Interpretations of John Wesley abound. Two recent monographs from Oxford University Press show how different dimensions of Wesley’s early ministry can yield vital clues to understanding the heart of Wesley’s life and ministry—and how his example may shape Methodist commitments today.
Geordan Hammond’s John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (2014) retraces Wesley’s early ministry in Georgia: he is engaged in a ministry seeking to replicate “primitive Christianity” even as he weighs the Anglican heritage of his family. Hammond draws readers into the voyage to Georgia and the ministry that followed, rejecting the commonplace belief that the mission was little more than a failed experiment on the way to Aldersgate. In Hammond’s view, Wesley’s Georgia mission provided an important juncture in the formation of the evangelical revival that flourished in subsequent decades. Here, Wesley faced questions surrounding baptism, apostolic succession, episcopacy, and the Eucharist. Even the romantic gaffe that led to his return to London—his disastrous “breakup” with Sophia Hopkey—should be interpreted in light of Wesley’s desire to replicate primitive patterns of apostolic celibacy. Hammond’s Wesley is an ascetic and (somewhat anachronistically, in my view) a high churchman.
Kevin Watson’s Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice (2014) examines the emergence of Methodist bands (small groups that predate the formation of Methodist “classes” in 1742). Wesley appears in these pages as a figure wholly devoted to practices of discipleship through community, but Watson’s portrait emphasizes the way band meetings led to social holiness. Against popular histories, Watson maintains that bands were neither educational “Sunday school” opportunities nor models of group cohesion in the early years of a new religious movement. Rather, bands were a means of growing in holiness and Christlikeness through community: “In Wesley’s theological account of the Methodist approach to communal Christian formation, then, the penitent bands were a place where people were particularly aware of their dependence on God’s grace and where such dependence made them more receptive to receiving a renewed outpouring of sanctifying grace” (67).
What I find so intriguing about these two volumes is the emergence of Wesley we seldom hear much about: John Wesley living between the times. In the Georgia mission, the story is typically one of failed ministry and immature relationships. Once Wesley is back in London, the narrative often, and quickly, turns away from Wesley’s pursuit of social holiness through Christian community and into the story of new birth and the formation of societies in London and Bristol. Yet here, in Hammond and Watson, we discover Wesley seeking deeper faith through a particular vision of primitive Christianity that was deeply devoted and intensely communal. Methodist churches rightly investigate the life and ministry of John and Charles Wesley for clues to reinvigorating contemporary Methodism, but studies such as these will undermine facile conclusions about the meaning and practices that founded the earliest years of Methodism.