Catholic Spirit and Methodist Doctrinal Commitments

Why do Methodists so often emphasize the need for a “Catholic Spirit” when we come together for internal conversation as Methodists?

More than two years ago, I wrote a post about Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit,” and the ways it is often misused in contemporary Methodism. Writing that post got at part of what has concerned me about recent appeals to this particular sermon. But there was something else that continued to bother me that I am just starting to try to articulate.

Why is it that when Methodists come together for Annual Conference and General Conference, meetings that are by definition for insiders, so often the focus is on what it means to be Christian, broadly speaking, instead of focusing more specifically on what it means to be a Methodist Christian?

Why is it, for example, that we often seem to instinctively appeal to “Catholic Spirit” instead of “Scripture Way of Salvation?”

When early Methodists gathered at the first conferences, they talked about “What to teach?” “How to teach?” and “What to do, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”[1] They answered these questions with specificity and often explicitly explored the extent of agreement they had with others, as well as where exactly the disagreement was. These conversations were focused on sharpening the particular doctrinal commitments that the people called Methodists had. They were not focused on watering down the importance of particularity or clarity about who they were and what they believed as Methodists.

My impression in reading the “Minutes” of early Methodist conferences is that Methodists were talking about basic Christian doctrine. But they were doing so with the kind of specificity that led them to begin to note points of emphasis that were different from other contemporary Christian communities. They asked questions like, “Have we not then unawares leaned too much towards Calvinism?”[2] And so in early Methodist “Minutes” of Conferences, you find Wesley and his followers wrestling with areas of agreement and points of disagreement with other Christians.

Today, Methodists commonly protest such doctrinal specificity, arguing that we should not be overly concerned about these kinds of precise doctrinal conversations, because doctrine is divisive.

The concern that doctrine is divisive is powerful at a very basic level, because it describes what can happen when we are honest about what we believe and how important we think believing specific things is. Beliefs can lead to division. It is not always true, but it can be true. But it is only true in the sense that it describes what is the case. People often assume that this description necessarily leads to a prescription, namely, that doctrine is bad or harmful because it leads to division. Further, there is an assumption that simply avoiding doctrinal specificity will necessarily lead to unity.

The alternative to specificity about doctrinal commitments, however, is not the virtue of unity. The alternative to doctrinal clarity is theological incoherence.

I suspect it has been unintentional, but calls to downplay the importance of doctrine sometimes sound like a call to be less passionate about things that have long been viewed as essential Christian beliefs. Such calls also ignore the conviction that doctrine is not intended to divide, but to unite around one coherent and identifiable faith.

Another concern that people who resist a vital role for doctrine in the Christian life is that doctrinal commitments can lead to vices like wrath. Commitment to beliefs may lead to wrath, but it in no way necessarily follows that a commitment to particular doctrines must lead to such vice. One can easily reject using harsh words in response to someone you disagree with, without also having to say that a person needs to hold their beliefs more loosely. (Moreover, in encounters with Methodists on some Facebook discussion pages, I have found that “progressives” and “traditionalists” are equally capable of saying unkind and unloving things to one another. I have frequently seen people on Facebook that people who do not believe that Methodism should have an uncompromising commitment to basic orthodoxy are nevertheless capable of wrath towards those with whom they disagree.)

Finally, and perhaps most importantly: Asserting that doctrine is divisive and that clergy should not have to affirm certain doctrines is itself a belief. The logic that criticizes commitment to orthodoxy because it is divisive seems to fall on its own logic. Arguing that doctrine is unimportant is a belief. And it is one that is divisive, because many people passionately believe that doctrine is not only important but an essential healing balm that enables us to know God, to love God, and to know how then we shall live. On what grounds can one argue, then, that doctrinal commitments should be rejected because they are divisive?

I think Methodists are often tempted to divert attention from doctrinal distinctiveness, or specificity, because they are afraid that doing so will further damage the fragile unity that has characterized United Methodism from its beginning.

But, when Methodists primarily focus on “Catholic Spirit” and basic Christian affirmations at the level of Annual and General Conference we are being a bit pretentious. It seems like we are acting like we are the entire Church, when the reality is that we are only one small part of it. We don’t have to talk at Conferences in ways that include all Christians, because we are not The Church.

I am grateful for The United Methodist Church, for Wesleyan theology, and for the method that gave Methodism its name. But we are only part of a greater whole. In other words, our primary focus when we come together at Annual Conference doesn’t need to be on figuring out how big of a tent we can pitch, because we aren’t the whole Christian tent.

Exhorting one another to cultivate a “Catholic Spirit” in our time together as The United Methodist Church is precisely backwards. At Annual Conference and General Conference, we should be refining what it is that we believe as one part of Christ’s Body in the world. We should wrestle with where the points of departure are of Methodist theology and various other Christian communities.

Please don’t misunderstand me. We should continue cultivating a “Catholic Spirit.” UM pastors should reach out in their communities to pastors from other denominations, seeking to work together with people in their specific contexts whose “heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart.”[3] And they should rejoice to work together with Christians outside of United Methodism, to explore the ways in which they can cooperate in ministry. And United Methodists should continue to seek ways for greater cooperation at the denominational level with other parts of our family as Christians. We should be passionate about finding ways to express the reality that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

But we best express a “Catholic Spirit” when we know who we are.

United Methodism has a theological identity, but it often seems embarrassed by it. Methodists often go to great lengths to distance themselves from the particularities of what The UMC says we believe.

The UMC has tried pitching a tent that is so big it is arguably bigger than the Church itself. I think that experiment has largely failed. A more fruitful approach might be to ask ourselves the same questions that Wesley and the earliest Methodists asked themselves when they gathered together: “What to teach, How to teach, and What to do, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.”

When Methodists gather together at Methodists gatherings we should not act like we are the entire Church. We should instead see if we can, by the grace of God, make a bit of progress in figuring out who God is calling us to be as a particular part of the Church in this time and place. In doing so, may we discover that doctrine is not an enemy that threatens to divide us, but is essential to being united in worshiping God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and learning to love our neighbor as ourselves.

