John Wesley has been claimed by so many different heirs and used to so many and varied ends that it is refreshing to have someone like Hal Knight come along and point us back to the source. John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, his new entry in the Cascade Companions series designed for nonspecialist readers, comes along just as the United Methodist Church is wrestling with what it means to be faithful to Wesleyan tradition in the 21st century. Knight, who is a professor of Wesleyan Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is not going to take sides in that conversation, but he is going to point out why Wesley still matters.
In 10 brief chapters and a conclusion, Knight offers a biography of Wesley that is oriented toward his developing thought in relation to other movements of the 18th century, particularly Moravian and Calvinist strains. Knight traces Wesley from his early (and lifelong) understanding of salvation as holiness of heart and life to his 1738 discovery of the knowledge of God’s love as gift and power, which became the engine of his later work.
We go with John and his brother, Charles, to Georgia. We travel with him to Bavaria to learn from the Moravians. And we glimpse his extraordinary ministry of preaching and writing throughout Britain. But Knight keeps the focus on the controversies that fired him, the sermons and writings that revealed his deepening theology, and the Methodist apparatus he developed to support that theology.
The Wesley that emerges is not the rigorous obsessive we sometimes imagine from his journals, but a man truly fired by a notion of God’s love. Wesley, in Knight’s telling, even has a warmth that keeps him in relationship with others, like George Whitefield, who could have been styled fierce opponents.
In the end, Knight chooses to highlight how Wesley could challenge Americans of our day. In opposition to those who think that Christian salvation “is solely about our post-mortem destiny,” Wesley insists “it is about receiving a new life in the present, one that lasts through all eternity.” (141) American spirituality, so prone to the belief that “there is a wonderful self inside of us waiting to be actualized,” could use a dose of Wesley’s realism about the human condition and the way “salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a free gift of God, given through the cross of Jesus Christ and actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit.” (142) And Wesley’s focus on the need for accountable community and spiritual discipline could upend “the pervasive privatization of religion in American culture.” (143)
Talking about these things is a much better goal than trying to draw Wesley into the denominational anxieties of the largest Methodist body that traces back to him. Wherever the UMC goes, it will need to come back to Wesley’s genius if it is once again to be about “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.” That holiness is an appealing goal in Knight’s retelling. And the book itself whets one’s appetite to know what has been and what will be.
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