Wesleyan Degrees of Love

Within John Wesley’s 1787 sermon on the Duty of Reproving our Neighbor‘ there is a curious part that touches Anglican ‘Degrees of Love’. This is surprising given the stereotype of evangelicals which abstract the physicality of men. Here, Wesley accounts for a certain priority with man’s familial relations as it pertains within the universal commission of the Gospel.

After speaking on the kinds of sin anxious for reproof, Wesley is compelled to identify who properly constitutes our neighbor. He begins with a general and naturally catholic admission that our neighbor consists of all men by reason of a Creator, since “every child of man, everyone that breathes the vital air, all that have souls” may be offered salvation.  As part of the salvific plan repentance is a condition where Christians have a brotherly role to call out sin. If we let a fellow man’s sin pass our reproof, Wesley says, “their blood will God require at our hands”.(1)

But Wesley continues with an important caveat regarding our social embodiment as household members. It might be recalled a household may include strangers (sic., adopted brethren), but it always (or normally) includes kinship ties. The familial economy invoked in Wesley’s sermon is also also spoken by Anglican divinity at large , otherwise called ‘degrees of love’. We will glimpse at such examples further down this essay, but for now notice Wesley’s contextualization of the term ‘neighbor’,

“Everyone, therefore, that has a soul to be saved, is entitled to this good office from thee. Yet this does not imply, that it is to be done in the same degree to everyone. It cannot be denied, that there are some to whom it is particularly due. Such, in the first place, are our parents, if we have nay that stand in need of it; unless we should place our consorts and our children on an equal footing with them. Next to these we may rank our brothers and sisters, and afterwards our relations, as they are allied to us in a nearer or more distant manner, either by blood or by marriage. Immediately after these are our servants, whether bound to us for a term of years or any shorter term. Lastly, such in their several degrees are our countrymen, our fellow citizens, and the members of the same society, whether civil or religious

Just as the incarnated Son of God preached in Jerusalem before Galilee, Wesley is reasoning the covenant of grace by its concession to family-relations. There is also a first principle that every society begins with the primitiveness of the household. Of course, the ideal scenario is where a man’s entire family enters God’s covenant (chiefly by baptism) rather than splitting according to acrimonious religious opinions. Indeed, Wesleyan and Methodist Rules typically want frequent attendance to both family and individual prayer. According to Gregory Schneider, Methodists often blurred lines between their class meetings and devotions at the family altar:

“Family circles were on a par with class meeting and love feast as places to enjoy the precious seasons of social religion. His testimony suggests the additional understanding that the family was the center of the pious style of simple, heartfelt sociability unencumbered by the artful formality of the world. The ties that bound natural families to the family of God were tightly woven. They were so tightly woven, in fact, that the figurative and literal uses of kinship language among the pious were sometimes indistinguishable.

This overlap of figurative and literal language reflected an overlap of the figurative family and literal families, an overlap that, in the early years, centered in the class meeting. From 1785 onward, the Methodist Discipline urged the religious education of children in a weekly group meeting in a manner analogous to the adult class meeting. Not until 1828 did it speak of Sabbath schools… It is likely, however, that most children in the early years, before the spread of Sabbath [Sunday] schools, obtained a good deal of their religious education by tagging along with their parents to the adult exercises. The twenty or thirty or however many individuals who were members of classes on the early circuits usually represented a much smaller number of families. The parents, if they were to attend themselves, frequently had to bring he youngsters along to the class. Whatever the effect on order and decorum, these necessities tended to make class meetings family affairs.” (p. 137, The Way of the Cross leads Home)

Schneider goes on to document the close intimacy between church and family roles. For Methodism, sometimes these were ‘dynastic’; other times, the local church was indistinguishable from the family circle:

“William Fee’s father, by his son’s testimony, exemplified a synthesis of church and family roles which made his spiritual fatherhood and natural fatherhood seem virtually identical. A class leader for fifty years, he was so loved by the young people that they flocked to his class until it had to be divided again and again…

