James Stuart: The John Wesley Code


Review by Nate Cull

James Stuart begins this biography of John Wesley with a personal account of accidentally discovering some of Wesley's personal books, lost and forgotten in a broom closet in Richmond College. He uses it as a metaphor for John Wesley's life: hugely influential in shaping the modern church, yet today largely forgotten.

Having read this book, I think I can agree.

John Wesley is one of the characters in church history that I've been vaguely aware of as an eighteenth century preacher, but I had no idea how powerful was the movement that he started, nor how much of a struggle it was to establish. I knew that he had been influenced by the Moravians, but not how and why he broke from them. I knew he had some connection with America, but not that his decision to ordain preachers in the face of Anglican excommunication after the American Revolution set the tone for the shape of American revivalism for centuries. I knew that he preached to the poor, but not that he set up medical clinics and published a medical manual, or that he created a 'community of common goods', a literal and voluntary socialism without bloodshed, decades before the storm clouds of the French Revolution came to a head. Read the whole review

Wesley's Methodism was not just a religious revival, it was a social revolution based on whole-hearted compassion, and that's what makes him extremely relevant today. The shape of the church he created is visible, barely changed, in the evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic streams of Christianity.

James Stuart makes the case that Wesley's form of Christianity was innovative in a number of aspects:

* He brought a pragmatism to Christian life and practice which caused him to break from the aristocracy of the Anglican church and university culture, from the cruelty of Calvinist predestination and classical economic rationalism, and from the socially uninvolved quietism of the Moravians, doing whatever was necessary to construct a church that worked for the poor.

* He was deeply influenced by the emerging Enlightenment philosophy of Descartes, Lock, Berkely and Hume, and responded to them by creating a humanistic spiritual movement that not only valued human experience as central but insisted that religion itself was also and vitally a matter of personal spiritual experience rather than faith in third parties or disembodied logical propositions.

* He created a consensus-based, 'connexional' form of church governance which was neither quite democratic nor quite autocratic, neither separatist nor entirely part of the establishment, but worked well in the context of emerging Industrial Age democracy to mobilise and empower a generation of discarded people and train them as leaders, while preserving a unique movement ethos.

* He brought an emphasis on 'free grace', universal redemption, and unconditional love which broke strongly with the Calvinist idea that some people where 'predestined for reprobation' and made it hard for the established churches to contemplate taking the poor and the disenfranchised seriously. He did this without compromising the spiritual values of his movement, but by engaging his critics with open dialogue and generosity.

* He valued active compassion and social transformation above rigid doctrine, and saw the church's role less in terms of sacraments as 'channels of grace' which the world must obey, but rather in terms of an outward-facing mission to transform the world using whatever structures could be built with the resources available.

* He had a strong belief in the active Providence of God, in stark opposition to the prevailing Deism of the Enlightenment which saw God as fundamentally disengaged from the world and human reason as the only creative force. Wesley's faith in Providence meant he was open to spontaneity and engagement with the world outside the church, while still having a motivating vision of the ultimate triumph of God's kingdom.

* Although he was personally very capable intellectually, he made a point of simplifying his messages so that they would be easy understandable by the common people.

That's just the Cliff Notes outline, though; what stood out for me personally is how many features of church life that I've taken for granted, and often struggled with, in my experience of Christianity (mostly from the Evangelical/Pentecostal spectrum) seem to be so vividly present in Wesley's movement. It really is uncanny - down to the very words and phrases. Things like a focus on mission rather than sacraments, an emphasis on 'heart religion' and 'experiential faith' over 'opinions of men', the pragmatism, the support for ordination of lay workers, the deep focus on 'evangelism' and the deep skepticism of claims to inherited authority, even the program-driven, movement-building nature and suspicion of mystical practice without an outward focus - all of these are features I've seen in the Pentecostal and Baptist world and in the Church Growth and 'Seeker Sensitive' Movements of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Even the charismatic phenomena can be seen, reading between the lines with an awakened eye, in the descriptions of Methodist services and the accusations of 'enthusiasm'; the spiritual healings, shaking and collapsing at a Methodist service might not be out of place in the Toronto Vineyard of the 1990s.

None of these features of the 'modern' church were original with Wesley, of course -- and as someone who believed that he was preaching nothing but 'primitive Christianity' he would agree -- but it seems that the 18th century and especially Methodism was a watershed moment, where new forms of church emerged which are now considered old and well-worn.

However, as someone who finds himself most at home in the 'Emerging Church' movement and finds some elements of the Evangelical/Charismatic church to not quite fit my understanding of Jesus, I am also interested in understanding how Wesley's model was merely one form of church among many. Although his personal life seems to have been in many ways a tragedy, Wesley seemed to intuitively do many things right. Methodism feels to me like it was an authentic response with the heart of Christ to the conditions of the Industrial Revolution and the birth of democracy. And we could well use another such pragmatic, openly revolutionary movement (as William Booth, himself a Methodist, brought a century later).

But at the same time -- there are elements in Wesley's program, such as his breaks with the Moravians, which make me wonder if he captured everything there is to say about Christian life. For myself, I am finding much of interest in studying the Christian mystical writers throughout history, who often have a much less 'works-focused' and more interior view of the world, even as like Wesley they often accomplished great things.

And a century after Wesley, in the middle of the Second Great Awakening that carried on from the one he started, two other spiritually-charged Anglo-American movements with deep connection to Christianity - Modern Spiritualism and Christian Science - somehow managed to find themselves completely disowned by Wesley's spiritual heirs. Not just ignored, but excommunicated as heresy, to the extent that many Evangelical and Charismatic Christians will not even read works which give detailed descriptions of a Christian afterlife, or accounts of healing in the name of Christ. Revivalist preachers, in the mode that Wesley created, still claim that speaking in tongues is of God but automatic writing is evil; it was largely people from outside the evangelical sphere who explored these manifestations, and who still often find themselves excluded from religious dialogue.

There is a paradox here which I am still trying to work through, and it has a lot to do with the conflict between free will and grace which Wesley spent so much time elaborating. Is it possible for God to do great and wondrous spiritual works in our age -- such that the very dead return from the grave and speak -- and yet not just hardened atheist skeptics, but warm-hearted, spiritually touched believers themselves can ignore the message?

Apparently it is; apparently people can be tuned to God on one frequency and yet have their heart hardened on another at the same time; and yet for all that, not be excluded from grace or from God's unconditional love.

I think John Wesley would be laughing at the irony; and he would understand better than many that even the best social movement is never complete in itself; that the church points to Christ rather than being a substitute for Christ. Unlike Calvin's division of the world into predestined saints and sinners, Wesley's theology of grace was more comfortable with the shades of grey and paradox we see in the real world, and yet centred itself strongly in a powerful spiritual vision of the irresistable, transforming love of God. And perhaps that more than anything else is his greatest legacy.