Encoding Methodism

Encoding Methodism

Telling and Retelling Narratives of Wesleyan Origins

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Ted A. Campbell
  • New York, NY: 
    New Room Books
    , September
     2017.
     212 pages.
     $35.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780938162445.
     For other formats: .

Review

The continuation of a larger project that began with Wesleyan Beliefs (2010) and will conclude with a volume on Wesleyan practices, Encoding Methodism focuses, as its subtitle suggests, on Wesleyan narratives. Examining the ways in which narratives – from John Wesley’s own deliberate cultural coding to Wesleyan Communities’ complexifying retellings in the present day – are assembled to reflect and form Methodist identity, it is a remarkable volume in its own right. As he did in Wesleyan Beliefs, Campbell focuses on popular works equally alongside the scholarly, selecting a sampling from “the hundreds of works giving narratives of the origins of Wesleyan communities” (23).

A technological metaphor might be concerning in the main title of a trilogy’s middle volume, but reusable code modules are the constant core of computer programming. This metaphor is an organizing principle of the whole work, not just a clever hook. Campbell clearly explains that he has considered numerous other metaphors, such as play-within-a-play, social construction, and DNA, but found them lacking. The encoding metaphor is fitting to describe the ways in which narrative programmers have selected and modified “code modules” of Wesleyan revival (20) within the overarching control loop or metanarrative of decline and revival (18-19). It enables the historian to emphasize the nonlinear nature of telling and writing history.

For the sake of “legible sequence,” however, this historian has “flattened out” the code and presented it in five overlapping periods to examine which encoded modules have been invoked by whom and in what context (21). Offering full disclosure that periodization is an inexact science, he identifies the Wesleyan period as roughly 1731-1784, the period of early Methodist Churches in America and Britain as 1784 through mid-nineteenth century, a period of Methodist “ascendancy” as the mid-to-late-nineteenth century, a period of Methodist Modernism as the very late nineteenth century through the 1960s, and a period beyond Modernism as the late 1960s to the present (21-22).

Before presenting each of these periods in a chapter of its own, Campbell identifies five code modules about the Wesleyan movement’s backgrounds, to which he assigns codenames like “AnglicanDeclension,” “AnglicanVitality,” and “AmericanReligion” (11). He adds 31 modules from accounts of the Wesleyan movement itself, dubbed everything from “Epworth Upbringing” and “OxfordSociety,” through “WesleyCommunicator” and “CWPoetry,” to “MethodistDeclension” and “GrowthOfMethodism” (12-17). Some modules can be related to others, for example, with “WesleyEvangelist” significantly extending “FieldPreaching” (14) and “MethodistBenevolence” standing alone or being linked to “SocialDysfunction” and “MinistryWithThePoor” (16). In the ensuing chapters, Campbell lists the code modules used in each narrative, often enhanced by helpful summary-table insets that let readers compare narratives within and across periods at a glance.

This project is not a glorified annotated bibliography. Though brief descriptions of each module’s contents appear, the book presumes awareness of such concepts as the “strangely warmed heart” of John Wesley at Aldersgate (code module “AldersgateExperience”). The reader would do well to have at least a textbook acquaintance with Wesleyan origins, such as Campbell suggests is found in Richard P. Heitzenrater’s Wesley and the People Called Methodists (143, 150-151). This volume is written in a manner that enables one with even this minimal knowledge to understand, for example, the extent to which Wesleyan narratives have evolved from hagiography to efforts at more neutral presentation, though he admits that mythical misattributions and questionable icons of John Wesley persist.

On the other hand, Campbell also offers much to ponder and debate or embrace for the seasoned scholar of Wesleyan history, including himself and his own colleagues. His insertion of his own work into the march of narratives of Wesleyan origins is not intrusive, but rather positions him well to offer the outlook on the future of encoding that he projects in the hearty conclusion. Historians of the broader Christian tradition may criticize Campbell’s characterizations of their task, from his identification of the control loop/metanarrative (18), to his choice of “Beyond Modernism” over “Postmodernism” (133), but he defends and contextualizes each assertion clearly enough to withstand scrutiny.

It is more difficult to dismiss the paucity of women and persons of color among the narrative encoders explored here. The latter absence is partly explicable by the observation Campbell makes in chapter two that communities such as African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion Churches have preferred to encode their own churches’ origins, omitting origins of Wesleyan revival (63). The former deficiency, however, is unaddressed in the text. It is noticeable that Campbell mentions only two female encoders (Phoebe Palmer and Aimee Semple McPherson) besides a handful of women among his own contemporaries, none of whose work merits an inset table of code modules. It is possible that this paucity subtly reveals the limits of the “fullness or integrity of this tradition through time” that Campbell has sought to describe (181). He does acknowledge that this descriptive project of communally mediated teachings, narratives, and practices is less vibrant than a creative project of an individual addressing immediate theological, ethical, and social issues, as “by their very nature, communities evolve more slowly than creative individuals might hope” (Ibid.). 

 As Campbell proceeds to affirm what change does occur in communities and what their narratives’ encoding does to transmit identity, future work could address what women and minorities do with code modules to find further relevance in elements of the tradition. In the era of #metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, it would certainly cohere with his observation that “What appears most consistently in the creative evolution of these narratives is their reflection of the contemporary issues and crises of the communities (churches) whose identities were encoded in them” (165).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Natalya Cherry is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Southern Methodist University.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ted A. Campbell is professor of church history, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas.

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