What a friend

The influence—for good and ill—of the Wesleyan tradition of faith

by Ken Sehested

Correction. In the original post of this commentary, I mistakenly attributed authorship
of "What a Friend We Have In Jesus." The correct author is Joseph M. Scriven.
That's a big goof on my part—but an instructive one, since the story behind
Scriven's writing is a dramatic and compelling narrative. I've posted
a summary at the bottom of this page.

The recent decision by the United Methodist Church policymakers to retain (and harden) its rejection of lgbtq pastors and matrimonial blessings is, for many inside and out of that confessional body, a bitter pill. The news prompted me to push everything aside and compose a pastoral note. (“A humble word of encouragement to my Wesleyan friends: On the United Methodist Church’s General Conference decision to ostracize queerfolk")

It also made me switch gears entirely for this issue of “Signs of the Times” [1 March 2019 #188], to provide some background on John Wesley’s influence in directly molding one significant stream in the Christian tradition and influencing many others.

Some 12 million people are affiliated with the United Methodist Church (UMC), the largest single body in the global Methodist community of 80 million. About two-thirds of the UMC’s members are in the US, with others from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe.

It would be hard to overstate the Wesleyan impact in shaping Protestant practice, piety, and polity, which included the impulse behind the “Great Awakening” movements of the 18th and 19th centuries in Britain and the US. Particularly so when you bring into the picture Charles Wesley, John’s brother. Charles’ hymns are omnipresent; and some would say had a greater influence in actually articulating this pietist-revivalist theological vision. A religious community’s songs are remembered and hummed in kitchens and fields and shops far more often than sermon notes or books passages.

That's the reason this issue’s music suggestions are variations (in a wide variety of musical genres) of my favorite Charles Wesley hymn, “What a Friend We Have In Jesus.”

The trouble with Charles’ hymn texts, though, is the trouble with Protestant theology in general. They almost exclusively speak of personal faith, with virtually no reference to what John Wesley described as “social holiness,” for which he used the word sanctification. References to Heaven’s claim on Earth’s domain are missing. At best, evangelical heirs of Wesley’s emphasis on “warmed-heart” conversion attempt a separate-but-equal understanding of the relations of spiritual formation and prophetic action. (In mainline Protestantism, social vision warrants a larger billing but is largely severed from spiritual formation and theological insight, excepting appeals to generic “golden rule” references.)

Faith in the manner of Jesus, I would argue, is always personal but never merely private. The missing chapter in this transition from John Wesley’s vision—in the multitude of Wesleyan and “Holiness” and, to a lesser degree, Pentecostal movements—is the account that many of these stipulated a specific commitment to pacifism on theological grounds. Wesley, and many who arose in his wake, were adamant abolitionists when it came to slavery. And many of the earliest women ministers and preachers emerged in Holiness and Pentecostal environs.

I am a partly penitent, partly affirmative offspring of the pietist-revivalist tradition (which is profoundly different from fundamentalism—but that’s another essay.) I firmly believe that persevering labor on behalf of the Beloved Community must be organically connected to the ongoing work of personal, deepened spirituality. Let me mention two short anecdotes.

First, read the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “kitchen table conversion,” first accounted in his book Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story and summarized by Lewis V. Baldwin in a CNN interview, “Martin Luther King, Jr.'s prayer life revealed.”

Second, remembered the oft-quoted aphorism of A.J. Muste, among the conspicuous leaders of 20th century faith-based nonviolent movements for justice, peace and human rights. Once a reporter asked Muste, “Do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night in front of the White House with a candle?” To which Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”

This ancient insight—that the heart, too, must be regenerated; that the mind, as well, must be decolonized—is what invigorated and sparked the fiery vision that lit John Wesley’s lamp.

There are many rivulets, streams, creeks, and rivers that flow into this body of wisdom. We urgently need immersion into that heritance.

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©ken sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org