Perhaps on this very account I might advise you, Fifthly, “not to talk much of what you suffer; of the persecution you endured at such a time, and the wickedness of your persecutors.” Nothing more tends to exasperate them than this; and therefore (although there is a time when these things must be mentioned, yet) it might be a general rule, to do it as seldom as you can with a safe conscience. For, besides its tendency to inflame them, it has the appearance of evil, of ostentation, of magnifying yourselves. It also tends to puff you up with pride, and to make you think yourselves some great ones, as it certainly does to excite or increase in your heart ill-will, anger, and all unkind tempers. It is, at best, loss of time; for, instead of the wickedness of men, you might be talking of the goodness of God. Nay, it is, in truth, an open, wilful sin: It is tale-bearing, back-biting, evil-speaking, — a sin you can never be sufficiently watchful against, seeing it steals upon you in a thousand shapes. Would it not be far more profitable for your souls, instead of speaking against them, to pray for them? to confirm your love towards those unhappy men, whom you believe to be fighting against God, by crying mightily to him in their behalf, that he may open their eyes and change their hearts? – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
Tens of thousands of religious minorities have been forced to flee since IS, a Sunni Muslim group formerly known as Isis, launched its onslaught. – BBC News, Aug. 7, 2014
Emily Wyant knew from the beginning: Columbine “martyr” Cassie Bernall never said “Yes.”
Wyant, who survived the Columbine massacre April 20, told the FBI months ago that the famous “unlikely martyrdom of Cassie Bernall,” immortalized in a best-selling book by Cassie’s mom, Misty, never happened. She told Misty and Brad Bernall, Cassie’s parents, the same account, and she also told the Rocky Mountain News.
But it wasn’t until Sept. 24, one day after Salon News broke the story that investigators doubtedBernall’s famous gunpoint declaration of faith, that the News printed a long story detailing Wyant’s account.
How did the paper react so quickly, with a detailed, never-before-public account of Bernall’s death, a day after the new revelations? Sources at the paper confirm that the details weren’t actually new at all: They’d been sitting on the story for quite some time. The News ran the article nearly five months after obtaining the true story from Wyant, and two weeks after running news stories promoting the release of “She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall” — news stories that presented the account of Bernall’s martyrdom as fact. – Dave Cullen, “Who Said ‘Yes’?, Salon, September 30, 1999
One of the strangest, and most durable, stories to emerge from the Columbine horror, immortalized in the book She Said Yes: The Unlikely Martyrdom of Cassie Bernall, persists despite having been debunked almost immediately following the claims being made that young Cassie, confronted by one of the Columbine shooters with the question, “Are you a Christian?”, answered “Yes,” prompting her death. Among the many reasons for the persistence of the story – the book came out long after reporters and officials knew it was wholly fictional – is a constant need to confirm the outsider status of believers among a certain kind of Christian. Comfortable socially and financially; influential within their own communities; they seek signs of rejection wherever they might be. What was a bit of exaggerated teenage gossip became Gospel truth among a segment of Christian believers. For those who continue to believe Cassie said “Yes”, efforts to debunk the story are perceived as secular hostility to the Christian faith.
Yet, Christians face very real persecution. Not here in the United States. We might find it far more difficult to speak the language of faith in an America that is increasingly secular. That isn’t persecution, but just changing times. The example cited above from the BBC, of Iraqi Christians leaving with the coming of ISIS forces and the demand for conversion, emigration, or death, is the most dramatic. There was the long drama from Sudan, of the woman who converted to Christianity after marrying a Christian man. As in many other Muslim countries, conversion is illegal under apostasy laws; consistent with Muslim practice (and, I would add, historically long Christian practice as well), apostasy is punishable by death.