[1] “Minutes” of 1749; in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol. 10: 778.

[2] Ibid., 781.

[3] John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit”; in Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, vol 2:89.

Holy Conferencing: A Presentation to the UM Council of Bishops

I was invited by the Committee on Faith and Order of The United Methodist Church to give a presentation on holy conferencing to the Council of Bishops of The UMC on November 3, 2014. Below is the manuscript I used when I spoke, though I did depart from it in a few places. I have been asked by several people if I would make my notes available, and so am publishing them here. I have written previous articles here on this topic here, here, and here.

If there were one thing that United Methodism could do today that would be most likely to bring deep renewal and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit to our church, what would it be?

I believe that reclaiming an accurate understanding of holy conferencing in contemporary United Methodism is the most important thing that we could do as a church. And I believe that if we were to reclaim this practice, that God would bless our efforts and we would see profound renewal in communities where this took place. I really believe that. But everything hinges on getting right what holy conferencing is.

This morning I’m going to sketch what holy conferencing is, make a few brief comments about what it isn’t, and then offer some suggestions for reclaiming this practice in contemporary United Methodism.

What Holy Conferencing Is

First, a bit of bad news: This phrase is almost always associated with John Wesley, but he didn’t actually say it. Holy conferencing most likely comes from Wesley’s use of Christian conference, a phrase he used once in the 1763 doctrinal minutes typically referred to as the “Large Minutes.”

The reference occurs in a passage where attention is being given to whether leaders in Methodism are consistent in their own use of the means of grace and in encouraging others to use them as well. For Wesley, means of grace are practices that God has chosen as ways in which God reliably and consistently makes God’s self available to us.

In the “Large Minutes,” Wesley lists Christian conference as one of only five instituted means of grace. Instituted means of grace are the special category for the outward signs, words, or actions ordained of God for all times and places by which God conveys grace to people created in the image of God. They are grounded in commandments from Jesus in Scripture. In other words, these are practices that are not limited by the particularities of cultural context, historical era, etc. Placing Christian conference in this category is significant, then, because it is putting the practice in the same category as prayer, searching the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, and fasting – the other instituted means of grace. And it is claiming that Christ has instructed us in Scripture to seek him in this way.

So, here’s what is said in the one reference to Christian conference:

Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right?

Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?

Do we not converse too long at a time? Is not an hour at a time commonly enough?

Would it not be well to plan our conversation beforehand? To pray before and after it?[1]

That’s it. Wesley didn’t provide a more thorough explanation or description of Christian conference because he would have assumed Methodists knew what he meant by the phrase. There is broad agreement among Wesleyan scholars who have studied Wesley’s own use of the phrase that by “Christian conference” Wesley was referring to the practice of cultivating growth in holiness in community through conversation about our experience of God. The primary places where early Methodists practiced “holy conferencing,” then, was in the class meeting and the band meeting.

The class meeting was a group of 7-12 people, the groups were co-ed, and they were divided based on geographic location. The basic question of the class meeting was “How is it with your soul?” Or, “How does your soul prosper?”

Now, the language of prosperity has a lot of baggage in our current day. However, it is worth noting the positive assumption that is underneath the original phrasing of the question. The assumption of early Methodists was that by gathering together to talk about one’s present experience of God that people’s lives with God would prosper, or thrive. And this was the case.

It is also important to note that class meetings were small groups focused on transformation, and not information. It was not a group study of a book, or even the Bible. The content was the participants’ lives with God. And in early Methodism, when people gathered together weekly to discuss their experience of God, they became more sensitive to God’s presence and work in their lives, and developed a vocabulary for talking about this experience.

In “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” Wesley described the impact of the class meeting on Methodists:

It can scarce be conceived what advantages have been reaped from this little prudential regulation. Many now happily experienced that Christian fellowship of which they had not so much as an idea before. They began to ‘bear one another’s burdens,’ and ‘naturally’ to ‘care for each other.’ As they had daily a more intimate acquaintance with, so they had a more endeared affection for each other. And ‘speaking the truth in love, they grew up into him in all things which is the head, even Christ; from whom the whole body, fitly joined together, and compacted by that which every joint supplied, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, increased unto the edifying itself in love.”[2]

Wesley found that bearing one another’s burdens and caring for each other came through intimate knowledge of what was going on in each other’s lives. And, by the grace of God, such knowledge led to “a more endeared affection for each other.” As Methodists came to know each other, really know each other more, they loved one another more – not less! They also were able to speak more effectively into each other’s lives in ways that led to growth in holiness.

This practice is at the heart of our current mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We have room to grow in helping the average Methodist learn how to speak to a lived experience of God. Too often, in interactions with lay Methodists, it seems that they simply do not have a vocabulary with which to speak to God’s presence and activity in their lives. Addressing this deficit should be of fundamental concern to leaders in the church.

In early Methodism, class meetings were also the basic mark of membership. A Methodist was someone who attended a weekly class meeting. And when the Methodist Episcopal Church was formally constituted as a denomination in the United States, the class meeting continued to be the primary location for membership. Weekly attendance was required to maintain membership in the church.

In the version of the Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church annotated by Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke in 1798, they wrote the following about the importance of the class meeting:

It is the thing itself, christian fellowship and not the name, which we contend for…. for about twenty or thirty years we have rarely met with one who has been much devoted to God, and at the same time not united in close christian fellowship to some religious society or other [meaning a small group like the class meeting] . . .

