When at the Methodist Conference it was asked, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodist,” the answer was, “To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“Minutes of Several Conversations” Q.3, in The Works of John Wesley [vol. 8; ed. T. Jackson; Baker, 1978] 299). This gave Wesley’s Methodists a distinctive identity. It also gave them a distinctive mission.
That the nation was far from holy—and, therefore, far from being Christian—was a repeated theme of Wesley’s. In his 1744 sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” Wesley asks, “Where, I pray, do the Christians live? Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are ‘all (thus) filled with the Holy Ghost? Who one and all have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbor as themselves? Why, then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon the earth” (The Works of John Wesley [vol. 1; ed. F. Baker; Abingdon, 1984] 172-73). Almost 40 years later, in “The General Spread of the Gospel,” Wesley again raises the issue, this time focusing on England and France: “What manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy as he that hath called them is holy?’… is there ‘that mind in them that was also in Christ Jesus?’ And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked?’ Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven!” (Works [vol. 2; Abingdon, 1985] 488).
To those who spoke then (and now) about being a “Christian nation,” Wesley raises the bar considerably. He wants evidence of hearts and lives characterized and motivated by love. The evidence he sees points in the opposite direction: the accumulation of riches coupled with a lack of generosity, unnecessary wars, the slave trade, uncharitable conversation, and lifestyles that reflect neither love for neighbor God nor neighbor. Methodism, with its emphasis on sanctification, was an instrument of God to address this problem.
At the center of this mission was the renewal of the church. Wesley believed the Church of England, which should be at the forefront of promoting scriptural holiness, had largely abdicated its responsibility and become accommodated itself to culture. The renewal of the church was the key element not only in reforming the nation but in spreading the gospel.
Wesley seemed in his later years to be torn by his vision of what God sought to do and the realities of the Methodist movement itself. In “The General Spread of the Gospel” he presents a glorious vision of the entire church—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—renewed in holiness by God, such that its very life would be marked by love. Then with the “grand stumbling block being thus happily removed out of the way, namely, the lives of Christians” (Works [vol. 2; Abingdon, 1985] 495), those outside the church would look at the gospel with new eyes. The presence of love (instead of, say, greed) in the Christians they encountered would attract them to the gospel message. On the other hand, he continually warned the Methodists in numerous sermons that they themselves were letting the desire for riches draw them away from God and neighbor; thus compromising their own witness.
Holiness of heart and life, centered on love for God and neighbor, was the orienting goal of the mission. The polity of the Methodist movement was never an end in itself, but was always intended to serve the mission. The Discipline, classes and bands, itinerant preachers, connection, and conference were all designed to enable the movement to fulfill its purpose of renewing lives, the church, and the nation.
Some in the eighteenth century awakening were focused on life after death. Wesley believed God had called the Methodists to proclaim in addition the promise of a new life before death a life whose motivations, actions, and relationships was governed by love for God and neighbor. It was this that made the Methodist mission distinctive.