Book Review

Dr Herbert McGonigle, Chairman of the Wesley Fellowship, reviews a book on the origins of Methodism.

The Genesis of Methodism, by Frederick Dreyer (Lehigh University Press, Penn. USA 1999) 138 pp. hardback, ISBN 0-934223-56-4.

This is a book with a mission.  Convinced that John Wesley himself, and nearly all subsequent Wesleyan historians, have deliberately ‘played down’ the Moravian influences on the origins of ‘Methodism,’ Mr Dreyer is determined to redress the balance. The origins of Moravianism in Germany and England are examined and, in particular, the evidence of how both German and English Moravianism deeply influenced the spiritual experiences of the Wesley brothers and the revival movement they headed.  The first distinctly Moravian ‘Society’ was founded in London on 1 May, 1738 by the German Moravian teacher, Peter Bohler, and it became the Fetter Lane Society.  Both John and Charles Wesley were members of it and it attracted men and women from various other groupings, including the Oxford ‘Holy Club,’ those who were members of the Religious Societies and those who met together as a result of the preaching of George Whitefield.  This Society grew in number and influence until a serious split occurred in July 1740. The division was occasioned by the Moravian promotion of ‘stillness’ teaching, which advocated that the unsaved should refrain from all the means of grace until they were truly converted.  Both John and Charles Wesley strongly opposed this teaching, left the Fetter Lane gathering and set up their own ‘Society’ at the Foundery with about eighty people who joined them from Fetter Lane.  This was the beginning of what came to be known as Wesleyan Methodism. 

Mr Dreyer notes that John Wesley had always paid tribute to the spiritual help and direction he had received from the Moravians but accuses him of seeking to deny his Moravian roots in his later years. It is alleged that when Wesley published A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists in 1748, the Moravians were not even mentioned.  But the accusation goes further. The ‘Plain Account was written to mislead… Wesley lied… He lied when he attributed the origin of the Methodist constitution to a succession of accidents and improvisations’ (p. 76).  This is a serious charge but where is the evidence?  If Mr Dreyer had paid more careful attention to Wesley’s opening paragraph, he could not have made this accusation. The Plain Account was written to the Rev. Vincent Perronet, vicar of Shoreham, who became a lifelong friend of the Wesleys and the revival.  Wesley began by saying that Mr Perronet had requested an account of the people called Methodists and Wesley had responded by writing a brief history.  Wesley acknowledged it was not ‘a full account’ but it was ‘true’.  To supplement that earlier record, Wesley now composed the Plain Account. This second account did not need to repeat what the first account had said, so of course it does not give all the details of the origins of Methodism.  Unfortunately the first account no longer exists, but there are no grounds for alleging that John Wesley lied in this second account.  To charge any Christian, especially a Christian leader, of lying, indeed to make two such allegations, is a serious breach of Christian charity – especially when it is only speculation.

The thesis of this book is that Methodism owed its beginnings to Moravianism, and in this way its connections with the Church of England are played down.  Mr Dreyer notes that John Wesley’s 1775 Conference discussed a plan to have his preachers ordained by Anglican bishops but nothing came of it.  Then comes the comment. ‘Even supposing that ordination is something the bishops would have given, we cannot assume it was something Wesley sought’ (p.17). This is a most surprising conclusion.  Wesley was delighted when the Bishop of Londonderry ordained his first lay preacher, Thomas Maxfield (Journal, 5:11), and requested Dr Robert Lowth, Bishop of London (1777-87) more than once to ordain his preachers but without success.   When Wesley ordained two of his preachers in 1784, his defence was: ‘I asked the bishops and they would not help’ (Journal, 8:333).  Earlier he had written that episcopal ordination is ‘that ordination we prefer to any other.’ In the face of this incontrovertible evidence of how John Wesley desired episcopal ordination for his preachers, Mr Dreyer’s comment is certainly wide of the mark. 

Noting that John Wesley omitted the Athanasian Creed from his edited version of the Book of Common Prayer prepared for American Methodism, Mr Dreyer says: ‘Although Wesley was no Unitarian, Unitarianism was not something he wanted condemned in public worship week after week.  In a sense, orthodoxy did not matter’ (p.31).  To say the least, this is a most unguarded and misleading interpretation.  In the late 1750s John Wesley made long and vigorous protests against what he described as the ‘poison’ of Dr John Taylor’s Socinian Christology and soteriology.  He spent ten weeks in writing his own very detailed reply to Taylor with his, Doctrine of Original Sin according to Scripture, Reason and Experience (1757). He castigated Taylor’s Socinianism as having wounded the Christian faith more seriously than any other attack since Mahomet. Hardly the reaction of someone who thought ‘orthodoxy did not matter’! 