We have no doubt, but meetings of christian brethren for the exposition of scripture-texts, may be attended with their advantages. But the most profitable exercise of any is a free inquiry into the state of the heart. We therefore confine these meetings to christian experience. . . In short, we can truly say, that through the grace of God our classes form the pillars of our work, and, as we have before observed, are in a considerable degree our universities for the ministry.[3]

During the period of time that the class meeting was the “sinews of Methodism,” American Methodism grew from one of the smallest Christian groups in American in 1776 at 2.5 % to the largest, by far, in 1850 at over 30%.[4] This growth is one of the most explosive and spectacular growths of Christianity in the history of Christianity. The class meeting was the heartbeat of the vitality of early Methodism.

The next level of small group formation in early Methodism was the band meeting, which was a group of 5-7 people. The groups were divided by gender and marital status. They were voluntary, though highly encouraged for people who had experienced justification by faith and were earnest in their desire for ongoing growth in holiness. To be in band, you had to be open to honest, searching, and piercing conversation.

Once you were admitted, the basic activity of the bands was confession of any sins committed since the previous meeting. It is crucial to note that confession of sin was for the sake of growth in holiness, not to increase guilt or shame. The beginning of the “Rules of the Band Societies,” for example, started this way: “The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God [citing James 5:16], ‘Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another that ye may be healed.’”[5] So, Methodists confessed sin in hopes of experiencing healing and transformation.

The band meeting was rooted in Methodists audacious optimism that God’s grace could free them to the uttermost from sin’s grip on our lives. This is a practice you would not find in many United Methodist churches today, but there are women and men in every community where there is a United Methodist presence who are oppressed by the burden of secret sins, even things that are deep in their past, and the haunting question, or fear, whispered in their ear by the accuser: “Could anyone really love you, if they really knew you?”

Methodists took this accusation head on and through this practice brought people again and again back to God’s unconditional and healing love. Similar to Wesley’s account of the class meeting, in bands Methodists tended to grow in love for each other the more deeply they entered into each other’s lives.

When Wesley referred to Christian conferencing, what we now call holy conferencing, as an instituted means of grace, he was referring to the kind of intimate and focused conversation about one’s lived experience of God and pursuit of a saving and healing relationship with Jesus Christ that were found in the class meeting and the band meeting.

What Holy Conferencing Is Not

Before I move to application, let me pause to note that holy conferencing is more than it has sometimes been seen to be.

When holy conferencing started receiving more attention in The UMC a few years ago, the term was mostly misused. The most common misuse of the phrase has been one that sees holy conferencing as polite disagreement. At times, holy conferencing has been deployed as a way of urging civility in the midst of controversy.

At its best, viewing holy conferencing as a polite conversation, or being nice when we disagree, provides an often-needed reminder to treat one another with respect in the midst of deep disagreement. This is important, very important. But it is not enough.

At its worst, holy conferencing as being polite or nice can be a way of filibustering or procrastinating coming to difficult conclusions. Or, it can be a way of passive aggressively trying to force people to hold deeply held convictions loosely.

Finally, discussions of holy conferencing have at times seemed to value the way in which conversation happens more than the content of the conversation. When we make the way we converse more important than what we converse about and the conclusions we come to, we either deemphasize the importance of beliefs or convictions, or worse, insist that there are no right answers.

Remember that Wesley believed that holy conferencing was an instituted means of grace. This means that Wesley believed that this practice was one of five practices that God instituted as a way that God’s grace would be made available to us.

Going forward, we need to reject thin accounts of holy conferencing as polite conversation or being nice when we disagree. We need a clear articulation of what holy conferencing is: It is the distinctive way that Methodists gather together to talk about their relationship with God in order to grow in love for God and neighbor.

Some Suggestions for Reclaiming Christian Conferencing Today

So what does all of this mean for us today? What does it mean for you as the bishops of The UMC?

Holy conferencing, or better yet, Christian conferencing is a part of our heritage. It is a practice we should celebrate and promote, because God has used this practice to make a difference in the lives of countless people in our past. And it is a practice we are privileged to steward today. If Wesley was right, if holy conferencing is an instituted means of grace, then it is one of the few ways that we can say with confidence – God is always presence in this practice – always! So, if we believe that holy conferencing is an instituted means of grace, it really makes sense to bet the house on it – though, of course, we wouldn’t really do that because we all know United Methodists don’t gamble!

I was thrilled in preparing to speak to you today to see the way that Faith and Order sees holy conferencing as one of the distinctive gifts that Methodism has to offer to the broader church. They explicitly point to the class and band meeting as the key way this concept was expressed in early Methodism. This is the best example of what seems to me to be a very positive turn towards a desire to reclaim a more robust version of holy conferencing throughout the denomination.

And I could not agree more with Faith and Order’s description of holy conferencing as an essential gift the Spirit has given to The UMC understanding of what it means to be the church. Holy conferencing, rightly understood, is at the core of who we are as Wesleyan Christians!

In difficult times for The UMC, the momentum building for a denomination wide return to the practice of holy conferencing is exciting and reason for optimism. There is much that threatens to divide United Methodism, but this is a practice that has been unifying in a number of contexts.

Contemporary examples of this practice in UM contexts:

Kitchen Groups at Munger Place UMC in Dallas, TX

Kitchen Tables at The Table UMC in Sacramento, CA

Contemporary examples of this practice in non-UM contexts:

Life Groups at Life Church.tv

12 Step Groups (analogous to band meetings)

Momentum has been building to return to this practice, I think in part because others have been stealing, or borrowing, this part of our heritage and thriving. The Holy Spirit seems to be at work in pockets of Wesleyan/Methodist communities, leading a return to this practice. I am wondering if this momentum could become an avalanche of grace?

Here are a few ways that we could work with what God seems to be doing in our midst:

First, we could make holy conferencing a theme of the next General Conference. By this I mean offering preaching and teaching on the role that this has played in our tradition, lifting up the churches that are already returning to this practice – and there are other examples beyond the ones I’ve already mentioned – and casting a vision for a return to a transformation driven approach to Christian discipleship. I think this should be grounded in our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And it should be explicitly global in scope, indeed, many parts of global Methodism are leading the return to Wesleyan small group formation. A particularly good example is Longing to Meet You, which is a guide to starting Wesleyan small groups that are intentionally from a Wesleyan perspective written by Korean Methodists.

