by Chris Ritter
Billy Abraham called the Methodist Revival a “hiccup of the Holy Spirit.” While it bears marks of the culture in which which it sprang, it came as a complete surprise to it. The American wing of this sovereign torrent, The Great Awakening, had a Calvinistic flavor. Under Wesley, the European wing was decidedly Arminian: “All must be saved, all can be saved, all can know they are saved, and all can be saved completely.” It would be this Free Grace strain that would resurface on the American frontier as a Second Great Awakening. Calvinists, like the poor, we will have with us always. But Arminian Methodism has proved uniquely capable of adapting to new mission fields. If we accept Pentecostal/Charismatic expressions as forms of Wesleyanism, Methodism continues as the fastest growing type of Christianity on the planet. What are its characteristics?
First, Methodists are conversionist. They represent a form a Christianity that calls people to a personal, transformational experience of God’s grace marked by deep repentance and leading to new birth. Since George Whitefield convinced John Wesley to “be more vile” and preach in the highways and byways, the world has never been the same. Methodists were contrasted with the formalists whose faith was based in observance of ritual. Methodism is religion of the transformed heart.
Relatedly, Methodists are evangelical. The roots of the word “evangelical” are found in Luther. But evangelicalism started with Wesley and his cohort. The authority of the Bible, Atonement through the Cross, the call to conversion, and urgency of Christian mission are the essential hallmarks identified in The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism is not to be conflated with Fundamentalism, a late Nineteenth Century development that arose as a reaction against Modernism. Wesley was an Oxford don and embraced learning across all disciplines.
Methodists are proto-Pentecostal. They embrace the living power of the Holy Spirit. Methodists pray expecting something to happen. The energy for personal transformation and ministry is alien to our human nature. God’s grace is the primary actor and our response impacts every level of our being, including our emotions and affections. Wesley understood it in terms of Romans 5:5, the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Spirit. Methodists were called “enthusiasts” because of their spiritual focus and force. The Wesleyan experience of perfecting/sanctifying grace subsequent to conversion was eventually interpreted as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit by later Pentecostals and Charismatics. The ministry of Methodists evangelist Phoebe Palmer represents this transition.
Methodists are orthodox. John Wesley never wanted to change Christianity. He wanted to recover it. While admittedly irregular in style, Methodists sought to preach and teach nothing but classic Christianity. Wesley saw himself as a “man of one book.” If you cut him, he would bleed Bible. The ecumenical impulse of early Methodism was not evidence of laissez-faire doctrinal commitments, but a drive to partner with diverse players who shared the same urgent mission.
Methodists are accountable. Whitefield called his converts “ropes of sand” compared to Wesley’s. The organizational genius of Wesley allowed him to invent a unique system of sustainable transformation through voluntary relationships. Methodists watch over one another in love. They meet together for transparent conversation about the state of their own hearts. The accountability expected of all Methodists started at the top and worked its way down.
Methodists are busy. Faith being dead without works, Methodists are people of practical action… a true expression of the Protestant work ethic. Wesley sought to elevate the human condition. This started from the inside, but did not stop there. Methodism built a school before it built a church. The derogatory epithet “Methodist” likely stems from outsiders observing what seemed to them hive-like activity. Quite literally, Wesley was opposed to recess.
The missionary zeal of Methodism and its love for primitive Christianity causes it to be quite elastic in terms of form. Wesley was a very satisfied Anglican as the doctrine was sound. But he completely stepped outside the forms of the Church of England to shape the Methodism movement. It was para-church because matters of organization were adiaphora. Methodism values the mission too much to be a slave to structure. Form follows function. Where it won’t, Methodists create work-arounds.
Some types of Methodism have embraced more of the original characteristics than others. But American Mainline practice tends contrary to them all. Conversion gives way to self actualization. Manifestations of the Spirit give way to respectable religious practice. The drive toward primitive orthodoxy gives way to a wide, sagging theological tent. Gathering for mutual accountability is replaced with gathering to not judge one another. Social action based on Kingdom priorities is replaced with a “social witness” based on myths of human progress. As Mainline-ism replaced Methodism, the native elasticity of form calcified in the interest of institutional preservation.
Methodism’s pillar of fire has moved beyond its legacy denominations. We might say United Methodism systematized the Mainline neutralization of Methodism that had been happening for decades leading up to 1968. David Watson calls the theological pluralism on which The United Methodist Church was built a “slow-acting poison,” the effects of which are now obvious. Yet we can still find gleams of original Methodism in evangelistic missions, the small group movement, intercessory prayer meetings, Pentecostal expressions, the Alpha Course, the Emmaus community, etc. Many United Methodists live out of the original legacy.
The Global Methodist Church hopes for a further recovery. But the Methodist story proves that ecclesial forms are not essential to spiritual revival. Methodism assumes a dead church in need of reform. In the Large Minutes, Wesley addressed Methodism’s purpose: “Q: 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.” A new denomination may be needed, but it cannot in itself recover Methodism among Methodists. That will take another hiccup of the Holy Spirit.