Wesley’s two tracts, An Earnest Appeal & A Farther Appeal, both defend methodists from common charges of enthusiasm and schism. Indeed, John Wesley produced a multitude of apologetics, found nearly in all his writings, against these accusations, especially when blamed for separating from the church. Probably the foremost evidence that Wesley intended the methodists to stay within the Church is found in his 1743 General Rule where the Society is expected to be diligent in attending all public services, especially Holy Communion. Given Wesley’s example was for all his preachers, we can assume he was talking about the Established Church. In both Appeals, Wesley would rather have detractors judge his people by their fruit rather than by hearsay, crediting increased attendance at parishes as proof that Methodism benefited the common weal.
Outward Effects: As it’s been pointed out, Wesley’s genius was the making of Discipline, cultivating or consolidating the fruits of Revival, conserving its power, and extending it elsewhere, until Christ was all in all. Combined with Discipline, the Revival turned a mixed multitude into a “people”. Wesley’s adage, “a people called the Methodists” has a likeness to Hosea’s Lost Tribes where the prophet says, “and it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people, there it shall be said unto them, Ye are the sons of the living God“. Like Moses, Wesley was also a law-giver by his Discipline. Whitefield described the social effects of this Wesleyite system, saying, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls awakened under his his ministry were joined together in societies and thus preserved his labor. This I neglected and my people are a rope of sand.”
Wesley could go further with the purpose of his Discipline– not only calling his Methodists societies “a people” but wishing a similar regeneration and unity within the English Nation and Church. In the “Large” Minutes, John Wesley summarized the purpose of Methodism: “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? A. To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” So, a foremost aim was national.
Formerly divided yet now united, Wesley expected the lost sheep to rejoin the Church of England. Methodism won sinners previously Lost, or barely within the pale of the Church of England, back to Establishment, the interests of the Crown included. Is this the Kingdom of God on earth, or a taste?
“Behold the day of the Lord has come. He is again visiting and redeemnig his people. Having eyes, see ye not? Having ears, Neither understand with your hearts? At this hour the Lord is rolling away our reproach. Already his standard is set up. His Spirit is poured forth on the outcasts of men, and his love shed abroad in their hearts. Love of all mankind, meekness, gentleness, humbleness of mind, holy and heavenly affections, do take place of hate, anger, pride, revenge, and vile or vain affections. Hence, wherever the power of the Lord spreads, springs outward religion in all its forms. The houses of God are filled; the table of the Lord is thronged on every side. And those who thus show their love of God, show they love their neighbor also, by being careful to maintain good works, by doing all manner of good (as they have time) to all men. They are likewise careful to abstain from all evil. Cursing, Sabbath-breaking, drunkenness, will all other (however fashionable) works of the Devil, are not once named among them. All this is plain, demonstrable fact. For this also is not done in a corner.”
Indeed, this is Wesley’s principle defense when countering opponents about the loyalty of the Methodists to Established Religion and even the King, making special care to point out the social good brought by his Discipline. This type of argument was also used by the first Reformers (Cranmer) who argued vernacular translations of scripture would only produce good subjects for the temporal Sovereign. So, Wesley makes something of the same argument, likewise asking Methodism be measured by its fruits:
But there is no room for dispute, touching these doctrines in general, seeing our Lord gives you so plain a rule, by which you may easily and infallibly know, whether they be of God. ‘The tree is known by its fruit: either therefore make the tree good, and its fruit is good: or else make the tree corrupt, and its fruit corrupt’. Now what fruit does the tree us bring forth? Look and see; believe your own eyes and ears. Sinners leave their sins. The servants of the Devil become the servants of God. Is this good or evil fruit? That vice loses ground, and virtue, practical religion, gains? O dispute no more. Know the tree by its fruit. Bow and own the finger of God.
