Tuesday, May 26, 2015

We All Need To Wake Up II

John Wesley
Let me pick up on the theme of the Great Awakenings because I think that this is a topic on which a knowledge of history can help us understand the present situation—and, in this case, in particular some of the flaws in the American approach to religion—and options for the immediate future.
The bridge connecting the First and Second Great Awakenings is Methodism and the Wesleys.  I will be dealing with Methodism again and in more detail when I get to the 18th century in my series on the history of the Church of England, but I will sketch it out in this posting so that we can see how it affects American Protestantism—and by extension, American Catholicism. 
Methodism began in the Church of England as part of the First Great Awakening.  Eighteenth century Anglicanism had devolved into a pretty tepid shadow of its once great self.  It lacked the intellectualism of an Anselm, the courage of a Becket, the industry of a Cranmer, the piety of a Laud, or the pastoral care of a Tillotson.  Indeed it was upper-crust, entitled, lazy, and blind to the social realities of the day.  One wag called the Church of England “The Tory Party at Prayer.” 
At Christ Church College in Oxford in 1729 two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, the sons of a Church of England priest, the Reverend Samuel Wesley and his deeply pious wife, Susannah, gathered a group of like-minded students and formed “The Holy Club”—a society in which the members studied together the scriptures, the classics of Christian literature (including the Fathers), and engaged in devotional practices such as fasting and frequent communion, as well as giving time for the service of the poor and the education of poor children.  Their zeal and devotion won them only the scorn of the more secular university members, faculty and students alike.  A number of members of the Holy Club went on to be ordained in the Church of England and several of them: the Wesleys, George Whitefield, and Benjamin Ingham became famous evangelists.  The Wesleys had brief ministries in the American Colonies, but Whitefield made over seven preaching tours of the Colonies and was probably the single most influential preacher of the First Great Awakening, at least in the Americas.
The pious practices of the Holy Club formed the backbone for a renewal in the Church of England, at least in parts of the Church of England, led by the Wesleys.  John was an outstanding preacher and Charles Wesely had an extraordinary gift for composing hymn lyrics that were both theologically sound and deeply moving.  Methodism, with its emphasis on personal piety, frequent communion, and spiritual discipline proved attractive to many who had grown weary to the spiritual tedium of mainline Anglicanism.   
John Wesley, on his journey to America, had an experience that would not only change his life, but which would fashion American religion from his day to ours.  On the ship from England to Georgia, Wesley encountered a group of German pietists known as the Moravian Brethren.  The Moravian Brethren, known officially as the Unitas Fratrum (The Unity of the Brothers) are a Protestant denomination that traces their origins back to the preaching of Jan Hus in 15th century Bohemia and Moravia (today’s Czech Republic).  During a frightful storm in which the boat was being tossed about by high waves, while the English were terrified, the Moravian  Brethren very calmly prayed and sang hymns.  Wesley wanted for himself the deep religious sentiment that shaped the piety of these devout men and women. 
Even by the Wesleys’ time, there was still enough Calvinist residue in the Church of England to trouble those few pious souls who remained among the Tories at prayer and make them anxious for some assurance that they were among the elect.  John Wesley was desperate for the sort of religious experience that would assure him of his salvation.  Wesley describes what happened when he attended a Moravian prayer gathering on May 24, 1738.
"In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. 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."
This was the pivotal experience for the remainder of Wesley’s ministry and as Methodism was rooted profoundly in Wesely’s own piety, the desire for that “warm feeling” of God’s love and election became an irreducible part of the Methodist Gospel.  Now for Wesley and his immediate disciples—all university trained preachers—this subjectivism was balanced by a keen appreciation for both sound Scripture and the Tradition of the Church Fathers.  The problem would be when Methodism crossed to the Americas and, due to an insufficiency of theologically trained preachers, fell into the hands of lay preachers with stronger hearts than brains.  We will talk about that in the next posing on the Second Great Awakening, but suffice it say it has given an emphasis for Americans that religion is primarily about feelings and emotions. 
Wesley remained an Anglican for the rest of his life and the movement long remained within the Church of England.  Wesley also encouraged his English followers to remain in the Church of England and to receive the sacraments in the Established Church. However when the American Church needed ministers at the time of our Revolution and the Anglican Bishops would not ordain clergy for the rebellious colonies, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke as “superintendent” of the American Methodists and also ordained two ministers to work with him in the American missions.  Wesley’s brother Charles was appalled at John’s ordaining on his own authority and saw the threat it would eventually pose to the Methodists remaining in the Church of England. 
Eventually after John Wesley’s death the Methodists separated out of the Church of England and joined the various dissenter Churches such as the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians.  In America the break was almost immediate with Coke and his ministers working solely with Methodists and without reference to the Anglican/Episcopal structures in the colonies. Methodism quickly grew into the second largest American denomination, second only to the Baptists.  In the Second Great Awakening, the emotionalism that characterized Methodism was spread throughout American Protestantism and has eventually come to color American Catholicism as well.  


  1. I hate to cavil at anything in this excellent series, but I am afraid that 'The Tory Party at prayer' is not as old as the 18th century. In fact, it seems to date only as far back as Christian feminist Maude Royden, who in a speech in 1917 said, “The Church [of England} should go forward along the path of progress and be no longer satisfied only to represent the Conservative Party at prayer.” If anything, the 18th century Tories were the Church of England in Parliament, being the party of 'Church and King'. However, the vast majority of episcopal appointments throughout the century were in the Whig interest, reflecting the Hanoverian court.

    I also think we can go too far in characterising the 18th century Church of England as torpid. Admittedly, the prevailing theory was Latitudinarianism, the idea that most doctrine and ecclesiology are ' things indifferent'. This is partly a reaction to nearly two hundred years of religious controversy, and partly the outworking of the Deism of contemporary philosophy. But the theology of Divine Benevolence inspired a considerable amount of missionary and philanthropic work throughout the period, from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded at the start of the century, down to one of my favourites, the Society for the Discharge and Relief of Persons Imprisoned for Small Debts, whose collection at St George's Hanover Square one year yielded £82.17s.5d., a really impressive sum.

    There was also a very real interest in preaching, fashionable preachers attracting vast congregations and countless volumes of sermons being printed and read. There was also a ready market for devotional books, many along the lines of 'A Companion to the Book of Common Prayer', but also straight translations or adaptation of Francois de Sales or Mme de Guyon. The clergy were also probably better educated than at any time previously: not all were graduates, but many had a college education of some sort, sometimes even from the 'Dissenting academies' (as did Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68).

    So there is more to 18th century Anglicanism than unbeneficed clergymen conducting clandestine marriages in the Fleet prison and soporific services, Too often I fear our view of the 18th century church is coloured by 19th century prejudice, whether of an Evangelical or Tractarian variety.

  2. Andrew, thanks for correcting me on this. I had searched for the origins of that quote and couldn't find it. I will keep your other comments in mind when I get to that part of the series on Anglicanism though I am still inclined to see the Church of England from the Glorious Revolution to the Oxford movement as somewhat dead in the water. I do notice that your references are to bourgeois piety while Wesley's preaching was to the much larger under class which I think the Church was pretty much ignoring but I would appreciate any references to give me a more round view of 18th century Church of England.

  3. Adrian, sorry I got your name wrong. Not sure how that happened