A Substantive and Accessible Intro to the Means of Grace

One of the many highlights for me from the 2015 New Room Conference was picking up a copy of Andrew C. Thompson’s brand new book The Means of Grace: Traditioned Practice in Today’s World. The book is a substantive yet highly accessible introduction to the basic habits or practices that Wesleyans have insisted are essential for growing in Christian faith and maturity. John Wesley referred to these basic practices as means of grace.

The book begins with a chapter that defines grace and discusses its integral role in the Christian life. The book is organized according to John Wesley’s s understanding of the means of grace as instituted, prudential, and general. Thompson discusses these as what we learn from Christ (instituted), what we learn from our context (prudential), and what we learn by contemplation (general).

The book is appropriately weighted towards the instituted means of grace, those practices that are based on the teaching and example of Jesus. A full chapter is dedicated to each of the instituted means of grace: baptism, searching the Scriptures, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fasting, and fellowship (or Christian conference). Each chapter provides a strong introduction to the Biblical foundation of the particular practice, as well as its connection to Wesleyan spirituality and our daily discipleship. A particular strength of the book is Thompson’s comfort with both the theological significance of each of these practices and his ability to suggest practical ways to more fully integrate each practice into the rhythms of daily life.

Part II of the book focuses on the prudential means of grace, or what we learn from our context. A chapter is dedicated to “Classes, Bands, and Arts of Holy Living” (my favorite chapter!) and Works of Mercy. Part III focuses on the general means of grace, or what we learn by contemplation. And the book concludes with a summary of the significance of the means of grace for Christian discipleship and an exhortation to enter into a disciplined practice of this disciplined way of life. Thompson concludes by reminding us that the means of grace are intentionally ordinary practices that are “meant to be used in everyday, ordinary life. The promise that they hold for us is that they will show us the way from an ordinary to an extraordinary kind of life” (138).

Thompson is uniquely qualified to write this book because he is both a scholar and a pastor. Moreover, both his scholarship and his pastoral work focus on a thoroughly Wesleyan approach to Christian discipleship.

As a scholar, Thompson wrote his ThD dissertation on Wesley’s understanding of the means of grace at Duke Divinity School, studying with two of the giants in the field of Wesleyan/Methodist Studies, Richard P. Heitzenrater and Randy L. Maddox who have written two of the basic texts for United Methodist ordinands on the history of Methodism and John Wesley’s theology. Thompson also taught the required courses in Methodist history, doctrine, and polity at Memphis Theological Seminary for four years prior to being appointed by his bishop to one of the largest local churches in his home Annual Conference. Simply put, Andrew could not be better prepared intellectually for writing this book. And yet, Thompson also has a deep commitment to the local church and clear giftedness for local church ministry, as is evidenced by his recent transition to the senior pastorate. Thompson’s commitment to the local church and to helping laity grow in faith in Christ is clear throughout The Means of Grace.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a deeper understanding of the Wesleyan approach to Christian living. The practices this book introduces have been tried and consistently found to be used by God to draw people more and more deeply into the life that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share with each other. There is simply no more reliable path to Christian maturity.

You can get a physical copy or e-copy of The Means of Grace directly from the publisher here, or from amazon here.

[Disclaimer: Andrew Thompson is a personal friend and The Means of Grace is published by the publisher of one of my books. However, I have received no compensation for writing this review. I chose to write this review because I think this is a great book and I hope you will read it!]

“That they may be one, as we are one”


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I had the privilege of preaching in Cannon Chapel October 6, 2015. This is the manuscript I used. As with any sermon I preach, the words I speak are not verbatim from the manuscript.

“That they may be one, as we are one”
John 17: 20-26
Service of Word and Table
Candler School of Theology
October 6, 2015

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that they world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.

“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

– John 17: 20-26


You have just eavesdropped on a prayer. And it isn’t just any prayer. It is a prayer that Jesus prayed to the Father. And he prayed it to the Father immediately before his arrest and crucifixion. These are precious, moving, words. This morning, I want to ask you to be open to being moved, not only in your intellect, but also in your heart, in your feelings, those places that we are often much less comfortable forming in seminary classrooms, but which are nevertheless every bit as important for the Christian life and for leadership in Christ’s church. In anticipation of receiving God’s word deep in our souls, will you please pray with me?

