The Allure of Wesleyanism

For this Baptist, John Wesley is one of the most interesting and significant Protestant leaders in history. I have always found his project alluring: within decadent, aristocratic-heavy 18th century Anglicanism arose a leader, and a movement, calling for a renewal of heartfelt, wholly committed, holistic, holiness. (Perhaps only Baptists alliterate quite like that. Sorry.) The Wesleyans cut through centuries of encrusted tradition to call for what Methodist sympathizer William Wilberforce simply called “Real Christianity.” A vivid Jesus and lively Holy Spirit, encountered in a demanding community of Christians earnestly striving for holiness — some even managing to hope that they could achieve moral perfection and “entire sanctification,” as Sarah Lancaster so clearly describes.

It is one of the remarkable things about the Christian faith — the way it always seems open to renewal from the roots, to the sweeping aside of mere culture- or family- or class-religion and the return of blazingly powerful devotion to Christ. These fire-breathing reform movements pop up all over the Christian world, appearing when most needed, when the local practice of Christianity seems most moribund, enculturated, and corrupt.

But then, alas, over time such renewal movements themselves becomes (sub)cultures, usually with the holism leached out. Thus Wesleyanism becomes, eventually, a denomination, then multiple denominations. Some Wesleyans become personal-rigorist, some social-rigorist, some worship-rigorist. Some lean left, some lean right, some try resolutely to remain in the center. By now, the Wesleyan traditions as we find them in the US seem just as swallowed up in our broader cultural divisions as are so many other Christian groups that once blazed with reformist fire.

But today I choose to celebrate the original inspired vision of John Wesley. I think of him disturbing all those nice British costume drama tea parties attended by the vicar, those grand weddings at the country estates and castles, with his rough-cut message of Real Christianity.

Who will God inspire with this generation’s reforming fire?