But Wesley has a particular affection for the good or increase of the Church as proof to his sincerity and loyalty, even proclaiming he removes from fellowship those who refuse to follow Wesley’s own example:
85. Nearly related to this is that other objection, that we divide the Church. Remember the Church is, The Faithful People, or true believers. Now how do we divided these? Why, by our societies. Very good. Now the case is plain. ‘We divide them’, you say, ‘by uniting them together.’ Truly, a very uncommon way of dividing? ‘O, but we divide those who are thus united with each other, from the rest of the Church.’ By no means. Many of them were before joined in all their brethren of the Church of England (and many were not, until they knew us) by assembling themselves together, to hear the word of God, and to eat of one bread, and drink of one cup. And do they now forsake that assembling themselves together? You cannot, you dare not say it. You know they are more diligent therein than ever: it being one of the fixed rules of our societies, ‘That every member attend the ordinances of God’, i.e., that he do not divide from the Church. And if any member of the Church do thus divide or leave it, he hath no more place among us. (Misc. Works VI p. 212)
This sort of evidence about augmenting church attendance is repeatedly stressed by Wesley. What’s interesting– and likely appropriate considering Wesley’s English audience and his clerical body of detractors– there’s no talk about filling Dissenting chapels. Rather, as a minister in the Church of England, it’s assumed Wesley is speaking to the concerns of Establishment. The same arguments are recast below, but more explicit regarding attending parish church, especially if the sacrament is offered:
“31. But whatever state they are in, who causelessly separate from the church of England, it affects not those of whom we are speaking; for they do not separate from it at all. You may easily be convinced of this, if you will only weigh the particulars following.
- A great part of these went to no Church at all, before they heard us preach. They no more pretended to belong to the church of England, than to the Church of Muscovy. If therefore they went to no Church now, they would be no farther from the Church than they were before.
- Those who did sometimes go to Church before, go three times as often now. These therefore do not separate from the Church. Nay, they are united to it more closely than before.
- Those who never went to Church at all before, do go now at all opportunities. Will common sense allow any one to say, that these are separated from the Church.
- The main question is, Are they turned form doing the works of the Devil, to do the works of God? Do they now live soberly, rigtheously, and godly in the present world? If they do, if they live according to the directions of the church, believe her doctrines, and join in her ordinances: with what face can you say, that these men separate from the Church of England? (Misc. Works, VI, p. 365)
Conversion a Priority: Yet Wesley is also cautious. Methodist should join the outward public worship of the Established church without neglecting inward Religion. Wesley, much like the Rev. John Fletcher, argues the priority of a New Birth (or personal conversion) by referencing the ubiquity of the same concept within Anglican formulae. After quoting a number of church collects, exhortations and prayers in the communion office, and sections from the Anglican Book of Homilies, Mr. Wesley reasserts,
“27. Every proposition which I have any where advanced, concerning those operations of the Holy Ghost, which I believe are common to all Christians in all ages, is here clearly maintained by our own church. (Misc. Works, VI, p. 264)
“29. I have now considered the most material objections I know, which have been lately made against the great doctrines I teach. I have produced, so far as in me lay, the strength of those objections, and then answered them, I hope, in the spirit of meekness. And now I trust it appears, that these doctrines are no other than the doctrines of Jesus Christ: that they are all evidently contained in the word of God, by which alone I desire to stand or fall: and that they are fundamentally the same with the doctrines of the Church of England, of which I do, and ever did profess myself a Member.” p. 265
Yet, if pressed between formal versus heartfelt worship, Wesley would certainly choose the latter or salvation of the soul, especially as a Minister in the Church of God. So, Wesley is careful to differentiate outward, or regular, attendance in the parish from vital religion and its true devotion:
Q. 1. Whether a due and regular attendance on the public offices of Religion, paid in a serious and composed way, by good (ie., well meaning) men, does not answer the true ends of Devotion?