The church has often struggled to maintain a balance between the values of unity and diversity that are found throughout the Christian faith. Perhaps where this is most fundamentally found in Christian theology is in the doctrine of the Trinity. God is both genuine difference: three. And God is genuine unity: 1. Three persons in one essence. The fact that the Christian understanding of who God is affirms both unity and diversity makes it all the more lamentable that Christians have so often failed to hold this delicate balance, both in thinking about who God is – and in thinking about who we are. If we had more time, we could name a host of examples of the proclamation of Christ being perverted by a drive for homogeneity that was as passionate as the desire to share Christ in love with the other. This has been expressed in the United States in its most basic and tragic form through the simple cliché that 11 o’clock on Sunday is the most segregated hour of the week. When unity is put in opposition to diversity, the gospel is always impoverished.

Unity and diversity. Both are important. I hope you hear me saying that. Because, even as I myself often struggle to preserve this tension, I am certain that it is at the heart of who God is and at the heart of the church God has called into being. I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that on Pentecost Peter and others proclaimed the gospel, not in one new language, but in the languages of the people who were present. When the Holy Spirit came, linguistic and cultural differences were not suppressed or somehow overcome. And yet, the Spirit did enable one message to be proclaimed in many languages.

And I do not believe it is a mistake or a coincidence that Revelation 7 invites us to anticipate “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’

All tribes. All peoples. All languages. Diversity.

One God. One Lamb. Unity.

For a variety of reasons, many of which are not just understandable, but commendable, but all of which are beyond the scope of what I am able to address today, so-called mainline denominations and mainline theological seminaries at present are most clearly at risk of privileging diversity in a way that undermines the unity to which we are also called. Put sharply, my worry is that at times we see unity as an inherent threat to diversity in a way that makes meaningful unity almost impossible. In my church more broadly, the United Methodist Church, I see this in the suspicion that some well meaning United Methodists have of our doctrinal standards being meaningful. Doctrine, it is feared, is either divisive or enforces a uniformity that is problematic at best. At its most extreme, I’ve seen this in a rejection of the role of the ancient Creeds in United Methodist worship, which have been seen to mark the basic boundaries of Christian orthodoxy that enable true freedom by a deep and wide section of the Body of Christ.

Today’s Scripture reading is an overwhelmingly beautiful prayer for deep and meaningful unity. This passage offers us a vision for unity that challenges us to pursue a more profound unity.

In Jesus’s prayer we see, first, that Jesus really cares about unity. He asks, repeatedly, that we would be one. “That they may all be one” “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In John’s Gospel, as Jesus prays to the Father before the crucifixion he is asking over and over again for us to be one.

Second, Jesus prays for us to be unified with each other like the Son is united with the Father. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.”

And Jesus not only prays for us to be united in a way that is like the Father and Son are united, he asks the Father that we be brought into this very unity! Let’s make this personal. Jesus asked God just before the crucifixion for you and I to be united with each other and to be brought into the perfect self-giving relationship that they have with each other.

Why? At a very deep level, this unity is intrinsically valuable. We are being ushered into God’s own life! Jesus also connects our unity with our witness and evangelistic message: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus connects our unity with our very mission to invite all people to belief in Jesus.

So how does this happen? I think it is here that good intentions have often gone astray and led to very unfortunate consequences. From this prayer, unity is not a work that we do for God. It is not something that we are asked to impose on ourselves. It is a gift to be received from Jesus and Jesus’s Father. God the Father is active in this passage, not “those who will believe” i.e., us.

How, then, you might ask, is this gift to be received? In the context of this prayer, unity is found in Christ. It is found in believing in Christ, that the Father has given this one God’s “glory.”

I am tempted to end here, without pushing too much farther, because I am a coward and because I am aware that I have blind spots, but do not know what they are. That is the really annoying thing about blind spots, isn’t it? But, I also feel led to ask a question: Could it be that we do not experience the unity that Jesus offers to us because we have grown so accustomed to looking at ourselves and at each other – and we have forgotten to look at Jesus. For a church, as for a Christian seminary, there is no hope for meaningful unity if we are not united in Christ. Could it be that were we to shift our gaze from ourselves and each other to the cross, to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, that in so doing we might be made one? Theologians have spoken of the scandal of particularity: that God was made known in the unique person of Jesus, who entered into a particular time and place, with all that comes with that. It is a scandal! But, it is also the heart of the truth of the gospel. There is no good news that Christians have to offer aside from the particularity that this one is Lord.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus of Nazareth is true God of true God, of one substance with the Father. Jesus is God in the flesh. He is worthy of our worship. And he wants to bring us into the very life of the Trinity. Into the very life of the Trinity. This invitation brings life, and life abundant, and it cannot be accepted in isolation or alientation from others. It doesn’t do away with difference, any more than God’s oneness does away with the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But it does bring profound unity. A unity we desperately need and for which a broken and hurting world is desperate.

