John Wesley, Americans, and Sectual Experimentation

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of Methodism
“Sorry, but you’re not getting back child support, you lazy, evil, treasonous American brats.”

Recently, I posted something on John Wesley’s views of the Creeds (Dr. Watson has since posted something as well). A commentator there (go there) asked a question as to why Wesley gave us (the original Methodists, rather) a shortened version of the Articles of Faith. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll see a recent conversation there as well.

I have some speculations I’ll share after this, however. In digging through Wesley’s works (via Logos), I came across a few statements on us Americans I thought I’d share.

– 1738, 6th Savannah Journal

Now there is no possible way to put out this flame, or hinder its rising higher and higher, but to show that the Americans are not used either cruelly or unjustly; that they are not injured at all, seeing they are not contending for liberty (this they had, even in its full extent both civil and religious); neither for any legal privileges, for they enjoy all that their charters grant. But what they contend for is the illegal privilege of being exempt from parliamentary taxation—a privilege this, which no charter ever gave to any American colony yet; which no charter can give, unless it be confirmed both by King, Lords, and Commons; which, in fact, our colonies never had, which they never claimed till the present reign; and probably they would not have claimed it now, had they not been incited thereto by letters from England. One of these was read, according to the desire of the writer, not only at the Continental Congress, but likewise in many congregations throughout the Combined Provinces. It advised them to seize upon all the King’s officers; and exhorted them, ‘Stand valiantly, only for six months, and in that time there will be such commotions in England that you may have your own terms.’ — Letter written to a local paper before the War.

I think he thinks the Founding Fathers illegal in their actions, traitors, and easily led into revolution. Perhaps he has a grudge here. In his Calm Address to the American Colonies, he calls us “dupes,” lead about by “designing men!” It is entirely arguable Wesley viewed “American liberty” as dangerous to the world, if not specifically the Church. He writes in 1776,

I began an answer to that dangerous tract. Dr. Price’s Observations upon Liberty, which, if practised, would overturn all government and bring in universal anarchy.

During the midst of the war (journals 1776–79), Wesley calls the Revolution an “evil fire” and Americans murderers.

In several of the letters mentioned above, he calls attention to the utter hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers claiming enslavement when the “Negro” (his word) “faints under the load.” He lays it out and I’ll paraphrase: “You have all the liberty you want, and claim slavery; the Negro (his word) is enslaved and you say he is free.”

Shortly before the war (1775), Wesley was to write to an Irish nobleman,

all my prejudices are against the Americans. For I am a High Churchman, the son of a High Churchman, bred up from my childhood in the highest notions of passive obedience and non-resistance. And yet in spite of all my rooted prejudice, I cannot avoid thinking (if I think at all) that an oppressed people asked for nothing more than their legal rights; and that in the most modest and inoffensive manner which the nature of the thing would allow.

In the letter giving joint-superintendency to Dr. Coke and Mr. Asbury, Wesley writes,

…The English Government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical, any more than over the States of Holland…But no one either exercises or claims any ecclesiastical authority at all. In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these States desire my advice; and in compliance with their desire, I have drawn up a little sketch…but because I was determined as little as possible to violate the established order of the national Church to which I belonged.

But the case is widely different between England and North America. Here there are Bishops who have a legal jurisdiction: In America there are none, neither any parish Ministers. So that for some hundred miles together, there is none, either to baptize, or to administer the Lord’s supper. Here, therefore, my scruples are at an end; and I conceive myself at full liberty, as I violate no order, and invade no man’s right, by appointing and sending labourers into the harvest.

Even after the war, he does not think highly of Americans, as he says in Sermon 131,

Thus have we observed each of these wheels apart;—on the one hand, trade, wealth, pride, luxury, sloth, and wantonness spreading far and wide, through the American provinces; on the other, the spirit of independency diffusing itself from north to south.

Here are my speculations, drawn from above.

John Wesley was, at his heart, an Englishman — that being, a devout Christian who believed the Anglican Church as the “best national church” so instituted by God among humans along side the monarchy. He was, admittedly, prejudiced against the Americans — for their sins, their wealth, but most of all, their treason. I think this speaks well to his view of schism, my friends — if you can hear what I am saying. However, Wesley was at times a pragmatist. He knew that the national church was only a national church (something Welby and others should note) and thus could not be said to exist in the United States. He did not begin a church, nor in appointing Coke and Asbury see it as such. Rather, he appointed those would could carry the Gospel outside the national church and the rightful episcopal jurisdictions — the same jurisdictions properly propping up proper doctrine.

