“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America,” John Wesley reflected late in his life. “But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Are we a dead sect? Or, to quote John’s brother Charles, “Are we yet alive?”
The “dead sect” quote opens “Thoughts upon Methodism,” an article John wrote for the The Arminian Magazine in 1787. He turned 84 that year.
The article reads like John of Patmos’ letter to the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7). Wesley is concerned that the people called Methodists may one day forget their first love, “the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
He reminds readers of the movement’s humble beginnings, “In the year 1729, four young students in Oxford agreed to spend their evenings together.” He tells about the early days of field preaching in Bristol and how he ended up acquiring the Foundery, an abandoned building in London.
He remembers how in the beginning, “all the benches for rich and poor were of the same construction.” Even the sermons were simpler back then: “salvation by faith, preceded by repentance, and followed by holiness.”
He recounts the story of stumbling on the class system through Captain Foy’s suggestion of a “penny offering” from every Methodist. Back in those days, Wesley reminisces, “many of them… [had] not a penny to give.”
“From this short sketch of Methodism (so called),” Wesley concludes, “any man of understanding may easily discern, that it is only plain, Scriptural religion, guarded by a few prudential regulations. The essence of it is holiness of heart and life.”
Wesley is concerned that one thing could undo this for individual Methodists and the movement as a whole.
I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion.
For him, it’s all about the money, money, money.
Wesley knows that Methodists can accumulate wealth due to their frugality (see Wesley’s sermon “The Use of Money“), and when wealth increases religion decreases.
“Hence,” he continues, “they proportionably [sic] increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away” (emphasis added).
Wesley asserts that the people called Methodists will become a dead sect when money corrupts them. He’s afraid they will one day forget their first love–those days when they had nothing but a zeal for growing as disciples of Jesus Christ. What he calls “plain, Scriptural religion.”
Fortunately, as one expects of Wesley, he has a solution. He closes “Thoughts upon Methodism” with these two sentences:
There is one way, and there is no other under heaven. If those who “gain all they can,” and “save all they can,” will likewise “give all they can;” then, the more they gain, the more they will grow in grace, and the more treasure they will lay up in heaven.
When Methodists give, we avoid falling in love with money and becoming a dead sect.
In “Thoughts upon Methodism,” our founder seems little troubled by conflicts among Methodists. Instead, he is concerned that we will trade in our fist love of Jesus and one another, what he calls “holiness of heart and life,” for a love of money.
The United Methodist Church today is at our best when we heed Wesley’s words.
Our United Methodist Committee on Relief is one of the premier relief organizations in the world. We’re often the first to arrive after a disaster and the last to leave. And every penny donated toward relief efforts goes to help those devastated by disaster.
Our Abundant Health initiative, which grew out of Imagine No Malaria is changing lives. Together, we United Methodists are improving the health of people all around the world.
Local United Methodist churches feed the hungry through food banks and kitchens. We care for children through tutoring programs, backpack programs, and day care centers. We give drinks to the thirsty by drilling wells and caring for water. We watch over one another in love in small groups, Sunday school classes, and UMW circles. We care for the sick as doctors and nurses, through visits to the hospital, and by providing casseroles.
We are not a dead sect when we live into rubber-meets-the-road, “plain, Scriptural religion.” When we express our love of Jesus by loving one another, incredible things happen in our communities and around the world.
We are yet alive when we remember that we are the church–you, me, all of us. We may not agree on everything, but we all love Jesus. That is the power of religion of which our founder speaks.