Strictness Of Life: John Wesley’s Advice To A People Called Methodistt
Your strictness of life, taking the whole of it together, may likewise be accounted new. I mean, your making it a rule, to abstain from fashionable diversions, from reading plays, romances, or books of humour, from singing innocent songs, or talking in a merry, gay, diverting manner; your plainness of dress; your manner of dealing in trade; your exactness in observing the Lord’s day; your scrupulosity as to things that have not paid custom; your total abstinence from spirituous liquors (unless in cases of necessity); your rule, “not to mention the fault of an absent person, in particular of Ministers or of those in authority,” may justly be termed new: Seeing, although some are scrupulous in some of these things, and others are strict with regard to other particulars, yet we do not find any other body of people who insist on all these rules together. With respect, therefore, both to your name, principles, and practice, you may be considered as a new people. – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
Few things provoke as much controversy at any time in human history as religious leaders placing exacting standards of personal moral conduct upon believers. In Sin and Fear: The Emergence Of A Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries, French historian Jean Delumeau offers hundreds of illustrations from sermons, pamphlets, confessional manuals, and other sources painting a picture of late Renaissance and early modern France, Italy, and Catholic Germany as buried under an enormous weight of threats of damnation for personal moral laxity. The long process of shifting ascetic practice from monastic life to the general populace had resulted in making clear not only the inadequacy of the moral practice of the general populace, but the theologically indefensible claim that the vast majority even of earnest practitioners of moral probity would be damned. Catholic preaching and teaching on personal moral conduct was met not so much with anger as it was apathy; that didn’t prevent the preachers and teachers from insisting that the world was a pit of iniquity that would result in the eternal punishment of most of those living.
Wesley’s claim that Methodist preachers and followers lived particularly exemplary lives as another example of their novelty is far more aspirational than descriptive of actual practice. In his biography of Wesley, A Brand from the Burning: The Life of John Wesley, Roy Hattersley writes that both Wesley’s, John and Charles, faced a high turnover of lay preachers precisely because their rules of conduct were so strict that few could succeed in following them for any great length of time. Hattersley notes that it was John who recognized the problem far more clearly than Charles, insisting that grace rather than strictness should be a guide for considering continuing in membership those who might have fallen. Nevertheless, it is clear that the vision of the personal moral life put forth by John Wesley was not for the faint of heart.
In most places and most eras, the imposition of strict codes of personal conduct are rarely welcomed by the majority of people. Consider the reaction in Afghanistan, when the Taliban collapsed, and radios and televisions and attendance at movie theaters was permitted; the people were grateful more for these than any thought of political liberalization or the loosening of restrictions on women in public. And yet, the Christian churches have always insisted, usually somewhere between somewhat and extremely strongly, that one of the marks of the Christian life is personal moral uprightness, defined variously as including moderation of conduct and dress, abstaining from popular entertainments as a distraction from a life dedicated to studying the Word and working for the Gospel, a harsh and sometimes punitive sexual ethic (including a streak of horrid, dehumanizing misogyny that is difficult to untangle from the theology and practice of ministry and mission), and in more recent centuries near or total abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.
In 1765, the Methodist Societies held their first “Holy Conference” at which John Wesley set forth what became known as “the Penny Minutes”, which included a series of rules similar to those stated above. By the next year’s conference, he faced near total mutiny, not only over the content of the Minutes, but Wesley’s authoritarian assumption of leadership not only over the conduct of ministry, but the personal lives of the ministers as well. Wesley triumphed, however, and the rules of conduct have changed very little over the centuries, with the Book of Discipline only recently (in historical terms) removing a ban on attending dances, the theater, or movies, as well as reading popular works of fiction. The Church’s stance on alcohol is best described as equivocal, while its sexual ethics are best summed by the phrase “celibacy in singleness, fidelity in marriage”.*
These views continue to be controversial among many in our denomination. That they are rarely enforced, particularly for clergy, demonstrates that even among the hierarchy, there is very little stomach for too strict an imposition of a set of what can be described as “arbitrary” rules of conduct on people’s personal lives. All the same, there is something to be said about the basis, if perhaps not the particularities, of these rules. We people called Methodist are a people called out by God for a particular mission and ministry. We are not just another church preaching salvation by grace through faith. Our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. To that end, we are, to borrow the words of St. Paul, ambassadors of Christ. We represent, in all aspects of our lives, Jesus Christ to a world that is broken and hurting, in need not only of the Word of Grace, but the transformation that comes through the Holy Spirit working in and through us to bring about the New Creation. This requires not only a strict collective discipline. It also requires that we be attentive, each of us and all of us, to how we live our lives so that those we serve may see not only in our public, social conduct but our private moral life evidence that we serve a God of Love.
We Americans are both the most bourgeois and most religious people in the west. For those reasons, among others, our public discourse on the moral life is saturated with the same kinds of demands for strictness that would have been familiar to Wesley. While having few explicit roots in the Christian faith, this personal moral code is very often at odds with the society and culture of our secular life. Precisely because it seems both arbitrary and without a source, however, this moral code is more often observed in the breach than practice. Yet, what is wrong with a call for moral rectitude? During a point in our history when enormous, and profitable, industries are rooted in personal vice, the insistence on moderation and abstinence, rooted in our profession of faith in a God not only of grace and love, but also a God who calls us to live out that love in the world as Divine representatives, becomes radical, even counter-cultural, rather than adherence to arbitrary rules.
While I might have differences of opinion regarding some of the specifics Wesley cites in his pamphlet, what prompts him is his firm belief that we people called Methodists are called to a specific ministry, therefore a specific way of life that places high demands upon us. For these reasons, as well as the threat such a life poses not only to others, but to an economy of personal vice that counts its profits in the billions of dollars each year, I find it refreshing to endorse a life of moderation, probity, and scrupulousness. This is neither illiberal nor arbitrary, but radical and comes from the God we serve, represent, and hope to bring to those who need to hear and see Divine love in action.
*I once had a United Methodist minister tell me that celibacy in singleness was a goal, rather than an order. I have often thought that was an interesting rationalization. There is nothing at all wrong with insisting that persons unattached remain chaste in their sexual lives. That, however, is a post for another time.