Deliverance: John Wesley’s Advice To A People Called Methodist
I cannot but advise you, Thirdly, “Consider deeply with yourself, Is the God whom I serve able to deliver me? I am not able to deliver myself out of these difficulties; much less am I able to bear them. I know not how to give up my reputation, my friends, my substance, my liberty, my life. Can God give me to rejoice in doing this; and may I depend upon him that he will? Are the hairs of my head all numbered; and does He never fail them that trust in him?” Weigh this thoroughly; and if you can trust God with your all, then go on in the power of his might. – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
What would it be like to be a part of a congregation, a group of churches, a denomination that created the kind of hostility about which Wesley writes? While I believe his claims that lives were in danger is a bit much – perhaps an exaggeration rooted in the hope the real persecution would be a mark of true devotion, as the Jesus of the Synoptics said? – it is nevertheless true that the people called Methodist, for much of Wesley’s life, were despised, hounded from their parishes, ostracized socially and economically, and denounced as enthusiasts, conspirators against the Crown, and heretics.
The relationship between Parliament and the Monarchy was still uneasy during Wesley’s lifetime. As a child, his parents sat on different sides of the place of the divide that had been settled legally with the Glorious Revolution of 1689, when Parliament called the House of Orange to Rule Britain. The Stuarts and their descendants, however, continued through the 18th century to dream of a return. Supporters of the Stuarts, largely Scottish and Catholic, became known as “Jansenits”, supporters of the last Stuart king, James II. His son, Charles – “Bonnie Prince Charlie” – lived a life of drunkenness and dissipation in France while his supporters plotted and schemed. This was a time when secret societies, conspiracies, and coalitions of different groups were accepted as a part of political life. That the people called Methodist separated themselves in such a way from their home parishes; that they would meet in small groups each week; that they followed a mendicant preacher increasingly living and teaching outside the good order the of the Church of England; all these along with their suspicious religious fervor and earnestness created the appearance that the Methodist movement, for all it was a rather conservative reform movement (at least envisioned by John Wesley), was in fact not only a radical movement seeking separation from the national Church, but an active conspiracy against the sitting King and the primacy of Parliament.
On top of being despised, as Wesley writes in a previous passage, for being of lower class and uneducated in a society highly conscious of class and its role in determining social worth; on top of operating with scrupulous honesty in their business dealings; on top of the disturbance to good social and religious order the Methodist movement posed; besides all this, they had to contend with the simple rejection of their families and friends. During many of the early years, as the movement spread and Wesley continued his wandering preaching ways, this along with the strictness of the imposed discipline led to a high turnover in class leaders and lay preachers. No one really wants to live a life outside social acceptability, in particular when social rejection is rooted in a combination of misunderstanding and false claims about the doings of the groups to which one belongs.
Wesley insists that endurance of this kind of rejection isn’t possible without the peace that comes from God. Of course, the mutual accountability that Wesley insisted is a part of discipleship is the tangible expression of that inner peace that Wesley offers. As the people called Methodist gather in their classes, part of the accountability would most certainly include support in the face of all kinds of social and cultural rejection. In many ways, this is a kind of support group, and network of support, that would emerge in late bourgeois society in all sorts of forms, from group therapy to now-ubiquitous 12-step programs. That Wesley was wise enough to construct his movement with a therapeutic component, even though the concept wasn’t even imagined, only shows his wisdom and insight into the needs of his followers.
Fast forward, and we are no longer in a position of living outside mainstream society. Indeed, one reason the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations were so successful is they brought along with them the conviction that salvation and discipleship, faith and life, met in the congregation of like-minded, successful, conventionally moral individuals. The decline of the class meeting, the rise of the movement to a denomination especially in the United States of bourgeois acceptability, a sign of social status (although perhaps not as high status as, say, being Episcopalian), all created the conditions where we no longer run afoul of our fellow Americans. We may disagree strongly over cultural matters of peripheral concern to the central reality of our mission; all the same, much of this argument, on both sides, is couched in terms of social acceptability and a morality that is far more rooted in secular preferences than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think we should strive to live so that we need to return to Wesley’s advice. We have become far too comfortable. We have forgotten that “persecution” isn’t people making fun of you in school or the internet or television. We have forgotten that rejection isn’t about matters of conventional morality or changing social conditions. We have forgotten that we are called to be disciples, to live out our call to transform the world, not for ourselves but for the glory of God. We no longer seek to be a movement. We are far too large, far too wary of offending one group or another, far too scared of our financial precariousness and our declining social and cultural status to be willing to live out lives that bring about not just the occasional joke at our expense but actual rejection.
Today, we should be asking God to deliver us from our comfort, our complacency, our willingness to equate bourgeois life with Christian salvation (including delivering the comforts of middle class life to others as a sign of successful mission, rather than living out the Gospel as mission). We should seek deliverance not from the pain of persecution, but the perhaps greater pain of fear of persecution, which too often makes us cowards in the face of a world not willing to give heed to the strictness of the life of discipleship. Instead of bewailing our families and friends turning against us, we should be mourning our families’ and friends’ apathy toward our life as a people called Methodist.