The title of this episode is Moravians and Wesley.
We took a look at Pietism in an earlier episode. Pietism was a reaction to the dry dogmatism of Protestant Scholasticism and the reductionist rationalism of Enlightenment philosophers. It aimed to renew a living faith in a living Christ.
As a movement, it was led in the 17th C by Philip Jakob Spener & August Francke [frank -uh].
Spener had a godson named Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a German Count. Even as a young child, Nicholas possessed a deep devotion to God. His parents were devout Pietists & sent him to the University of Halle, where he studied under the Pietist leader Francke. Later he went to Wittenberg, a center of Lutheran orthodoxy, where he repeatedly clashed with his teachers. After traveling to other countries & studying law, he married and entered the service of the court of Dresden.
It was there Zinzendorf first met a group of Moravians who’d change the course of his life. Moravia lies in the SE of what is today, the Czech Republic. You’ll remember that Jan Hus of Prague was one of the earliest Reformers. The Moravians were Hussites, that is, they were long time adherents to the renewal begun by Jan Hus. They’d been forced by persecution to forsake their native land. Zinzendorf offered them asylum on his extensive lands. It was there they founded the a community called Herrnhut. This community so attracted Zinzendorf he resigned his cushy post in the Court of Dresden and joined it. Under his direction, the Moravians became part of the local Lutheran parish. But the Lutherans were unwilling to trust foreigners who’d been adherents of Pietism.
In 1731, while visiting Denmark, Zinzendorf met a group of Eskimos converted by the Lutheran missionary Hans Egede. This kindled in the Count an interest in missions that would dominate the rest of his life. Soon the community at Herrnhut was on fire with the same zeal, and in 1732 its 1st missionaries left for the Caribbean. A few years later there were Moravian missionaries in Africa, India, S & N America. They founded the communities of Bethlehem & Nazareth in Pennsylvania, and Salem, N Carolina. In just 20 yrs a movement that began with 2 hundred refugees had more missionaries overseas than had been sent out by all Protestant churches since the Protestant Reformation 2 centuries earlier.
In the meantime, conflicts with the Lutheran authorities of Germany did slaken. Zinzendorf was banned from Saxony, and traveled to N America, where in 1741he was present at the founding of the Bethlehem township. Then, not long after his return to Germany, a peace was hammered out between Lutherans & Moravians. But it didn’t last. Zinzendorf agreed to become bishop of the Moravians, but from a spiritual line of ecclesiastical authority reaching back to Jan Hus. The Lutherans didn’t recognize Hus; they wanted the Count’s authority to link to Luther.
I insert a little personal aside here: What silly things we Christian bicker over. Doesn’t a person’s spiritual authority rest in their being called by God, not man? What matter is it that it comes through this one-time leader or that? It’s the original source that matters.
Zinzendorf died at Herrnhut in 1760, and shortly after his followers broke with Lutheranism. Although the Moravian church never had a large membership and was unable to continue sending so many missionaries, its example contributed to the great missionary awakening of the 19th C. Perhaps the greatest significance of the movement was its impact on John Wesley and, through him, on the Methodist tradition.
In late 1735 & early ‘36, a group of Moravians was sailing to the New World hoping to preach to the Native Americans of Georgia. On board was a young Anglican priest, named John Wesley, whom the Georgia Governor Oglethorpe had invited to serve as a pastor in Savannah. The young Wesley accepted the offer and hoped himself to preach to the Indians. The early part of the voyage was calm and Wesley learned enough German to communicate with the Moravians. Then the weather turned and the ship was soon in real danger. The mainmast split, and panic nearly ruined the crew. The Moravians, by contrast were utterly calm and sang hymns throughout the ordeal. Meanwhile, Wesley, chaplain of the vessel, came to the realization he was more concerned for himself than his shipmates. After the storm, the Moravians told him they were able to brave the storm and reality of death because of their conviction their lives were in God’s hands & should they perish at sea, they would but pass into the Hands of their glorious King. Wesley simply could not relate to that kind of trust in the God he served professionally.
Arriving in Savannah, Wesley asked one of the Moravians named Gottlieb Spangenberg for advice regarding his work as a pastor and missionary. He left a record in his diary of the conversation:
Spangenberg asked, “My brother, I must first ask you 1 or 2 questions. Have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit, that you are a child of God?”