I yearn to experience deep and meaningful unity with brothers and sisters in Christ who are different than me. And I yearn to experience a deeper unity with the Triune God. In that way, I suppose, I’m a good Wesleyan. It seems that we Wesleyans are always impatient to wait on the deepest promises of the gospel, daring to hope and expect that those very promises are made good already in the resurrection of Jesus and can be experienced in the here and now, not only in some distant unknown future. Surely if we can dare to believe that those who are in Christ can experience entire sanctification, as Wesley’s heirs profess, then we can dare to believe that by the work of Jesus we can be brought into a perfect unity, even as we are not the same. This is not only for Wesleyans! I invite you to believe with me that God wants to answer Jesus’s prayer for us to be made one now.

It is also not something we are able to do for ourselves. But Jesus is able. And Jesus is willing.

Come Lord Jesus! Make us one. Make us one with each other. Make us one with you. Make us one with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. May it be so. Amen.

Doctrine, Practice, and Unity in The UMC #andcanitbe

A conversation from a few years back has been on my mind today. This conversation began on twitter a few years ago (hence the hashtag) when many Methodists began talking about a desire to see renewed interest in Wesleyan approaches to Christianity. The conversation has been mostly dormant for awhile.

The last post I wrote specifically contributing to the #andcanitbe conversation discussed my hopes for the conversation. I hoped:

  1. To see God show up in amazing ways, to see broken and hurting peoples’ lives changed by the amazing grace of God.
  2. To see an articulation of the gospel in a particularly Wesleyan accent with clarity and conviction for a broader audience.
  3. To have the conversation be focused on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not on ourselves.
  4. To see the Holy Spirit bring together a variety of voices from miraculously different backgrounds, who feel a common leading to articulate a message that is theologically in harmony and not cacophonous.

I am thinking about this conversation today, hoping to see new interest in it. I still desire a sustained conversation about a visible and coherent Wesleyan voice. Over the past few weeks, several posts were written exploring the ongoing value of the Creeds for those in the Wesleyan tradition. (Click here for my contribution, which has links to many posts written by others.)

One of the challenges that is raised when Methodists express an interest in doctrine and the Creeds is that they are inevitably exclusive. The concern is that once you set boundaries for things that people must believe, a boundary is drawn that can be used to force people out of the community. I think this is a legitimate concern. I do not, however, think that this has been the besetting sin of United Methodism. If the extremes regarding doctrine are doctrinal indifference or doctrinal rigidity, the UMC veers much farther towards doctrinal indifference in practice than it does toward a harsh and exclusive use of doctrine.

Moreover, doctrinal indifference is ultimately a greater threat to the Christian faith than is doctrinal rigidity. Unity (sharing a common faith) is literally impossible without doctrine. The gospel cannot be passed down from generation to generation without some basic agreement on who God is, what the gospel is, what the salvation is that is found in Jesus Christ, etc.

Another concern that is expressed when United Methodists are seen to be too passionate about doctrine is that doctrine distracts from the more important task of living our faith. This concern, it seems to me, is ultimately incoherent. What faith are we living out? How should we live it out? Questions like these are inevitably answered based on beliefs. The best understanding of the relationship between right thinking (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxy) is that they are related and dependent on each other. I cannot live the kind of life I am called to live as a follower of Jesus Christ without doctrine. And these very beliefs are not only intellectual ideas divorced from action, they are beliefs that compel the one who holds them to act.

Morally indifferent Christians don’t need to be freed from theology – they need better theology.

United Methodism is desperate for clarity about what we believe and how it informs the way we live. A very helpful initial step was the publication of Key United Methodist Beliefs. Unity for Methodists should be found in both doctrine and practice as both are essential for any people who take on the name Methodist.

One of the ways that United Methodists are united around doctrine is in our doctrinal standards. What if the UMC gave serious attention to our doctrinal standards, seeing them as helpful to formation and not to be feared? What if instead of keeping them at bay, we focused on what we can affirm and how we can be formed by them?

I still desire a sustained conversation about Methodist beliefs. What do you think would be the best way forward?