The basic practice of holy conferencing is ideally suited to a denomination that is seeking to become a truly global church, because it is simple and it isn’t over defined. There is ample room for adaptation and change for churches in a variety of contexts. It has the virtue of being stubbornly focused on what is essential: women and men seeking to grow in holiness together as a community of faith by the grace of God. And it keeps our lives in God at the center, no hiding. But this basic practice can be inhabited in a variety of ways.

From the General Conference level, you could also emphasize this in the same way at Annual Conferences.

Another advantage of teaching and preaching on this practice at both the General Conference and Annual Conference level is that it would provide the opportunity to cast a common vision of what holy conferencing is, and gently correct some of the misuses of the practice in our recent history.

Then, at the district level, workshops on holy conferencing could be offered where pastors and lay leaders could receive training on how to lead small groups in learning once again to be attentive to God’s work in their lives and give voice to their experience of God. This, in my view, would be the layer at which to focus on equipping people to actually start these kinds of groups.

One way that I’ve tried to contribute to this work is my own life as an academic. I believe that scholars should be committed to writing scholarship that advances the guild in which they are affiliated. But I also think that scholars, especially those teaching in theological seminaries, must be committed to scholarship that is in service to the church and to making their scholarship accessible to the church. I have studied the history of early Methodist small group formation, particularly the band meeting, publishing a book with Oxford University Press (Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice). I have tried to translate that work for the church with my recent publication, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. My publisher, Seedbed, has kindly provided a complimentary copy of this book for each of you, which you should have already received.

The goal of this book is to provide both a basic introduction to Wesleyan small group formation and a guide to starting Wesleyan small groups. In other words, it could be seen as a guide to reclaiming holy conferencing. I wrote the book because I believe that God wants The UMC to return to a form of this essential means of grace. I hope it is a resource that you will find helpful in your leadership of our church. If I can help you in other ways, please let me know.

When Methodists have used this practice, when they have “watched over one another in love,” God has consistently blessed the people called Methodists. The strategic significance of the class meeting as the fuel of Methodism as a missional movement has been widely recognized by historians. There is no reason we cannot retrieve a version of this practice in our own day. I am certain that if we do, God will not fail to bless the undertaking and pour out the Spirit in renewing and recreating ways. May it be so! Amen.

[1] John Wesley, “The Large Minutes”; in The Works of John Wesley, vol. 10 The Methodist Societies The Minutes of Conference, edited by Henry D. Rack (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2011), 855-857.

[2] Wesley, “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists”; in The Works of John Wesley vol. 9 The Methodist Societies History, Nature, and Design, edited by Rupert E. Davies (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 262.

[3] 1798 Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 147-148.

[4] Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 56.

[5] John Wesley, “Rules of the Band Societies”; in The Works of John Wesley, 9:77.

Did Wesley Really Say That? (Here’s How to Find Out)

Did John Wesley really say that? The purpose of this post is to help you be able to find out for yourself, usually relatively quickly, whether Wesley really said that (whatever “that” is).

Of all the things I have written on this blog over the years, my series of posts on things commonly attributed to John Wesley that he did not actually say are among the most popular.

Because of these posts, I now fairly regularly receive questions from readers through email, facebook, and twitter asking me if Wesley did say something that they’ve come across. I really appreciate these questions, because they show that people really do care about being good stewards of their tradition. Preachers don’t want to unintentionally misquote Wesley in a sermon or church newsletter. I also can’t help but smile when someone says something like, “I read this attributed to Wesley online, but it doesn’t sound like Wesley to me.” It gives me joy to see evidence of people reading Wesley for themselves and starting to get a feel for his literary voice.

One of the deep goals of this blog and my work as a scholar, teacher, and pastor is to equip people to better engage their own tradition for themselves. While it is great to have people ask me to confirm a quote from Wesley, it is even better to help people gain confidence in finding out for themselves whether Wesley did or did not say something. (Note: This basic approach can be used for any historical figure.)

So, here is how to find out in about five minutes whether John Wesley really said something:

Imagine you are playing a game called “Did Wesley Really Say That?” (This could be a best seller!) There are two ways to win the game. First, find the quotation in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. (Examples of scholarly editions of Wesley’s works that count are any of the volumes in this series, or this, this, and this. Of course, there are others. A book of quotations like this does not count.) If you find a quote in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s sermons, Wesley did actually say that. You win!

Second, find a scholarly article that states that Wesley did not say this. Professor Richard P. Heitzenrater of Duke Divinity School has published a number of pieces that draw attention to quotations commonly attributed to Wesley that he did not actually say – or at least that cannot be demonstrated to have come from him. My favorite is an article he wrote in this book. If you find a scholar in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist studies saying that Wesley did not say that, you win! You are safe assuming that Wesley did not say it.

The quickest way to get to win is by doing an internet search for the quotation followed by a comma and then John Wesley. If Wesley said it, you will usually be able to fairly quickly find a link to a trustworthy internet source. Not all online sources are trustworthy, in fact most aren’t (for more on what sources are trustworthy, see below).

Let’s take two different quotations commonly attributed to Wesley as a way of illustrating each way to win.

An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.” Did Wesley really say that?

The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.

Ounce of love, Wesley

Remember that winning is not finding any webpage that attributes the quote to Wesley. In the image search, the Wikiquote page is good because it has an actual citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. You can also use the date of the letter to look up the letter in the Telford edition of Wesley’s letters, which is currently the most comprehensive scholarly edition of Wesley’s letters. So, you win! Wesley did say that.

To illustrate the challenge of the internet, the second link, goodreads.com, is not a good source. If you click on the link, none of the quotes have any citations. And, not surprisingly, they include many things Wesley did not say. Towards the bottom of the first page on the Google search, there is a link to the Wesley Center Online site, which is a reliable online source. It is also always a good sign when you get the specificity of a letter written to a specific person on a particular date, in this case to Joseph Benson on November 7, 1768.