Wesley wrote, “I was surprised, and knew not what to answer. He observed it, and asked, ‘Do you know Jesus Christ?’ I paused, and said, ‘I know he is the Saviour of the world.’ ‘True,’ replied he; ‘but do you know he has saved you?’ I answered, ‘I hope he has died to save me.’ He only added, ‘Do you know yourself?’ I said, ‘I do.’
Then Wesley added this, “But I fear they were vain words.”
These experiences left Wesley both profoundly moved and confused. Wesley had always thought of himself as a good Christian. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican priest, and his mother Susanna the daughter of another. She’d been particularly careful in the religious instruction of her 19! children. When John was 5, fire broke out in their home. He was miraculously saved, and after that his mother thought of him as “a brand plucked from the burning;” no doubt because God had a special plan for him.
At Oxford, Wesley distinguished himself academically & in terms of his religious devotion. After helping his father’s parish work for a season, he returned to Oxford, where he joined a religious society founded by his brother Charles and a group of friends. Its members made a covenant to lead a holy & sober life, to take communion weekly, to be faithful in private devotions, to visit prisons, and spend 3 hrs every afternoon, studying the Bible and books of devotion together. Since John was the only ordained priest among them & since he possessed an aptitude to teach, John became group’s leader. It didn’t take long before other students mocked the group, calling it the “holy club” & because of their methodical lifestyle è “Methodists.”
All that preceded his trip to Georgia. But now, he doubts the reality of his faith. Adding to that doubt was the fact that he failed miserably as a pastor. He expected his parishioners to behave as his holy club had back in England. For their part, his parishioners expected him to be content with their attendance in church. John’s brother Charles, also in Georgia serving under Governor Oglethorpe, was disappointed with his work, and decided to return to England. John stayed on, only because he refused to give up. Then he was forced to leave under messy circumstances. A young woman whom he’d courted but broken up with married another. Wesley, judging her to be fickle, denied her communion. He was sued for defamation. Angry at this treatment, though it was largely self-inflicted, he returned to England, to the rejoicing of the people of Georgia.
At a low point and not knowing what else to do, Wesley contacted the Moravians. Peter Boehler became Wesley’s personal contact and counselor. He concluded he lacked a genuine saving faith & should stop preaching. Boehler advised him to continue until he possessed the faith he preached about.
Finally, on May 24, 1738, Wesley had the experience that changed his life. He wrote …
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
After that, Wesley no longer doubted his salvation. In fact, the obsession he’d had before about wondering if he was saved was replaced by a confidence that freed him to turn his considerable intellect to other things. Mostly, to the salvation of others. He went immediately to visit the Moravian community at Herrnhut. Although inspiring, the visit convinced him Moravian spirituality was ill-suited to his temperament and involvement in social issues. In spite of his gratitude, he decided to not become a Moravian.
While all this was taking place, another former member of the “holy club,” one George Whitefield, had become a famous preacher. A few years earlier Whitefield was moved by an experience similar to Wesley’s at Aldersgate. He now divided his time between his parish in Georgia and preaching in England, where he had remarkable success, specially at the industrial center of Bristol. Whitefield’s preaching was emotional, and when critics objected to the way he used the pulpit he began preaching in outdoors; in the open air, as in Georgia. When the work in Bristol multiplied and he knew he’d need to soon return to Georgia, Whitefield asked Wesley to help by taking charge during his absence.
Wesley accepted Whitefield’s invitation. But Whitefield’s fiery preaching was not Wesley’s cup of tea. He objected to open-aire preaching. Later he commented on those early days, declaring that at that time he was so convinced that God wished everything to be done in order, that he assumed it a sin to save souls outside a church. Over time, in view of the incredible results & dramatic conversions, Wesley gave a reluctant nod to open-air work. He was also worried about the response to his preaching since it was so very different form Whitefield’s. But people often exhibited the same kind of response to his preaching they had to Whitefield’s. Some wept loudly & lamented their sins. Others collapsed in anguish. They would then express great joy, declaring they were wonderfully cleansed. Wesley preferred more solemn proceedings, but eventually decided what was taking place was a struggle between the devil & the Holy Spirit, and he ought not hinder God’s work. Over time, these emotional filled reactions of new converts diminished.
Wesley and Whitefield worked together for some time, although Wesley eventually became the leader of the movement. They parted because of theological differences. Both were Calvinists in most matters; but, on the issue of predestination and free will, Wesley departed from orthodox Calvinism, preferring the Arminian position. After several debates, the 2 friends decided each should follow his own path, and that they’d avoid controversies. That agreement was kept well by their followers. With the help of the Countess of Huntingdon, Whitefield organized the Calvinist Methodist Church, strongest in Wales.
