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Wesleyanism, or Wesleyan theology, is a movement of Protestant Christians who seek to follow the "methods" or theology of the eighteenth-century evangelical reformers John Wesley and his brother Charles Wesley. More broadly, it refers to the theological system inferred from the various sermons, theological treatises, letters, journals, diaries, hymns, and other spiritual writings of the Wesleys and their contemporary coadjutors such as John William Fletcher.
Wesleyanism, manifest today in Methodist and Holiness churches, is named for its founders, the Wesleys. In 1736, these two brothers traveled to the Georgia colony in America as missionaries for the Church of England; they left rather disheartened at what they saw. Both of them subsequently had "religious experiences," especially John in 1738, being greatly influenced by the Moravian Christians. They began to organize a renewal movement within the Church of England to focus on personal faith and holiness. John Wesley took Protestant churches to task over the nature of sanctification, the process by which a believer is conformed to the image of Christ, emphasizing New Testament teachings regarding the work of God and the believer in sanctification. The movement did well within the Church of England in Britain, but when the movement crossed the ocean into America, it took on a form of its own, finally being established as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. The Wesleyan churches are very similar to Anglicanism (in Church government and liturgical practices), yet have added a strong emphasis on personal faith and personal experience.
At its heart, the theology of John Wesley stressed the life of Christian holiness: to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. See also Ministry of Jesus. Wesley’s teaching also stressed experiential religion and moral responsibility.
Wesleyan and Arminianism
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The doctrine of Wesleyan-Arminianism was founded as an attempt to explain Christianity in a manner unlike the teachings of Calvinism. Arminianism is a theological study conducted by Jacobus Arminius, from the Netherlands, in opposition to Calvinist orthodoxy on the basis of free will. After the death of Arminius the followers, led by Simon Episcopius, presented a document concerning the Arminian beliefs to the Netherlands. This document is known today as the five articles of Remonstrance. Wesleyanism, on the other hand, was founded upon the theological teachings of John Wesley, an English evangelist, and the beliefs of this dogma are derived from his many publications, including his sermons, journal, abridgements of theological, devotional, and historical Christian works, and a variety of tracts and treatises on theological subjects. Subsequently, the two theories have joined into one set of values for the contemporary church; yet, when examined separately, their unique details can be discovered, as well as their similarities in ideals.
In the early 1770s, John Wesley, aided by the theological writings of John William Fletcher, emphasized Arminian doctrines in his controversy with the Calvinistic wing of the evangelicals in England. Then, in 1778, he founded a theological journal which he titled the Arminian Magazine. This period and the Calvinist-Arminian Controversy was influential in forming a lasting link between Arminianism and Wesleyanism
Wesley is remembered for visiting the Moravians of both Georgia and Germany and examining their beliefs, then founding the Methodist movement, the precursor to the later variety of Methodist denominations. Wesley's desire was not to form a new sect, but rather to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness as truth. However, the creation of Wesleyan-Arminianism has today developed into a popular standard for many contemporary churches. Wesleyanism well explains the two main events in the life of the believer; "saving faith," or justification, the threshold of the Christian life; and "the fullness of faith," or sanctification, as its goal. Wesleyanism also stresses good works through faith that acts by love, and the primacy of revelation in the scriptures.
In the broad sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition identifies the theological impetus for those movements and denominations who trace their roots to a theological tradition finding its initial focus in John Wesley. Although its primary legacy remains within the various Methodist denominations (the Wesleyan Methodist, the Free Methodist, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal, the United Methodist, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and others), the Wesleyan tradition has been refined and reinterpreted as catalyst for other movements and denominations as well, e.g., Charles Finney and the holiness movement; William J. Seymour and the Pentecostal movement; Phineas Bresee and the Church of the Nazarene.
In the more narrow sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition has been associated with Arminianism, usually in contrast to Reformed Calvinism. Historically, Calvinists have feared that Wesleyans have strayed too close to Pelagianism. On the other hand, Wesleyans have feared that Calvinists have strayed too close to antinomianism. Justification by faith is pivotal for both traditions. Although free will is an issue, in many respects the two traditions are not that far apart. For example, Wesley stated that he and Calvin were but a hair's breadth apart on justification. Sanctification, not free will, draws the clearest line of distinction. Good theology, for Wesley, was balance without compromise. This balance is most evident in Wesley's understanding of faith and works, justification and sanctification. Those who espouse such a tradition like to think of this as their peculiar genius.
The Wesleyan tradition seeks to establish justification by faith as the gateway to sanctification or "scriptural holiness." Wesley insisted that imputed righteousness must become imparted righteousness. He believed that one could progress in love until love became devoid of self-interest at the moment of entire sanctification.
The Wesleyan tradition's defense has normally exercised four sources of authority rooted in the tradition of the Church of England: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience.
Variants: the Methodist and holiness movements
The Wesleyan movement began as a reform within the Church of England, and, for a while, it remained as such. The movement separated itself from its "mother church" and became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church in America and the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Britain. Many divisions occurred within the Methodist Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century, mostly over, first, the slavery question and later, over the inclusion of African-Americans. Some of these schisms healed in the early twentieth century, and many of the splinter Methodist groups came together by 1939 to form The Methodist Church. In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Pietist Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist church in America. Other groups include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Congregational Methodist Church, the Evangelical Church of North America, the Evangelical Congregational Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and the Southern Methodist Church.
In nineteenth-century America, a dissension arose over the nature of sanctification. Those who saw sanctification as a never completed progressive task, remained within the Methodist churches; others, however, believed in instantaneous sanctification that could be perfected. Those who followed this line of thought began the various holiness churches, including the Church of God (Holiness), the Church of God (Anderson), the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, and the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which later merged with the Pilgrim Holiness Church to form the Wesleyan Church, which are present today. In the nineteenth century, there were many other holiness groups; many of these groups became the foundation for the Pentecostal movement. Other holiness groups that rejected the Pentecostal movement merged to form the Church of the Nazarene.
The Salvation Army is another group which traces its roots to early Methodism. The Salvation Army's founders Catherine and William Booth founded the organization to stress evangelism and social action when William was a minister in the Methodist Reform Church.
- Huzar, Eleanor, "Arminianism" in the Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, 1994).
- Outler, Albert C., "John Wesley" in the Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, 1994).
- J. Wesley (ed. T. Jackson), Works (14 vols).
- Wallace Thornton, Jr., Radical Righteousness
- Wallace Thornton, Jr., The Conservative Holiness Movement: A Historical Appraisal