John Wesley on the Creeds

Occasionally I will see someone argue passionately that United Methodism is not a creedal church. The energy behind this argument has always surprised me, as I’ve tended to see the Creeds as unifying, not just among Methodists but even more broadly among much broader sections of the Body of Christ. The argument that United Methodism is not a creedal church is usually based on John Wesley’s omission of Article VIII “Of the Three Creeds” in his revision of the Anglican Articles of Religion for the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.

I have been heartened to see in the past week a number of posts discussing the positive role of the Creeds for United Methodism. David Watson started by asking whether John Wesley’s faith was a creedal faith? Joel L. Watts then wrote a post on the Wesleys living by the Creeds, and added to it here and here. Andrew Thompson discussed Wesley’s view of the Creeds in conversation with his understanding of the Trinity. Drew McIntyre suggests that it is good news that Christians do not have to work out everything we believe for ourselves. And Steve Rankin argued that the Pietist concern for a lived faith was not in contrast to a concern for orthodoxy, rather it was a concern that orthodox faith be experienced and lived.

The conversation online has prompted me to spend a bit more time looking into what has been said about Wesley’s omission of Article VIII.

The first thing to be said is that there seems to be consensus among Wesleyan/Methodist scholars that Wesley would have affirmed the doctrinal core of the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. At a basic level, Wesley was creedal because he was a Christian. And, more specifically, he was creedal because he was Anglican.

So why did he omit Article VIII? In United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center, Scott Jones (now a bishop in The UMC) pointed to three possible explanations for the various Articles Wesley omitted. 1) He may have disagreed with part of the Article. 2) He may have thought the statement was important but could have been better stated. 3) He may have thought the content was unnecessarily repetitive, and so did not need to be included – though he agreed with the content. Jones argued that “Wesley’s removal of the article ‘Of the Creeds’ could indicate any of these three reasons. Without clear evidence, it is impossible to say why he removed the articles he did or made the changes he made” (48).

While there is not a clear answer as to why Wesley removed the Article on the Creeds from the Anglican Articles of Religion, it is equally clear that Wesley did not entirely reject the Creeds, or their use in worship. He included the Apostles’ Creed in the Sunday Service and in the liturgy for baptism, which were sent to American Methodists at the same time that he sent the newly revised Articles of Religion.

The best piece I have seen to date on Methodism and its relationship with the Creeds is a piece written by Geoffrey Wainwright, who is now emeritus professor of Christian theology at Duke Divinity School, titled “Methodism and the Apostolic Faith.” The chapter is in Methodists in Dialog. Wainwright considered the World Council of Churches and its study on the Apostolic Faith. He argued that the Apostolic Faith study is “marked by four characteristics that need to be restamped on contemporary Methodism. The study is: (a) creedal; (b) Trinitarian; (c) ecumenical; (d) homological, that is, in the service of confessing the faith.” (189)

Regarding the creeds and Methodism, Wainwright argues:

As Methodists, we need to recover our creedal inheritance… It is true that Wesley omitted Article VIII (“Of the Three Creeds”) in his selection of the Anglican Articles for American Methodism (we know that he particularly disliked the damnatory clauses of the so-called Athanasian Creed), and that he removed NC [the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed] in his abridgement of the Prayer Book communion order in The Sunday Service. He had, however, no quarrel with the substance of the NC, as we shall see; and he retained the Apostles’ Creed in his American service book. The ‘inheritance of the apostolic faith’ and ‘the fundamental principles of the historic creeds’ are part of the constitutional basis of the British Methodist Church. The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds figure in the current liturgical books of Methodism on both sides of the Atlantic and in many other parts of the world. We should make better use of them, both in the recitation of them, as a ‘performative act’ of our faith, and in the evangelistic and catechetical tasks of explicating the faith. (191)

Later in the essay Wainwright counters the assertion that orthodoxy was unimportant to Wesley:

Apart from a few ill-formulated sentences scattered in his writings, Wesley did not minimize orthodoxy of belief. When he writes, for instance, that ‘orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best a slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part at all,’ it must be remembered, first, that Wesley was prepared to ‘think and let think’ only in those matters of theological ‘opinion’ that did not ‘strike at the root of Christianity’; and second, that orthodoxy in the stricter sense of doctrine was, for Wesley, not so much unnecessary as insufficient – if it was not believed, experienced, and lived. (195)

I have to admit that as a scholar, it is a bit discouraging to see that someone of Geoffrey Wainwright’s expertise and renown addressed one of the persistent myths among some Methodists so carefully and with such precision – and yet, the myth has continued. Wesley did believe that orthodoxy was essential. He just did not believe that it was sufficient.