Outside the west, being a Christian can be a very real danger. Whether it’s Muslim legal practice, communist intimidation and attempted control, as in China, or historical animosity as in Vietnam (the former Francophone indigenous ruling classes, converts to Catholicism, were not only violently hostile to Communism; the late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw a vicious crackdown on Buddhist practice as well), just admitting one is a Christian brings suspicion, legal sanctions, and the possibility of torture, exile from one’s home, and death. Christians in the west, knowing that persecution up to and including death is not only part of the Biblical witness but the early history of the Church, long for signs of faithfulness that include martyrdom. 20th and 21st century martyrs are few and far between; most mention Dietrich Bonhoeffer in this regard. The late Archbishop Oscar Romero, killed by American-backed Salvadoran troops during Mass, continues to be a hero among many in Central America. The emergence of a story that one of the victims of the mass murder at Columbine HS confessed her faith and was murdered for it offered someone, at long last, far-too-comfortable western Christians could lift up as proof that their faith was true.
While the harassment and social ostracism early English Methodists face never quite rose to the level faced by contemporary non-Western Christians – the era of deathly religious persecution, whether legal or popular among the masses was over even though hostilities continued to be fanned wherever Christians of different sects mixed together – it is nonetheless true that for the emerging petit bourgeoisie and working classes who were the original adherents to British Methodism, social, cultural, and even financial rejection amounted to a kind of persecution none of those experiencing it either expected nor particularly enjoyed. Wesley’s advice here, like much of the pamphlet, was as much aspirational as it was practical. Wouldn’t it be nice if Christians facing any kind of rejection or persecution would suffer in patient humility, loving kindness, and prayerful steadfastness? One imagines that Wesley insists that those to whom he writes endure with long-suffering faithfulness precisely because they were not taking ostracism very well at all. Like their grandchildren in the faith two-and-a-half centuries later, the need to demonstrate faith by pointing out how the world hates them can be quite strong. Exaggerating the reality, even making up stories, well that’s just part of the game, and it might well go all the way back the earliest years of the church, when tales of martyrdom and persecution often stretched the bounds of truth.
We Christians who live in the west should not seek out persecution where it does not exist. Rather, we should stand with our fellows in the faith who face very real threats to life and health for the faith. We should pray for them, for safety and their steadfastness in the faith in the face of very real dangers of death. We should contact officials in government to lodge official protests and seek an end to the varieties of punishments Christians face for their faith. The one thing we should not do is seek persecution among the social and cultural slights western Christians encounter on occasion. It is not only wrong to lie; it insults those who really do face persecution. For these reasons, I think “pray for them” extends not only to those places that threaten life and limb. I think praying for them should also be for those who suffer. The best way to remain faithful is to remember that real persecution just isn’t a part of the life of faith in the west.
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.
You will give offence to the bigots for opinions, modes of worship, and ordinances, by laying no more stress upon them; to the bigots against them, by laying so much; to men of form, by insisting so frequently and strongly on the inward power of religion; to moral men, (so called,) by declaring the absolute necessity of faith, in order to acceptance with God. To men of reason you will give offence, by talking of inspiration and receiving the Holy Ghost; to drunkards, Sabbath-breakers, common swearers, and other open sinners, by refraining from their company, as well as by that disapprobation of their behaviour which you will often be obliged to express. And indeed your life must give them continual offence: Your sobriety is grievously offensive to a drunkard; your serious conversation is equally intolerable to a gay impertinent: and, in general, that “you are grown so precise and singular, so monstrously strict, beyond all sense and reason, that you scruple so many harmless things, and fancy you are obliged to do so many others which you need not,” cannot but be an offence to abundance of people, your friends and relations in particular. Either, therefore, you must consent to give up your principles, or your fond hope of pleasing men. – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
Here we enter the heart of the advice Wesley wished to give to members of the societies. Even more than the strict discipline Wesley understood to be a mark of the life of holiness to which Christians are called, it is the social rejection that was most difficult to take. Here, Wesley echoes in many ways the words of Jesus in Matthew and Luke in the Sermon on the Mount/Plain. He is explicit in his claims that the life to which the people called Methodist is called is offensive to different parts of society for different reasons. Moderation, probity, and discipline present different threats to different people. By giving a lie to claims that these are “unnatural” or “impossible” for human beings in the normal course of their lives, that there are groups of people who do so live presents all sorts of problems for the self-assurance of those who believe they have life and the world all figured out.