A. I suppose by Devotion you mean public worship; by the true ends of it, the love of God and man: and by a due and regular attendance on the public offices of Religion, paid in a serious and composed way, the going as often as we have opportunity to our Parish Church, and to the Sacrament there administered– If so, the question is, ‘Whether this attendance on those offices, does not produce the love of God and man?’ I answer, sometimes it does; and sometimes it does not. I myself thus attended them for many years; and yet am conscious to myself, that during that whole time, I had no more of the love of God than a stone (1). And I know many hundreds, perhaps thousands of serious persons who are ready to testify to the same thing. (Misc., p. 230) (2)
Though Wesley considered the canons of the Church next to the commands of God, even wishing his societies stick close to the example of his own diligence attending parish churches, obedience to God rather than man risked separation from Establishment if it would fulfill Christ’s commission to save souls. But, even here, Wesley would not willfully leave the Establishment unless entirely thrust or forced out by wicked or hard ministers.
Nonetheless, it appears Wesley would be less stern with Methodist ‘gadding’, or visiting nearby Evangelical clergy, if the local parish was unregenerate. He seems to defend the practice of gadding (a delinquency also known to Puritanism); however, he narrows these ‘wanderings’, or seeking out Evangelical sermons, to days where no Holy Communion is offered, believing this satisfies and implicit to the rubric. Perhaps a convenient interpretation of the Prayer Book? It’s important to recall monthly Holy Communion was generally considered very frequent in the 18th century. In the countryside, quarterly Communion was more usual. So, Wesley makes the argument:
“11. You object farther, ‘That the Methodists do not observe the Rubric before the Communion Service; which directs, so many as desire to partake of the Holy Communion, to signify their names to the Curate the day before. What Curate desires the should? Whenever any Minister will give but one week’s notice of this, I undertake, all that have any relation to me, shall signify their names within the time appointed. You object also, that they break through the twenty-eighth canon, which requires, ‘That if strangers come to any church from other parishes, they should be remitted to their own churches, there to receive the Communion with their neighbors’. But what if there be no Communion there? Then this Canon does not touch the case, nor does any one break it, by coming to another church purely because there is no Communion at his own. As to your next advice, ‘To have a greater reward to the rules and orders of the Church’, I cannot, for I now regard them, next to the word of God. And as to your last, ‘To renounce communion with the church,’ I dare not. Nay, but let them thrust us out. We will not leave the ship: if you cast us out of it, then our Lord will take us up.” (ibid, p. 274)
Overall, regardless of so-called gadding (or ignoring cases where methodists were truly thrust out), Wesley repeatedly falls back the Methdists’ loyal and regular attendance at Holy Communion as a key gauge for the positive effect of Revival. But, Wesley will not sacrifice genuine conversion (i.e., New Birth) for a visible or an outward dressing of piety as mere church attendance implies. But, what does Wesley mean by New Birth? Wesley explains the New Birth in such terms that it doesn’t shut out a more conventional view of grace through sacraments and praying by a liturgy:
7. Query the seventh. ‘Whether a gradual improvement in grace and goodness is not a better foundation of comfort, and of an assurance of a gospel new-birth, than that which is founded on the doctrine of a gospel new-birth, than that which is founded on a sudden and instantaneous change; which, if there be any such thing, is not easily distinguished from fancy and imagination; the workings whereof we may well suppose to be more strong and powerful, while the person considers himself in the state of one admitted as a candidate for such a change, and is taught in due time to expect it? (ibid, 233)
Interestingly, Wesley’s answer to this query balances both views. But, whether renovation of the heart happens by a slow, even imperceptible, progress or a instantaneous effusion of the Spirit, a man made anew ought to have some degree of sense of a new heart. .
Q 4. Can that sudden and instantaneous change (3) be easily distinguished from fancy and imagination?
A. Just as easily as light from darkness; seeing it brings with it a peace that passeth all understanding, a joy unspeakable and full of glory, the love of God and all mankind filling the heart, and power over sin (ibid, p, 233-4).