Let’s try one more.

I set myself on fire and people come from miles to watch me burn.” Did Wesley really say that?

The picture below shows the way the search should be entered, with the first results.

Set myself on fire, not Wesley

The first link on Google “John Wesley Quotes (Author of John Wesley’s Sermons)” initially looks promising. But it is again from goodreads.com, and you will not find a citation at all. So, this is not a reliable website. The second link is a blog post I wrote four years ago saying that Wesley did not say this. A blog post should be considered to be suspect. However, a blog post by a PhD in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies gives you very good evidence that Wesley did not in fact say it. A scholarly article like the one I mentioned by Professor Heitzenrater is even better. Of course, if you can find a citation in a scholarly edition of that person’s writings then you are entitled to say he or she did in fact say this. In this instance, you will not find a citation to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s writings because there is no evidence that he said this.

Things that do not count as winning:

Any kind of commerorative or decorative item. I would guess that Cokesbury has sold thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of items that attribute things to John Wesley that he did not actually say. Just because you bought something at Cokesbury store with a quotation attributed to John Wesley does not mean he actually said it.

A book of quotations. These are notorious for not having good citations. Their primary goal, to inspire with short pithy sayings, makes them notorious for misquoting historical figures.

Any non-academic book. A non-academic book should site the source of any direct quotation. They often do not. If they do, they also often still do not site a scholarly edition. Citing a quote from another book that is still citing it from another book means you are still playing the game. To win you must find it in a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works.

Let me say a bit more about the internet. Finding the quote on the internet may or may not count as winning. Think of the internet as being like paper publications. Blogs and other forms of social media are like pen and ink publications (journals, letters, etc.). You would not ordinarily consider these to be authoritative in an academic sense. However, a handwritten letter by Frank Baker (who edited the first two volumes of the best scholarly edition of John Wesley’s letters) to Albert Outler about a Wesley quote would be very good evidence, precisely because of the specific person who wrote the letter.

If the website is a respectable academic or ecclesial website that is making Wesley’s works available online, then, that counts. You win! Wesley did actually say that. (You can find a few examples here and here.)

If the website is a personal website, facebook, twitter, or anywhere else online, the safest approach is to say that it does not count, especially for demonstrating that Wesley did say something. You still have to get to a scholarly edition of Wesley’s works. I have been amazed (and exasperated) at how misquotes of Wesley absolutely thrive on twitter.

Another option is a draw. If you cannot find the quote by Wesley in a scholarly edition of his works, then you neither win or lose. In this instance, do not attribute the quote to Wesley. You should only attribute a quote to someone when you have a primary source citation that shows the person actually said that. In this case, you don’t have it.

The final option is to lose. How do you lose the game? You lose by saying that Wesley said something that he did not actually say. Being as careful and accurate as we can be with our heritage matters. When you say that Wesley’s self-professed evangelistic strategy was to “set myself on fire and the people come from miles to watch me burn” you misrepresent and distort the tradition, because Wesley did not really say that.

I hope this helps you find out for yourself whether Wesley really said “that.”

Wesley Didn’t Say It: “Be present at our table, Lord…”

“Be present at our table, Lord, be here and everywhere adored.”

The so-called “Wesley Grace,” according to Methodist historian Richard P. Heitzenrater, did not originate with John Wesley. It was created by one of the early preachers in early Methodism, John Cennick. Heitzenrater indicates that it is possible that Wesley used this poem, but it is certain it did not originate with him.

The common misattribution of this quotation to John Wesley is discussed in Heitzenrater’s recent chapter, “The Wesleyan Tradition and the Myths We Love” in A Living Tradition: Critical Recovery and Reconstruction of Wesleyan Heritage, edited by Mary Elizabeth Mullino Moore (Kingswood Books, 2013). The chapter discusses a variety of ways that the history of John Wesley’s life has been distorted or invented by Wesley’s biographers (and increasingly through careless repetition of inaccurate information through the internet). It is one of the best academic pieces I have read in some time for a variety of reasons. I highly recommend it.

In any event, Wesley did not create the “Wesley Grace.” We can add it to the list of things he did not say:

“holy conferencing” [Original post here.]

“personal and social holiness” [Original post here.]

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” [Original post here.]

“I set myself on fire and people come to watch me burn.” [Original post here.]

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and, in all things, charity.” [Original post here.]

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.

Personal Update: Exciting News!

I have news I’d like to share that may be of interest to readers of this blog.

I have recently accepted an offer to join the faculty at Candler School of Theology at Emory University as Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies. I am honored to join with the faculty at Candler and thrilled to be able to teach Wesleyan/Methodist studies at one of the flagship United Methodist seminaries.

The majority of my teaching at Candler will be teaching the Methodist History course required of all candidates for ordination in The United Methodist Church. This is the first class I taught as a PhD student at Southern Methodist University. And it is my favorite class to teach, so getting to teach it regularly is a dream come true! I am also looking forward to teaching other courses in Wesleyan/Methodist studies as well as in the History and Interpretation of Christianity and Contextual Education.

I am eager to get to know my colleagues at Candler and to learn from them. The welcome I have already received has been wonderful. I am also looking forward to connecting with folks in the North Georgia Conference of The UMC, as well as other Annual Conferences in the region.

As excited as I am, there is also sadness. I am sad because I will deeply miss colleagues and students at SPU, which has been a fantastic community to be a part of the past three years. It is hard to step away from what is happening at SPU, particularly Seattle Pacific Seminary, because I am certain its best days are still to come. My family will miss the relationships that have blessed us these past three years, particularly through church. We will leave Seattle aware that we are leaving a part of ourselves behind. And we will take cherished memories with us.