He had an abiding faith that all nine of his children would be saved and saw it rewarded as one after another were converted and joined the church before eighteen years of age. Six of his sons followed his footsteps and became officials in their respective churches. The elder Fee’s pastoral activities among local families were in continuity with the earliest practices of class leaders in visiting the families under their charge. John Kobler described how leaders used to turn the family circle into a special class meeting complete with singing, prayer, and earnest inquiry into the spiritual condition of each family member. Whole families, claimed Kobler, were brought to salvation and into the church in this manner. Pastoral care was family care, and class meeting was one of Methodism’s chief ways of providing it…

Membership in society for heads of families was, in Methodist rules and rhetoric, emphatically conditional upon the holding of family prayer. ‘This was so plain the case’, asserted a church editor, ‘that nothing need be said in reference to it, except that hose who neglect family prayer and will not be reformed must be expelled’. Good class leaders and good circuit preachers did not fail in class to inquire of every head of household, ‘Do you pray in your family’?” p. 138

After describing class meetings as the primary marker of Methodism, Christine Heyrman explains the tendency of classes to be organized by a sort of ‘kind after kind’ (2), perhaps explaining the ascent of the family altar within early Methodism:

“A methodist church might contain any number of classes segregated by sex, race, age, and marital status, each consisting of about a dozen members who met often to confide their spiritual trials and triumphs (p. 22)… Kinship ties played a key role in the spread of religious affinities. Membership lists show that men and women related by blood and marriage often made up he majority in Baptist and Methodist churches. During revivals, the pattern of ‘spiritual tribalism’ surfaces in the profile of new converts, predominately young men and women often linked together in a tangled cousinry. Sometimes those newly awakened were the children of members; in other cases, young people brought their parents into the church. (p. 125)…In order to reach most southerners, white and black, evangelicals needed access to the home itself, which in most cases lay solely in the control of masters. Because of westward expansion and dispersed settlement, most southern households lay at long distances from an often small number of local churches. Under those circumstances, the clergy commonly conducted worship within private dwellings or outdoors on privately owned land..hosts who welcomed them [itinerant ministers] as guests or permitted preaching in their households and sometimes even… lent their land for camp meetings. (p. 191-2, Southern Cross)”

Yet, for methodists such familial harmony was not always enjoyed. Often times, reproving kinfolk for worldly frivolity tore families apart. Though Wesley advised thoughtful consideration regarding time and place for moral corrections, Methodist societies kept Rules which sometimes alienated neighbors and other natural relations who perhaps indulged unsavory entertainments like gambling or drinking (3). Despite Methodism’s fast adaption to circumstance in socially rigid places like the Tidewater South, Heyrman believes early Evangelicalism did more to disrupt conventional neighborliness:

“But it was more than their impulse to honor or conciliate the better sort that made many ordinary southerners so wary of evangelicals. Indeed, what many feared more deeply were he ways in which evangelical moral codes and ritual practices estranged their converts form he community of their peers, neigbhborhood networks of yeoman and tenant farming families. Evangelicals drew people away from the familiar settings of sociability in rural counties– horse races and taverns, barbecues and balls. They taught their adherents to regard drinking and joking, gambling and dancing, fiddling and cockfighting not as innocent amusements that made strangers into neighbors but as sinful frivolities that set men and women on the path to hell.” (p. 18, Southern Cross)

Yet, Heyrman acknowledges the success of Methodists and Baptists among local elite after the American Revolution and the consequent dissolution of the Anglican parish system.  The antagonisms first known by Whitefield in states like North Carolina finally end. Heyrman says,

“Those confrontations, so unsettling to some southern whites– evangelical preachers defying gentleman vestrymen and debating Anglican parsons– ended with disestablishment and the advent of full religious toleration. Thereafter, the Baptist and Methodist clergy assiduously cultivated goodwill among the ruling gentry by affirming their support for the established hierarchy… While evangelicals surrendered none of their distaste for the high-stepping, hard-drinking, fancy-dressing ways of proud ladies and gentlemen, most ministers now approached the gentry by cajoling and conciliating rather than threatening and denouncing.” (p. 24, Southern Cross)

