What is Methodism Anyways?

(c) Epworth Old Rectory; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(A Remembrance on Aldersgate)

Over the last week, I had the opportunity to have a meal with a lifelong southern Baptist.   During that meal the question arose of why I was so far from home.   After I told him about why I was the Yankee in Tennessee court, there was a pause, followed by a scrunched brow and “what is a methodist anyways?”

Although I have some text-book answers to that question, the truth is you cannot answer that question, without asking and answering another question; who was John Wesley.    Although it is Jesus in whom we put our faith, trust and love…It was John Wesley, whose life, sermons, teaching, and ministry serves to become a filter of just what a Wesleyan Christian looks like.

Who was John Wesley?

John Wesley  was an Evangelist in the purest sense.   As clergy in the Church of England, he realized people were being failed by the church.  When the door of the church was closed  to his countless second class neighbors, Wesley brought the church to them.  Throughout his life, Wesley never wanted to start a new church but fix the one he loved.

He brought faith to a tough and broken world, and the world responded.   Not only did they respond, the responded by the thousands.    He would fill fields and open air churches with the very people who would have never found a pew in the traditional sense.

Although our shared heritage contains countless stories of these incredible services, there was a story of one such moment when Wesley preached to thousands of coal miners.    One report told of miners whose faces were entirely black with soot, with the exception of streaks made clear by tears.  Grown and broken men and women would be moved to tears by delivery of Jesus’ message.

For Wesley, evangelism did not end with the sermon.   He believed that the church needed to be about serving the mind, body, and spirit of those they ministered to.   He was an advocate for education, and worked to provide it for those who had no other avenue to learn.  He valued social justice.   He grasped the real truth that when others fought simply to survive, they were less apt to fight for faith.  He saw social justice as expression of his faith, declaring there is “no holiness, but social holiness”.   You would find Wesley and these early Methodists acting as teachers and doctors in prisons, poor houses, and back streets.

Wesley also believed in the personal holiness that resulted from faith.  He believed that self-discipline was a tool of faith.   He held himself to almost impossible standards of thrift, devotion and discipleship.  His devotion to recording every penny he spent, regulating excesses, and even the hours he slept seem almost to exist at the level of the obsessive compulsive.

These are just some of the core pieces of Wesley that formed a worldwide movement known as Methodism or Wesleyan Christianity.

Albert Outer said that Wesley was the founder of folk theology; a theology that could connect and resonate with the everyday man.     Perhaps that connection results from an authenticity. Beyond all these things just mentioned, there is a Wesley worth recognizing, celebrating, and acknowledging as fundamental to his impact.

It was the John Wesley that was full of doubt.

Despite the very evident passion and purpose that was behind everything he did, Wesley struggled with uncertainty and question.    In reading his journals you can see that doubt leak into his writing over the course of his entire life.  For the everyday seeker, doubt is an always present aspect in our journey.    Do I have this right?  Am I where I am supposed to be? Is it all right to be filled with questions?  Is it alright not to have all the answers?

The doubt that Wesley  struggled with and shared with us was the doubt to his own salvation.    Was he saved?   Was he okay in the eyes of God?   No matter the good he did or the impact of his preaching, he was always fighting with himself and the sense of security in God he felt.

Then came Aldersgate.

On May 24, 1738, (275 Years ago today!) Wesley very reluctantly visited an evening society meeting in Aldersgate-street, London. It was at that meeting, at a quarter to nine he felt his heart strangely warmed.  In his journal Wesley wrote; “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” In that moment, he knew.   He knew that despite the doubt that racked him continually, that Christ had accomplished all.

His heart was strangely warmed.

There are many a debate as to what happened to Wesley that night.   There is endless discussion as to the impact it had on his ministry to come.     What did Aldersgate say about his ministry up to that moment?    If you are a student of Methodism you will undoubtedly ask these questions.

It is important to point out that as Methodists we don’t celebrate John Wesley’s birthday.  We do not celebrate his death.   We celebrate the moment that he found certainty in his doubt and struggle.   In the end, we celebrate Aldersgate because we have all been there.    We celebrate Aldersgate because we know of those heart strangely warmed moments where the assurance hits you and changes who you are.  We celebrate the personal and communal approach to Jesus and faith as modelled in the ministry and life of Wesley.

In our remembrance of Aldersgate we celebrate John Wesley – this unique, great, but flawed, man whose response to faith and his ideas on reform changed the world.    As people of faith we know that God can move mountains, set bushes ablaze, and rain manna from heaven, but God can also change, convict, challenge and confirm us with a grip on our hearts.

What is Methodism?

A practical, real, solutioned and reformed way of faith…  that acknowledges the reality of pain, struggle and doubt….and the strangely warmed heart found in assurance.

Happy Aldersgate Day.

(The Painting is of John Wesley by Richard Gilmore Douglas, painted in 1997, and hangs in the Epworth Old Rectory)

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1 Comment

  1. Reblogged this on Thoughts From The Heart On The Left and commented:
    This is another one of the blogs that I have received in the past week that speaks to the nature of what it means to be a Methodist. It is interesting that Scott is a Yankee in a Tennessee court and I am from Tennessee but in a Yankee court. 🙂

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