The Wesley Works Project was launched in the 1960s to produce a modern critical edition of John Wesley’s writings in 35 volumes. The founders embraced an editorial task that was monumental. They knew it would take many years, and they anticipated that the project would stimulate renewed interest in Wesley and early Methodist studies for at least another generation.
They were correct on both points, and as the project progressed, Frank Baker (Duke University), Albert Outler (Southern Methodist University), and other partners were soon training a younger, second generation of Wesley specialists. The books reviewed here represent works by the third generation of scholars to participate in this revival of Wesley studies. The emergence of a third generation is particularly significant when one realizes that each is the best book currently available on its particular topic.
Geordan Hammond notes at the outset of John Wesley in America that “The Georgia mission, while treated by all biographers of Wesley, can arguably be considered the most neglected period of Wesley’s much-studied life.”
Wesley experienced some difficulties in his inner life and outer relationships during his American sojourn, but Hammond disputes the common notion that Wesley’s life and career in Georgia were simply a series of unmitigated disasters. Instead, he argues that the Georgia frontier provided Wesley with a laboratory to test his notions of primitive Christianity and how those notions should be applied in his own time. Hammond makes the case that there is far more continuity than often assumed between Wesley’s university years during which he led the Holy Club, the Georgia era in which he was a parish pastor on the American frontier, and his subsequent leadership of the Methodist Revival in the British Isles.
Hammond assesses the Georgia era of Wesley’s ministry by broadening the usual range of sources, moving past Wesley’s own journal and consulting the writings of Moravian and Lutheran missionaries who interacted with Wesley, and evaluating other accounts of the early Georgia colony written by Wesley’s secular contemporaries. The result is a much fuller picture of Wesley’s American sojourn.
For instance, Hammond places the short-term nature of Wesley’s home mission experience in its proper context, noting that Georgia colonists were a very “irreligious people,” and that virtually all of the Anglican missionaries to early Georgia “had short tenures” except for one instance. Wesley, in other words, fared neither better nor worse than other priests sent there.
The theme that threads its way through this book is the concept of “the primitive Church” as that notion took shape in Wesley’s mind and thought.
In his later ministry, Wesley was both high Anglican and Evangelical, equally at home in The Book of Common Prayer’s liturgical worship services and in the intimate setting of the prayer meeting. And the way these two impulses intertwined would influence the course of global Methodism (though Methodists in other times and places would pick and choose what they would embrace from this patrimony). But at this early stage of his ministry, Wesley was just a high Anglican—in fact, higher than most.
The high Anglicanism to which Wesley adhered reverenced the Patristic era of church history. It embraced a view of Catholic Christianity, not in any Roman sense but in a very distinct pre-Roman sense. To Anglicans, Roman Catholics were just another sect—a large one, to be sure, but still one sect among many. Thus, Wesley could maintain the view, as Hammond puts it, “that the Church of England was the most scriptural and primitive church in existence.”
The early church’s faith and practices as revealed by the New Testament and the church fathers carried great weight with Anglicans generally, and high Anglicans in particular. Anglicans viewed the early church fathers as normative interpreters of the apostolic record since they were close in time to the apostles and uncorrupted by later accretions to the Christian tradition.Scripture and the Fathers informed high Anglicans’ ascetic disciplines, prayer habits, worship, understanding of clergy and lay roles, and views of ordination and episcopacy.
Hammond traces the development of Wesley’s views of Christian tradition by examining how tradition was perceived within Wesley’s own family, the influence of his own reading program and university education, and how Wesley’s New World experiences fed back into his understanding of primitive Christianity, with all this contributing to his subsequent leadership of the Methodist Revival. Thus, the book is about more than just Wesley in Georgia. It is about Wesley’s Georgia experience in light of his overall career.
In the final chapter, Hammond identifies various points of continuity between the phases of Wesley’s life. Among other topics, this includes Wesley’s lifelong ministry to (and frequent solidarity with) the poor, his use of extemporaneous prayer and preaching, and his abiding interest in Eucharistic doctrine. For instance, as a parish priest in Georgia, Wesley zealously guarded the Lord’s Table from those he regarded as unworthy recipients of the holy sacrament. After Georgia, he became an advocate of the open table, convinced that the Table of the Lord was a means of grace for all, especially including sinners—a place where God has promised to meet us and heal us, whatever our spiritual need.