Many times over the past few days, I’ve remembered the clear sense of calling I had that led me to apply to PhD programs: I felt called to pastor seminary students who were preparing to become pastors. This calling has always been particularly directed towards the church in which I am ordained, The United Methodist Church. And my academic focus is on the history of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. Candler provides an incredible opportunity to live into these different aspects of my vocation.

I am humbled by this opportunity and grateful to God for providing it!

God’s Inclusive Love Excludes Sin

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Do you ever read something and find yourself actually nodding your head in agreement, or responding to the author out loud? My friends and family will be relieved to know that I very rarely do this. Last night, however, I would have responded out loud when I read James Bryan Smith’s chapter “God is Holy” in The Good and Beautiful God. The only reason I didn’t was because I was reading the book while giving an exam and my students would have shushed me.

As I read this chapter, I found myself wishing that I could have every single Christian read it. The piece is excellent, not because it is new or edgy, but because it states basic Christian truth with profound clarity.

In the previous chapter, “God Is Love,” Smith emphasizes the scandal of God’s grace. God loves sinners “as they are, and not as they should be” (98). He further argues that it is not sin but self-righteousness that separates us from God (102). The chapter does a great job of emphasizing the good news that God’s love for us is constant, whether we are worthy of it or not. And this applies to everyone. (By the way, I highly recommend the entire book, as well as the other two books in the series.)

In the next chapter, Smith addresses a misunderstanding of the truth that God is love, and loves sinners with reckless extravagance: “God does not care about our sin” (116). Smith writes, “In our day you are just as likely to hear a person tell you that their god is a cosmic, benevolent spirit who never judges, does not punish sin and sends no one to hell. This ‘teddy bear’ god has become a very fashionable alternative to the wrathful god of days gone by” (116). The problem is that “the cushy, fuzzy god is neither biblical nor truly loving.” Here, Smith cites H. Richard Niebuhr’s well-worn phrase from The Kingdom of God in America, “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

Smith then points to some of the inadequate theologies that follow from a desire to avoid a wrathful God. I will let one of the most piercing passages in the chapter speak for itself:

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889) did not like the notion of a wrathful God. Ritschl concluded, ‘The concept of God’s wrath has no religious value for the Christian.’ So he reinterpreted the meaning of wrath. Wrath is the logical consequence of God’s absence, and not God’s attitude toward sin and evil. A lot of people liked this because it depicted a god who is above getting angry. This passive-aggressive god just gets quiet. (119)

We need God to care about sin and evil. If God simply becomes distant, then we are hopeless when faced with the enormity of sin and death.

The basic argument that Smith makes is that our understanding of both God’s love and God’s wrath are primarily derived from the most emotive and irrational connotations that these words have. For Smith, God’s love is more like a parent’s love toward a child than a teenager’s infatuation with a peer. And “in the same way that God’s love is not a silly, sappy feeling but rather a consistent desire for the good of his people, so also the wrath of God is not a crazed rage but rather a consistent opposition to sin and evil” (120).

Smith repeatedly emphasizes in the chapter that God is both “kind and severe. We cannot have one without the other” and that this is “very good news” (118). It is good news because God loves us so much that he is completely opposed to anything that harms God’s beloved people. God loves us without condition, but hates sin because sin threatens and eventually brings our destruction.

He makes an important distinction between God’s love and wrath. “Wrath is not something that God is but something that God does. While it is correct to say that God is holy, it is not correct to say that God is wrathful… Holiness is God’s essence… Wrath is what humans experience when they reject God. And it is a necessary part of God’s love” (123).

Smith suggests that we should not want a god who says, “‘It’s cool. Don’t sweat it. Everybody sins, just do it without the guilt, dude. Guilt stinks. Just have a good time!’ This god does not love me. Being soft on sin is not loving, because sin destroys. I want a God who hates anything that hurts me. Hate is a strong word, but a good one. Because the true God not only hates what destroys me (sin and alientation) but also has taken steps to destroy my destroyer, I love him” (125).

Finally, Smith brings his conversation back to the beginning – God’s unconditional love for us. He considered a conversation he had with a woman who heard a sermon he preached on God’s scandalous, unconditional love for us exactly as we are right now and she understood his sermon to mean that sin did not matter and she could simply continuing sinning without feeling guilty. Here is how Smith concludes the chapter:

It occurred to me that perhaps she needed first to hear that she was loved unconditionally before she could address the issue of sin. This is counterintuitive, but I believe it is right. We assume that wrath comes before grace, but that is not the biblical way. God’s first and last word is always grace. Until we have been assured that we are loved and forgiven, it is impossible to address our sinfulness correctly. We will operate out of our own resources, trying to get God to like us by our own efforts to change. God’s first word is always grace, as Barth said. Only then can we begin to understand God’s holiness, and ours. (127)

This is the gospel! Our efforts to change are not enough and can never secure God’s approval. But the good news is that God already loves us. God already offers us forgiveness, healing, and redemption.

Appreciating the relationship between God’s unconditional love and God’s utter opposition to all that harms us is essential for all Christians. It seems to me that United Methodists are currently failing to adequately maintain both sides of this good news. It is not sufficiently Christian to be in favor of either a god whose inclusive love is incapable of excluding sin and evil or a god whose holiness leads people to live in shame.

I’m not sure that these actually represent the positions of any significant groups of United Methodists. Rather, this is how United Methodists (and many other Christians) misrepresent each other’s positions. One side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God whose love is radically inclusive of all people and is not full of anger and judgment. Another side accuses the other of failing to offer the world a God who has standards for right and wrong actions and attitudes.

I do occasionally hear these views expressed by students and pastors. Much more frequently I hear people simply talking past each other. In general, I think if you pressed people on both sides of the theological spectrum, you would find that most believe that God loves creation, and particularly those created in the divine image, with reckless abandon, perfectly. And I think most people believe that God wants to free us from the things that bind us to the ways of sin and death. The disagreement is about whether particular actions, ideas, or attitudes constitute sin.

