More than one observer of contemporary American society has argued that Americans increasingly self-select to live in communities with persons of similar lifestyles and values. For politics, this means that friends and neighbors increasingly share the same viewpoint, and constantly reinforce it through mutual interaction. They further solidify that viewpoint by choosing the cable news stations, internet sites, and books that reflect it back to them, often with intensity. Other perspectives are considered suspect, filtered out, and readily discounted. The motives and intelligence of those advocating other perspectives are questioned. Appeals are then made to what “the American people” think or want, assuming the bulk of the populace is like the people around them.
John Wesley did not have to deal with modern media, but he did live in a society where persons had conflicting viewpoints. His parents famously disagreed over the legitimacy of the Glorious Revolution that deposed one king to put another, safely, Protestant king on the throne. The religious awakening was highly controversial, evoking opposition from without and spawning factions within. Wesley himself was variously seen as a papist, enthusiast, formalist, as undermining morality (due to his teaching on justification), and advocating works-righteousness (due to this teaching on sanctification). Wesley initiated conflicts and, more often, defended himself against the accusations of others. He was no stranger to controversy.
In 1746 Wesley published his first volume of sermons, providing “the substance of what I have been preaching for between eight and nine years last part” (“Preface of Sermons on Several Occasions, §1). By putting these sermons into print, a wider public could see for themselves what Wesley understood to be the way of salvation. But it also meant that the sermons could be criticized.
Wesley anticipates this criticism and offers some remarkable advice that is every bit as relevant for the polarized world of contemporary America as it was for his own day. He begins by asking those “persuaded you see more clearly than me” to “treat me as you would desire to be treated yourself upon a change of circumstances.” By proof of Scripture, “Point me out a better way than I have yet known” (§9).
But Wesley knows how difficult it is to change settled opinions: “And if I linger in the path I have been accustomed to tread and therefore unwilling to leave it, labour with me a little; take me by the hand and lead me as I am able to bear.” “But,” Wesley continues, “be not displeased if I entreat you not to beat me down in order to quicken my pace. I can go but feebly and slowly at best; then I should not be able to go at all” (§10).
Wesley further requests not to be given “hard names in order to bring me into the right way. Suppose I was ever so much in the wrong. I doubt this would not set me right. Rather, it would make me run so much the farther from you and so get more and more out of the way” (§9).
Then Wesley gets to the core of what is at stake in all our controversies, political, theological, or otherwise: “Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be, too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth.” Anger of this sort draws lines, obscures our vision, and vilifies those with whom we disagree. “For God’s sake,” Wesley pleads, “if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell, much less blow it up into a flame.” Why? “If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be loss rather than gain? For how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself with love?” (§10).
“We can” Wesley adds, die without the knowledge of many truths and yet be carried into Abraham’s bosom. But if we die without love, what will knowledge avail?” (§10).
May Wesley’s concluding prayer be ours as well “The God of love forbid we should ever make the trial! May he prepare us for the knowledge of all truth by filling our hearts with all his love and ‘with all joy and peace in believing’” (Rom 15:13).
By Dr. Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies, Saint Paul School of Theology.