Wesley had no interest in founding a new denomination. He was an Anglican, and throughout his life remained so. His goal was to cultivate the faith of the populace of England, much as Pietism was doing in Germany among Lutherans. He avoided scheduling his preaching in conflict with the services of the Church of England, and always took for granted that Methodist meetings would serve as preparation to attend Anglican worship and take communion there. For him, as for most of the church through the centuries, the center of worship was communion. This he took and expected his followers to take as frequently as possible, in the official services of the Church of England.
Although the movement had no intention of becoming a separate church, it did need an organization. In Bristol, the birthplace of the movement, Wesley’s followers organized into societies that at first met in private homes and later had their own buildings. When Methodist societies grew too large for the effective care of their members, Wesley followed a friend’s suggestion and divided them into classes, each with 11 members and a leader. These met weekly to read Scripture, pray, discuss religious matters, and collect funds. To be a class leader, it wasn’t necessary to be wealthy or educated. That gave significant participation to many who felt left out of the Church of England. It also opened the door to women who took a prominent place in Methodism.
The movement grew rapidly, and Wesley was had to travel throughout the British Isles, preaching and organizing his followers. The movement needed more to share in the task of preaching. A few Anglican priests joined. Most noteworthy among them was John brother Charles, famous for his hymns. But John Wesley carried the heaviest burden, preaching several times a day and traveling thousands of miles via horseback every year, until the age of 70.
Conflicts in the movement weren’t lacking. In the early years, there were frequent acts of violence against Methodists. Some of the nobility & clergy resented the authority the new movement gave people from the lower classes. Meetings were frequently interrupted by thugs & toughs hired by the movement’s opponents. Wesley’s life frequently threatened. As it became clear the opposition did nothing to slow or stop it, they gave up.
There were theological conflicts. Wesley grudgingly broke with the Moravians, whose inclination toward a contemplative Quietism he feared.
But the most significant conflicts were with the Anglican Church, to which Wesley belonged and in which he hoped to remain. Until his last days, he reprimanded Methodists who wanted to break with the Church of England. They saw something he seemed unwilling to see, that a breach was unavoidable. Some Anglican authorities regarded the Methodist movement as an indication of their shortcomings & resented it. Others felt the Methodists’ practice of preaching any & everywhere, without regard for ecclesiastical boundaries, was a serious breach of protocol. Wesley saw and understood these concerns, but thought the need of the lost trumps all such petty concerns.
A difficult legal decision came to make matters more tense. According to English law, non-Anglican worship services and church buildings were to be allowed, but they had to be officially registered. That put Methodists in a difficult place since the Church of England didn’t acknowledge their meetings and buildings. If they registered, it would be a declaration they weren’t Anglicans. If they didn’t, they’d be breaking the law. In 1787, after much hesitation, Wesley told his preachers to register, & the first legal step was taken toward the formation of a separate church. 3 years earlier, Wesley took a step that had even more drastic implications, at least theologically. For a long time, as a scholar of patristics, that is, the study of the Church Fathers, Wesley was convinced in the early church the term bishop was synonymous with elder & pastor. That led him to the conviction all ordained presbyters, including himself, had the power to ordain. But he refrained from employing it to avoid further alienating the Anglican leaders.
The independence of the United States, posed different difficulties. During the Revolutionary War, most Anglican clergy were Loyalists. After independence most of them returned to England. That made it difficult, impossible even, for US citizens to partake of communion. The bishop of London, who still had jurisdiction over the former colonies, refused to ordain clergy for the United States. Wesley deplored what he took to be the unwarranted rebellion of Britain’s former colonies, both because he was a staunch supporter of the king’s authority and because he could not fathom how the rebels could claim that they were fighting for freedom while they themselves held slaves. But, convinced communion was the heart of Christian worship, Wesley felt that no matter what the their political stance, US citizens ought not be deprived of the Lords’ table.
So in 1784, he ordained 2 lay preachers as presbyters for the new country, and made Anglican priest Thomas Coke their bishop. Later, he ordained others to serve in Scotland and elsewhere. In spite of having taken these steps, Wesley continued insisting on the need to avoid breaking with the Church of England. Charles told him the ordination of ministers for the New World was a break. In 1786, the Methodist leaders decided that in those places where the Anglican church was neglecting its Gospel duties, it was permitted to hold Methodist meetings at the same time as Anglican services.
Although Wesley refused to acknowledge it, by the time of his death in 1791, Methodism had become a separate church.