Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

High Church Anglican Influences on John Wesley's Conception of Primitive Christianity, 1732-1735

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

High Church Anglican Influences on John Wesley's Conception of Primitive Christianity, 1732-1735

Article excerpt

The ideal of primitive Christianity exerted a profound influence on John Wesley (1703-91) during the last few years he spent at Oxford before making the bold decision to become a missionary in the recently established colony of Georgia (chartered in 1732).1 This impulse to restore the purity of the early church was an established tradition within mainstream Anglicanism that was mediated to Wesley through his high church predecessors including his parents, and the nonjurors, Anglicans who declined to take the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to William and Mary (r. 1689-1702 and 1689-94)2 For Wesley, primitive Christianity - especially as mediated to him through certain aspects of the high church movement - was much more than a romantic ideal, it was a living tradition to be engaged both in the realms of academic study and clerical practice. His focus was primarily on the primitive standard for liturgical purity and holy living. Wesley approached the Georgia mission (October 1735 to December 1737) as a laboratory for implementing his vision of primitive Christianity. He saw his mission as one geared predominately toward reviving the apostolic faith and the primitive community of goods among the Indians.3 The appeal of primitive Christianity as a theory and a goal was a central yet integrated part of the overall series of influences which culminated in Wesley's decision to leave his native land.

High churchmen and nonjurors placed a strong emphasis on episcopacy, divine right monarchy, the sacraments, and the authority of the Church Fathers.4 In this essay, nonjurors are considered together with other high churchmen who influenced John Wesley due to the high level of doctrinal agreement they held in common with their conforming brethren.5 What initially separated them from conforming high churchmen was political conviction, but by the time A Communion Office (1718) was published with the four eucharistic "usages" restored there was a level of theological differentiation among the nonjurors due to the rigid stance on the usages adopted by some nonjurors. Various viewpoints on the usages, which included the mixing of water with wine in the sacrament, the offering or oblation of the elements as a representation of Christ's sacrifice, a prayer for the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the elements, and prayers for the dead, internally divided the nonjurors. Several aspects of Wesley's sacramental practice in Georgia went beyond authorized Anglican practice. He rebaptized dissenters and insisted on trine (i.e. triple) immersion. In the Eucharist he mixed water with wine in the sacramental cup, denied communion to parishioners not baptized by an episcopally ordained clergyman, and altered the Book of Common Prayer's communion liturgy to bring it into agreement with the usages.6 The high church Anglican influences that led Wesley to adopt these extreme high church practices in Georgia will be outlined in this essay.

THE WESLEY FAMILY REVERENCE FOR THE PRIMITIVE CHURCH

John Wesley's introduction to the primitive church began at an early age. His parents, Samuel and Susanna Wesley, like many eighteenth-century Anglicans, were fascinated by the ideal of primitive Christianity. Reflecting on his upbringing Wesley stated: "From a child I was taught to love and reverence the Scripture, the oracles of God; and, next to these, to esteem the primitive Fathers, the writers of the first three centuries. Next after the primitive church I esteemed our own, the Church of England, as the most Scriptural national church in the world." Samuel Wesley (16621735) had no doubt that "the best and purest Ages of the Church" were the earliest ages of the church.8 His obituary in the Gentleman's Magazine accurately memorialized him as "a most zealous Asserter of the Doctrine and Discipline of the Church of England."9 He was keen to defend the liturgy and episcopal constitution of the church as "agreeable to the Primitive Pattern," and he was equally passionate about restoring "the ancient church discipline. …

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