The Wesleys of Blessed Memory: Hagiography, Missions, and the Study of World Methodism

Article excerpt

Broadly conceived, the field of Wesley studies goes back to the early nineteenth century. (1) Many scholars today regard most of the early works about John (1703-91) and Charles (1707-88) Wesley and about the rise and spread of Methodism in eighteenth-century England as a mixture of history and hagiography. (2) This way of characterizing early Wesley studies is understandable, for Methodist clergy were responsible for much of this work. (3) They were sincere in wanting to provide an accurate account of their own history, providing as much factual information as was readily available to them. At the same time, they unapologetically focused on and even embellished the most inspiring and theologically potent aspects of the story they were attempting to tell. For example, they routinely played up things like the providential rescue of the five-year-old John Wesley from the Epworth rectory fire, Wesley's doubting whether he really had faith in God in the face of a violent storm on the high seas during his missionary journey to Georgia, Wesley's heart-warming conversion experience on Aldersgate Street, and his calm assurance and peacefulness in his last days on earth. Written through and for the eyes of faith, these stories and others like them became familiar among Methodists, providing them with a deep sense that Methodism was a matter of special divine providence and that John Wesley's spiritual pilgrimage was something of a blueprint for the Christian life. Thus not a few Methodists across the centuries, having internalized these stories, have undertaken similar journeys from the spiritual darkness of doubt and uncertainty to the warm light of assurance and of grace and peace in the face of death. (4)

Critical Studies of Methodism

Whatever function these early works on the Wesleys and the rise of Methodism may have had in the religious lives of Methodists, historians in the mid-twentieth century increasingly questioned the value of these works for historical inquiry and knowledge. By the 1960s, scholars were calling for and working to develop a more "critical" account of the life of John Wesley and the rise and spread of Methodism in eighteenth-century England. (5) Today, Wesley studies experts often trace the emergence of this more critical perspective to the 1964 publication of John Wesley (Oxford Univ. Press, Library of Protestant Thought), by Methodist theologian Albert C. Outler. Less frequently noted but no less important, scholars outside Methodism began paying more attention during this same period to John Wesley and to the rise and spread of Methodism. (6) In the 1970s Outler, together with Frank Baker, took another crucial step in the advancement of Wesley studies when they began publishing a critical edition of Wesley's works. (7) Finally, Richard P. Heitzenrater's two-volume The Elusive Mr. Wesley (1984), a work designed in part to identify the hagiographic and mythological elements in the early Wesley biographies, also helped to solidify a critical consciousness in Wesley studies. (8)

Four recent developments within critical Wesley studies are especially worth noting. First, they have become a highly sophisticated domain of inquiry, exemplifying the highest critical standards in intellectual, social, political, and material history, as well as sociology, theology, and even relatively new disciplines such as rhetorical criticism and cultural studies. (9) Second, in Henry Rack's Reasonable Enthusiast (1989; 3rd ed., 2002) we now have a first-rate critical biography of John Wesley. (10) Third, Charles Wesley has at long last begun to receive the attention from scholars that he deserves. (11) Fourth, a growing number of scholars have begun to contextualize the critical study of the Wesleys and of early Methodism within the political and social framework of the so-called long eighteenth century and within the wider parameters of trans-Atlantic revivalism. (12)

Despite the phenomenal work of the last fifty years, a significant gap remains in the literature. …