Regarding assurance being gradual yet not always perceptible, I’ll add this aside from Wesley’s in his letter to Dr. Downes. Here, Wesley gives apparent room to a parish or sacramental point-of-view, by saying such conversion is not always undetectable, and there remains a space for inward feeling by which good fruit is borne:
“We do speak of grace, (meaning thereby, that power of God which worketh in us both to will and do do of his good pleasure,) that it is ‘as perceptible to the heart’ (while it comforts, refreshes, purifies, and sheds the love of God abroad therein) ‘as sensible objects are to the senses’. And yet we do not doubt, but it may frequently be ‘conveyed to us imperceptibly’. But we know no scripture which speaks of it as always conveyed, and always working in an unperceptible manner. We likewise allow, that outward actions are one way of satisfying us, that we have grace in our hearts. But we cannot possibly allow, that ‘the only way to be satisfied of this, is to appeal to our outward actions, and not to our inward feelings’. On the contrary, we believe that love, joy, peace, are inwardly felt, or they have no being: and that men are satisfied they have grace, first, by feeling these, and afterward by their outward actions.” (Misc., p. 533)
Conclusion: Thus, Wesley makes the New Birth an indispensable part of our salvation. The New Birth can be identified with either our first justification, or a restoration of grace after a prolonged fall. However, Wesleyites insisted the grace which made us ‘right’ with God was emotionally perceptible, perhaps quietly so, but recognizable as joy, peace, and comfort. Though Wesley wanted conversion to result in the swelling of English parish churches, resulting greater frequency at Holy Communion (proving loyalty toward the Church of England), Wesley did not wish this to transpire by dull piety. Yet, if compelled to choose the outpouring of the Spirit versus obeying the laws of the Church, Wesley would help holiness and renovation. However, his actual plan was to do both, knowing the Church of England was very primitive and pure in foundation, and therefore ideally capable of fanning a transatlantic Revival. Wesley only had to move the ministers of the Established Church to jealousy.
(1) Wesley’s letter to the Bishop of London reads the same until the final part,
“I suppose, by devotion you mean public worship; by the true ends of it, the love of God and man; and by a ‘due and regular attendance on the public office of religion, paid in a serious and composed way,’ the going as often as we can to our parish church, and to the sacrament there is administered. If so, the question is, Whether this attendance on those offices, does not produce the love of God and man? I answer, sometimes it does; and sometimes it does not. I myself thus attended them for many years; and yet am conscious to myself, that during that time, I had no more of the love of God than a stone. And I know many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of serious persons, who are ready to testify the same thing’. I subjoined, ‘1. We continually exhort all who attend on our preaching, to attend the offices of the church. And they do pay a more regular attenance there than ever they did before. 2. Their attending the church did not, in fact, answer those ends all, till they attended this preaching also. 3. It is the preaching remission of sins through Jesus Christ, which alone answers ends of devotion.” (p. 462, Misc. Works)
(2) Wesley saw the sacrament as a conversion ordinance as well and would not have the methodists abstain from its administration in the parish. From Wesley’s Journal, “Saturday 28. I showed at large, (in order to anser those who taught that none but they who are full of faith and Holy Ghost, ought ever to communicate) 1. That the Lord’s Supper was ordained by God, to be a mean of conveying to men either preventing, or justifying, or sanctifying grace, according to their several necessities. 2 That the persons for whom it was ordained, are all those who know and feel that they want the grace of God, either to restrain them from sin, or to show their sins forgiven, or to renew their souls in the image of God. 3. That inasmuch as we come to his table, not to give him any thing, but to receive whatsoever he sees best for us, there is no previous preparation indispensably necessary, but a desire to receive whatsoever he pleases to give. And, 4. That no fitness is required at the time of communicating, but a sense of our state, of our utter sinfulness and helplessness: every one who knows he is fit for hell, being just to come to Christ, in this as well as all other ways of his appointment.’ (Misc., p. 461)