I tend to think Heyrman overestimates the radicalism of early Evangelicals, yet the 1830’s is judged by her as a certain turning point despite her admission of the earlier period, “if that door had been slammed shut by the beginning of the nineteenth century, it had never been opened more than a crack [prior]”:

“Given those fears and suspicions, the trumping irony is that southerners– and, indeed, all Americans– would come o regard evangelical churches as one of the bulwarks of the ‘traditional’ family. Historical amnesia set in slowly as Baptists and Methodists gradually acknowledged the sources of lay concern and adapted their teachings and practices accordingly. Those changes proceeded in piecemeal fashion in the decades following the Revolution, a glacial pace guaranteed by the decentralized organization of the Baptists and the sway of purists in both churches. Only in the 1830’s did the belief that evangelical Protestantism upheld the natural family in all things, both temporal and eternal, begin to assume the aura of a widely cherished truth (p. 155)…By the 1830’s, southern Baptist and Methodist church leaders were enthusiastically promulgating a notion that had originated among middle-class Yankee evangelicals, the so-called ‘cult of domesticity’. Its hierophants identified the home as a church– an Edenic sanctuary tended by wives and mothers in which the seeds of religious and moral sensibility were incubated in children and the flowering rectitude forced among husbands and fathers. (p. 158)” (4)

The above quotes hopefully provide context to the role of family within the Methodist religious societies. In future posts I’d like to explore the possible tension between class fellowship and natural family obligations, but I tend to think these are overrated. Nonetheless, we have a clue from Wesley that class commitments demanded a significant priority for Methodists, especially where questions of religion were neglected by local authorities and family patriarchs,

“The latter [religious society] having a particular claim to our service— seeing these societies are formed with that very design, to watch over each other for this very end, that we may not suffer sin upon our brother. If we neglect to reprove any of these when a fair opportunity offers, we are undoubtedly to be ranked among those that ‘hate their brother in their heart’.”

Keep in mind Wesleyan Rules avowed, ‘doing good to all men, especially the [united society] brethern‘ (5). But, Wesley’s own network of family and marriage crossed both the Church of England and United Societies, dramatically exemplifying how family and religious zeal could also pleasantly converge(6). As methodist societies consolidated themselves upon the end of the 18th-century, the domestic circle increasingly became a prominent eventually marginalizing the itinerant preacher.  Domestic valorization was facilitated by the re-organization of class meetings which typically segregated brethren by ‘state of life’ considerations– e.g., marital status, children, even gender, etc..  One might speculate the early connexion idea itself was basically one of family and personal ties whether looking at Lady Huntingdon’s chapels or the Wesley’s brothers United Society.

Earlier Anglicans:
Surely Wesley’s Degrees of Love derived from familiarity with Anglican literature. Below are two examples from Catechism insructions by established authors like Bp. Lancelot Andrewes and William Nicholson.

While discussing the significance of the second Mosaic Table, “Love thy neighbor”, Lancelot Andrewes’ (in A Pattern of Catehistical Doctrine) provides a two part argument for Wesleyan Degrees. Andrewes begins with God as the necessary precondition for genuine brotherly love, and, therefore, any concern regarding a public good depends upon maintaining a heavenly communion. From the care of the soul, the body follows. Andrewes outlines the priority of these relations, beginning with the font of weal or salvation in Christ;

“It is certain there are degrees; for to omit our duties to our parents is worse than to omit the same duties to a stranger. Now where there is a greater duty, there must be a greater affection, and so greater love; and the order of our love must be thus,
a. To God, for He is that bonum, ‘good’, by the participation whereof all other are bona, ‘good;’ and to which all other give place, as in polity to bonum publicum, ‘the public good’.
b. Our own souls, for we are unitas, ‘an unity’, or one entire in and with ourselves, and cannot be but united with our brethren.
c. The souls of our brethren before our own bodies; for any man’s soul may directly be partaker of the universal good which is in God, but so can no man’s body but by participation with the soul, and therefore the soul is to be preferred. (p. 172)”