Now, as Wesley made clear at the beginning of the pamphlet, none of the qualities he presents here as giving offense are possible in human life without the presence of the Holy Spirit. For that reason, the argument that these are not “natural” is true enough. The distinctive marks of the life of holiness are in fact the marks of the presence of the Holy Spirit. All the same, it is the continued desire to live with that presence in both the individual and collective life of the people called Methodist that creates not only offense, but a direct refutation of all the voices that say that such a life is an offense against nature, good order, or even God. Wesley’s vision of the demands of the life of Holiness was, as he frequently made clear, neither easy nor a merely human possibility. It was, rather, a glimpse of the Life to Come, the evidence of things not seen, the working out of our salvation with humility, and the pursuit of Christian perfection. Even other Christians would find offense in this, as it seemed to present a lie to their claims of Christian living precisely for the differences, the discipline and exactitude that were required, as evidence of Holy living.
For several decades, the United Methodist Church has made great strides in attempting to retrieve this particular part of our heritage. The recreation of the class meetings, now called Covenant Discipleship groups; new editions of Wesley’s sermons; a whole imprint of Abingdon Press dedicated to explorations of Wesley’s life and thought; a recovery of the unique vision of John Wesley as defining the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church, through the creation of our Mission Statement: “The mission of the church is the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” These and so much more present a distinctive vision of what it means to be the people called Methodist in the early 21st century. One would hope that living this out would offend someone in our day and time. Alas, the United Methodist Church and its precursor denominations spent just a bit too much time living comfortably as another mainstream, middle class denomination, upholding the values of the successful and comfortable, rarely critical of our society, culture, and politics for the current churches to suddenly offer an alternative vision of the Christian life that offers not social and cultural reassurance but offense.
Yet, we have been and continue to try, through our recovery of that original vision of John Wesley that our distinctiveness presents an alternative that offers both hope and offense; evidence of things not seen as well as evidence of enthusiasm and a lack of “common” sense; proof that the Holy Spirit continues to work and move within and through us. While we struggle within our own body over many issues, from the place of sexual minorities through what “mission” means in an age of religious pluralism to financial transparency and maintaining financial health in an age when both our numbers and giving continue to shrink; we nevertheless live in and through the hope we have from God our Father in the Son, Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, working to transform the world so that all may see glimpses of that life to come that exists for all who earnestly repent of their sins and seek to flee the wrath to come. Whether it’s an effort to eradicate malaria from the continent of Africa; our ongoing work with the poor in Appalachia through the Red Bird Missionary Conference; or something as simple as after-school programs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; we United Methodists are a very real presence in lives around the world. One would hope some would find hope and peace and grace in that presence. One would also hope that some might find offense in that same presence.
[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.
You, to whom I now speak, believe this love of human kind cannot spring but from the love of God. You think there can be no instance of one whose tender affection embraces every child of man, (though not endeared to him either by ties of blood, or by any natural or civil relation,) unless that affection flow from a grateful, filial love to the common Father of all; to God, considered not only as his Father, but as “the Father of the spirits of all flesh;” yea, as the general Parent and Friend of all the families both of heaven and earth. – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
Our heritage as those who follow the tradition inaugurated by John Wesley includes much for which we should give thanks. Not least of these is that Wesley was, as great theologians should be, not only prolific in his writing, but sought clarity at all times. In the second paragraph of the pamphlet Advice To A People Called Methodist, Wesley makes clear not only that the love we feel not only for others who share our beliefs but for all persons is only possible as a reflection of the love God has for all humanity. As creator of all, God loves all. We “people called Methodist” reflect this love in our lives because we believe ourselves loved in this very way by God.
