Who is John Wesley for us today? Thirty years ago, Richard Heitzenrater documented the challenges of creating a definitive, accurate portrait of the founder of Methodism in his Memory and Mirror (Kingswood, 1989). He noted the possibilities for distortion in both the historical record and the reception history. For example, as a controversial figure in his own day, Wesley courted competing characterizations from friend and enemy alike that were directed more toward scoring rhetorical points than accuracy. Similarly, Wesley’s modern portrayals often depend on who is doing the depicting. Perhaps the most important lesson from Heitzenrater is that a complex figure like Wesley cannot be reduced to a single image or fit neatly in a tight box.
Despite Heitzenrater’s warnings and scholarship, not to mention the work of many others before and since, distorted images of Wesley remain commonplace. I often find myself wondering how many times Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, must remind us that John Wesley never said, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can …,” before people will stop attributing the quotation to him. (In the 2016 US presidential election, Hillary Clinton cited it, accurately, as part of her Methodist heritage, but others then misattributed it to Wesley.) And some recent invocations of Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” with predictable subsequent backlash, are a reminder that just because Wesley is no longer the “forgotten parent,” as Randy Maddox once called him, does not mean he has been remembered well.
I would like, therefore, to propose that we discard the following three portraits of Wesley:
- The (American) Conservative/Progressive: Wesley’s politics do not map well, if at all, onto modern American politics (or any politics, for that matter). Claiming that Wesley would support this or that contemporary political movement, party platform, or even specific policy involves ignoring or downplaying contradicting elements from Wesley’s own political activity.
- The Latitudinarian: Wrong-headed notions about Wesley’s “catholic spirit” have resulted in caricatures of him as indifferent to points of doctrinal or other significant disagreements among Christians. In the 18th century this was called “latitudinarianism,” and Wesley was emphatic in his rejection of it; see Henry H. Knight III’s Catalyst article, “Wesley, Methodism, and Doctrine.”
- The Man Who Got Everything Right: Some of Wesley’s ideas and practices have not stood well the test of time. Nevertheless, both scholarly and popular depictions have shied away from discussing his errors, as if they represent an embarrassment rather than an inevitable fact of history and human existence. It is a disservice to him and his legacy to subscribe to unadulterated hagiographies.
In place of these three portraits, I suggest we instead adopt more thoroughly the following three perspectives of a better-nuanced portrayal of Wesley:
- An Interpreter of Scripture: Whether in his sermons, his Notes, his brother’s hymns, or even his journals and letters, Wesley demonstrated a lifelong commitment to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” (Book of Common Prayer) the writings of the Old and New Testament. No depiction of Wesley can afford to omit his scriptural discipline. It is equally important to learn from Wesley how to read Scripture; see Randy Maddox’s Catalyst essay on “How John Wesley Read the Bible.”
- A Trinitarian: As with Scripture, the place of the doctrine of the Trinity in Wesley’s ministry, life, and writings is indisputable. Wesley does not have much to contribute to the development of the doctrine itself. Rather, for Wesley, the Trinity is a doctrine of practical importance. It allows him to root salvation in the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit without unduly privileging one over the other; see Geoffrey Wainwright’s essay, “Why Wesley Was a Trinitarian,” in his Methodists in Dialog (Kingswood, 1995).
- A Saint: The Anglican tradition has a feast day for John and Charles Wesley (March 3). It is strange that the Wesleys have received this measure of recognition in the church their tradition left behind while, it seems, Wesleyans and Methodists remain ambivalent about calling John a saint. Recognizing his sainthood, however, does not need to mean returning to the inaccurate portrait of The Man Who Got Everything Right. Rather, calling John Wesley a saint allows us to see him where he belongs, within the communion of saints, instead of isolating him as “the founder of Methodism.” The dialogical scholarship of “Wesley and …,” such as Edgardo Colón-Emeric’s Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection (Baylor University Press, 2009), represents the beginnings of a proper acknowledgment of St. John Wesley.
Of course, even these perspectives only begin to answer the question, “Who is John Wesley for us today?” A more thorough portrayal would include his life as a preacher, evangelist, innovator, leader, organizer, and more, but these three perspectives represent how he lived out those many roles. They should therefore be incorporated into any portrait of Wesley and may serve as basic criteria for evaluating others’ depictions, whether historical or contemporary.