Hence, the eternal needs of man’s soul precede the temporal enagagements of the physical. Yet, the physical or bodily relation has its own order, and this is where Wesley and Andrewes coincide, namely, by their sense of ‘neighbor’. It is interesting how Andrewes places the wife above sons since the former,”They shall be as one flesh”. Notice other rankings and subdivisions by Andrewes’ format, “and among” or “of them”, now counting least to greatest for the physical:

“d. Our own bodies before other men’s
e. The bodies of our neighbors; and among them:
first to them that have need; and of those:
first to the household of faith, Gal. vi.10; and of them,
first to our countrymen, ps. cxxii.8, “brethern and companions”; and of these:
first them which are nosri, “our friends and acquaintance,’ and of them,
first to our own, and, namely, them of our household, 1 Tim. v.8, and our kindred; and
first the wife, Gen. 2.24, “they shall be one flesh;” “am not I better to thee than ten sons?” 1 Sam. 1.8.
Thus much the subject of our neighbor. (p. 173)”

Degrees of Love wasn’t an alien concept for 17th-century men (though it may be for us ‘liberal’ moderns). In close verbatim to Andrewes, Bp. William Nicholson outlines a similar “method and order of love” for his A Plain and full Exposition of the Catechism of the Church of England, (pp.102-3). Written in 1655 with the assistance of interregnum divine Jeremy Taylor, Nicholson’s Catechism insists the impartiality of Godly love while acknowledging Love’s mediated by degrees of natural proximity. Of course, Nicholson is earlier than Wesley, but they share the same mind regarding an order to charity:

“1. That we love God first and most. The high priest carried the name of God on his head, but the names of the Israelites on his breast-plate and shoulders. That great and fearful Name must be in the highest place; the love supereminent we bear it; and then for God’s sake it must descend to our neighbor, as the breast-plate and shoulders. Ex Deo natalis amoris, ‘Love’s birth is from God’.
2. The next step is, that we love our neighbor, i.e., every man, be it a friend, or be it an enemy. If a brother, there is in him proximitas originis, a nearness of blood; if an enemy, proximitas naturae, or scietatis, a nearness either in nature in general, or some bond of civil society.
Now in this love of our neighbor, heed would be taken of two things:
1. That our love be not erroneous, that we take not our neighbors’ sin for our neighbor, and love their sins because we love their persons… “Thou shalt rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him” [Lev. 19.17]
2. That we look to the degrees of proximity, and accordingly extend our love before another, as they stand farther off, or are nearer unto us. And the order is this:
1. The nearest conjunction among Christians is that of the Spirit of grace, of religion, and these are to have the first place in our love. “Do good to all men, but especially those who are the household of faith” [Gal. 6.10]
2. Among these, if there be no disparity, then those first who are nearest unto us either in friendship, blood, or some other way.
3. After, as they stand nearer or farther in relation.
1. The husband or wife. Parents.
2. The children, and those of the family.
3. Our kindred.
4. Our friends or acquaintance, near neighbors.
5. Our countrymen.
6. Societies of men before any particular. But this is not perpetual, and may be broken by many accidents, and intervene occasions.”

Incidentally, ‘societies’ may be religious or civil, and in the 17th and 18th-centuries both their Orders occasioned sacred pledges or vows.

Returning to the Wesley’s time, Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath, etc. likewise knew the Order of Charity according to Christ’s higher command, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”. Such love begins with the well-being of our own soul and body thereby allowing a resulting care for neighbors. Ken curiously divides natural and spiritual relations apparently by a dual track, perhaps where natural and religious are not concurrent. The Methodist brother would indeed be ‘near in grace’. Speaking of the second Table, Ken says,

“Glory be to thee, O my God, O my Love, who commanding me to love my Neighbor as myself, dost imply the regular Love of myself; that I should do all I can to preserve myself free and vigorous t glorify thee in my Station. ‘Tis for thy sake only I can love myself, and he does not wish or endeavor his own Happiness, he really hates himself, that does not love thee.
Thou, Lord, by injoining me to love my Neighbor as myself, hast intimated my Duty of loving those best, which either in Blood are nearest to my natural self, or in Grace nearest my Christian self: O let thy Love teach me to observe the true Order of Charity in loving others.” (p. 71, The Practice of Divine Love)