If we were somehow able to interview John Wesley and he understood the temporary theological context of United Methodism, I think he would eagerly identify himself as a creedal Christian. Wesley gave authority to the earliest centuries of Christianity in a way he did not give to later centuries. He would not have intentionally rejected the very statements that would most clearly connect him to the early Church and its faith.

I am committed to basic orthodoxy, as expressed with particular precision in the Creeds, because it is unifying and because beliefs inform actions. I care about orthodoxy because it is necessary for orthopraxy.

Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church

I’m reading through the essays in Doctrine and Theology in The United Methodist Church (Kingswood, 1991). I have been interested to read several serious critiques of the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” by various theologians at United Methodist seminaries, which show how much they valued the role of solid doctrine in the church, even if they did not always agree on what constituted good doctrine.

I don’t have time at the moment to develop this into a full post. But I did want to take the time to share several powerful quotations from a few essays originally published in 1974 and 1975. Many of the problems identified with the 1972 statement appear to be ongoing issues of concern for United Methodist doctrine.

The first quotation is from Leroy T. Howe, who taught practical theology at Perkins School of Theology, on the way in which the quadrilateral seems to him to be “infinitely permissive”:

Finally, though not indifferentist by intent, in practice the quadrilateral seems to be infinitely permissive. It is difficult to conceive of even a single serious theological proposal which, upon application of the four guidelines, one could exclude unambiguously from consideration as beyond the range of permissible utterance within the Christian community. By arbitrarily defining the degree of force one or another guideline is to have in a particular discussion, one could establish almost any belief as Christian. (56)

The next quotation is from Schubert M. Ogden, who was a theologian at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, on the need for doctrinal standards:

The mission to which the Christian church is called ineluctably implies the obligation of self-discipline in all aspects of its life and witness, including the doctrine disseminated by its preaching and teaching. A sign in the world of God’s universal salvation which is not as clear and transparent as human frailty allows is not the visible church of Jesus Christ – just as salt which has lost its savor is ‘no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men’ (Matt. 5:13). Contrary to what one might assume from the prevalent conception of the church, the point of putting a pinch of salt in a dish is not to turn the whole dish into salt, but so to permeate the dish with its savor as to make the dish itself tasty to eat. But, then, the salt is of no use without its saltiness – any more than the church is of any use to the world it is sent to serve without that sound doctrine which the establishment of doctrinal standards and their responsible enforcement throughout the church alone make possible. ‘You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its savor, how shall its saltiness be restored?’ (51)

The final quotation is from Robert E. Cushman, who taught systematic theology at Duke Divinity School, on whether the “Liturgy and the Creed” have been sufficient for Christian piety:

The fourth postulate functions as the conclusion of the series. It first appeared and offered itself as a judgment of alleged historical fact, viz., that the Methodist fathers ‘declined to adopt the classical forms of the confessional principle.’ It now appears in the succession of scantily supported theological postulates as the conclusion: ‘No creed or doctrinal summary can adequately serve the needs and intentions of United Methodists in confessing their faith or in celebrating their Christian experience’ (p. 79). This is, indeed, far-reaching in import and amply supplies the rationale for the view that our doctrinal standards are merely landmark documents. It also appropriately justifies the exordium, viz. ‘The United Methodist Church expects all its members to accept the challenge of responsible theological reflection.’ If there is no finally reliable past in standards, perhaps hope may yet make a future! So be it, but the concluding postulate, standing as an unsupported ipse dixit, smacks rather more of academic sophistication than of the living piety of generations of Christians who have found in the venerable language of the Liturgy and the Creed more than enough light to illumine their darkness, indeed more than they used. (72)

This collection of essays reminds me of the importance of doctrine for the life of any Christian group. It also reminds me of the ongoing need the church has for women and men who have been called by God to serve the church through scholarship that forms the next generation of pastors and provides thought leadership for the contemporary church. This is not a new book, but it is one that is worth reading (or rereading), as it has ongoing relevance for United Methodism.

Free Books!

Today is Seedbed’s birthday. To celebrate, digital downloads of all of Seedbed’s books are free today only. This includes my book The Class Meeting: Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience. Get it here. I would also highly recommend picking up Howard Snyder’s classic The Radical Wesley, which you can get here.

Happy Birthday, Seedbed!

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.


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