Was his 25 Articles, Sunday Service, and Minutes all quickly done? No. Between 1770 and 1775, a plan was being developed for an interdependent Methodist Church.

I would submit that the shrinking of the Articles of Religion and certain other things Wesley did was for one purpose, to send

Methodist preachers… to preach the doctrine of grace against the Socinians—the doctrine of justice against the Calvinists—and the doctrine of holiness against all the world.

He would never leave the Church of England, and I highly suspect his compromise in allowing Americans to have a superintendency was more out of sacramental charity — however, he and some of his contemporaries (disciples, really) were already working on a plan to submit to the Archbishop of Canterbury to allow the Methodist societies some official recognition. This is found in the letters between J. Fletcher and Benson. If you look at the plan you will some, I believe, similarities between the Benson-Fletcher plan and that of early Methodism. I am not the first to see it.

Thus, now we know why Wesley “reformed” the 39 Articles of Religion, because he sought to remove the “specks of Pelagian, Calvinian, and Popish dirt” that had seeped into the English Church. Does this mean those he deleted certain things because they were of “specks of Pelagian, Calvinian, and Popish dirt?” Hardly. I would say some of this is because of “unevangelical” rubrics.

I maintain his reformation of the Articles was meant to guide the (would-be) Methodist Church of England (MCE; a daughter Church, existing within and under the ultimate authority of the Archbishop) as an evangelical and non-Calvinist reforming influence. He would have the MCE doctrinally in line with Christian Tradition, saying the Creeds, working towards that end by without the intervening centuries of bureaucracy.

Admittedly, this does nothing for creeds as doctrinal standards — even though the Sermons (UMC doctrinal standards) are Nicene in theology as are Wesley’s notes on the Bible. Further, the Articles presuppose a Chalcedonian creed. Further, if we are to be guided by Tradition (as is the supposed case of our Theological Task) then we can find the Creeds there.

To Summarize:

  • John Wesley could not see Methodism existing outside the Church of England
  • He was already working on a plan (As early as 1775) to create a church within the Church of England to allow for some flexibility in reaching beyond English shores, unencumbered with patina he considered unAnglican, if not unChristian.
  • He did not see the American Revolution’s result as anything but an evil fire having finished the house, so now a new house had to be built. He simply moved the plan he was working on into the American hands. I suspect he may have done this, washing his hands of it, as a way to move his English plan along. I think our father cared very little for us and just used us as an experiment.
  • The reformed Articles was his ultimate goal for his MCE, but one has to note that the reformed Articles would continue to exist under the 39 Articles, with the reformed articles existing as a focusing agent and to be used to sure up alliances as well as a way to preach against the above mentioned heresies.

Finally, let me better summarize. Wesley cared little for Americans and less so because of treason (his view). He loved the Church of England could not imagine a world without it. He knew something had to be done for his children in the United States, so he gave them the bare minimum that would further the Gospel but keep them from becoming a separate Church.


PS, really means nothing for us today except to explain why the people called Methodists in the United States exist as a fatherless ship. We were orphaned. 

Andrew Thompson has a few suggestions on deletion of the Creeds from the Articles.

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12 Replies to “John Wesley, Americans, and Sectual Experimentation”

  1. Joel,

    Wesley’s original position was in favor of freedom for the colonies. He even wrote a letter to the British gov’t stating as much. The letter wasn’t rediscovered until the 1840s or so. He changed his mind after reading a tract, which he then commandeered almost wholesale and republished as “Calm Address to the American Colonies.”

    As for leaving the Church of England, they were debating that for years in the annual conferences. They came to the conclusion that it was “legal, but not expedient” each time. I suspect it was more Charles than John who was the biggest proponent of remaining in the the CoE. Charles was far more the CoE guy than John.


    1. James, normally I’d agree — but Wesley recanted. He said he thought they wanted legal rights, which he discovered they already had! And yes, I suspect Charles was the main staying power, but we do have Wesley’s words of intent to always be an Anglican (even while making a plan to leave but stay but leave but really stay)

  2. “I think our father cared very little for us and just used us as an experiment.”
    “people called Methodists in the United States exist as a fatherless ship. We were orphaned.”

