John Wesley’s contribution to Christian history is not primarily located in any particular doctrine or treatise, though he wrote theologically. Rather, John Wesley’s greatest gift to the Christian churches is perhaps the Wesleyan approach to community formation—with its attention to the whole human being and to every human being, however socially marginalized. Methodism began not as a movement of separatists nor as a movement of institutional reformers. Wesley brought about a movement of reformation and renewal by creating new forms of community among “the people” themselves, rather than by lobbying for change from within the Church of England’s hierarchy.
For churches in the contemporary United States who trace their heritage back to this 18th-century pastor, Wesley remains relevant because of his courageous willingness to innovate ways of bringing the gospel, the pietist method, and God’s mercy for the suffering and oppressed directly to those people most excluded by the church, notwithstanding the formal and informal barriers erected by existing ecclesial institutions.
Wesley did not emerge on the religious scene of early 18th century England as a fully formed thinker or leader. His approach to ministry, like his theology and interior spirituality, developed gradually over the course of his life. Methodism’s “first rise,” during Wesley’s time at Oxford as a student and fellow, arose as a consequence of his own spiritual seeking, in companionship with his brother Charles and a few of their friends. From the beginning, this group of friends combined a disciplined practice of personal and communal piety with frequent outreach to the suffering poor in their community. They began with visits to the county prison, then the city jail, eventually adding visits to elders and children in the area. Wesley’s journal from 1731 records a daily visitation schedule to these incarcerated and impoverished community members, reflecting the centrality of outreach beyond existing institutions in the origins of the Methodist program.
Another development in Methodism that reflects Wesley’s willingness to move beyond existing institutional norms is his eventual embrace of field preaching in the late 1730s. He was originally skeptical of the practice, due to its association with itinerant dissenters, and he was loyal to the Church of England.
Wesley changed his mind, however, after observing George Whitefield’s effectiveness and noting the preaching practices of Jesus himself as recorded in the Gospels. His acceptance of open-air preaching signified more than flexibility regarding location and format. It also indicated a willingness to, in his words, “become more vile”; in other words, to identify himself more publicly with the lower classes and to open himself up to greater association with the dissenting sects.
Wesley never struck out as a radical, and until his death, he never left the church of his birth. However, as David Hempton describes, “there is a profound ambiguity at the heart of his opinions on religious establishments.” He did not hesitate to lambast the bulk of Anglican clergy for their corruption and worldliness, and he prioritized the growth of Methodism over strict adherence to Anglican sensitivities, to his peers’ consternation. Theologically, he distinguished carefully between ecclesial institutions and the community of believers, with the former existing only to serve and expand the latter. Thus, in his posture toward his church of origin, he was a “reluctant rebel.” His overarching goal of spreading the gospel, piety, and mercy far and wide brought him into sympathetic relation with the lower classes, into conflict with the vested interests of the stagnant state church, and into novel forms of community formation that provided spiritual access for those otherwise excluded, including women, the poor, and the incarcerated.
The contemporary Methodist church neither can nor should attempt to strictly imitate John Wesley nor the 18th-century movement he ignited. However, early Methodism stands out in Christian history because it did not begin with a radical ideological departure, not with a list of theses or a novel creed, but with a radical change in social orientation: away from the upper classes and the existing holders of institutional power and toward the lower classes and those without a secure place in the formal church. As the United Methodist Church looks toward a fractured future, this question of posture and orientation—for whom does this institution exist?—should take central place for leaders seeking to carry forward the Wesleyan legacy.
What would a Methodist Church oriented away from white holders of institutional power and toward the priorities of Black, immigrant, and other communities of color look like? A Methodist Church more committed to fellowship and solidarity with the impoverished and the incarcerated than to the aesthetic norms of its middle-class membership? A Methodist Church willing to “become more vile” by taking the way of Jesus to the spaces where young people are already living and gathering—online? A Methodist Church willing to risk association with dissenters and heretics if that is what it takes to disrupt and renew the ecclesial status quo? A Methodist Church where LGBTQ+ people experience neither avoidance nor mere tolerance, but a genuine haven of safety and belonging? These are Wesleyan questions.
- Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 46.
- Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 47.
- Ibid, 109.
- Ibid, 109.
- David Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and Popular Religion c. 1750-1900. London: Routledge, 1996), 83.
- Ibid, 84.
Luke Melonakos-Harrison (he/him) is a master of divinity student at Yale, socialist tenant organizer, Bible nerd, and relatively new Methodist. Now a member at First and Summerfield UMC, he aspires to pastoral ministry and new church planting/organizing. Originally from San Diego, he currently lives with his spouse, Lana, in New Haven, Connecticut.