Full Text for American Religious Scene- Volume 45 - Methodist History (Video)

No. 45. >> It seems like the Methodists were the big winners in all of this. Could you tell us a bit more about their history? >>DR. LAWRENCE R. RAST, JR.: Sure, Josh, I would be happy to. The growth of Methodism, as we've already seen, is really a remarkable story. And one of the significant events of the post Reformation period that has had key influence on the shape of American Christianity. But like everything else, it doesn't happen in a vacuum. It emerges from a series of processes and events within the context of the Church of England. We typically identify three names with Methodism. The most frequently recognized is that of John Wesley himself. But he was joined in this work by two others of significant import. One was his younger brother, Charles. And then also the great itinerant in England and America, George Whitefield. These three were significant figures in the development of American Methodism, Methodism generally. Where did they come from? Well, they had common roots. All part of the Church of England, born in an England church. And had the intention of becoming priests in the Church of England. To that end, all three of them attended Oxford University. And while there, they were distressed over the character of so many of their fellow students. Specifically students who were studying for the ministry. They seemed -- those other students seemed lax in their moral life to the Wesleys and Whitefield and unconcerned about fulfilling the prescriptions of Scripture when it came to their sanctified life. As such they formed what was sometimes derisively called a holy club there at Oxford in which they and like minded students cultivated an intentional morality over against the more profligate life of their fellow students. Nothing surprisingly their fellow students would often mock them. Make fun of them. But they said: Nonetheless, we will continue to work hard at full filing the revealed will of God in the Scriptures. The problem they oftentimes found was that was not always an easy thing to do. Especially for a young man studying at Oxford in the 18th Century. There were many, many temptations to turn one away from one's studies and plenty of temptations into the way of the world. And because of their struggles in this regard, each one of these young men went through crises as they wondered and asked themselves the question: Am I really truly a Christian? That would be most pronounced for Wesley himself. But all three of these men experienced that. Let's take a look at them in turn. And I think to break the mold a little bit here, let's look at Whitefield first because he I think is a key transitional figure. And there would be a falling out, an important division, between he and the Wesley brothers later on in their careers. Where they would ultimately triumph theologically, shall we say. And Whitefield, having provided a method for them to follow theologically, would largely become less meaningful. What do I mean? Well, just this: When Whitefield finished his studies, he prepared for the ministry of the Anglican church. Was ordained. Became a priest. But he was a restless young man. In 1739 he made his first trip to America. And while here began to preach in a variety of places. And as he preached, he found -- and others found, as well, that he had a remarkable ability to influence people in terms of simply using the spoken word. Now, part of what contributed to this was the fact that he was an itinerant. That is he moved constantly in his preaching. The he didn't have a settled ministry. And what that allowed him to do was preach the same or similar sermons over and over again. So that he could hone these sermons and bring them very tightly together to achieve certain results. As he did this, he found that he could actually construct the sermon in such a way as to move people to a certain emotional state by the end of it. To do this, he said, we need to make some important and fundamental changes in the way we preach. For example, much of the preaching of the time was very technical. It was long. It was demanding of its hearers. And it used theological terminology. Words like imputation and the like. It was very demanding of the hearers. In fact, required them to be very familiar with a variety of theological terminologies and meanings. Now, in a place like Puritan New England that had such zeal for the truth, working always to purify the theological position of the truth, that resonated. But in other places, folks weren't as wound up and bound up in this way of speaking and talking. And as a result, Whitefield said if you had used the word imputation in the sermon, people won't know what you're talking about. Instead, use plain and simple language. Tell the people what you mean. Say: Your sins have been placed on Christ. And Christ's righteousness has been placed on you. Rather than a technical term like imputation. Beyond that he said: Speak in a very direct and forceful manner. Don't retreat to fuzzy kinds of words, ambiguous terminology. But speak directly to a person. And in this respect one of the most important moves that Whitefield makes is to shift from the first person plural in his preaching to the second person singular. That is to say in much older Puritan preaching, Calvinistic preaching, you find discussion of us and we or more generically of the elect. The elect will see the face of God. The elect will experience his presence. Whitefield says in much more dynamic and direct terms: You are a sinner. Not just you all. But you individually. And you have the gates of heaven opened unto you by the working of Christ. Now, the import of that cannot be underestimated. From us and we to a much more direct you. I should say a word at this point about Whitefield's theology. He is a committed double predestinarian Calvinist. He believes that only the elect can come to faith. But he doesn't preach like it. He preaches in a such a manner saying that through this very direct kind of preaching, the Spirit will render an effectual call upon the elect. They will come to faith. And I'll leave that division up to God. I'll simply be the means by which the message is presented. Other Calvinists criticized him saying: Some people will come to think that they are saved when they are actually not. Which Whitefield said: Not my problem. God will sort out the weak and the ***tarrist. So very direct preaching linked with very common kind of language. And then coupled with, in Whitefield's case, an unbelievable voice. He is said, as the story is recounted, to have been able to move an entire audience to tears simply by saying the word Mesopotamia. Well, I haven't found that I have that gift up to this point. But apparently Whitefield did. He could use his language, his voice, his words in such a way as to be incredibly compelling. And beyond that then he did so within an a unbelievable power and capacity. In fact, he made seven trips here to the American colonies between 1793 and 1771. And during those, he became a friend, an acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin one time while Whitefield is preaching literally paces off the area around the group that is listening to Whitefield. And in fact, the farthest distance he goes that he can hear his voice, he notes that, and then figures out the circumference and area that is involved and comes to the conclusion that Whitefield is speaking or could speak at the very least to 10,000 people outdoors without a microphone and still be heard well. An incredibly powerful