“Peculiar Circumstances”: John Wesley’s Advice To A People Called Methodist
[Y]ou are a new people: Your name is new, (at least, as used in a religious sense,) not heard of, till a few years ago, either in our own or any other nation. Your principles are new, in this respect, that there is no other set of people among us (and, possibly, not in the Christian world) who hold them all in the same degree and connexion; who so strenuously and continually insist on the absolute necessity of universal holiness both in heart and life; of a peaceful, joyous love of God; of a supernatural evidence of things not seen; of an inward witness that we are the children of God; and of the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, in order to any good thought, or word, or work. And perhaps there is no other set of people, (at least, not visibly united together,) who lay so much and yet no more stress than you do on rectitude of opinions, on outward modes of worship, and the use of those ordinances which you acknowledge to be of God. So much stress you lay even on right opinions, as to profess, that you earnestly desire to have a right judgment in all things, and are glad to use every means which you know or believe may be conducive thereto; and yet not so much as to condemn any man upon earth, merely for thinking otherwise than you do; much less, to imagine that God condemns him for this, if he be upright and sincere of heart. On those outward modes of worship, wherein you have been bred up, you lay so much stress as highly to approve them; but not so much as to lessen your love to those who conscientiously dissent from you herein. You likewise lay so much stress on the use of those ordinances which you believe to be of God, as to confess there is no salvation for you if you wilfully neglect them: And yet you do not judge them that are otherwise minded; you determine nothing concerning those who, not believing those ordinances to be of God, do, out of principle, abstain from them. – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
While Wesley would insist when necessary that his theology of practical divinity was neither new nor out of tune with the historic traditions of the faith, he was also willing to concede that the emergence of large groups of people professing the love of God in the world for the world in the way Wesley instructed them was, in fact, a new thing. In this pamphlet in particular Wesley plays the part of what we now call a contextual theologian. After defining “Methodist”, he writes:
The First general advice which one who loves your souls would earnestly recommend to every one of you is: “Consider, with deep and frequent attention, the peculiar circumstances wherein you stand.”
In the face of rising disdain, social ostracism, even occasional bouts of persecution (some Methodists were driven from their homes; Wesley himself was threatened with tarring and feathering on more than one occasion), Wesley begins his epistle of comfort by highlighting the novelty, and therefore oddity, of the Methodists to those who encounter them. While holding fast to his insistence on the conviction with which these people called Methodist believe and live the faith they profess, he counters the charge of “enthusiasm” with a description of gentleness and what was then known as liberality of feeling with regards to those whose opinions differ from ours as a mark of being a Methodist.
I think this last item, in particular, is more an insistence on Wesley’s part than a description of actual practice. I only say this because large-scale movements, such as the Methodist movement, tend to act precisely the opposite way: they tend to exclude those who differ in opinions, insisting that difference is indeed error. We continue to live with this in our own day, even within our own denomination.
It is good advice not only to give, but to follow. It offers a vision of a life of faith as true humility, resting comfortably enough within one’s own assurance without making that a universal marker of Truth. We are in dire need of more of this rather than less, not only in our life of faith, but in all areas of life. Appreciating difference as a sign of the abundant love of God, of the limited and contingent nature of our understanding and expression of faith, and working to present the Gospel as a living thing, rather than something in need of defense. Wesley’s assertion that ours is a professing rather than apologetic faith is important to remember, particularly in our “peculiar circumstances”. In a day when matters of faith are privatized and tend to be dismissed, the urge to make the Christian faith “sensible”, to “prove” it in the court of public opinion can feel overwhelming. The tradition of apologetics is long in our faith, stretching back to the second and third centuries.
Wesley, however, insists that ours is a living faith, showing the possibility of a life lived through the Holy Spirit, in Christ, for the Father without claiming it as an exclusive, final, or universal test of the true faith. Wesley was always clear on the necessity for humility. Humility includes not only the outward, physical expressions of faith. It also includes an attitude that recognizes that, for all that we consider ours to be a unique and fulfilling understanding and expression of the Christian faith, it is not the only such, nor perhaps even the correct one precisely because there might not be such a thing. There is only our collective understanding and expression of faith, and others, and all are beloved by God as attempts by us creatures to come to grips with the reality of Divine love and grace.
Our “peculiar circumstances” offer the opportunity to recapture this hope and vision of Wesley, that we contemporary people called Methodist would remember that ours is not only a practical faith. It is also a humble faith, filled with the love that we have from God in Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is a peculiar, and unique, and one hopes perhaps once again a new expression of gratefulness for the grace we have already received, and will continue to receive as we work out our salvation in humility and love.