Methodism

A Very Short Introduction

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William J. Abraham
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     2019.
     168 pages.
     $11.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198802310.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Methodism: A Very Short Introduction—with nine partly topical and partly chronological chapters—William J. Abraham traces the history of this movement, from its 18th century origins in the works of John Wesley and the hymns of his brother Charles, to its gradual decline, and concludes with speculations about its future. Beginning as a renewal movement within Anglicanism in the 18th century, Methodism became the largest Protestant denomination in the US in the 19th century. Representing a complex spiritual and evangelistic experiment involving a passionate commitment to a worldwide mission, Methodism encompasses a global network of Christian denominations, and has had a substantial impact on evangelical forms of Western Christianity.

Similar to “Puritanism”—the title for one of its forerunners—“Methodism” was initially a pejorative term which became a badge of honor, denoting the methodical ways in which Methodists approached their relationship to God. Today, close to eighty million believers worldwide trace their lineage to the Methodists of the 18th century—not to mention the (Third-Wave) Pentecostals and Charismatics, as spiritual grandchildren (via the Holiness Movement) (1). In the first chapter, on origins, Abraham recounts the well-known story of the brothers Wesley, characterizing their congeniality as spiritus rector (John) and hymn-writer (Charles) (2; 33). Abraham characterizes the moment that Methodism became a church in its own right as an “accident waiting to happen.” He focuses on the early life of John Wesley, the brothers’shared Aldersgate (conversion) experience, and their ensuing missionary and—especially John’s—preaching career “Out in the open air” (6–10). Abraham claims that preaching in the open air was pivotal to the spread of Methodism, which led a writer two centuries later to joke that Wesley’s was the kind of theology you could work out on horseback (9–11). A recurring feature in Abraham’s account is the complexity of Methodism’s development in the US and Great Britain, where it did not split from the Anglican Church until after John Wesley’s death. As Abraham argues “it was as if he and what he stood for had stepped out of the Church of England and into another world,” and “Wesley wanted reform and renewal; what he got was a new church” (30–31).

Among the “supporting background stimuli” of Methodism depicted in the second chapter, Abraham includes the Moravian influence, the differences with Evangelical Anglicans, the complicated and broad evangelical movement of the 18th century, and what he terms as a “new configuration of Christianity,” namely the spiritual renewal from within the individual believer (17–27; 29–30). Abraham opens the third chapter by delineating the “new version of Christianity” sparked by the failure of renewal movements (28–40). Obviously impressed with the simple organizational structure of congregations and annual conferences in Methodism, he says of the latter: “I know of no analogous body that can command so effectively the affection and loyalty of its members” (38). In the fourth chapter, on the message of Methodism, Abraham identifies John Wesley’s understanding of justification by grace through faith, rather than good works and new birth as crucial elements of its teaching, concluding the chapter with the remarkable Irish autodidact William Arthur’s (1819–1901) exploration of a “Pentecostal aftermath or update to Methodism” (45–49; 51–53). The fifth chapter examines the search for a viable alternative to classical Methodist teaching in the early 20th century, including its interesting “ecumenist” repositioning vis-à-vis Catholicism (56–57), also reflected in its subsequent reversal of Wesley’s robust vision of the Lord’s Supper in favor of a traditional vision of baptism without any reservations (68–71). Chapter 7 looks at the Methodist commitment to “social holiness,” and its negative assessments (80–81), as well as its impact on social movements, politics, education, and medicine (80–93). The last two chapters investigate the Methodist “obsession” with numerical decline in its relation to secularization, and the Methodist future in light of the founding father of United Methodism Albert Outler’s (1908–89) 1962 diagnosis of Methodism as une église manquée (a failed church) (94–120). Abraham’s conclusion on Methodism is that it would be “bold but not impossible to believe that providence might include another Great Awakening in its portfolio” (120).

Perhaps the most striking feature of Methodism is how Abraham judiciously, albeit briefly, surveys the diversity of Christian traditions involved with Methodism, while still emphasizing and delineating the many ramifications of the movement. He is at his strongest when delineating John Wesley’s ambivalent attitude towards apostolic succession and ordination, which followed its own spiritual logic, and led him to seek out the services of a wandering Eastern Orthodox bishop to ordain some of his preachers. Abraham interprets this event as an indication that Wesley sought someone who stood in the physical line of apostolic succession—which Abraham calls the “pipeline theory of succession”—and which was all the more significant considering that Wesley’s decision to ordain marked his break with the Anglican Church (33–34).

On a more critical note, it is striking that the “family tree,” charting the development of Methodism from its seven main sources—Anglicanism, Lutheran Reformation, Pietism, Enlightenment, Puritanism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Patristic Tradition—only briefly mentions Pietism (as a passing reference to Friedrich Schleiermacher’s Pietist formation) (54–55; 121). This is surprising, given Abraham’s interest in Wesley’s understanding of justification by faith (which is essentially Lutheran), and since the history of Methodism—with the distance of two generations—echoes the history of the Lutheran renewal, which focused on the restoration of inward religion and sparked Pietism in the 1670s. Like the Civil Rights Movement in the US, Abraham sees “the drive to attain organic unity across the face of Christendom” as having roots in Methodism. While this may be accurate, he silences the earlier idea of a World Christianity that was given shape only shortly before by Pietism. Since the origins of Methodism thus remain schematic, this inconsistency calls into question later claims that the author makes about the future of Methodism. The great impact of Lutheran theology and religious practice on Methodism only remains visible in single instances (4), which requires a more general explanation. On the other hand, one may see this as the merit of the book, namely, that it draws attention to the need for further research in the religious history from the 16th to the 18th century to more precisely unearth the sources of significant reform movements. Eastern Orthodoxy is another constitutive force of Methodism in need of further research, especially in light of the recent conversion movement in the US. 

This very readable work is not only entertaining; it also succeeds in making Methodism accessible to both the scholar and the non-specialist. Abraham’s illustrated volume succeeds in introducing the reader to the pitfalls and neuralgic points of the history and impact of Methodism. In addition to a tree diagram of Methodism that indicates the major influences, 18th and 19th century developments, and current subdivisions, Methodism offers a short reference section, a section on further reading (which is unfortunately without commentary), and a useful index (121–43). Despite my critique, Abraham has furnished readers—and the series—with an expert introduction to Methodism, so long as one remains aware of the author’s partisan sympathy for his subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Philipp Reisner is Visiting Lecturer in American Studies at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany.

Date of Review: 
April 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

William J. Abraham is Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies and an Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. He grew up in Methodism in Ireland, knows Methodism intimately in its diverse forms within the US, and has had extensive experience of Methodism in Europe, Central America, and Malaysia.

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