Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Wesley Didn't Say It

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Today, I'm joining in the Methodist blogosphere past-time of debunking John Wesley quotes. Within the last couple of years, I have seen increased used of a quote attributed to John Wesley that reads, “I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.” The problem with this quote? Wesley didn't say it.

The quote appears to come from a book entitled, How To Pray: The Best of John Wesley on Prayer, where it is attributed to Wesley. I'm not sure where the editor or compiler of this book came up with this quote, but it is false to say it came from Wesley.

First off, it should be noted that the language of this quote is very modern. This can be documented with Google Books' Ngram tool. According to the Ngram, use of the word "unleashed" doesn't start to grow until the 1900s. The phrase "authentic community" does not start to appear in the English language until the mid-1960s. And the word "empowerment" is even more recent, not catching on until the 1980s. Certainly the language doesn't fit an 18th century Britishman.

Does this quote reflect sentiments in keeping with John Wesley? Yes and no.

Certainly, Wesley did pray for a revival of holiness in his day. In an authentic quote, Wesley mused, "Q. What may we reasonably believe to be God's design in raising up the Preachers called Methodists? A. To reform the nation and, in particular, the Church; to spread scriptural holiness over the land." For Wesley, the whole point of Methodism was a revival of holiness.

As for whether Wesley expected that revival to "move forth in mission," it depends on how one understands mission. Wesley did expect that scriptural holiness would show forth in works of mercy that include caring for the poor, sick, and imprisoned in Methodists' local settings. But as Monday's post on Thomas Coke mentioned, other than his ill-fated trip to Georgia, Wesley wasn't very interested in foreign mission. He was focused on the revival of holiness in the British Isles.

Would Wesley have expected his holiness revival to "create authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions"? That's a bit harder to say, because not only is the language contemporary, some of the concepts behind it is as well. Wesley did believe that Christian fellowship, or community, was an necessary means to grow in holiness. His theology did give a significant role to the work of the Spirit in the process of sanctification. Wesley did believe that the process of sanctification, or growth in holiness, restored people to the image of God in which they had been created and allowed them to live in the way that God had created them to do before sin crippled their ability to do so.

At its best, then, this quote is mostly congruent with John Wesley's theology and interests in language that is not at all congruent with his style. Rather than use this quote, Methodists would be better off using Wesley's quote about "spead[ing] scriptural holiness" to talk about Wesley's theology and vision for early Methodism and using Thomas Coke when they want to talk about international mission and the global church.


  1. We have way to much of "If he might have said it he probably did." But that's not the worst. Worse is taking Wesley's words out of their historical context so that they appear to address our current issues. It is simply naive to believe that we can share fully the faith experience of Wesley. Faith, because it is human, is inevitably bound up in the ways one's culture shapes and limits how it feels to be faithful. And Wesley's culture was different from ours.

  2. It is, of course, anachronistic to appeal to Wesley in this way. But it confirms an approach to theology not uncommon in United Methodism at all levels--namely, to use our theological and doctrinal heritage not to inform and correct us but to buttress what we have already decided to say.