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    « Person, Not Thing | Main | The Task of Christian Leadership »
    Friday
    Aug122016

    Review: Wesley and the Anglicans

    The Methodist movement is commonly described as an initiative of the Holy Spirit, driven by the zeal of a persistent leader, grounded by the practical innovation of bands and societies, and as yielding a theological distinctive or two. I have heard Methodism described as an ongoing work of gospel renewal begun to instill life in denominations and churches, as well as in individuals. There is some truth in that account, however simplified it might be. The events which gave birth to Methodism are much more complicated.

    Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism (IVP Academic, 2016) unearths the strata of early Methodism, revealing the complexities surrounding the movement as it arose. The book is written by Ryan Nicholas Danker, who serves as assistant professor of the history of Christianity and Methodist studies at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Danker carefully chronicles the Anglican and English contexts that shaped and influenced John Wesley in an effort to help the reader understand both his life and theology.

    Early in his account Danker states that “social, political and ecclesiastical issues have not been given proper weight” which led to  a divide between Wesley, Wesleyan Methodism, and some of the evangelical clergy who were Wesley’s contemporaries. The divisions which occurred during the early Methodist movement are more often described as theological in nature, such as in the case of George Whitefield’s Calvinism and Wesley’s Arminianism. Danker effectively shows that the historical evidence yields a more complex reality.

    Danker first outlines early English evangelicalism and Wesley’s place within it. Danker notes, “Although the term Methodist is now thought to be synonymous with Wesleyanism, at the beginning of the Evangelical Revival in England it was an elusive term.” Evangelicalism was first broadly defined and loosely organized, though it was understood to be evangelistic in nature and stressing conversion. 

    Evangelicalism was also opposed and viewed as dangerous. Even though evangelicals understood their work as yielding revival, established clergy viewed their results as potentially schismatic, particularly when converts were organized into their own small societies quite apart from the Church of England.

    Danker also tells of ways in which revivalists were attacked and criticized, as well as why Methodist structure would draw out opposition. Danker’s description of the Act of Toleration, the Conventicle Act, and the implications of both, as well as the general posture toward non-established religious groups in post-Cromwellian English society is very helpful and revelatory. Danker also describes the tension between Methodist societies and Anglican clergy, who expected all Christians to participate exclusively within the parish structure of the Church of England.

    Danker further analyzes the history of the Evangelical and Methodist movements geographically, showing why certain disputes arose and why they were perpetuated. Some itinerant lay preachers were frustrated by the parish system. Local clergy took umbrage with field preachers and with the organization of Methodist societies. Wesley was urged to channel his efforts into the existing forms of the Church, but for Wesley, the proclamation of the gospel was of greatest importance. This got Wesley into trouble.

    Methodist identity, distinct from Evangelicalism, was solidified through the development of a “distinctive ethos,” and also thanks to decisions concerning the administration of communion. Danker writes, “Attempts by Wesley’s lay preachers to administer communion or gain the right to administer it, either as laymen or after ordination at Wesley’s hands, were seen by many within the Evangelical ‘party’ as the end of their association.” 

    Danker devotes a chapter to the fallout from the controversies between evangelicals and Methodists, highlighting the case of six Oxford students who were expelled for “methodistical behaviour.” He also shows the reasons why Wesley and the Evangelicals came to be distinct. Danker writes, “The Evangelicals, as a group, represented a Reformed vision of Christianity stemming back to the Puritans and the English Reformers, while Wesley represented a restorationist vision based on the church fathers as read through high church Anglicanism and the Caroline divines.”

    Throughout his account, Danker removes some of the polish from Wesley. Many accounts of John Wesley and the early Methodists are hagiographical, rather than historiographical. Hagiography minimizes negatives and hardships, and elevates the person to the status of saint.

    Wesley was far from perfect. He did not always do the right thing. He was human, with his own particular flaws and vices. The Methodist movement was not always received positively, and while it did bring some theological and practical distinctives that are gifts to the church, it created certain political problems within the Church of England as well as within British society.

    The same flaws, however, gave rise to a boldness that should not be forgotten. I think Danker strikes the right balance here. Boldness in many instances should be emulated. Wesley was focused strongly on evangelism. He possessed a love for the church. Perhaps naively, he assumed that his work and legacy could reinvigorate and renew the Anglicanism that had so strongly shaped his life and ministry. Methodism, instead, budded as a new branch.

    We do not always fully anticipate the outcome of our choices. We do not know what disputes may result, what ideas might take root, which friends we might make, and which ones we might lose. We may not fully grasp the weight our social setting or our political milieu places upon us even now, and how that may shape our positions and our actions.

    But good historians can help us to perceive the present more clearly by initiating us into the complexities of the past. One result may be a greater understanding of ourselves, and what our moment requires. In this way, Danker’s history of early evangelicalism and John Wesley is a helpful and worthwhile offering.

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