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How John Wesley Changed America
Why should Wesley's 300th birthday be a red-letter day on this side of the ocean?
The world is now marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley with celebrations, conferences, publications, and many other commemorations. (For trivia buffs and sticklers: The actual day of Wesley's birth was June 17 or June 28, 1703, depending on whether you follow the "old style" calendar in use before 1752 or the "new style" calendar used after that year.) But Americans may wonder, What difference did Wesley make to our country? After all, while he served as a parish minister in Savannah, he didn't last two years in the post before incurring the colonists' wrath and before returning to England.
In fact, America has a special claim on the man and his legacy. It was here that Methodism first became a separate denomination—separating from Wesley's beloved Church of England. Wesley reluctantly blessed the separation for a pragmatic reason: so many people were entering the church through Methodist ministry that there weren't enough Anglican priests to serve them the Lord's Supper. So Methodists had to be given the authority to ordain their own ministers.
America changed Methodism, and soon Methodism began returning the favor. In 1800, it was still a fairly small Protestant denomination among many others. By 1900, it had grown be the largest of them all. The small space of a newsletter won't allow more than a brief summary of the changes Wesley and his heirs brought to America, but we can at least begin to tell the story.
Most significantly, Wesley and Methodism joined other evangelistically minded Christians in promoting a faith deeply felt and actively lived. Christianity was no spectator sport for Wesley. From his Oxford "Holy Club" days to the end of his life, he sought to be a True Christian—unlike the many nominal "almost Christians" he saw in the Established church around him. And his deepest desire was to help others do the same.
To Wesley, a True Christian was marked by two inseparable qualities: holiness and happiness.
In his Plain Account of Christian Perfection, Wesley defined holiness not as achieving sinless perfection but as having one's heart fully fixed on God, setting aside all other affections—"perfect love." His teachings on the subject combined the spiritual athleticism of William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, the Moravian emphasis on felt assurance of salvation (which Wesley extended to include sanctification), and the Puritan insistence onminute examination of conscience coupled with sanctified action in all spheres of life.
This emphasis on sanctification became the hallmark of Wesley's movement. He often said that the mission of Methodism was to "spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."
His was no extreme ascetic holiness, however, mortifying the heart as well as the flesh. Rather, Wesley taught that True Christianity fulfilled all of a person's deepest, truest desires, making the Christian a happier, more productive person. When pressed to define "the character of a Methodist," he answered, in a 1742 tract of that title: "God is the joy of [the Methodist's] heart. … He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him 'a well of water springing up into everlasting life', and 'overflowing his soul with peace and joy."
Just as their founder had experienced having his "heart strangely warmed" in 1738 at a meeting on Aldersgate Street, Methodists practiced a religion of joy. Frontier Americans cracked jokes about the "shouting Methodists," but the Wesleyans wore the label as a badge of honor. They felt their own joy was one of the best advertisements for the truth of the message they preached.
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