    I think this sums it up better, in your words,
    “Really means nothing for us today”…

    John Wesley had so much love problems both in the U.S. And in England, that “founder” may be a proper term, but “father” or “husband” as terms describing him is a little dubious. I think anything relating to his image of the U.S. Is tainted by his “love” problems.

  3. Even if Wesley was correct is his assessment of the American Revolution, he only proved there is no reward for being right.

  4. joel,

    Again, I really appreciate your exploration of these things. It’s good to see them in “live conversation” again, and not just buried away in dusty books or reduced to 1s and 0s on a CD ROM.

    Whether Mr Wesley had been working all along to create something of an MCE, the fact remains when he actually delivered his edited versions of English Articles and ritual to the Americans, he did it precisely (and only) when he also “set them free” to be a separate church, separated entirely from the Church of England. He may have over-estimated the degree to which this meant they’d also be separated from him, if he thought his lieutenants, Coke (who was barely here) and Asbury (who really ran the place) would remain fully subject to his direction.

    So I’m not sure I understand your contention that he gave them the bare minimum to keep them from becoming a separate church.

    Could you say a bit more about that?

    And more particularly, how the omission of the Article on the Creeds (Article 8 of the 39) or the elimination of the Nicene Creed entirely from the ritual he provided (removing it from the Eucharistic rite) as well the Athanasian Creed (which had appeared after the daily offices and before the Litany, both of which he retained), would in any way contribute to either a) preventing separation (as I think you’re trying to contend) or b) providing a bare minimum in terms of doctrinal and ritual standards?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong about Wesley believing he had provided a sufficient (if bare) minimum foundation in so removing the creeds from what would be the MEC (as opposed to the MCE). But if that was his intent, I’d say either I don’t understand the logic (the Nicene Creed is and had been for 14 centuries at the time pretty basic to any proper doctrinal foundation) or that we now can say with some confidence that he was either overly optimistic or just plain wrong to think a proper and lasting doctrinal foundation could be laid, even if embedded with Nicene ideas, without the Nicene creed as both a doctrinal standard and a ritual element in regular use.

    1. Taylor, in complaining about the state of the Americans, he noted that they lacked proper episcopal jurisdictions. I would us ehtis, and that entire letter, to suggest he could not foresee a separate church without those jurisdictions. He was an episcopal, even if reformed, polity guy — so he did not appoint a Bishop. Further, I think his letter to Asbury chiding him to remind him not to overstep his bounds, and that he (John) was our father is likewise proof he meant us to be connected to the CoE via him.

      Again, I do not think Wesley could see a separate body, but could see one united to him and through him the CoE.

      I think the Fletcher-Benson correspondence should be examined further in light of this and to find some better footing for the reformed Articles. I have some suspicions, but I need to find more before I am ready to stick to them. Right now, i think he used the abbreviated Articles for a reason — to focus the preaching on the three things he saw as wrong with the CoE.

      But… I may have more to say on this later.

  5. I am not sure I understand how one could interpret John Wesley as thinking he was not ensuring the complete separation of American Methodists from the Church of England. I do not know how to interpret this line from his letter “To Our Brethren in America” (September 10, 1784) other than to say he intended actually to keep the American Methodists separate from CoE rule both now and thereafter:

    “As our American brethren are now totally disentangled both from the State and from the English hierarchy, we dare not entangle them again either with the one or the other.”

    Now, I do think he saw himself in line with CoE regulations and sort of “general” Christian ecclesiology (at least via Peter King’s reading) in doing what he did. But what he says he was doing was, in effect, recognizing reality– that neither the King nor the CoE itself had any remaining sway in the former sub-Canadian American colonies. JW framed his work as that, in effect, of a missionary bishop sending others to organize the Methodist mission in a “foreign” territory.

    In a way, yes, he could claim he was not “making a separation” but rather acting in response to a separation that had actually and apparently irreversibly occurred.

    But only partly.

    I would argue that John Wesley really created more than acknowledged such separation. And it wasn’t the superintendents and elders he made that did this. It was the ritual. Methodists prior to this point had been a para-congregational movement, relying on Anglican (or other) congregations for Lord’s Day worship and other forms of “parish” life, but on themselves for processes to call others to discipleship and enhance their own growth in holiness of heart and life.

    A word about that parenthetical phrase “or other.” It was not necessary to be an Anglican or attend an Anglican parish to be a Methodist. It was pretty normal, but not required. One could be a Baptist, a dissenter of some other variety, even a Presbyterian and still be a Methodist in good standing– provided one did not try to teach against predestination or the (automatic via predestined election) perseverance of the saints. Doing that could get you booted.

