The series continues…
Wesleyanism in the 1800s
Methodism certainly took on a life of its own in North America after Wesley himself passed on and what had been colonies of England became a nation of its own. The Methodism of the frontier became the established middle class Methodism of the Midwest. By the mid-1800s, the requirement to be part of one of Wesley’s class meetings slipped away, as did Methodism’s sharp social conscience–at least among Methodist leadership. It would not be long before Wesley’s emphasis on “Christian perfection” also slipped away from the hierarchy.
It is thus not surprising that the mid- to late eighteen hundreds saw a number of Wesleyan offshoots take form. We can debate whether they should have stayed with the parent group. Their exit surely only facilitated a kind of watering down of Wesley’s original vision. We have to respect someone like Luther Lee, who was forced from the Methodist Episcopal Church because of his opposition to slavery, yet who returned to it after the Civil War had decided the issue in the public forum. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church of today has recovered some of Wesley’s original sense of social action, ironically while many of its offshoots struggle to regain it.
In the 1800s, however, these Wesleyan splinter groups pointed to the increasing “respectability” of the mainstream Methodist tradition–and to a corresponding loss of social vision. The Wesleyan Methodist Church formed in 1843 because the Methodist Church refused to take a stand against slavery, leading Orange Scott and Luther Lee as Wesley to go outside the church to proclaim God’s word for the day. And it unfortunately would not be in a Methodist Church that the woman’s suffrage movement began (1848)–working for the right of women to vote. It would be in a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York. And Luther Lee unfortunately did not preach the first ordination service of a women in a Methodist Church (1853) but in a Congregationalist one. The Methodist Episcopal Church itself would not ordain a woman until 1956, almost a hundred years after its Wesleyan offshoots had made it a regular practice.
The Free Methodist Church formed in 1860 not only over slavery, but also because of the un-Wesley like social stratification created in the Methodist Church by renting the best pews to the highest bidder. Any number of “holiness denominations” emerged in the late 1800s and early 1900s to reclaim Wesley’s vision for the elimination of intentional sinning in the life of a believer. To be sure, the idea of entire sanctification had taken on new nuances and at times extremes. In particular, the impact of Phoebe Palmer (1807-74) modified Wesley’s ideas in some significant ways.
For example, Wesley ranged from a more optimistic expectation that a person might experience “entire sanctification” after seeking it for some time to a more pessimistic sense that only a few people relatively late in life might experience it. He also emphasized that “perfection in love” was something God dispensed in His own time. By contrast, Palmer advocated a “shorter way” that put a greater emphasis on the faith of the person seeking sanctification. Rather than focusing on God’s timing, she focused more on how much faith a person had in seeking.
Most of the Wesleyan-holiness denominations founded in this era have arguably matured in their understanding of sanctification over the last century. They have both tempered Palmer’s influence with some reclamation of Wesley’s theology and have grounded their sense of Christian righteousness on sounder exegetical ground. Chapter 3 will look at some of the ways in which today is a great time for the Wesleyan tradition in its sense of “victory” over temptation in the life of a believer…