The charge is made that John Wesley was an ‘ex-Moravian itinerant’ who tried very hard to disown his Moravian background (p.77). When Wesley returned from his visit to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, in September 1738, he immediately began preaching to gatherings of people in the London area.  In his Journal he speaks about ‘a large company,’ ‘a society,’ ‘a small company,’ and such like.  This book asserts that these societies ‘may owe their existence to Moravian initiative’ (p.73). Presumably this speculation is suggested to lend strength to the suggestion that John Wesley was a ‘Moravian itinerant.’  That he was very friendly with the Moravians is undeniable - nor did Wesley himself ever wish to deny it – but, that these societies were Moravian is most unlikely.  Moravianism has only been established in England earlier that year (in March 1738) and to suggest, that, only six months later, it had the number of societies mentioned by Wesley, is hardly credible.  Indeed we are informed that four years later, in 1742, the total number of Moravian societies in France, Hesse and England was only twelve! (p.62).  These societies in the London area where John Wesley preached from September 1738 onwards were either gatherings of the Religious Societies (begun by Dr Antony Horneck in c.1678) or the results of the preaching of George Whitefield.  This book is trying to make the argument that they were Moravian in origin in order to bolster its claim that John Wesley was a ‘Moravian itinerant’ but the evidence is very weak. 

Another serious charge is made against John Wesley’s Christian spirit.  Arguing that the bitterness of the Fetter Lane schism made it difficult for Wesley to tell the truth about his former friends, it is concluded that ‘it is not easy to acknowledge a debt to people one has come to hate’ (p. 76).  Did John Wesley hate his former Moravian friends?  The final break between the Moravians and the Methodists came not long after Wesley and Count Zinzendorf, the Moravian founder, met in London in September 1741.  They disagreed on the question of Christian holiness and Wesley thought that Zinzendorf’s theology opened the door to antinomianism. It should be noted that while Wesley asserted that their interpretation of Christ’s imputed righteousness could easily lead to antinomianism, he never alleged, or hinted, that any of the Moravians were antinomian in practice. Moravian history records that Zinzendorf publicly branded the Wesley brothers as ‘false teachers and deceivers of souls’ and warned his people to beware of them.  Clearly there were strong feelings on both sides but there is simply no evidence that John Wesley came to hate the people who had helped him so much.  In 1746 he wrote: ‘There has not been one day for these seven years last past wherein my soul has not longed for union… The body of the Moravian Church… are the best Christians in the world… I cannot speak of them but with tender affection.’   In November 1763 he met his old Moravian friend, John Gambold, and lamented: ‘Who but Count Zinzendorf could have separated such friends as we are.  Shall we never unite again?’  Eight years later he met another old Moravian friend, James Hutton, and recorded that they ‘conversed just as we did in 1738 when we met in Fetter Lane.’  Following this very friendly meeting with Hutton, Wesley wrote to him.  ‘After having seen above half a century of years, we are sick of strife and contention.  If we do not yet think alike, we may at least love alike.’ John Wesley expressed these sentiments between 1746 and 1771 and they certainly don’t sound as if he is talking about people he hates!  Significantly Mr Dreyer’s book does not mention any of these references. 

There are many good things in this book. The description of the Moravian understanding of sin, grace and conversion is particularly well done, especially as it relates to significant developments in their understanding of regeneration post 1738.  How both the Moravians and the Methodists reacted to the Enlightenment of their century, and how their concept of revival responded to the growing rationalism of their age, is given very good treatment in chapter 4.  John Wesley’s debt to the Moravians was very great and he freely acknowledged it.  Undoubtedly Moravianism could have been dealt with more adequately by some Methodist historians but this book protests too much.  Seeking to redress what he sees, rightly, as an imbalance in some of the historical accounts of Moravian/Methodist relations, Mr Dreyer has drawn attention to important points. He has, however, in the opinion of this reviewer, seriously spoiled his case by being too one sided and too partisan - the very ‘sins’ he purports to find in others.



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