Review: John Wesley in America

2-john-wesley-in-america-cover_(2)The Methodist organizer, John Wesley, set foot on Georgia soil in October of 1735. There he saw new opportunities for ministry and evangelization. He mentions in 1789 that he, “went to America, strongly attached to the Bible, the primitive Church, and the church of England, from which I would not vary in one jot or title on any account whatever” (108). How does the portrait played out in Georgia affect John Wesley and his ministry thereafter? Geordan Hammond paints a wonderful portrait for the reader in John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity.

 John Wesley’s Patristic Vision

As John Wesley sought to bring “Primitive Christianity” to the Americas, he brought with him centuries of Anglican tradition alongside it. Wesley stepped into Oxford at the peak of a 17th and 18th Century Anglican revival on patristic scholarship. Many of the clergy shared a common bond in that they both, admired and leaned heavily on primitive church as a being a direct line of lineage to the Church of England as they had it in their day. This fact would play out for Wesley in that he aligned himself with the High-Church practice of a radical group called Usager Nonjurors.

As Wesley began his parish ministry in Georgia he would work his best to bring the primitive Christianity he had fallen in love with, to the colonies. He would lean on men like William Beveridge as he modelled its restoration through “daily services, weekly communion, the formation of religious societies, and the exercise of firm clerical discipline” (21), all of which became clear as Wesley exemplified these features among his parishioners.

Ministry aboard the Simmonds

The mighty ship which brought the Methodists to America, the Simmonds, became the stomping grounds for a type of Holy Club that would be shaped by Wesley as the voyage dragged on. Their communion piety worked itself out in rigorous fasting and liturgical doctrinal standards. A constant stream of encouragement and exhorting never ceased to flow from the Methodist community. Rising at 4 a.m. they would spend the first hour in private prayer followed by bible study and a reading in what Hammond notes as, “something relating to the Primitive Church” (46). 

Not only did the Oxford Methodists aboard the Simmonds adopt various ritual practices, they also returned to a type of asceticism which was often a controversial topic. These inward practices would provide for the Methodists a an avenue for opening one’s inner self to God’s direction. Here I could see the hints of modern Pentecostalism/Charismaticism in that the inner-experience takes a high priority in ones’ devotional life.

Revising the Prayer Book of 1162

As Wesley notes in one of his journal entries on 5 March, 1736 he spent roughly 2 hours, “Revising the Common Prayer Book” (108). This practice would disturb some of those in his congregation who were used to and used the 1662 order. This revision brought against Wesley the accusations of those under him that he was “inverting the order and method of the Liturgy” (109). In the mind of Wesley, these changes brought about an amended liturgy which was more in line with the practice of the primitive Church.

The Georgia mission had all the workings of the Methodist movement. There they continued to practice the asceticism which had been vowed to aboard the Simmonds. Along with that radical practice some of Wesley’s practices, especially those among women, had left a bad taste in the mouths of those he preached to. Undeterred by this Wesley continued in his passion for the primitive church among the Georgia population.

Was the Georgia mission a success or failure?

Wesley argued that Methodism was in its purest sense simply the “old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England” (203) This passion and vision, not only in Wesley but among the Methodists in general, helped to spread their teaching throughout the colonies like wild-fire. They would often mention a “strange moving of spirits” and that in a growing manner.

Many biographers have overwhelmingly claimed that the Georgia mission was a glaring failure on the books of the Methodist movement. However, the radical expansion and explosion of its doctrine and methods state otherwise. Men like Francis Asbury, a contemporary of Wesley, spread his message with zeal and passion. Along with Asbury, Thomas Coke and Wesley’s own brother Charles, helped fuel a movement which garnered much success in its day.

The Movement today

This book is an excellent study of the Georgia mission which Wesley and others set out to accomplish. This volume cannot be taken as a compendium of Methodist thought and life on the frontier. It can, inasmuch as Hammond writes, give us a picture of Wesley and the movement once it reached the shores of England. Wesley would shape and mold his primitive Christianity as his life went on but the seeds of Methodist revival were planted on American soil.

It is a sad state of affairs with the Methodist church today. Wesley would have no shortage of grievances and ill-words to share with those who bear his name. A church whose clergy have allowed same-sex marriages to be performed and whose doctrine has been shaped by pop-culture rather than the Bible, is certainly in sharp decline. Not only, in my opinion, does the role of same-sex marriages play a dramatic role in the death of the church, their utter despising of the Word of God is no small trifling.

Hammond brings us this volume filled with a careful reading of primary texts, namely the writings of John Wesley, but he is also careful to shape for us the context in which Wesley operated. Originally written as a dissertation, Hammond has brought his research out into the public sphere so that men may be encouraged by the mission to Georgia which John Wesley and his Methodists took on. He does not shrink back from sharing his overwhelming failures but is also careful to balance that with victories Wesley would take pride in.

A very balanced and well-written volume. The physical craftsmanship of the work is also to be noted. Oxford University Press has created their volumes in such an aesthetically pleasing way as to give the reader not only a joy in reading. but also makes it a joy to behold on a shelf. If you’re at all interested in John Wesley, this assessment of his time and ministry in Georgia is sure to be a valuable addition to your library.

Hammond, Geordan. John Wesley in America Restoring Primitive Christianity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014. 256. Print.

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