“The Church exists both as local congregations and as a universal body. The Church universal is composed of all who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord.”1 Since that historic day on a Texas prairie, Nazarenes have never officially said, “You must be Nazarene to be Christian.”
The late 19th-century holiness movement crossed denominational boundaries. Its adherents professed salvation and sanctification at rough-hewn altars, under patched, canvas tents and hastily-crafted brush arbors. It did not matter which denomination you had once claimed. The spirit of God simply burned away old prejudices and theological hang-ups. Many Nazarenes chuckle at the story of the short, wiry Texan who dashed across the rough wooden platform of the Pilot Point tent and embraced a Yankee, yelling: “I haven’t hugged a Yankee since before the Civil War, but I’m going to hug one now.”2 The Civil War had drawn harsh regional lines in both the church and the nation. Denominations split over slavery and states’ rights. Prejudices between Yankees and Confederates are still experienced today. My grandmother, in her thick Mississippi accent, once sharply corrected my brother for suggesting that some of her ancestors may have been Union. Yet, the unification of holiness groups at Pilot Point broke down many of those barriers. How did this happen? Where did this little holiness group get its progressive ideas?
Their forward thinking can be attributed to our theological ancestor, John Wesley. Wesley’s life spanned almost the entire 18th century. He was an ordained priest in the Church of England, raised by parents devoted to God. His mother taught him discipline and love of Jesus at an early age. Along with his brother, Charles, the poet and songwriter whose hymns number in the thousands, John led a group of believers at Oxford University who were called “Methodists” because of their methodical practices.
Wesley longed to serve the Lord and accepted an assignment to work in the colony of Georgia. He sailed to Georgia with great intentions but left discouraged. He failed as a missionary with the Indians, and a romantic relationship gone sour with a colonist sent him packing back to England. On his trip to America, the ship on which he travelled encountered a fierce storm. Wesley realized that, even though a minister, he was afraid to die. Yet, even at the storm’s height, he saw a group of Moravians praying and singing praises on their knees, while others were panicking. He wanted that steadfast faith and developed a relationship with them.
Upon his return to England, Wesley attended a prayer meeting at Aldersgate Street, where he listened intently as the leader read from Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. When Wesley heard the words that “the just will live by faith,” he felt his heart “strangely warmed.” He was given an assurance of salvation and no longer lived in fear of death. This experience prompted him to preach a scriptural Christianity that did not always sit well with fellow Anglicans, who were set in their ways.
After initial resistance, he embraced “field preaching” and spoke to hundreds at a time in the open fields outside villages and cities. This behavior was highly unusual for a minister of the Church of England. He described in his journals that he quickly learned not to preach near piles of stones or fruit that could be thrown at him.
Wesley formed his followers into societies, bands, and classes. Each type of small group had a purpose: to enable Christians to grow in God’s grace. The people who participated in these groups were called Methodists, as the group at Oxford had been.
One mark of early Methodism was inclusivism. The only requirement for joining a band was “a sincere desire to flee the wrath to come.”3 A person was not required to spout lists of memorized Scripture passages nor claim an understanding of difficult theological ideas. They could be Roman Catholic, Anglican, or no religion at all.
The Catholics had been taught to trust the institutional church. The Protestants often identified themselves by their beliefs. Wesley tried a new approach: identity by practice. One may be a baptized Roman Catholic, yet never show the love of Christ. One may be a Protestant who could recite the Catechism, yet never feed the poor. Wesley preached to them all, then formed them into a community and entreated them to practice the means of grace.
Wesley entreated all Christians to practice five means of grace: searching the Scriptures, fasting, communion, prayer, and group fellowship.4 Those who sought God were instructed to practice these, even if they did not yet profess faith in Christ. Wesley taught that they might come to experience God through the practice and thus believe. He did not teach that belief in Christ must precede the practice of these means. Nor did he teach that church affiliation preceded the practice of the means of grace. The groups who practiced these means of grace were told to keep attending a church, if they previously attended. Wesley did not desire schism; unfortunately, he did not see scriptural Christianity being practiced throughout much of his beloved Church of England. So, late in his life, he agreed to allow the Methodists to have their own chapels.
At one point, Methodists were accused of being “bigots.” Wesley responded with a beautiful sermon called, “A Caution Against Bigotry.” He outlined a practice of tolerance for Methodists. Methodists were encouraged to live the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”5
In another sermon, Wesley took the definition of the church further than his Anglican roots allowed. He pointed out that Anglicans excluded those who did not practice what they considered the pure word of God, and those who in their view did not properly administer the sacraments (baptism and communion). Wesley concluded, however, that he dare not exclude those outside the Anglican communion, for he believed that the church is defined as all persons in the universe who are called out of the world to be one body, one spirit, and practice one baptism.6 Wesley did not exclude Roman Catholics from this definition of the church, as Protestants of his day and ours have done.
Throughout history, wars have been fought over religious differences. The 17th century was wrought with the blood of such religious clashes. Wesley did not want to see such wars continue. He believed that it was vital for the church universal to allow for differences among Christians.
He instructed Christians to operate in unity. He proposed certain questions to determine the possibilities for collaboration. He asked, only: is one’s heart right with God, do they believe in Jesus Christ, do they love God above all, do they live by God’s will, and do their actions show they love their neighbors as themselves? If these questions are answered positively, we are to say, “Give me thy hand.”7 We move forward in unity in the work of God’s kingdom.
Early Nazarenes strove for unity. They formed a church that embraced a scriptural Christianity that practiced loving God and neighbor. This scriptural Christianity promoted love and unity among all believers. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the 19th-century camp meetings reminded the Nazarenes, like our early Methodist ancestors, that God brings unity to Christian groups; unity so strong that it leads even Confederates and Yankees to embrace.
KELLY DIEHL YATES teaches at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma in both the departments of Theology and Ministry and the Department of Professional Studies. She has served in ministry in the Church of the Nazarene as a senior pastor in Arkansas and as an associate pastor in Oklahoma. She is a doctoral student in theology at the University of Manchester, England.
1. Manual, Church of the Nazarene, 2005-2009. 36.
2. Timothy L. Smith. Called Unto Holiness, vol 1. Kansas City, Missouri: Nazarene Publishing House, 1962. 223.
3. William J. Abraham and James E. Kirby, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies. Oxford handbooks online, 2009. 40.
4. John Wesley. The Works of John Wesley, Bi-Centennial edition. (Frank Baker, ed. 35 vols. Projected. Nashville: Abingdon, 1984 to present). 1:32 “Means of Grace.”
5. John Wesley. The Works of John Wesley, Bi-Centennial edition. (Frank Baker, ed. 35 vols. Projected. Nashville: Abingdon, 1984 to present). 2:82. “The Catholic Spirit.”
6. John Wesley. The Works of John Wesley, Bi-Centennial edition. (Frank Baker, ed. 35 vols. Projected. Nashville: Abingdon, 1984 to present). 3:50. “On the church.”
7. John Wesley. The Works of John Wesley, Bi-Centennial edition. (Frank Baker, ed. 35 vols. Projected. Nashville: Abingdon, 1984 to present). 2:82 “The Catholic Spirit.”