In a happy coincidence, Kevin Watson’s Pursuing Social Holiness was published at practically the same time as Hammond’s book, for they make excellent companion pieces. Hammond tells us who Wesley was by the time he became the leader of the Methodist Revival, while Watson delves into one of Methodism’s basic units when the Revival was at high tide. Pursuing Social Holiness is the most thorough and enlightening study ever undertaken of the Wesley band meetings. The social structure of early Methodism was formed largely by two types of religious societies—the class meeting, typically involving eight to twelve people, and the band, comprised of five to seven souls. Classes and bands gathered to stimulate growth in Christian discipleship and provide mutual accountability. They were means of grace through a deliberate pattern of Christian conferencing.
Watson examines the “forerunners of the early Methodist band meeting” by looking at the development of English Pietism and its expression in Anglican religious societies. This broader context includes discussion of the Oxford Holy Club founded by Charles Wesley and subsequently led by John, the Moravian societies in London, and especially the Fetter Lane Society, to which John was attached after his return from Georgia. The Fetter Lane Society played an important role in Wesley’s life in the months prior to his heart-warming experience at Aldersgate. But what was this society?
Watson argues that the Fetter Lane Society was an attempt to meld together the spiritual impulses of Moravians and Anglicans and that this fusion ultimately failed. Wesley played a key role when the society split. At issue was the belief of London’s leading Moravians in quietism, or the notion that, when seeking the assurance of grace, one should cease from all Christian striving and simply wait upon the Lord.
Wesley, though, rejected quietism and believed that seekers should attend to all of the available means of grace. He was confident that God finding us (or us finding God) would most likely occur as we faithfully seek Him in and through those means. After Wesley separated from the Moravians, he continued using their method of forming bands of earnest Christians. Watson states that of the two social groups—classes and bands—the latter was the type “that was most focused on ongoing growth in holiness.” In band meetings, members confessed their sins, identified those areas in life in which they had been tempted, and explained how they overcame those temptations.
Watson notes that the text for these meetings was James 5:16: “Confess your faults to one another, and pray one for another that ye may be healed.” The band meeting was one of the earliest and most honest forms of Christian testimony. Wesley did not believe in “a sinning religion,” as the holiness evangelists would later put it, but he did believe in an honest one, and he had an astute understanding of human psychology that his successors often lacked. Watson’s second chapter is a thorough examination of Wesley’s theology of Christian discipleship. Watson delves into Wesley’s insistence on the necessity of holiness for the Christian life, not only for Methodists but also for “all who would be Christians.” Watson has an excellent discussion of entire sanctification in Wesley’s thought, then moves into the concept of social holiness—or, Wesley’s insistence on small group accountability for disciples and would-be disciples. This one chapter alone is well worth the price of the entire book.
In subsequent chapters, Watson examines the actual practices of the band meetings and traces their decline in nineteenth-century Methodism. Among the transitions that he notes are the development of the prayer meeting as an alternative to band and class meetings and an emphasis within the meetings that shifted them from accountability to fellowship groups, eroding the original purpose and facilitating change from small to large group experiences. Watson’s interest in the topic isn’t just academic. He has actively participated in modern versions of the band meeting and has also written The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience (2013), a handbook on recreating accountable discipleship in the contemporary church. In the last year of his life, full of experience and mature judgment, general superintendent J. B. Chapman wrote that every Nazarene pastor “should make John Wesley and his works a fundamental study.”
The books reviewed here would be helpful to any pastor who perceives the value of Chapman’s advice and intends to follow it. Hammond, a graduate of Point Loma Nazarene University, is on the faculty of Nazarene Theological College—Manchester and directs the work of The Manchester Wesley Research Centre, which promotes research on the Wesleys and their contemporaries and successors. Watson, a United Methodist, has taught at Seattle Pacific University (Free Methodist) and is currently at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Both authors are active in the Wesleyan Theological Society, and each has created a satisfying work that fully represents the maturation of historical studies in the Wesleyan tradition.
STAN INGERSOL serves as the denominational archivist for the Church of the Nazarene.