Wesley’s Sermons as Doctrine

I recently ran across this excellent article on John Wesley’s Sermons and Methodist Doctrine from Dr. Cindy Wesley. Dr. Wesley compares the doctrinal function of John Wesley’s sermons with the that of the Book of Homilies in the Church of England in 18th century England. Sermons were the English way of “doing theology”.

Dr. Wesley writes:

Systematic theology was a continental tradition evident in Catholic and Protestant Scholasticism. It was not the methodology of eighteenth-century Church of England ‘divines’. Their sources were rooted in the pastoral and communal traditions of Christianity, and particularly the Church of England as it emerged after the Elizabethan settlement and re-emerged after the Restoration. For an Oxford-educated, High Church cleric like Wesley, Scripture, Patristic writings, the Thirty Nine articles, the Book of Homilies, the liturgies of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Church’s hymnody were taken as authoritative sources for theological reflection. Added to these was the substantial list of works that he would eventually publish as part of his Christian library, including the spiritual writings of Thomas à Kempis, Richard Baxter, William Law, and Jeremy Taylor. John Wesley’s particular way of engaging with and synthesising these sources in order to communicate the message of salvation to the average person made him, in the view of Albert Outler, a ‘folk theologian’. Sermons, whether oral or written, were his primary means of communicating his reflections on this living Christian tradition. … Turning to the sermon as a genre for general communication of doctrine was part of his Church of England background.

The Book of Homilies was produced by the Church of England in the 16th century during the English Reformation, originally at the direction of Thomas Cranmer, author of the first Book of Common Prayer. The Homilies consist of 33 long sermons in simple language. They had two purposes: 1) to teach the basics of Protestant theology to the laity and encourage them to practice Reformed religion and 2) to assist clergy, some of whom had little education and little experience preaching. Less educated clergy were to read the sermons verbatim; clergy with advanced degrees in theology were allowed to use their own words, but they were expected to follow the pattern of doctrine and practice found in the Homilies.

The use of the Homilies persisted into the 18th century. John Wesley knew them, used them and republished them in an abridged format for his followers.

John Wesley published his own Sermons on Several Occasions in four volumes between 1746 and 1760. The collection consisted of 44 sermons that were probably never preached in their published form on any occasion. Wesley’s delivered sermons were largely extemporaneous and passionate. The published sermons are “his careful, thoughtful reflection and distillation of the doctrines he wished to communicate.” Although he intended them to be “plain truth for plain people,” they also reflect Wesley’s classical education and voracious appetite for knowledge. All indications are that Wesley intended these sermons to have the same doctrinal function as the Book of Homilies, establishing the standard teaching of the Methodist movement. Again, Dr. Wesley writes:

Wesley’s publication of a set of standard sermons served similar purposes for the Methodist people as had both the Edwardian and Elizabethan editions of the Book of Homilies. Wesley did not decree that Methodist preachers must read his sermons aloud in Methodist meetings or in their outdoor preaching. He was not necessarily proscriptive in that sense, though he did not hesitate to suggest that they read some part of his sermons to their listeners. The sermons provided a pattern for what doctrine Methodists should preach, especially with regard to salvation. The publication of the first volume of sermons dovetailed with the growing use of untrained lay assistants in the Methodist movement.

I had never associated Wesley’s standard sermons with the Anglican Book of Homilies as a means of establishing theological standards, but now it seems obvious.