Standing in a hallway at United Methodist Archives and History several years ago, I was admiring a print of a painting I’d seen photos of several times before. “Do you know the story behind the painting?,” one of the archivists asked as he approached from behind.
I knew the story it depicted, I told him. As a child, John Wesley had been dramatically rescued from a fire at his family’s home. I wrote about that here.
“Not the story of the fire,” he continued, “but the story behind the painting.” Nope. I didn’t know that story.
The painting by Henry Perlee Parker was suggested by The Reverend James Everett more than 100 years after the fire. Revd. Everett, a well-known Methodist preacher who was critical of the Wesleyan / Methodist church of his day, was also kind enough to pose for the artist. He’s the man on the ground ready to receive John Wesley from his rescuers.
That, the archivist shared, was the point of the painting. In essence, it was intended to be a political cartoon.
Everett wanted everyone to know… and stop me if you’ve heard this before… that the Wesleyan / Methodist church of his day had strayed from Wesley’s original intent. He and those who agreed with him, were the real Wesleyans, the true inheritors of Methodism. They were literally saving the founder from a burning building.
Oh, and in case anyone missed the subtlety of the message, Everett wrote an accompanying pamphlet to drive the point home.
A familiar story
Some tell a similar story today. The United Methodist Church, they say, has strayed from Wesley and they are ready to rescue it. The only thing missing is a painting.
This kind of sentiment is all around us. Not only is it a repeat of the issues within the church 100 years ago, the same conversation is played out by other denominations who claim they are the true followers of Jesus or the Acts 2 church. In the US, there are those who claim to be constitutional originalists, the true inheritors of the founders. You may have even had to prove yourself a true fan of your favorite band, team, movie, book, show, whatever.
I imagine this plays out in almost every organization and fanbase. Someone is always ready to say that they, and only they, are on the right track. All others have strayed and/or don’t know what they are talking about.
A wide Wesleyanism
It’s interesting to note, however, that while Wesley was strongly opinionated, he never appeared to be a theological purist.
When Wesley described a Methodist, he began this way:
The distinguishing marks of a methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point.John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist
Methodism didn’t begin as a church, but a parachurch movement. Methodists were members of other congregations. The vast majority were part of the Church of England, but some were Baptists and Presbyterians. They attended their churches on Sunday, then were part of Methodist society and class meetings during the week.
A few paragraphs later in The Character of a Methodist, Wesley continues:
A methodist is one, who has the love of God shed abroad in his heart, by the Holy Ghost given unto him: one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul; which is constantly crying out, “Whom have I in Heaven but thee, and there is none upon Earth that I desire beside thee! My God and my all! Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever!”John Wesley, The Character of a Methodist
Methodism was about increasing one’s love for God in all aspects of life. The bands, classes, and societies, were places to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ through the study of Scripture and serving the community. It was a place to ask questions, to explore your faith and expand your love of God and neighbor–as individuals and as a community of faith.
No rescue needed
The best churches I have been part of, have been just that. Places that allowed me to think, dream, wander, wonder, study, ask, challenge, be challenged, love, be loved, serve, and most of all GROW.
Wesley doesn’t need to rescued. We don’t need to separate from those with whom we disagree. Instead, we need to encourage each other to grow in our love of God and neighbor as we watch over one another in love.