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Learning Tolerance from John Wesley

John Wesley lived in the bridge between two times: the long religious tumult of the Protestant Reformation behind him and the optimism regarding religious freedom that accompanied the Enlightenment. He was born 186 years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church, 144 years after Calvin published his final edition of TheInstitutes of the Christian Religion, and was alive to see the settling and eventual achievement of national independence by the American colonies. Wesley ministered to a Europe that was only just accepting that the ecclesial fractures caused by the Protestant Reformation wouldn’t ever completely heal. Luther hoped that Protestant and Catholic churches would eventually reunite; Wesley lived in a time that knew this would never be the case.

Wesley was Europe’s minister as it dealt with a new and pluralistic type of society. An unexpected outcome of the Reformation was the decline of the official state church. His native England had passed the Toleration Act in 1689, 14 years before his birth. This act gave legal protection to Protestant worship expressions that weren’t part of the Anglican church, effectively “legalizing” other denominations in England. Wesley grew up in an England experiencing a kind of limited religious pluralism for the first time in its history. For this reason, the proper response to and management of religious diversity was a recurring theme in Wesley’s sermons. By 1750, Wesley, a devout Anglican, had drawn accusations that his preaching movement was beginning to form yet another denomination. Realizing that his followers were beginning to look and act substantially different from other Anglicans, Wesley preached two particularly noteworthy sermons on the subject of religious diversity that year.

The first was entitled “A Caution Against Bigotry.” Wesley was preaching from Mark 9:38–39, in which Christ rebukes the disciples for preventing a man they didn’t know from casting out demons. Wesley sermonizes poignantly on the meaning of the disciple’s objection that the man “followeth not us,” pointing out that God often chooses to work through people who worship, think, and act differently than ourselves, and that we should not begrudge God for doing so. Even “a church we may account to be in many respects antiscriptural and antichristian: a church we believe to be utterly false and erroneous in her doctrines” may be a church that God chooses to work through. Christians must accept this fact, claims Wesley, or at the very least not hinder God’s work through people that “followeth not us.”

The second and more famous was the provocatively titled “Catholic Spirit.” The title may be something of a play on words. “Catholic,” especially with a lower-case “c,” is simply an adjective meaning “universal” or “unified.” Wesley was significantly more sympathetic to Roman Catholicism than most of his contemporaries, who typically didn’t believe the Roman Catholic Church to be a legitimate church. The primary meaning of the title was “catholic” in the first sense of universal and united, but Wesley may have been making a significant claim with his choice of wording.

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