Wesley’s Calendar Had no Lent

Back in 2014, Taylor Burton-Edwards wrote an interesting article about John Wesley’s rejection of the season of Lent. In the prayer book Wesley adapted from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer for use among American Methodists, he changed the names of the Sundays in Lent to Sundays after Christmas. Palm Sunday became “the Sunday next before Easter.” Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were completely omitted. The only thing Wesley had to say by way of explanation was this:

Most of the holy-days (so-called) are omitted, as at present answering no valuable end.

Burton-Edwards conjectures, and this makes sense to me, that the disciplined Wesleyan way already contained elements of Lent as permanent practices. The General Rules required fasting and deeds of mercy. The bands practiced confession, forgiveness and prayer. Love feasts featured testimonies of lives changed through Christ. Watch nights and covenant renewal services focused on honest self-examination and renewed commitment. He summarizes his point with this:

In short, nearly everything that Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday were thought to do or promote was in fact being accomplished by other means by Methodists on a much more regular and frequent basis, not as a bracketed off ‘special time’ of 40 or so days in the year, but deeply woven into the fabric of their lives throughout the whole year.

These practices are largely absent in the United Methodist Church. If they exist by name, they are vastly different than practiced in 18th century Methodism.

At present, then, we live in a United Methodist context generally devoid of the complementary practices that accomplished everything Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday were created for.

Left unsaid is the implication that our church is no longer producing in its members the intended effects of either Lent or Wesleyan Methodism.

Burton-Edwards thinks Wesley may have underestimated the importance of Lent, even for early Methodists. He points out that the General Rules also required society members to attend worship. In England in 1784 that generally meant Anglican worship.

So perhaps John Wesley over-estimated the value and staying power of the Methodist practices apart from the mutual reinforcement they may have received because most early Methodists were also keeping Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday with their fellow Anglicans.

He closes with this observation:

So at present, perhaps we United Methodists may find ourselves actually needing Lent, Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday again so the valuable ends they were created for have some way of taking root in our lives. And perhaps, at present, we may also become more diligent about developing such complementary practices, as did our early Methodist forebears, that, if not making Lent, Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday answer “no valuable end,” will at least similarly and more richly extend the valuable ends of these days and seasons into daily discipleship and growth in holiness of heart and life.

Wesley on Love and Godliness

All you need is love. That’s what the Beatles sang in 1967, and that’s what many people seem to believe. Love was also a major theme of John Wesley’s preaching in 18th century England, but Wesley would disagree with the Beatles. That’s not all John Wesley thought God required; that’s not how he read his Bible.

To be sure, love is what distinguishes the altogether Christian from the almost Christian. Love is an essential element of true Christianity; it’s not the optional icing on the cake. In Wesley’s view, however, love does not replace or supersede the requirements of common decency or the law of God; it crowns them with God’s glory.

I’ve been living this week with the text of Wesley’s sermon, The Almost Christian. In Wesley’s view, you aren’t really what God wants you to be as a Christian until you love him with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself – and are filled with genuine faith. That doesn’t mean that Christians are free to ignore God’s behavioral requirements in the name of love.

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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”.

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Wesley on Visiting the Sick

A Means of Grace

In his sermon On Visiting the Sick, John Wesley begins by calling his readers to look upon the act as a means of grace.

He explains that the means of grace “are the ordinary channels which convey the grace of God to the souls of men.” They include works of piety, such as hearing and reading the Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, and fasting. And they include works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, relieving the stranger, and visiting those who are sick or in prison. Here, Wesley follows Jesus’ Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46.

That just sounds like a sweet thought until one realizes exactly what Wesley is saying. The means of grace are not add-ons to the Christian faith that earn you brownie points in heaven or offer you a richer spiritual experience on earth. The means of grace are not optional.

The walking herein is essentially necessary, as to the continuance of that faith whereby we are already saved by grace, so to the attainment of everlasting salvation.

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Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All

John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of the end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.

As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.

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