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Wesley gains new respect as 300th birthday approaches

5/29/2003 News media contact: Kathy Gilbert · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: An artist's rendering of John Wesley is available at

By Alice M. Smith*

ATLANTA (UMNS) - John Wesley has always been a venerated name among Methodists, but now he and the movement he founded are being accorded greater respect on the U.S. side of the Atlantic Ocean - by other Christian churches and religious historians.

That's the assessment of the Rev. Russell Richey, dean of Emory University's Candler School of Theology, as Methodists prepare to celebrate Wesley's 300th birthday. Wesley was born June 17, 1703.

Wesley's increasing prominence is largely due to a "rewriting of American religious history that recognizes Methodism as a major force in the building of popular culture and democratic institutions and a society that cohered around significant values," says Richey, a church historian.

And as Methodism's star rises, so does that of its founder.

Wesley's place in history has long been assured in England, where he lived all his life, visiting the American colonies only once in 1736-37. The evangelical revival and social movement he generated are widely credited for saving England from a bloody uprising of the oppressed lower classes similar to the French Revolution.

His importance in England is underscored by the fact that in a major British Broadcasting Corp. poll conducted late last year, Wesley was ranked No. 50 of the 100 "Greatest Britons" of all time.

But in America, where Methodism has been a significant Protestant force since the establishment of the U.S. church in 1784, religious history has been seen through the lens of the reform Puritan experience, Richey says.

"Methodists have not been seen as that important."

Only in the last decade or so have historians outside Methodism begun to "recognize the incredible significance of Methodism as a movement that really transformed American society," Richey says. He mentions specifically scholars Nathan Hatch of Notre Dame, author of The Democratization of American Christianity, and Mark Noll of Wheaton College, who has written several books, including the recent History of Christianity in the U.S. and Canada.

Accompanying this attention in academic circles has been a series of Methodist dialogues with other churches, including the Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions, that have drawn attention to Wesley as he is placed beside Martin Luther, John Calvin, the English reformers and Catholic theologians such as Ignatius Loyola and Thomas Aquinas.

In such comparisons, Wesley's distinctive emphases come to the forefront: the importance of a lifestyle of holiness and discipline; the missional understanding of the church; the obligation to works of mercy; the significance of connection; and the nature of ministry as itinerant, as being sent rather than called.

Part of Wesley's uniqueness was his ability and desire to make Christian truth available to "plain folk" - those who weren't well educated or lived some distance from the church - a strong departure from the somewhat elitist Church of England of that time.

A third reason Wesley's prominence is growing, Richey says, is an emphasis during the last decade on the importance of religious practices, the specific ways in which Christians live out their faith.

"Wesley was the consummate theologian of religious practices," Richey says. "Albert Outler (a Wesley scholar) called it 'folk theology.' The point is having a working theology that makes what we believe practicable and practiced in Christian life. There are people who can articulate a nice-sounding Christian utterance but whose lives belie what they say, who don't live their own creed. What Wesley was insistent upon was a disciplined life."

Wesley wasn't a systematic theologian, Richey notes.

"There are persons - such as Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Paul Tillich or Karl Barth - whose genius has been to envision coherent schemes of what Christians believe and lay them out thematically and logically. That wasn't Wesley. We look to other people for that."

In his efforts to encourage ordinary people to lead a Christian life, Wesley wrote study books and letters, published his own journal and created a magazine.

"He was very interested in a person's growth as a whole being, but he didn't think it was just a mind that needed to be transformed. In order to be Christian, the whole person, including the mind, had to be transformed."

Richey cited sanctification, holiness and perfection as particular hallmarks of Wesleyan theology. Further, he says, Wesley's emphasis upon the free grace of God and his belief that Christ's death and resurrection were for all humankind was a definite departure from thinking for his time.

"It's not an atonement limited just to the elect, just to those who are predestined," Richey says. "It's a little hard to see that as a contribution now, it's so much everybody's belief. But when Wesley wrote, a good portion of the Protestant world held to the doctrine of predestination."
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*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia annual conferences of the United Methodist Church.

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