The circuit rider in American history was usually a Methodist; but it would be a mistake to superimpose our image of the frontier evangelist on the founder of Methodism, who, for all his traveling and out-of-doors preaching, was an Oxford don who had taken Anglican orders. During their university days, John Wesley and his brother Charles (the hymn writer) were leaders in a group known as the Holy Club, devoted to charitable works and to holy living. Nothing in the regimen of this pious band gives any hint of the great popular revival movement with which the names of the Wesleys and of George Whitefield (another member of the Holy Club) are so closely connected. The exception might be a certain mystical and ascetic ideal of Christian living that, in John Wesley’s view, was an essential part of the Anglican tradition and that he fought to retain in the societies that he founded, often in opposition to other evangelical leaders, including Whitefield.
Wesley is remembered chiefly as a man of action. Of his writings, only the Journal has excited general interest, and that less for its literary qualities than for the story it narrates. Excerpts from the Journal were published serially as part of his attempt to allay prejudice and to promote understanding. A Plain Account of Christian Perfection may be thought of as a supplement to the published Journal. In the 1760’s some people were saying that Wesley had shifted his ground on the matter of Christian perfection. This provided him an occasion to publish the cumulative record. The main statements from which he quotes are his first published sermon, “Circumcision of the Heart”; a tract, “The Character of a Methodist”; another published sermon, “Christian Perfection”; and two booklets, Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1759), and Further Thoughts on Christian Perfection (1763). Excerpts and summaries from these are pieced together chronologically and are interspersed with hymns, personal recollections, and reports of conferences and conversations. Because the purpose of the book is to show that his stand on perfectionism remained the same throughout his ministry, one is prepared for a good deal of repetition. On the other hand, Wesley’s teaching does not seem to have been quite as uniform as he claimed. It has been said of Wesley that, although he was an insatiable reader (he read as he traveled on horseback), he was never a close reader, and one gets the impression that he was not a close reader of what he himself had written.
A Plain Account of Christian Perfection begins with Wesley’s youthful resolves. He was twenty-two when, reading Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying (1831; originally as The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650, and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, 1651), he was persuaded of the importance of purity of intention and of the need to dedicate every part of his life to God. This resolve was strengthened when he went on to read Thomas à Kempis and William Law. Studying the Bible in this light, he saw the “indispensable necessity of having the mind which was in Christ” and of “an entire inward and outward conformity to our Master.” His sermon “Circumcision of the Heart” (1733) belongs to this first period. In it he defines holiness as a habitual state of the soul, so renewed as to be “perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect.” The first and great commandment is said to contain all the virtues. The one thing that God desires of us is the living sacrifice of the heart that he has chosen. No creature is to share our love for God, for he is a jealous God. “Desire not to live but to praise his name; let all your thoughts, words, and works tend to his glory.”
When we turn to Wesley’s next publication, “The Character of a Methodist” (1739), we are on different ground. These are not the vaporings of an Oxford fellow but the manifesto of an evangelist answerable for his vocation. As a Methodist, Wesley does not sigh after perfection; he vaunts it—a Methodist prays without ceasing. In retirement or in company, his heart is ever with the Lord. He loves his neighbor as himself, including his enemies. His heart is purified from envy, malice, and every unkind temper. He keeps all the commandments with all his might.
Other leaders in the evangelical revival were not long in voicing their opposition to these claims. In response, Wesley published the sermon “Christian Perfection” (1740). Drawing heavily from the Bible, Wesley allowed that Christians are not perfect in the sense of committing no mistakes, but he argued that intention is all that counts. Sins have to be intentional. Even newborn Christians are perfect in that they do not commit sins, while more adult Christians are perfect in the higher sense of being freed from evil desires. “It remains, then, that Christians are saved in this world from all sin, from all unrighteousness; that they are now in such a sense perfect, as not to commit sin, and to be freed from evil thoughts and tempers.” Much in the same tenor is the preface that Wesley wrote for a book of hymns (1741). Christians are freed from pride; they feel it is not they that speak or act but God in them. They no longer desire anything for themselves, neither possessions nor relief from pain. It is impossible for them to entertain evil thoughts. Their minds do not wander when they pray. They are free from all fear and doubt. Temptations fly about them, but their souls are unmovable.
Then, as if making a new start, Wesley allows that the change does not come all at once: God’s work is partly instantaneous, partly gradual—at one moment the believer received a clear sense of forgiveness, at another the abiding witness of the Holy Spirit, at another a clean...
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