John Wesley and the Anglicans. The Question of Methodism part 1

Continuing my posting of my comprehensive exam answers. What follows is the first part of the second question from my first comp exam on Church history. With this I finished my Church History minor.

Here’s the main part of the question I was given to answer:
Discuss the key, creative elements in the Wesleyan movement that distinguished it from the Anglican Church and show in your discussion how recent historiography has come to a more positive appraisal of eighteenth-century Anglicanism.

One benefit of understanding a more complex definition of Puritanism is that it becomes easier to see how later renewal movements had a great deal affinity with what happened in the seventeenth century. Another benefit is that instead of asserting a very sharply distinguished contrast between such renewal movements and the establishment church, there is instead an increasing understanding of a continuum of expressions and beliefs, so that these renewal movements are seen to be taken up in more fullness, elements that are present throughout the church as a whole. At some points, these renewing themes become so potent that the adherents no longer see any ability to maintain communion with the establishment church, and indeed see doing so as undermining their own pursuit of holiness.

While the late 15th and throughout the 16th centuries, the renewing movement of the Church of England was predominantly expressed through Puritanism, by the time of the 1700s fervor to Dissent had cooled. Indeed, it might even be suggested that those young, zealous children of Dissenters would show their zeal not by pressing forward in nonconformity, but by dissenting with Dissent and returning to the Church of England. Both Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna (ne Annesley), were children of Dissenting families, indeed children of key Dissenting leaders. Yet, early in life, she when she was but thirteen and he after his school days, left their family traditions to come back to what might be seen as a more pure than before Church of England.

We do not know the exact reasons they made this break, though Samuel noted that it was in part due to frustrated by the radical politics and religion of his schoolmates in a Dissenting academy. Susanna once wrote a letter describing her reasons, but this letter was burned in the Epworth fire, and she never wrote another. However, during the time she returned to the Church of England, there were a number of very active apologists for the Church, calling Dissenters back into the fold. Puritans had a bumpy road of it for a while, but their persistence in calling for reform within the Church of England, rather than separate from it, seems to have been heard.

The fires of religious opposition seemed to have cooled down by the beginning of the 18th century. There was room in the fold for increasingly distinct expressions, and while the church was certainly not fully reformed in light of the early Puritan beliefs, there was now space for a wider variety of expression, and indeed, it might be said, a stronger willingness to incorporate even divergent orthodoxies, all within the confines of an establishment liturgical and hierarchical tradition.

In Puritan studies, the big historiographic question seems to be coming to terms with what a Puritan is and how to understand the movement, in contrast to the establishment and in light of a wide variety of distinct movements that sought separation from the church. For, the 1 8th century, the question becomes a bit bigger in light of what has been traditionally understood as one of most important movements in human history.

The industrial revolution was long understood as creating a radical break from the traditionally agrarian and patriarchal/hierarchical societies that dominated human history. It is the Enlightenment in full, expressed through new forms of technology and new forms of self-understanding. In much the same way as perceptions of Puritanism, the understanding of the industrial revolution tends to be a great window into understanding the historiographic themes and fashions of any given era. For the positivists, those who sought a set of science like laws and big themes, the industrial revolution was a firm break from the past, a new stage in humanities embrace of its ultimate potential, a new step in a universal history of humanity’s persistent progress and enlightenment. That this was seemingly a unique expression in Britain and its colonies, suggested even further the ideal of Britain being the new Israel, the chosen people, somewhat religious but increasingly secularized revelation of the Puritan perception.

However, this becomes increasingly more troublesome as reductionistic approaches to history are replaced by social histories, or Marxist approaches, or more lately by complex ‘ecological’ studies.

One interesting proposal suggested that the very existence of Methodism created fertile ground for the prosperity and industrializing of Britain, as industrious self-starting behavior replaced demands upon the government to provide all changes. Methodism, it might be said, let the steam off of revolutionary fervor, helping maintain a stability in government and society while focusing the energy in directions of production and progress. Well, that theory is not as much in fashion anymore. Indeed, it became more in fashion to suggest that the radical changes were not so radical after all, that the industrial revolution was more of a figment of historical imagination than a reality experienced by the majority of people in Britain or America.

Such proposals not only suggest the lack of real change in people’s lives they also suggest a much less significant change in overall philosophy, suggesting that we make much too big of a deal about political or social philosophers of the time. They were influential in a very limited way among a very small population of educated elites, only slowly gaining influence across society, much more slowly than the term ‘revolution’, might suggest.

That may have been too far of a shift, as it seems apparent that something happened, something unique that did not happen in the same way on the continent of Europe. Economic historians have helped the discussion by noting that there really was a revolution of industry and ideas, one that was sparked through agrarian practices, carried through in a small number of very specific, yet influential, industries, and which overall can be understood as a revolution happening within the context of a mostly slow changing society.

In light of this, it might be helpful historiographically to look more specifically at the Methodist movement, in light of its earliest developments and continued themes, not as a way of giving new support for the Helevy thesis, suggesting Methodism was a source ‘or cause, but as a way of showing how Methodism was a very visible expression of the changes in British society, carrying with it both old themes even as it pushed for the embrace of new ways of living. Had he been born a century earlier, John Wesley almost certainly would have been a Puritan. Indeed, if we focus our attention on certain themes and his overall understanding of the church it is not entirely wrong to suggest that Wesley actually was a Puritan, albeit one in the mold of the earlier generations not those who were Dissenters of his day.

Wesley certainly seems to have embraced this approach, favorably quoting the sermons of his grandfather Annesley at times, and otherwise including nonconformist literature among the books he suggested all his followers read. In some respects he was on the establishment side of the Church of England in the historic conflicts, embracing an Arminianism. Yet, in other respects he was a continuing Puritan. He sought a renewal within the church that was characterized by a holistic embrace of a holy life, one that was not limited to pietistic expressions, or enthusiasms, but which insisted on a connection between a faith in God and our actions in this world. What we believed mattered in how we acted.

For Wesley, theology was not a systematic or solely intellectual enterprise, but instead, his theology derived out of his orienting concern for an expressed faith, one that might be termed as responsible grace or as a fluid balance between the holy life that is holy because of the grace that God has bestowed in salvation through Christ.

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