These proofs could be further developed. What’s important to catch is the familial basis of methodism not only as a national movement in league with the Church of England but, especially in its early stages, a familial network within and outside the Church, connecting establishment together with dissent. Later, the domestic circle would become a paradigm for future methodist consolidation, reinforcing a relatively weak ecclesiology and the absence of Establishment, especially in former-British hinterlands like America.  Future posts intend to explore these areas. Meanwhile, let’s say Wesley, like other Anglican divines, did not disdain physical duties in favor of ‘gnostic-spiritual’ ones, and in fact he was indebted to his own family network behind the connexion.

(1) It’s important to note Wesley disliked self-righteous zeal, advocating a good time for correcting more obstinate brothers. He also begs refrain over religious opinion. For example,  in the same sermon he wisely recommends, “But if we desire not to lose our labor, we should rarely reprove anyone for anything that is of a disputable nature, that will bear much to be said on both sides…Therefore I would not reprove him, but for what is clearly and undeniably evil. Such, for instance, is profane cursing and swearing… such is drunkeness…And such, in the account of the generality of the people, is the profaning of the Lord’s Day”.  There are numerous places Methodist authors advocate wisdom with reproofs.

(2)  [Regarding race] evangelicals had followed the Anglican practice of relegating African-American worshipers to the back of churches, upper galleries, or ‘sheds’ attached to the side. When large numbers of whites turned out for preaching, blacks were excluded from the churches entirely, permitted only to stand outside and listen under open windows…On many plantations, Baptist and Methodist clergymen routinely preached to slaves apart, especially after sunset released them from their work. On others, preachers prayed with white families in the parlor while slaves were permitted to listen from no closer than the kitchen. Methodist ministers also convened African Americans separately for class meetings, love feasts, and communion services. Even at outdoor gatherings like camp meetings, when more than one preacher was at hand, whites and blacks met in two groups. (p. 67)”

(3) Again, the home as a kind of church is a common motif also found in Puritan and early-Methodist literature. Both Tudor and Caroline Anglican divinity touched it by heir exhortations upon marriage, an older sermon being the Homily on Holy Matrimony published in 1564. Protestant succession and private movements for the ‘reformation of manners’ tended to accelerate the popularity of this motif, and surely Heyrman must be speaking of its spread or a like-popularity in America vs. an already established concept in England under SPCK-related parish reform.

(4) This has been described by some writers as the ‘culture of honor’ vs. the culture of grace. The culture of honor is typically described as ‘virile’ and ‘masculine’. Though I think it a mistake to say Methodism undermined the older masculine culture, it did recast masculinity in specifically Christian ways, imposing a system of manners not unfamiliar to learned Anglicans. The morality imposed by Methodists often differed little from the manners instructed by the Anglican Book of Homilies: therefore, promoting a masculinity of self-control, endurance, and struggle against Satanic powers. Given the Wesley’s Rule is merely an elaboration on such Anglican standards and moral belief , I believe it a mistake to characterize ‘true’ Anglican manners as ‘lax’ or indulgent of a fallen masculinity.

(5) The Wesleyan Rule reads, “It is expected of all who continue in these socieites, that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation…By doing good… as far as possible, to all men… By doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith, or groaning to be; employing them preferably to others, buying one of another, helping each other in business: and so much the more, because the world will love its own and them only”. Coke and Asbury’s comments on this part, saying, “Though he does good to all according to his ability, yet he particularly feels for the members of Christ’s mystical body. They are to him as his own soul. With them he experiences an union which the world is utterly unacquainted with. They are like the members of his own flesh”. But the commentary continues, condemning an abuse frequently noticed and charged against methodists for neglecting family responsibilities, “It is frequently the devices of Satan, to tempt the children of God to be negligent in their business, under the pretext that they will be able to live more in heaven by having nothing to do with earthly things. But the believer, when called to labor in a profession or trade for the support of his family, or to fill up some useful station in society, may so intermix pious ejaculaitons with his studies or labors, and improve so many short intervals in privagte prayer, as not only to preserve his grace, but to increase daily in the divine life.” …It’s the re-emphasis of station and domestic that seems to reground Methodism as a potentially conservative movement, evidently a truancy connexion leaders like Asbury repeatedly hammered against, though himself celibate.

