Hearts Strangely Warmed

I deeply appreciate Sarah Lancaster’s summary of the Wesleyan tradition and its emphasis on holiness and piety within the context of community. True, as Ms. Lancaster notes, that emphasis has flagged somewhat at various times within the Wesleyan tradition—a consequence of routinization, no doubt—but the ideal remains, and it is important.

When I think of the Wesleyan tradition, I quickly return to John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience on May 24, 1738, as a formative moment (and I confess I was a bit surprised that Ms. Lancaster didn’t mention it). This is when Wesley attended a religious society on Aldersgate Street in London (not far from St. Paul’s) and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” What I find so arresting about this account is the evident surprise in Wesley’s telling of the story. A disquisition on Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans is hardly calculated to produce a pietistic response, but that is exactly what happened “about a quarter before nine” during Wesley’s visit.

Some scholars have referred to the experience as “mystical,” and the term seems about right to me. Whatever the nomenclature, however, it’s clear that it was life-changing for Wesley. And I love the element of surprise, in part because I too have experienced spiritual/mystical moments at unexpected moments. These are gracious visitations of the Spirit.

I see four important lessons from the Wesleyan tradition about following Jesus. The first, building on Aldersgate Street, is the centrality of religious experience. I was struck the other day while rereading Jean Sulivan’s Morning Light by his thoughts about the relation between faith and rationalism, especially regarding the teachings of Jesus. “Rationalistic explanations,” he writes, “transform the message into slogans and render it inoffensive.” The Wesleyan tradition—as well as Wesley’s own experience—affirms that faith is more than mere intellectual assent.

Second, Wesleyanism points to the centrality of community, and this, historically speaking, is important not only for the spiritual formation of individuals but also for social reform. In fact, if we look back on the noble tradition of evangelical social activism in the nineteenth century, we see that the impetus for these reforms was not the Reformed tradition; it came instead, more often than not, from the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. Put another way, it was not Charles Hodge and the Princetonians, writing from their ivory tower hideaways on the leafy Princeton Seminary campus who were working to eradicate slavery or push for women’s rights or ensure the success of public education. No, that energy, as historians Donald W. Dayton and Timothy L. Smith have demonstrated, came largely from the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. It’s no accident that the formative event of the women’s rights movement took place at Wesleyan Chapel, in Seneca Falls, New York.

Third, and building on the previous point, gender. Unlike many other Christian traditions, the Wesleyan-Holiness movement has not only valued, but encouraged the participation of women. Indeed, one of the tragedies of the Holiness movement’s offspring, Pentecostalism, is that white Pentecostals in particular have steadily shut women out of leadership roles, this despite Azusa Street itself and the long and distinguished history of women’s leadership—Sarah Lankford, Phoebe Palmer, and many others.

Finally, we should congratulate the Wesleyan tradition for finding inventive ways to evangelize, to bring the gospel to the masses. Methodist meetings themselves, derived from and building on Pietist conventicles, provide one example, but the real genius of Wesleyan Methodism was the circuit riders, whose influence on the nineteenth-century American frontier endures to this day.

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