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Wesley is for present, future, not only past, speaker says


A photograph is available. An artist's rendering of John Wesley is also available at

By Joretta Purdue

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
The Rev. Heather Murray Elkins blesses communion elements during the United Methodist Church’s Fifth Historical Convocation in Madison New Jersey. The silver chalice is one that John Wesley gave to American Methodists in 1784. St. George United Methodist Church in Philadelphia lent it for use in the service. A UMNS photo by Joretta Purdue. Photo number 03-280, Accompanies UMNS #412, 8/20/03
CONVENT STATION and MADISON, N.J. (UMNS) - John Wesley was born 300 years ago, but his legacy lives into the 21st century, according to presenters at a historical convocation offering a variety of viewpoints on the founder of Methodism.
Wesley's writings speak to modern people, especially his thoughts about faith and the poor, asserted the Rev. Justo L. Gonzalez, educator and author of more than 75 books.
"A 21st-century reading of Wesley must be a global reading," Gonzales told participants attending the United Methodist Church's Fifth Historical Convocation Aug. 14-17. The convocation, held every four years, offered a variety of perspectives on Wesley, an Anglican priest who had intended to renew the church, not found what eventually became several denominations.
Gonzalez explained that 20th century readings of Wesley reflected an American or British Methodist point of view, although Wesleyan theology spread far and wide. Today, Chile has 5 million Wesleyans in a country of about 15 million people, Gonzalez said. In Brazil, almost 80 million of its 150 million population have a Wesleyan religious heritage.
"The movement has become more polycentric than it ever has been," Gonzalez observed. Although U.S. Methodism still has most of the church's resources, he said, the U.S. centers of Methodism no longer coincide with centers of the movement. He says he expects to see American Methodism nourished by these other centers in the future.
Gonzalez has had a hand in this change. As editor of the 14-volume Spanish-language "The Works of Wesley" published in 1996-98, he did not expect the interest he has seen throughout Latin America, he said.
"The American Methodist Wesley will be replaced by the global Wesley," Gonzalez predicted, "and this Wesley will give surprising answers" through the connection between his writings and the life experiences of 21st century readers.
"The global Wesley had interests in Spanish culture and religiosity and even in some events in Latin American that went far beyond the missionaries that came after him," Gonzalez asserted. He noted that Wesley had wide interests for a man of his time, reading and writing about electricity, medical matters and events outside England. He wrote against slavery and against American independence.
Wesley is responsible for doctrinal and theological leadership as well as promoting the dual threads of works of piety and mercy, noted Charles Yrigoyen Jr., staff head of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History. Wesley shaped church structure by instituting the annual conference, creating the office of superintendent (now bishop), designing the itinerant ministry of our clergy and fostering the concept of connectionalism.
Gonzalez explained that for Wesley, the essence of liberty was not the right to representation but the right to the fruits of one's own labor. His understanding of prevenient grace was very democratic and egalitarian, but his doctrine of God was hierarchal, Gonzalez added, citing other authorities
"God is still active in the Wesleyan tradition," Gonzalez asserted. In it, "God is still doing a great and extraordinary work!" This assertion, he said, explains why Wesley is now being read by non-Christians and non-white people in every part of the world. Many people are convinced that God is at work in the world, and they must communicate that belief, he said
"Faith starts with what God is doing. Our response is trust," said the Rev. Randy L. Maddox, Paul T. Walls Professor of Wesleyan Theology at Seattle Pacific University. Maddox stressed Wesley's emphasis on holistic salvation. Wesley came to understand that God deals with individuals in different ways.
He felt that rational thought and the experience of God's love were joined in salvation, that one felt forgiveness and spiritual transformation or healing as well, Maddox explained. In experiencing God's love, Wesley believed the Christian was freed to love all humankind. He wrote that "Christianity is a social religion" that could not exist without its adherents living and conversing with other people, Maddox said.
He added that Wesley believed salvation was not just for the soul but the body as well, for society and for all creation.
"Wesley is convinced that all of us need support and accountability," Maddox said, observing that Wesley devised the small-group class meeting as an ongoing effort to meet this need. Salvation was important not only for eternal life but in how one lived in the here and now, Maddox reflected. Wesley believed that "works of mercy are essential to a balanced growth in God's likeness," Maddox said.
The Rev. Richard P. Heitzenrater, general editor of the Works of John Wesley, is credited with breaking the code or shorthand Wesley used in his journals and diaries. Speaking about "The Illusive Mr. Wesley," the Duke University professor of church history and Wesley studies warned, "We love to persist in an error," keeping our myths and legends.
Artists have given him the wrong look, Heitzenrater said, and writers have him saying and writing statements he did not make, and he is reported to have taken actions and entertained thoughts and things he did not do. Heitzenrater noted that in one representation Wesley has a rosary in his hand. In another portrait, he looks imposing but was 5'3" and lean.
"Look for Mr. Wesley in his own writings before relying on the literary constructs of his biographers," advises Heitzenrater. "Don't ever think you have Wesley in your mind."
Heitzenrater, who speaks of Wesley in the present tense, said Wesley lives constantly in the presence of God. "He has an innate desire to be a Christian."
The Rev. S T Kimbrough Jr. finds John Wesley illuminated through comparison and contrast with his brother Charles as revealed in John's unpublished editorial notes on two volumes of Charles' poetry. Although Charles often gave his manuscripts to John for editing, John had access to this work only after it was published.
"Charles could live with the language of contradiction" more than John was apparently prepared to do," Kimbrough observed. For Charles, God "is both concealed and revealed" and the presence and absence of God remain in creative tension.
John's deletions and substitutions indicate that he was troubled by language he did not understand, Kimbrough said.
In several places, John wanted to substitute the word "sin" for "self" and in others the word "wrath" for "self," but this would change the meaning, Kimbrough states. John also wanted to change two references to God's "causeless" grace to "boundless," but Charles was trying to say that the love shown in the incarnation was God's doing, not initiated by humans. The different nuance would have changed greatly what Charles intended, Kimbrough added.
Still, Kimbrough said, both John and Charles were integral to the development of the Methodism. They shared beliefs in a deep commitment to prayer life and service to the poor, and they gave Methodists throughout the centuries an ability to "sing the faith" and be strengthened in it.
The convocation's Sunday morning worship service was a celebration of the Lord's Supper taken from the "Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America," written by John Wesley for the newly free residents of the United States. In 1784, Wesley sent the service, along with a silver chalice to this country for use every Sunday. That service and chalice was used in the Aug 17 service, for the convocation participants.
The Rev. Heather Murray Elkins adapted the service for contemporary use and preached. Carlton R. Young, editor of church hymnals, provided music, and the Rev. ST Kimbrough Jr. was songleader.
Sponsors for the convocation included the commission, the Historical Society of the United Methodist Church; Drew University's Theological School, library and Bell Scholarship Fund; Northeastern Jurisdiction Commission on archives and History; North American Section, World Methodist Historical Society; The Charles Wesley Society; and World Methodist Council.

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*Purdue is a correspondent for United Methodist News Service in Washington.

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