(6) Anthony Headley’s Family Crucible (2010) is worth an individual post and will be commented by future posting. Headley’s argument is the Wesleyan familial network was  formative in the making and settlement of the Connexion, showing how “Household” as a concept was very much alive during the early Methodist period. It also enjoyed a certain restoration for the Victorian period, of which Methodism prominently shaped.

4 thoughts on “Wesleyan Degrees of Love

  1. An interesting observation by G.R. Balleine in his book on the Evangelical Party. Here, Balleine is describing the ethos of the Party through the poetry of William Cowper of Olney,

    p. 110-11 “But Cowper’s chief importance in the history of the Evangelicals lies in the fact he was the author of the Task. This poem carried its message into quarters which the movement had not yet touched… Four definite thoughts stand out clearly from the poem as a whole. First, the thought of the beauty and sanctity of Home. There is something suggestive in the fact that the great poem of early Evangelicalism was written around a sofa. Puritanism had centered round the state; the Oxford Movement was to centre round the church; but evangelicalism was essentially a religion of the Home. Family life, family joy, family worship were its interest.

    ‘Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast,
    Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round,
    And while the bubbling and loud hissing urn
    Throws up a steamy column, and the cups
    That cheer but not inebriate wait on each,
    So let us welcome peaceful evening in.’

    It held up before a restless world the picture of a quiet Christian home…

  2. An interesting opinion (from Total Church by Chester and Timmis) on the structure of the very early church, perhaps lending insight on the advantages of class organization. Keep in mind the quarterly conference would be the venue where class societies belonging to a single circuit gathered together as a kind of ‘larger church’. This is a regular model of church planting for many contemporary evangelicals, sidestepping some of the problems encountered when replicating more churchly”dioceses” or “parishes”. Perhaps this vindicates a network of lay missions or home chapels/classes?

    “The apostolic churches were reproducing household churches because that is how they were established. The household was central to the model of the apostolic church planting team. In Acts 16 Lydia and the jailer’s ‘households’ are baptized, and a church is planted in Philippi. In Acts 18 the ‘household’ of Crispus believes and a church is planted in Corinth. In contrast in Acts 17 ‘a few’ in Athens believed (v. 34), but we are not told of a household that believes. Could this be why it appears that no church was planted? Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 1:16 that he baptized the members of the household of Stephenas. So in his time in Corinth Paul presumably oversaw the establishment of a number of household churches within the city. The point is that he chose to establish a number of smaller churches rather than create one large congregation. In Ephesus Paul used the hall of Tyrannus but only for public discussions. Meanwhile he taught the believers ‘from house to house’ (Acts 20:20). ” p. 92…

    “Many are unenthusiastic about church planting because the assumptions that big is better. But the household model of New Testament practice was no accident. It enabled the fullest possible expression of New Testament principles. Mutuality– teaching, exhorting, caring for one another– can flourish in the family atmosphere of the small group. The priesthood of all believers finds expression when no person’s contribution gets lost in the crowd. Home is a powerful dynamic for evangelism: the grace of God is powerfully emobodied around an inclusive meal table, just as it was in Jesus’ own ministry. Meanwhile, many of the advantages of size could be gained through the cooperative activities of a network of smaller churches or a large church with a network of small groups functioning as missionary communities. All too often home groups become inward-looking because they lack a missionary mandate. Yet home groups have great potential to be a context in which Christians can do mission together as a community.” p. 94

  3. Pingback: Degrees of Benevolence | Anglican Rose

  4. Pingback: Mr. Benson on Malachi 1:2, 4 | The Anglo-Methodist

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