At a time in our history when the reality of religious pluralism is ever more clear, this call to remember that we are those who love all persons because God has created and loves persons, is not only scandalous; it is radical in the literal meaning of the word, “to the root”. We are surrounded by voices of hatred and division. We live in a time during which competing claims of faith are denounced not only as “false” but as “demonic”. We are part of a denomination in which a vocal minority demand the exclusion of some persons because of the way they feel romantic love. Wesley would insist that we people called Methodist live differently: We are to love all because God is both the Loving Father and Creator of all.
Consider for a moment the current crisis at the southern US border. The influx, particularly of children, from Central American countries in the midst of turmoil has created a lot of heat, but also an opportunity for the Church to let its light shine in the darkness. Some Americans demand punitive measures, including the mass deportation of these children to their countries of origin. These children and their families are fleeing due to rampant violence, much of it state-sanctioned. They believe that here in the United States they can live free from the threat of violence, only to be greeted by armed mobs and howls of rage, called “illegal aliens” as a way to dehumanize them and ignore the very real perils they have faced in the hope that they could come here and live lives of peace.
Whatever the feelings of the American people, however, there is little doubt that these people, particularly the children arriving without families, without parents, are in dire need of assistance. The churches along the southern border are helping out as much as they can, living out this love for all that is the beating heart of our faith. In the context of our current situation, however, few things could be more scandalous than to insist that these persons are persons in need, beloved children of God, and that our duty is to serve them because of that love.
Consider our Muslim neighbors. Over a decade since the terrorist attacks on the United States, and there are still those who loudly espouse the hatred for and call for the death of adherents to Islam. Even religious leaders like Franklin Graham insist Islam is actually a demonic faith, rather than a faith of peace, love, and duty before a Holy God. Love for and sharing with our Muslim neighbors, in our current historical moment, is a source of scandal and outrage for many of our fellow Americans. Yet, what else can we people called Methodist do but demonstrate our love for our neighbors, whoever they might be?
Are we true to this tenet of our faith? Are we living lives of love for all, because God is the Loving Father of all? Are we despised, mocked for our enthusiasm, and a source of scandal to others because we live out our faith in love toward all? These are the questions we people called Methodist should be considering, in light of our tradition and in our current historical moment. We might find renewal not in plans or legislative schemes, but in acts of charity and mercy for our fellow children of God. In this way we would show our faith and make clear that we continue to hear John Wesley’s words to us as to how we believe and live.
By Methodists I mean, a people who profess to pursue (in whatsoever measure they have attained) holiness of heart and life, inward and outward conformity in all things to the revealed will of God – John Wesley, Advice To A People Called Methodist
With many thanks to John Patterson of Progressive United Methodists on Facebook, I discovered yet another remarkable heritage resource for people who live in the tradition inaugurated by Wesley. The pamphlet, which is relatively short, is available in full at the link above, at the website for the United Methodist General Board of Global Missions. While short, it bears closer scrutiny, so for the next few days, I thought I’d spend some time reading it closely, meditating on it, and sharing some reflections, with help from secondary sources when necessary.
The first thing to consider is the provenance of a pamphlet such as this. It’s important to remember that in the mid-18th century neither Wesley nor those who followed him were popular. Wesley never wanted to rebel against the Church of England; yet his evangelical work, his refusal to stay in a parish, his efforts to bring the unchurched – who were the vast majority of the British people – back to the Church through the combination of working with them, particularly the poor and making sure they understood the gravity of their commitment to become not just saved by disciples of Jesus Christ through the imposition of rules and a system of mutual accountability; all these along with the suspicion that there was a more insidious, political, agenda to his movement (a point to which we shall return when Wesley makes explicit reference to the Crown) all created an atmosphere of deep suspicion around this odd priest who crisscrossed Britain on horseback, preaching outdoors when he was refused pulpit space, attracting crowds of mine and field workers, people in the trades, and even allowing women a place alongside men in the organization of what Wesley called “the United Societies” or, alternately, the class meeting.