    Given that reality, there was nothing that had actually changed on the American front, even with the lack of leadership or collapse of many former CoE parishes over there, that required Mr Wesley to have said “go and conduct your own Sunday morning services and create your own parishes from now on.” He COULD have simply underlined the long-held policy that Methodists needed to be part of a congregation of SOME kind as well as active participants in the class meetings and the society meetings and events. Such a move would actually have been compatible with recognizing reality rather than, in effect, creating a new reality for American Methodists.

    But, by Mr Wesley’s fiat expressed in this letter with the ritual attached he didn’t do that. Instead, he in effect said from now on American Methodists would quit attending Anglican parishes (OR any others) on Sunday morning, and instead hold their own Sunday morning worship services and take on the responsibilities of parish life for themselves.

    THAT kind of separation had not occurred before. This letter and its attachments created that. And THAT separation was, and remains, profound, indeed.

    I’m not at all saying Mr Wesley was necessarily wrong in creating this separation. But I am saying he did create a real separation with this letter (and especially with the Sunday Service), and, indeed, that he very much seems to have intended to do so.

    1. Because I have to see that line with this one from 1788, in the letter to Asbury – “I am under God the father of the whole family”

      Or this one from 1788, in another letter to Whatcoat: ” It is truly probable the disavowing me will, as soon as my head is laid, occasion a total breach between the English and American Methodists.”

      I still argue he did not intend for a total separation, seeing it arise, was at the very least thinking of ways to prevent the “total breach”

      1. Joel,

        I would see those letters as being of a piece with his 1784 letter. The first reflects his understanding of his role as a presbyter-episcopos in the “church general” per Peter King. The second reflects the fact that he had severed American Methodists from the CoE, though perhaps not intending (in his mind at least) to have done so from other Methodists. He appears to have viewed himself and his leadership (or perhaps the leadership of another he would name as steward of the whole connection) as the needful link between the two.

        I think it’s quite clear in the letters in declaring the American Methodists set free from CoE rule he was not at the same time thinking he was setting them free from himself. Rather, he was providing for them as their “de facto presbyter-bishop” (again, per Peter King), and he expected Coke, Asbury, Whatcoat and Vasey (and their successors) to continue to recognize and defer to his more or less “fatherly rule” over them. I think this in part accounts for the furious tone of his letter decrying the use of the term “bishop” by Coke and Asbury, a title “himself” never gave them nor intended to give them. What Mr Wesley may have wanted, Mr Wesley did not get.

        I’d suggest the letter to Whatcoat may suggest Mr Wesley had come to realize he had “misunderestimated” the independent streak that tended to befall good Englishmen– even those he had hand-picked, cultivated and ordained– once settled on or connected to these shores.

        1. Nevertheless, the fact that he sought to remain with the CoE and to have the AmMeth remain with him cannot allow me to think he wanted to complete separation, or rather could foresee such a complete separation. I’m not sure he wanted a complete break with the CoE either, but simply could not see a way to allow the maintenance of the CoE’s jurisdictional polity.

          In the end, I do not think Wesley know what he was doing nor how to stop people from doing what he didn’t want them to do.

          1. “In the end, I do not think Wesley know what he was doing nor how to stop people from doing what he didn’t want them to do”

            On that point we fully agree, Joel.

            I think Mr Wesley saw himself as both a “Church of England man” subject to its discipline AND a “presbyter-at-large in Christ’s holy Church” by virtue of his ordination. It was in the latter capacity, as presbyter-at-large in the whole Church, that Mr Wesley felt he could legitimately act to separate Methodists from CoE Anglicans (and any future jurisdiction they might try to claim over Methodists) in America. Certainly, the CoE nowhere authorized or made any provision for Peter King’s understanding of the nature of the episcopacy within its own canons.

            So it’s quite conceivable that Mr Wesley could have expected Methodists, wherever they were, to be able to be attached to him (as presbyter-at-large) WITHOUT that necessarily entangling them in CoE hierarchy or claims. Indeed, I would argue that was, in fact, always the case with the Methodists, particularly given that one didn’t have be part of the CoE to be a Methodist or become one of its leaders. Ultimately, you just had to be member in good standing and a certifiable leader within the system the Wesleys built. So the attachment was always to the Wesleys, and not directly or thereby to the CoE.

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