David Gushee’s story of inviting Jesus into his heart to become his Savior and Lord is very familiar to me. I grew up in Texas, and in that region, there is not much difference between Methodist and Baptist calls to conversion. In my early years, it was common to have an altar call to let Jesus into your heart. I have been moved myself to respond, although I do not recall feeling or having anyone tell me I was not a Christian. At least my own self-understanding of what I was doing when I responded was that I was seeking to be a better Christian, not become one. It is true, however, that John Wesley saw many in his country as “almost” Christians who needed to be awakened.
Having responsibility to respond to David Gushee in this respectful conversation, though, has made me wonder whether there was a time when Methodist evangelism/conversion had a more distinctive flavor. I have done some research myself and also consulted my colleague (Diane Lobody) who teaches United Methodist history and has studied Methodist spiritual autobiographies for years to find out more about that question. There was indeed a distinctive (and effective) pattern, and I will use this response to talk about it. I do so partly for the sake of contrast and comparison that Dr. Gushee can respond to (I suspect there may be some similarities as well as differences that need to be unpacked) and partly because United Methodists may benefit from some recovery of our past.
I have stated before in my response to Randall Balmer that following Jesus as a Methodist involved personal experience. Early Methodists did have powerful personal experiences, but this was not just heart-warming as many often think. The call in Methodist preaching led people to see their need and then find resolution in their experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
The pattern of preaching that John Wesley himself encouraged Methodist preachers to follow was a pattern he identified in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, specifically the Beatitudes (see his commentary in The Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament on Matthew 5:2-9). Using “happy” rather than “blessed” in his translation, he finds in this text the “complete art of happiness” and he maintains that Jesus’ discourse is “the pattern for every Christian preacher.” It is possible for him to identify this pattern because he sees the Beatitudes as a description of holy living. He understands the pattern for preaching that originates with Jesus to be the following: It starts with an invitation to true holiness and happiness, accompanied by a description of holiness that serves as a contrast to the hearer’s own life. This beginning offers an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to convince people of sin and for the hearer to respond in repentance. The truly penitent shall receive both a present inward kingdom of peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, as well as the eternal kingdom after this life. The penitent mourn their sin, but they will be comforted. They will exhibit signs of being the children of God as they regulate their emotional reactions (tempers and affections) to what goes on around them, are satisfied in life by the portion of holiness that God gives them, and love all people as themselves (showing mercy to others as they obtain mercy from God). They thereby become peacemakers in the world.
So Methodists disturbed people with the reality of sin, but this reality was met with the even greater reality of grace—God’s love and mercy in Jesus Christ offered to all. Being convinced of sin opens the possibility of our response to God. This preaching called not just for an “invitation” to Jesus (such language would not express the magnitude of what was happening), but rather a call to recognize our need and to accept the love that was being offered even in one’s painful self-awareness. From what my colleague has identified in firsthand accounts, Methodist preaching actually followed this pattern.
This approach certainly challenged folks to wrestle with new self-understanding, but they were not left to do so alone. The formation of class meetings (of 12-15 people) allowed them to gather with others on this journey, to pray together and encourage one another. They could challenge, console, and support one another to grow in holiness. Methodist meetings were considered noisy and, in the language of the time, “enthusiastic.” My colleague provided me with several examples from the spiritual autobiographies she has studied. They speak of meetings where there was both weeping and shouts of joy.
She further notes that many people came to Methodism after trauma in their lives (for instance they may have lost a loved one, suffered illness, or lost economic stability). Their earthly lives were in upheaval, or filled with anxiety and pain, and they found the message and experience of a changed life compelling. The love of Christ not only mattered for their eternal souls but also for how they moved through this life. People who lived on the margins, as we would say now, found a new way of understanding themselves—God loves “even me.” Their confidence in God’s love for them in Jesus Christ allowed them to understand their lives to be reordered and to act accordingly (for instance having noisy meetings that were not “proper” or daring to preach when social status, education, or even race would ordinarily make them voiceless). Typical Methodist language of “assurance” certainly meant assurance of salvation, but salvation was extended to this life and the difference Jesus Christ made for living in the present. They spoke of being happy, and John Wesley’s theology considered happiness as well as holiness to be the twin goals and effects of following Jesus.
My colleague sent me one excerpt that I will quote here, written in the journal of Jesse Lee, an American circuit rider in the 19th century:
I preached twice in New-London. In the evening we drank tea with a friendly widow. Mr. Darrough, a Baptist minister, came to tea with us; he was very friendly. I told him if he did not take care, the Methodists would out do him. He said: I don’t know how they will go about it.” ‘Why,’ said I, ‘they will out preach you, and out live you, and out love you.’ ‘Well,’ says he, ‘they may, but if they do, they shall have hard work for it, for I intend to love God with all my soul; and then, if they out love me, their vessel must be bigger than mine.'”
If Baptists and Methodists could recover our earlier energy and spur each other to greater preaching, living, and loving, we might together make a good deal of difference in the world.