“Oh, now I understand…”

If Lutheranism is the parent of Pietism, then surely the Wesleyan Tradition is the closest cousin to my own. The most distinctive catalyst for the Methodist wing of the First Great Awakening was the encounter of John and Charles Wesley with Pietism, both the Moravian strain that famously led to their conversion experiences and the “churchly” Pietism associated with Philipp Spener (whose conventicles were adapted by early Methodists). In the 19th century, the influence ran the other direction: the Swedish Pietist revival to which I’ve referred in virtually every essay started with the efforts of a Methodist missionary named George Scott. 

And yet apart from my familiarity with those origin stories, most of my personal encounters with Wesleyanism have come through outgrowths of that tradition that weren’t central to Sarah Lancaster’s essay: friendships with CMA and Nazarene Christians whose version of Wesleyan holiness was touched on only briefly in this month’s lead essay; my experience talking about Pietism at a university with Free Methodist roots; some research into the history of United Brethren higher education.

When it comes to Methodism itself, I’m almost shocked how little I know of it. (Apart from attending a friend’s wedding, I’m not sure I’ve actually worshipped in a United Methodist church.)

And I might have wished to hear a bit more from Lancaster about contemporary Wesleyanism. But I can’t complain of being reminded of the origins of Wesleyan practice and belief: some of which I knew well; some of which I now understand far better.

“Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God,” she wrote in her response to my essay on Pietism. So let me start with my favorite legacy of early Methodism: its hymnody. (Here too, there’s a Pietist connection: John translated from German to English hymns by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen, and other Pietist writers.) The hymnal of my pietistic home denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, features sixteen hymns by Charles Wesley, including “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which opened the Maundy Thursday service last night at our neighborhood Lutheran church. Describing a Jesus whose name is “music in the sinner’s ears,” bringing “life and health and peace,” and who has the power to “[set] the pris’ner” free,” that hymn came to my mind as I read Lancaster describe sanctification as “growing in holiness-understood as perfect love,” both personal and social.

(Speaking of social… I also appreciate how the early Methodists emphasized congregational singing, perhaps one more way of working out Lancaster’s profound insight that “We grow in God’s love as we open ourselves to one another.”)

“Look and believe through faith alone,” Charles added, carefully placing the Wesleys in the Protestant mainstream, “be justified by grace.” But to understand what he means by “the triumphs of [God’s] grace,” I think we need to go back to Lancaster’s observation that, for the Wesleys, grace initiates and empowers salvation — understood as including “not only what happens after death but also what happens in this life.” For Wesleyans, like Pietists, grace doesn’t just impute righteousness but enables us to follow Jesus in this life, learning “again to love as God loves, thereby becoming more who God created us to be. We are really changed by following Jesus.”

Maybe because of their Lutheran parentage, most Pietists can’t follow (John) Wesley, let alone some of his 19th century spiritual descendants, to the point of expecting “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification.” In his recent compendium of Philipp Spener’s theology, K. James Stein (a UMC theologian from the United Brethren tradition) emphasizes that the Pietist founder’s “belief that the new birth is only completed at death kept him from the understanding of a sanctification that is often equated with sinless perfection.” 

But apart from that hesitation, I came to the end of Lancaster’s winsome essay and felt almost like I could say, with her other students, “Oh, now I understand why I am a Methodist” — the overlap with Pietism is that close.

In fact, I’ve often heard something similar from college and adult students at the end of my classes: “I was a Pietist and didn’t know it.” So even Lancaster’s excursus sounded familiar, which prompts a brief tangent of my own…

It’s not just that she and I share the experience of providing theological language and historical context to people who “have been formed in certain ways of thinking even if not explicitly taught.” At the same time that Methodist scholars undertook their “effort to recognize [John Wesley’s] theological work and share it more broadly with people for their daily living,” mid-20th century Covenant, Brethren, and (Swedish) Baptist scholars were recovering the thought of Philipp Spener and other early Pietists. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. American Pietist ressourcement after 1950 often had to do with finding an alternative to the fundamentalist-modernist and conservative-liberal binaries of 20th century theology; I don’t know if the same dynamic animated Methodist historiography.

But even if it’s just a coincidence, that scholars from both traditions have rededicated themselves to retrieving their origins reiterates the importance of this conversation: it pushes us at once to dig deeper into our own stories, then to share them with others.

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