Wesleyanism in the 1800s cont.

For the last bread crumb, see here.
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So these offshoots of Methodism, as well as many grass roots Methodists, retained some of the same characteristics as John Wesley himself had demonstrated.  They maintained an emphasis on the power of God over temptation in this life.  However, they even more retained Wesley’s emphasis on social justice.  Most of the holiness offshoots of the 1800s formed not as a protest against liberalism or against personal sin but because of social issues.  Indeed, if we were to apply contemporary labeling anachronistically to the Wesleyan Methodists and Free Methodists, we would say they left the Methodist Episcopal Church because it was too socially conservative while God was calling them to liberate society from its fallen structures.  Chapter 5 again takes up this thread of the Wesleyan tradition today.

American evangelical Christianity in the 1800s had two dominant streams.  The one was the heavily cognitive form of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield at Princeton Seminary.  However, one might argue that the more dominant and influential form of evangelicalism at the time was revivalism. [7]  Charles G. Finney in the first half and D. L. Moody in the second advanced a personal form of Christianity that focused more on experience and a personal encounter with God than the Calvinist “evangelicals” at Princeton.  This emphasis on feeling certainly related to the currents of the age, but it also stood in continuity with Wesley’s own orientation around the practical and experiences of the Holy Spirit.  Chapter 2 will take up the focus on the heart more than the head in relation to today, while chapter 6 will revisit the practical spirit of Wesleyanism in carrying out the missio Dei, the “mission of God” in the church and the world. 

The more the emphasis on the direct experience of the Spirit, the more the Bible became an immediate channel of divine revelation to specific individuals.  In this sense, the meaning of the Bible became more and more loosed from traditional interpretations and became more and more “privatized.”  To be sure, the Reformation with its “priesthood of all believers” had encouraged individual believers to interpret the Bible for themselves. [8] 

But for the first three centuries of Protestantism, only significant leaders took this privilege of the individual believer and started new movements with their particular interpretations.  In nineteenth and then early twentieth century American Christianity, with the emphasis on individual experience of the Spirit, the formation of new Christian groups spun out of control, and almost anyone with any charisma could start a new church or denomination.  Split after split saw the rise of tens of thousands of little denominations, each thinking they were the ones truly following the “Bible alone.” [9]

The Wesleyan tradition was no more immune to this tendency than the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Restorationists, the Pentecostals, and so forth.  Even when the heavily cognitive Calvinist tradition of Princeton began to call Christian intellectuals of the early 1900s back to the “fundamentals” (largely in reaction to the “liberal” challenge), grass roots Wesleyanism continued its “pneumatic” interpretations, where preachers stood before camp meetings or congregations and spoke what they thought the Holy Spirit wanted to say to the congregation on that occasion.  Respectable Wesleyan intellectuals of the 1900s would reject this form of interpretation in lieu of the “neo” evangelicalism that rose in the 1940s.  But there were also some strengths to these pneumatic interpretations that we can now recognize more clearly than Wesleyan intellectuals did at one time.  We will revisit these in chapter 4.

[7] As Donald Dayton showed in his celebrated, Discovering and Evangelical Heritage (***)

[8] Martin Luther advanced the idea of the priesthood of all believers in opposition to the Roman Catholic view at the time that saw priests as necessary intermediaries between the common person and Christ.  Luther insisted by contrast that all believers went directly to God through Christ.  The Roman Catholic Church of today has recently acknowledged the same, that in terms of salvation, the believer stands directly before Christ. **  Luther also taught the “perspecuity” of Scripture, the idea that the message of salvation was clear enough in Scripture that any individual believer could find it without the help of a priest.

[9] Paul Tillich considered this dynamic part of the DNA of Protestantism, calling the tendency of Protestantism to split as each individual interpreted the Bible for him or herself the “Protestant Principle.”