The problem is not that one side is in favor of sin in order to be more inclusive, while the other side is in favor of exclusion in order to protect God’s holiness or our own. The problem is that neither side does a good enough job of emphasizing both God’s radical love for broken, hurting, and sinful people as well as God’s complete rejection and opposition to sin and evil, whether it is expressed through outward actions or inner dispositions, or individually or structurally.

1 John, to give an example from Scripture, only makes sense when we hold both God’s inclusive love together with God’s complete rejection of sin:

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
– 1 John 1:5-2:2

God’s love towards each one of us is unconditional. Have you allowed that truth to sink into every corner or your life, or are you still trying to clean yourself up for God, to earn your acceptance? Are you willing to be desperately dependent on God’s grace and not your own goodness?

God hates sin because God loves us. Are you allowing God’s grace to free you from everything that keeps you from the life for which you were created? Will you allow the amazing grace of God to forgive you of the ways you have sinned and are sinful? Will you allow God to break the power of those canceled sins?

God is holy. God refuses to make compromises with sin and death. And God is able to make us holy. The offer of holiness is not a threat. It is a precious promise.

What Is the Purpose of Seminary?

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Seminary did nothing to prepare me for ministry in a post-Christian context.

This comment, which was an aside in a conversation I had with a pastor today, has gnawed at me all day. Several hours after the conversation, I tweeted:

The response was slow at first, but gathered momentum throughout the day and into the evening. (In hindsight, I really wish a hashtag had been created to help track the conversation. It has gone in several different directions and is difficult to trace now.)

Here are the main things I heard in the conversation: Some people are happy with their seminary experience and feel that it prepared them well for ministry in a post-Christian context. Others were frustrated with their seminary education and felt that it did not prepare them adequately for basic pastoral ministry. But what stuck with me the most was a general confusion about the purpose of seminary. One person tweeted: “I have heard more than once that it is not a theological school’s job to prepare people for ministry.”

This raises several questions for me: What is ministry? How ought one be prepared for it? If a theological school is not focused on preparing people for ministry, what is the purpose of a seminary education? And why would it be required for ordination? To what extent should the church and academy be connected to one another?

My hope in this post, then, is to continue the conversation with a broader audience and without the 140 character limit.

What do you think the purpose of a seminary education ought to be?

For those of you who have attended or are attending seminary, what are your thoughts about how well it prepared you for ministry?

To what extent should the church and academy be related or interdependent?

Now Available: Pursuing Social Holiness

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Over the past several years, many of you have asked me when my dissertation would be available in print. I am pleased to announce that a revision of my dissertation, Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice, has been published by Oxford University Press. Here is a summary of the book from the cover:

Kevin M. Watson offers the first in-depth examination of an essential early Methodist tradition: the band meeting, a small group of five to seven people who focused on the confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. Watson shows how the band meeting, which figured significantly in John Wesley’s theology of discipleship, united Wesley’s emphasis on the importance of holiness with his conviction that Christians are most likely to make progress in the Christian life together, rather than in isolation.

Demonstrating that neither John Wesley’s theology nor popular Methodism can be understood independent of each other, Watson explores how Wesley synthesized important aspects of Anglican piety (an emphasis on a disciplined practice of the means of grace) and Moravian piety (an emphasis on an experience of justification by faith and the witness of the Spirit) in his own version of the band meeting. Pursuing Social Holiness is an essential contribution to understanding the critical role of the band meeting in the development of British Methodism and shifting concepts of community in eighteenth-century British society.

OUP’s listing has more information about the book, including the Table of Contents. I think that readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the book’s description of Wesley’s understanding of holiness and how his emphasis on the importance of community is connected to sanctification. I also think readers will appreciate the extensive use of primary source materials from early Methodists, giving insight into the popular practice of communal formation in early Methodism.

OUP did a great job with this book. I am very please with the layout and production quality. The main factor that may keep many people from buying the book is the price. The book is listed at $74 (though it is currently available on amazon for $62.90), which will unfortunately price it out of many pastor’s personal libraries. For those not familiar with the world of academic publishing, I would note two things: 1) Authors do not determine the prices of their books. 2) Believe it or not, it could have been much worse. Hardcover academic monographs like this one often cost $150! All that to say, I completely understand if you are not interested in spending that much money on a book.

Here is what some reviewers have said about the book:

This is a brilliant study of one of the foundational institutions of eighteenth-century Methodism. Early Methodism was at its heart a community event. The bands, along with the class meetings, were what bound Methodist societies together. Anyone who wants to understand the rise of Methodism should give this account careful consideration. This is a book we have long needed.
John Wigger, Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri

Watson’s work on the band meeting is the definitive history of this practice of small-group confession within eighteenth-century English evangelicalism. Watson not only demonstrates the importance of this practice for the revival and the Wesleyan notion of ‘social holiness’ in the eighteenth century, but also outlines the reasons for its decline in the nineteenth century. This is a must-have for scholars of Methodism and eighteenth-century religious history.
Scott Kisker, Professor of Church History, United Theological Seminary

This groundbreaking study offers the most detailed account to date of band meetings in early Wesleyan Methodism. Watson first demonstrates the distinctive synthesis of Anglican and Moravian precedents in John Wesley’s mature model for the bands. He then engages a range of primary sources to provide a richly textured account of the practice of bands through the eighteenth century. Highly recommended.
-Randy L. Maddox, William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan Methodist Studies, Duke Divinity School

Now Available: The Class Meeting

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Life has been hectic the last month and a half! My thoughts recently turned to this blog and I realized that I had not announced here that The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience is now available. The book can be purchased in print directly from Seedbed at the previous link. (It is only available in print directly from Seedbed.) It can also be purchased electronically through a variety of e-formats, including Amazon Kindle. This link will take you directly to Amazon’s Kindle listing for the book.

Seedbed has created a page for the book that has much more information: http://classmeeting.seedbed.com/

Seedbed has also included a page that contains links to reviews written online: http://classmeeting.seedbed.com/reviews/

My previous post included several of the advanced reviews that the book received.

