintain good personal health. His book, “Primitive Physic,” promoted healthy habits. I believe Wesley would concur with medical doctors who advise safe practices for the sake of all during this pandemic. Wesley’s three simple rules, which include, Do all the good you can, Love God, and Do no harm are still sound guides for personal and congregational practice.

John Wesley is also remembered for his willingness to adapt his leadership for the sake of the gospel in a period of great change.

As Methodists in America encountered the challenges of living faithfully on the frontier, John Wesley first encouraged loyalty to the Church of England.

When the colonies experienced rising tensions with England, Wesley wrote to his preachers in America on March 1, 1775, advising them to be non-partisan in their preaching. “My Dear Brethren . . . It is your part to be peacemakers, to be loving and tender to all, but to addict yourselves to no party. . . Keep yourselves pure, do all you can to help and soften all; but beware how you adopt another’s jar.” [2]

On June 15, 1775, John Wesley, responding to troubling news from America about the brewing conflict, wrote an impassioned letter to Lord North, England’s first Lord of the Treasury, urging official consideration of American grievances and encouraging a more peaceful approach to resolving conflict.[3]

When Wesley’s official attempts to encourage Church of England leaders to ordain and send additional priests to America failed and further complications arose when the American colonists secured independence through revolution, Wesley noted that God must be doing a new thing in America. Wesley then broke with convention and decided on his own to ordain and send new leadership for the fledgling American Methodists to help meet their emerging needs for the sake of the gospel. His original intention for Methodism was not to organize a new denomination but to provide help for persons who wanted to be intentional in their faithfulness. The American Revolution inspired Wesley to take a bold new step for the future of the movement.

On October 3, 1783, Wesley wrote again to the preachers in America asking them to abide by Methodist discipline and to accept the leadership of Francis Asbury as Wesley’s General Assistant.[4]

Based on Wesley’s own experience dealing with public health issues, unexpected conflict, and changing global circumstances, it is clear from John Wesley’s writings that he would counsel the importance of unity. I believe Wesley would promote a non-partisan commitment to the gospel of peace, while at the same time embracing changes that may be needed.

John Wesley would have empathy for the enormous suffering caused by this pandemic but would prayerfully observe with gratitude how the coronavirus is also creating a new opportunity for the church to be in ministry. I believe John Wesley would affirm the way that the internet today is carrying the gospel message to new people. John Wesley would also realize that if a virtual meeting is required to sustain the church safely in troubled times, he would be first among ZOOMs for the sake of Christ’s mission.

Question:
What would John Wesley think about a church and nation being tested by profound division?

Wesley Response:

John Wesley would remind United Methodists of the central importance of our personal decision to “live with a single eye.” Wesley began this practice during his days at Oxford University when he, with a small group of like-minded Christian believers, sought to order his life after the example of Jesus so that every aspect of his living was focused on giving glory and honor to God. Living with this single eye was John Wesley’s highest priority. This emphasis for all of his personal and ministry decisions was the reason he and his friends were ridiculed on Oxford’s campus and sarcastically referred to as “Methodists.” Wesley advocated throughout his life for the benefits of living with intentional method and loving God in all things. He believed that a person who lived without faith was like “an unbridled horse without course in a field wandering around expending much energy but to no apparent purpose.” [5]

In seminary, I was privileged to read pamphlets written and published by John Wesley that were available at the university library on this subject of living with a single eye. John Wesley’s pamphlets covered topics of speech, dress, finances, use of time, and social action on issues of public consequence. Wesley challenged his readers to consider all the practical ways we may each order life so that every aspect of our living is done in gratitude to God for the gift of life. I learned from Wesley that we live life differently when we live it each day with eternity in mind.

In a letter to John Morgan on January 15, 1734, Wesley wrote, “. . . let us agree what religion is. I take religion to be, not the bare saying over so many prayers, morning and evening, in public or in private; not anything superadded now and then to a careless or worldly life; but a constant ruling habit of soul, a renewal of our minds in the image of God, a recovery of the divine likeness, a still-increasing conformity of heart and life to the pattern of our most holy Redeemer.” [6]

Again stressing the importance of holy focus, Wesley wrote a letter to his traveling preachers on August 4, 1769, in which speculated about how Methodist unity might be preserved when he would someday be gone. “I take it for granted it cannot be preserved by any means between those who have not a single eye. Those who aim at anything but the glory of God and the salvation of men, who desire or seek any earthly thing, whether honor, profit, or ease, will not, cannot continue in the Connexion.” [7] 

Question:
What would John Wesley think about ministry with the poor in a time of great need and disruption to giving? 

