The Almost Pietist

Wesleyan Methodism may have had its home in the Church of England, but it was deeply shaped by Pietism through John Wesley’s acquaintance and respect for the Moravians. Many of the characteristics with which Christopher Gehrz describes his Pietist seeking to follow Jesus were present in the 18th century movement that Wesley led. Some remain, although probably not as universally and regularly practiced as they used to be.

I was deeply appreciative that hymns were featured prominently in the reflection. As a child, I often sang hymns to myself when I played alone. My mother’s lullaby to me when I was very young was “Blessed Assurance.” My own favorite hymn is “Jesus Lover of My Soul,” written by Charles Wesley in 1738 not long after his conversion. I sang this as a lullaby to my own daughters when they were small, and to my grandchildren as I have opportunity. I regret that this hymn is not a congregational favorite, so I don’t often get to sing it in worship. Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God.

There is nothing more glorious to me than singing in the company of other Methodists at a meeting of annual conference or some other large gathering. Wesleyan Methodists have been a singing people, although lately many churchgoers in the United States prefer contemporary “praise and worship music” to hymns. Methodists around the world create their own ways of singing their faith in their own styles, and some of these “global” songs become favorites also in the U.S. Whether old hymns or newer songs, singing has been a practice that has been central to following Jesus.

Another important connection between my tradition and the piety Christopher Gehrz describes is meeting in small groups. John Wesley was already involved in small groups because the Church of England made use of religious societies (which were themselves influenced by Pietism), but after he met Moravians he organized them into effective accountability groups with mutual confession and having no clergy leadership. The purpose of these groups was for Methodists to support one another in following Jesus. Private devotion was also encouraged and practiced, but the small groups (called classes and bands) were the backbone of the movement. I imagine the use of small groups varies around the world, but in the U.S. (in the UMC) they are not used as effectively as they once were. We rarely ask each other the questions that Wesley gave to the bands, for instance: “Have you peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ? Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart? Do you desire to be told of your faults? Do you desire that every one of us should tell you from time to time whatsoever is in his heart concerning you?” Anyone who is willing to submit to these questions is really serious about following Jesus.

One of the most effective continuing uses of “small groups” in United Methodism is the United Methodist Women (now changing its name to United Women of Faith). The UWF (UMW) provides women the opportunity to meet, study and work together in “circles.” Educational materials are produced every year so that UWF (UMW) members may intentionally grow in faith together so they may continually learn how to follow Jesus.

Wesleyan Methodists have also seen the connection between the inner experiences of salvation and world transformation. Even small congregations try to be a force for good in their communities. Because of our connectional system, we can and do mobilize quickly to respond to crisis. We suffer from blind spots, of course, and there can be sharp differences among Methodists on various social matters. We are not always agreed upon how following Jesus ought to transform the world.

I was struck by the observation that practice matters more than right belief. This view was also held by John Wesley for whom the distinguishing mark of a Methodist was neither orthodoxy nor opinion nor any particular practices, but rather love for God and neighbor. I note in our history, though, that John Wesley broke with others with whom he shared this love (that is, the Moravians and Calvinist Methodists) but did not agree in theological understanding (namely, he saw tendency toward antinomianism in their theology). I wonder whether any theological differences might trouble the waters between Pietists, especially because Pietism can be spread across traditions?

As I read the description of a Pietist that Christopher Gehrz provides in “A Week in the Life,” I can almost move with her through the week. It does seem that having institutional structure may mute some of the more Pietist aspects of history of Wesleyan Methodism, but I think that most of us seek for new life and authenticity, and we still have some practices that may be used toward that purpose.



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