Finally, I wrote a post for Seedbed.com that was published on the day the book was released. I also did a video interview that they published. You can view the post here and the interview here.

I am encouraged and grateful for the enthusiasm I am seeing for reclaiming the Wesleyan class meeting. Thank you for your support!

Almost Here: New Book on the Methodist Class Meeting

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Over the last few months, many of you have asked for updates on the progress of my book, The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. The book is an introduction to the central role that the Wesleyan class meeting played in early Methodism, as well as a guide to reclaiming this kind of small group today.

I wrote this book because I have personally experienced the blessing of being in a class meeting and I believe that the Holy Spirit will continue to use this small group practice to help women and men grow in faith in Christ if we would only return to it. I believe the Wesleyan approach to small groups is one of great gifts that God has given to the “people called Methodists.” In many ways, writing this book is an attempt to test whether I am correct in my discernment that God wants to bring renewal to the Methodist/Wesleyan family through a return to this practice.

Here are a few practical details about the release of the book: The Class Meeting has gone to the printer and will be released on November 15 of this year. The list price for the book is $16.95. There is a 20% discount for all preorders of the book before November 15.

Seedbed has created a page that has quite a bit more information about the book, classmeeting.seedbed.com. If you want to read the first chapter of the book now, they will send you the first chapter if you enter your email address. If you are considering using the book in a group (which is my hope for the book), you can find out information about discounts on bulk orders here as well.

I am grateful for the support the book has received from people I admire and respect. Here are some of the things people have said about the book:

Kevin Watson has given us a wonderful gift. He has resurrected an historic Wesleyan practice—the class meeting—and given it fresh meaning, showing its relevance for the church today. Kevin shows us how the class meeting may be a perfect means for church renewal, a gift of God, through the Wesleyan movement, for such a time as this.
Will Willimon, Bishop UMC (retired)
Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry
Duke Divinity School

Kevin Watson has written a fresh new guide to the theory and practice of the Wesley Class meeting, an essential element of truly Wesleyan spirituality. As an experienced participant and initiator of class meetings in academic and congregational settings, Watson is a faithful guide. I highly recommend this book to clergy and congregations who are looking for ways to develop deeper discipleship and reconnect with our own, rich Wesleyan heritage.
Elaine A. Heath, Ph.D.
Southern Methodist University
Co-Founder, The Missional Wisdom Foundation
Director, The Academy for Missional Wisdom

Kevin Watson’s new book is a clarion call to recover the Methodist class meeting as a vital means of grace with an eye on the renewal of the church in the twenty-first century. Rightly balancing the
historical and the practical, Watson invites readers to embrace not only the generous value of the class meeting in the past but also to participate in what promise it holds for the present and beyond in raising up disciples of Jesus Christ.

Dr. Kenneth J. Collins
Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies
Asbury Theological Seminary

As the United Methodist Church struggles to redefine itself and its mission for the next generation of disciples, Kevin Watson has managed to reconnect us to a timeless practice that has the potential of “revitalizing” our denomination—the Class Meeting!
With so much emphasis on declining membership and loss of relevancy, we are invited to rediscover what made Methodism and the Wesleyan movement so vibrant for over a century. Could it be that we’ve been looking in all the wrong places for the right answers? Watson reminds us that the class meeting is not an end in itself, but it has the ability to bring together and transform core groups of people who “are willing to invest in each other’s lives and who are desperate to grow in their relationship with Jesus.”
What I treasure most about this book is the way Watson traces the history of the class meeting, shares the basics of what should/should not take place within the group, and defines for us the role and qualities of the class leader. In other words, this is not a history book that simply tells us what happen then. Instead, it is a modern day road map that points us in the direction of what can happen now! If you are one of those Christians seeking to experience the height, depth, length, width and breath of God’s purpose and meaning for your life, you need to know you can discover it in a
place we’ve yet to look—the class meeting!

Robert Hayes, Bishop UMC

Like other key aspects of Christian living, the Wesleyan class meeting is often talked about today but seldom really practiced. For Wesley the class meeting included, but was much more than,
“small-group fellowship.”
Kevin Watson understands this, and he writes out of both research and personal experience. The strength of authentic Wesleyanism is that it denies the sharp distinction between head knowledge and heart experience. Rather, it unites them. We find that strength here in this practical book.
To be effective today, the class meeting must be re-contextualized (that is, made workable) without losing its essential dynamic as gospel-based accountable community. I commend this book as a useful tool that, if put into practice, can achieve that goal.

Howard A. Snyder, Ph.D.
Author, The Radical Wesley and Patterns for Church Renewal

We want to know and be known. We need to hear each other’s stories. Watson’s compelling case for reinventing the Methodist class meeting recognizes that holy living must be rooted in confession, accountable community, testimony, and gentle shepherding.
Stan Ingersol
Denominational Archivist, Church of the Nazarene

Dr Kevin Watson has given every church and pastor a gift! The gift is the reclaiming of the Wesley Class Meeting as the primary disciple growing tool. Any church willing to use this book as a guide will experience what I experienced at Christ Church United Methodist in Ft Lauderdale, Fl. I was there when
Wesley Fellowship Groups began and I had the honor to watch an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. If this is a hunger in your heart, then this book by Dr. Watson will be a “must read” for you.

Richard J. Wills, Jr., Bishop UMC (retired)

Dr. Kevin Watson’s emphasis upon renewing the Methodist movement takes a pragmatic approach. The intent of this book is to be practiced, not merely read.
Tom Harrison, Senior Pastor
Asbury United Methodist Church
Tulsa, Oklahoma

This powerful practice must be reclaimed, but not just for adults, for all ages. Do your youth pastor a favor and give him/her a copy of this deeply-rooted and thoroughly-practical book!
Jeremy W. Steele, Next Generation Minister
Christ United Methodist Church
Mobile, Alabama

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