Wesley Response:

In regards to stewardship, John Wesley led the church by his sacrificial example. It is said that he determined how much money he needed to live and committed to giving the rest of his wealth for the service of the gospel. His rule for stewardship was “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can for the glory of God.” [8]

Wesley’s will stated the last four British pounds in his name were to be gifted in gratitude to his pallbearers, so when his body was lowered in the grave, he would die with no assets and no debts. We can guess that Wesley would diagnose our current stewardship issues by keeping our focus not on our debts but the urgent mission of Christ, the transformative power of the gospel, and the immediate needs of the poor. He would lead by his sacrificial example.

Question:
How would John Wesley counsel regarding acts of police violence against persons of color and the heightened awareness of systemic racism?

Wesley Response

John Wesley was a champion of social justice. He was an advocate in his day for better working conditions and in support of education for children. His last letter was written less than a week before his death to William Wilberforce, a young abolitionist leader in the movement to bring an end to slavery. Wesley offered his heartfelt praise and encouragement to this young leader:

“Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well-doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” [9]

Wesley did not shy away from directly addressing social injustice. He encouraged Methodists to model this social witness in their groups and in their personal lives.

Early Methodist class meetings, small groups of eight to 12 believers, met weekly for prayer, Bible study, and doing good works after the pattern of the Oxford Holy Club. It was their practice to spend time during each meeting asking each other, “How is it with your soul?” Members would then encourage each other to do good works. This weekly evaluation required honesty and love.

In Wesley’s correspondence, there are many examples where he offered an assessment of the observed actions of others. In his final letter to Francis Asbury in America dated September 20, 1788, John Wesley chided his friend, “In one point, my dear brother, I am a little afraid both the Doctor (Thomas Coke) and you differ from me. I study to be little: you study to be great. I creep: you strut along. I found a school: you a college! nay and call it after your own names! O beware, do not seek to be something! Let me be nothing, and ‘Christ be all in all!'” [10] In the same letter Wesley critiqued his friend for taking the title of Bishop and added, “They shall never by my consent call me Bishop!” Asbury later noted in his diary that this was a bitter pill from one of his dearest friends.

From Wesley’s point of view, the significant problems of the world demand our attention. He also believed we must never lose sight of the need to do the hard work of addressing our short-comings and maturing our own personal witness for Christ. It is clear from Wesley’s correspondence that sacrificial service and personal humility are to be valued. Positively impacting issues like systemic racism and economic disparity may be long and difficult struggles. We can begin with being more open to others and generous with our resources for the sake of the gospel. Wesley is remembered for his bold outward-facing vision, “The world is my parish.” He also taught his followers to recognize the importance of caring for their own inward and personal witness.

Question:
What would John Wesley suggest to church leaders challenged to run worship services without gathering together and without congregational singing?

Wesley Response: 

A great challenge for John Wesley during this pandemic would be how to lead worship while understanding how the singing by infected persons is known to spread the coronavirus. Singing hymns of praise to God was an important way that John Wesley helped teach lessons of faith to early Methodists. He and his brother Charles used personal pronouns in their hymn lyrics to personalize the gospel message. Enthusiastic group singing of hymns helped people to remember and apply faith to life. John Wesley knew that singing is a great tool for learning.

In his rules for singing, Wesley concluded with “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.” [11]

Given the current dangers of singing together in worship, I believe that Wesley would adapt worship to encourage believers to sing along at a distance, consider the words while the music is played instrumentally, or sing while separated outdoors. Wesley would support mask-wearing to inhibit the spread of the virus in public spaces. Wesley would seek to keep the blessing of singing to strengthen our faith while standing firm against the harm that unmasked congregational singing in enclosed spaces can cause during this pandemic. I believe John Wesley would urge Methodists to wait to resume pre-pandemic congregational singing indoors until a proven vaccine can make singing safe again for all.

Question:
What parting advice would John Wesley offer to United Methodists in need of encouragement?

Wesley Response:

Prayer is an essential part of Wesley’s “method” for giving glory and honor to God in all things. Wesley’s covenant prayer still offers comfort and direction for believers. 

“I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.”

Notes:

[1] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 2 

[2] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 165

[3] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 166-167

[4] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 197-198

[5] John Wesley, Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley VII  London: John Mason, 1829, pp. 285-286

[6] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 27

[7] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 145

[8] John Wesley, Causes of the Inefficiency of Christianity in The Works of the Rev. John Wesley VII  London: John Mason, 1829, pp. 285-286

[9] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 237

[10] Gill, Frederick, editor, Selected Letters of John Wesley, Philosophical Library, New York 1956 pg. 221

[11] John Wesley, “Directions for Singing,” quoted in A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People Called Methodists ed. Franz Hildebrandt, Oliver A. Beckerlegge and Frank Baker, vol. 7, The Works of John Wesley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 765.