England was in the bare infancy of industrialization. The enclosure laws, the religious and political wars, and the rise of Britain as a trading and military power during the previous century had all created social conditions that left the underlying class system intact, but removed much of the noblesse oblige that gave the upper classes and aristocracy any sense of responsibility toward the poor. The Church of England, in what author Roy Jeynkins, in his biography of the great 19th century statesman William Gladstone calls a case of moderate Erastianism – the Church relies upon the state, while maintaining a sphere of its own as long as there is not too much interference going either way – was becoming the gathering place of the rising bourgeoisie, those earnest and hardworking men and their families who sought status. Neither the poor nor the aristocracy, who might buy pews and chapels but rarely attended a service in their life except for weddings and funerals, attended services.
Wesley ignored the aristocracy, concentrating on the poor, the laborers in mines and towns, growing industrial and trading centers. While Wesley insisted that those who came to hear him must attend regular service at their closest parish church, their sudden presence in and among the nouveau riches was a source of social discomfort, to say the least. Local parish priests wouldn’t deign to invite people who rarely washed, didn’t have the proper attire, and by their dress, manners, and speaking set themselves as hardly “Christian” as that term was deployed by the literate of the time. That Wesley actually went to their places of work, standing at the opening of mine shafts to preach, going to the center of working towns, trading centers, preaching this Gospel of universal love and grace that brought with it the possibility of holiness before God was scandalous.
At the time, while the throne and Parliamentary relations with it seemed secure enough, there were still conspiracies and plots by those who opposed the imposition of a foreign ruler, the House of Orange, on Britain by a Parliament that insisted on maintaining its prerogative not only over the making of laws, but of maintaining the Crown under the rule of law. Because of the ubiquity of these conspiracies, any action against the order of the Kingdom, even one as mild as Wesley’s, was interpreted as a sign of disloyalty. That Wesley encouraged people to meet together in private, small groups seemed further evidence of his treachery. Add it all together and it is easy to see how both Wesley and those who followed his General Rules were looked at both with disdain and suspicion.
In order to make clear who these people called Methodists – a derogatory term that referred to the constant barrage of rules, orders, the vigilance and seriousness with which Wesley and his followers lived out their call to holiness of heart and life – really were, Wesley wrote several different pamphlets. This, however, is addressed to the people. It is to remind them they are a holy people, a true ekklesia, a people called out by God to live out salvation rather than rest within it. While addressing some particularities of the social and religious situation “Methodists” faced, the larger purpose of the pamphlet is simple enough: To remind those who might worry, be fearful, or perhaps prefer to set aside the life of holiness to which they were called that they are God’s people, not only saved but blessed through grace to imitate the life of Christ, to spread the Good News of salvation, to work with and for the poor, not just of Spirit but poor in the means of life as well. It is the kind of missive, or epistle, that St. Paul wrote to the fledgling church in Rome, Corinth, and Philippi. It is a reminder of whose they are; that the lies of those who hate and slander them are rooted both in jealousy and ignorance; that their holy living is a judgment upon the lives of those who curse and denounce them.
For we United Methodists in the early 21st century, it is a reminder that we are inheritors of a tradition of love, of graciousness toward those with whom we disagree, and of patience in the face of persecution. We are not the inheritors of a middle-class morality or simplistic Biblicism or overwrought Fideism (including attention to Apologetics, which Wesley obviously sets to one side, at least here). We are those who live lives of holiness not because we have to, or because we are “enthusiasts” (nothing has been so scorned by the bourgeoisie as enthusiasm of any sort, except for their own pleasure and maintaining their own rule), but because we have been blessed with this opportunity to demonstrate to the world who God is by loving as God loves.