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Methodism and the Missionary Imagination

The rise and fall of the influence of Methodist evangelism on the American religious landscape -- and a proposal for how to move forward

American religious history has been shaped significantly by the missionary imagination of Methodism. From the early decades of the 18th century until the middle of the 20th century, Methodist theology and practice played a key role in religious expression, social reform, and cultural identity. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, the influence of Methodism seems to have waned in American religious and cultural life. With regard to the gospel’s relevance, it is not that our times are so radically different from the 1740s or the 1850s or the 1920s. But the missionary imagination of Methodism has been neglected, and today modern Methodism has adopted a different message that fails to transform the church or the world.

The Great Awakenings and Missionary Imagination
During the First Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s, Jonathan Edwards was preaching about “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at the same time that John Wesley’s Methodism of the “warm heart” began to emerge. The preaching of Edwards and George Whitefield had a significant influence on Wesley’s understanding of the emotions and conversion. By the time of the Great Awakenings of the 19th century, Methodism had come to America’s shores, and Francis Asbury was leading Methodism to, in the words of John Wesley, “transform the nation … and the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”

By 1850 Methodism emerged as the single largest denomination in America; not until later waves of Irish immigrants arrived would the number of Roman Catholic adherents surpass Methodists. The Second Great Awakening was firing America’s religious imagination, and an era of revivals was ushered in with the preaching of Charles Finney and the prayer meetings of Henry Ward Beecher. Once again the Methodist message could be seen in the influence of Phoebe Palmer and her “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness.”

Well into the 20th century, camp meetings and revivals were staples of American religious life, and they continued to emphasize sanctification and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. To be a Christian in America meant to confess Jesus Christ as Savior, and Billy Sunday and Billy Graham proclaimed this evangelistic message. But while we might think of revivals simply as producing individual conversions, Johns Hopkins University historian Timothy Smith shows that revivalism produced some of America’s most far-reaching social reform movements. The missionary imagination of Methodism inspired abolitionists, supporters of women’s rights, prison reformers, and advocates for neglected children.

What was this missionary imagination that captivated millions of Americans for two centuries? It was the optimistic message that people’s lives could be changed by the power of the gospel; indeed, through the pervasive sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit, not only individual lives but the nation itself could be transformed.

The Methodist Message Changes
John Wesley once said: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Modern Methodists are wringing their hands over Methodism’s loss of members and seemingly inexorable slide into social, political, and economic oblivion. This worry over numbers, however, has neglected to examine how the Methodist message has changed in the past 50 years. Seeing how that message has changed might reveal why Methodism appears to be in serious decline.

The missionary imagination that once characterized Methodism emphasized holiness and transformation through the work of the Holy Spirit. An example of the Methodist message of today can be found in the book Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living, by Bishop Rueben Job. The book is a bestseller, and it captures the essence of what most modern Methodists teach in precept and practice: (1) Do no harm. (2) Do good. (3) Stay in love with God. The booklet’s introduction states: “There are three simple rules that have the power to change the world. While they are ancient, they have seldom been put to the test. But when and where practiced, the world of things as they were was shaken until a new formation, a new world was formed. The Wesleyan movement is a prime example of this new creation that is formed when these three simple rules are adopted as a way of living.”

That this book has become the exemplar of the Methodist/Wesleyan way gives me pause. Passages from the Gospels and the words of John Wesley himself contradict the assertion that living by these three simple rules constitutes the Methodist message and the Wesleyan way, or even that these observances by themselves have the capacity to change the world.

In the vestry of the Nicholson Square Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, a visitor will find a framed statement of these words attributed to John Wesley: “Preach our doctrine, inculcate experience, urge practice, enforce discipline. If you preach doctrine only, the people will become antinomians; if your preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; if you preach practice only, they will become Pharisees; and if you preach all these and do not enforce discipline, Methodism will be like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.”

According to Wesley, just keeping the rules is not adequate: preach practice only and they will become Pharisees! The Pharisees in the New Testament era were conscientiously religious and careful to keep the rules, believing that this was the way they could please God. Indeed, they thought that exacting obedience to the rules would keep them in love with God.

Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisee Nicodemus in John 3 reveals a different perspective on our relationship to rules and to God. The kingdom of God does not dawn in the world by people being respectably religious. Knowing and keeping the rules does not initiate one into the reign of God. Observing religious practices can all be done “from below,” but the work of God in the world is initiated “from above.”

If Nicodemus had visited Duke Divinity School, he would have discovered that he did not yet have what we call a scripturally formed imagination. Nicodemus resembles many modern Methodists: earnestly believing that adherence to three simple rules could transform the world and keep you in love with God.

John Wesley felt that many of his Anglican contemporaries were like Nicodemus, confusing moralism with the gospel. He preached a sermon at St. Mary’s (Oxford) on July 25, 1741, to address these concerns: “The Almost Christian.” His text was Acts 26:28, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian,” and he explored the difference between the “almost Christian” and the “altogether Christian.” The almost Christian believes sincerely that the essence of Christian identity is wrapped up in religious practices: do good and do no harm. Actually, Wesley has quite an inventory of such things in his sermon, both positive and negative: do not oppress the poor, cheat, take the name of God in vain; do feed the hungry, care for widows and orphans, visit the prisoners, etc. Wesley says that just obeying these commands, however, makes one no more than almost Christian; he labels this “heathen honesty.” Moralism does not constitute the essence of genuine Christianity.

Implicit and explicit warnings against confusing moralism with the gospel were at the heart of the Methodist message for 200 years. The clear reference to which Wesley and Methodists have continually returned is Romans 8:16: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” To be sure, Methodists have consistently taught that being in love with and staying in love with God is central, and we hear phrases like “being perfected in love.” This, however, has nothing to do with what we do. It has only to do with what God has done for us in Christ and what God the Holy Spirit continues to work in us.

There can be no confusion whether this comes “from above” or “from below.” To receive the witness of the Spirit, one must be born from above. The gospel is about what God is doing, not about what we are doing. This is foundational to the church’s missionary imagination, but it has nothing to do with our human-centered moralism.

Here I hasten to the defense of Bishop Job, who was the product of a much earlier generation who still remembered and cherished the Methodist legacy of religious awakenings. We are now more than a generation removed from a Methodist membership who have made conscious decisions to become Christians. In over two decades of teaching Methodist seminarians, I would generously estimate that 5 percent of my students were asked in their Methodist churches to make that explicit decision. We have been catechized to believe that we evolve into being Christian by simply joining the church. The notion of professing Christ as Savior sounds, well, Baptist. So for most of us, Bishop Job’s three simple rules as the essence of the Methodist message makes perfect sense.

Two of my good friends in the Duke community are religion department professor Shalom Goldman and Imam Abdullah Antepli. I am certain that both Shalom and Abdullah would agree that “doing good” and “doing no harm” can reflect an honest desire to stay in love with God. They might even say that it is in harmony with both Jewish and Islamic precept. And I think they would both dispute the notion that this is distinctively Christian. When the church’s message ceases to be distinctively Christian, the missionary imagination is lost. The three simple rules are far removed from “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.”

The Way Forward
The answer for the contemporary Methodist church cannot be found simply by looking to the past. This challenge of rediscovering the missionary imagination of Methodism confronts us daily basis at Duke Divinity School since we are called to prepare people for ministry and service. From the first week after they arrive, Divinity students encounter Methodism’s original “social holiness” in covenant discipleship groups that connect acts of piety and deeds of mercy. Each semester we offer multiple classes on Wesleyan theology and forming disciples in a Wesleyan way, as well as classes that specifically address evangelism and the missional church. These classes are fully subscribed every semester, our students actively imagining new trajectories for the local church.

Lessons from Methodism’s evangelical history are foundational to our ability to envision a missional future shaped by scriptural imagination. Duke Divinity students will understand the church culture bequeathed to them, but they enter that context with a sense of vocation fired by the gospel imagination. We pray that this new generation of divinity graduates will no longer confuse moralism with the missionary message that has the capacity to transform society and the church.