voice. Well, Whitefield brings these elements together in one person and becomes in many ways the first star preacher. What many call an evangelist. Now, when I say that word, evangelist, what comes to mind? If I were to say, for example, to you: Name me one person here in America who is an evangelist. And I would suspect somebody like Billy Graham comes to mind, a person like that. If you were to ask say John Calvin or Martin Luther: Name me one evangelist. They would say: Well, there are one of four, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. In the Reformation period, an evangelist was seen as one who writes the evangel, one of the gospels. But by the 18th Century, we're talking about evangelists in different terms. A new kind of office in the church. An itinerant preacher who has the special ability to affect his hearers in a powerful way. Nobody does that better than George Whitefield. However, some people noted the inconsistencies in his approach. They said: You preach like all are saved. And yet you hold theologically that not all are. This is where the division between he and the Wesleys will begin to emerge. And to that we turn to our next subject. Namely, John Wesley. Wesley himself is, again, born into an Anglican family. Church of England. His father is a priest. His mother is apparently a very pious woman. He discusses later on in his life how he was not a very good Christian young man. And as he begins to move into some of the later years of his life -- he was born in 1703. Died in 1791. As he enters into his studies at Oxford, works with his fellows in the Holy Club, he comes to the conclusion that perhaps he is not truly converted. In fact, he will struggle with this mightly. Having completed his studies at Oxford, and still uncertain about his status as a Christian, he makes a mission trip to America, to Georgia in particular in the mid 1730s. And while there tries to come to grips with his future ministry. Should he enter the ordained priesthood? Should he commit himself fully to the life's work that his father and his mother so desire for him? Well, his experience in Georgia is not particularly positive. He has an episode with a young woman regarding betrothal. He believes they are. She betroths herself to another man. He excommunicates her. That is to say he won't commune her at a church service. This causes extreme controversy within the community there. He's sent back to England. While on the ship, he experienced troubles in his own conscience and worries about his salvation. In fact, as the boat threatens to sink on several occasions, he himself is convinced that if it goes down, he will find himself in hell. At the same time on board ship, there is a group of Moravians. These Moravians are welcoming the thought of the close presence of Christ. They say that should the boat sink, we'll find ourselves with Jesus. And what could be better? Their witness is tremendous law against Wesley who is utterly fearful of looking into the face of the Lord, assuming that he will be judged unworthy. And it simply drives him into utter despair. He spends several years uncertain of his circumstances, hangs on the fringe of a Moravian community in London. And finally in May 1738, as he's gathered at a Moravian meeting and the Moravians are reading Martin Luther's preface to the book of Romans, his comments on it, he feels his heart strangely warm. And everything changes for him at that moment. The uncertain goes to being certain for him. And he's convinced, utterly so, that he is God's own dear child. And what was timidity before now expresses itself in great boldness and vigor as Wesley goes out into the world to preach. Like Whitefield, he itinerates. He will preach anywhere he can. As increasingly the case is that he is not allowed to preach in certain Anglican churches, he then speaks in fields, in coalmines and in the pits. In some of the more hospitable areas of the towns, speaking to the poor. To anyone he can. My perish is the world he will ultimately say. And the message he brings in these circumstances is one that should sound very familiar to you now. His one of empowerment. You may find yourselves in dire circumstances socially speaking, struggling to survive. But your eternal destiny is open. And by virtue of the work of Christ for you, you have the ability and the possibilities of spending eternity with him. Simply choose to follow him. Make him your personal Savior. And you will be in the right way to be saved. Pursue his ends and you will see the face of Christ. Wesley and Whitefield would find this quite a point of division. For Wesley would increasingly emphasize the necessity of willful choice on the part of the hearer at the conclusion of the message being presented. Whereas Whitefield would return again and again to the necessity of the effectual call of the Holy Spirit upon the elect. Listening to them, there's not all that much difference in their sermons. But theologically, the underpinnings have changed entirely. And the direction this will go is enormously important. We'll talk about that in a moment. But lastly, we should mention John Wesley's brother, Charles. His dates are 1707 to 1788. He contributes to the church in an enormously important way as one of the great hymn writers in the history of Christianity. And what he is effectively able to do is take the message that's being proclaimed in sermon and reduce it to hymnic form so that what has been preached by the preacher now can be sung, memorized, integrated into the life of the individual hearer through song. Those songs can be sung anywhere, any time. And the hymns of Charles Wesley begin to be sung in the minds. And they come forth from the mouths of the dispossessed and the poor in England and in America. And provide one of the most important ways for extending Methodist teaching. So what is it that becomes central to the Methodist mission? Well, in terms of its formal principle, that is the Scriptures. That is the source for what they preach and what they teach. In terms, however, of their material principle, an important shift will occur. Particularly the personal experience of John Wesley will be seen as many ways normative for all Christians. That is to say a great emphasis will be placed on the personal conversion experience of the individual sinner. That is that you have that moment in time that's locatable. That's identifiable. When you went from being uncertain to being assured. When you went from darkness into light. That personal religious experience will be seen as the beginning of one's walk as a Christian. But that personal experience then will characterize one's entire Christian life as one walks in a life of sanctification, seeking to fulfill the revealed will of God at every point. And making that quantifiable progression and sanctification the real telltale sign of whether a true conversion experience has occurred. In this respect, we see a movement beyond the older Calvinism in vastly important ways. No longer this locating things in the hidden will of God. But rather, identifying and quantifying a person's Christian reality in terms of their experience, both in conversion and then in sanctification. So that in sanctification we see the reality of whether or not one has been converted. In this respect, the method will play itself out. A method for cultivating piety. A method for cultivating sanctification will become central to the Methodist experience. Thus, formal principle, Scripture, material principle, experiential conversion and sanctification. That's what Methodism would be all about.