Religion of the Heart

John Wesley and the Legacy of Methodism in America

Cases 5-7

Three Themes in Early Methodism

Three distinct themes of related to early Methodism are explored here: hymnody, biblical interpretation, and sermons. Singing the Psalms was the acceptable mode of worship in eighteenth-century Anglicanism. The Psalter was even popular among Nonconformists, which is why many, even Charles Wesley, produced new, metrical versions of it. Yet the singing of hymns, particularly outside of Anglican services, was gaining popularity in eighteenth-century Britain. The members of the Oxford Holy Club sang hymns, and, as early as 1737, John Wesley produced collections of hymns intended to supplement Anglican worship. John Wesley’s various collections of hymns played a prominent role in Methodist tradition. Charles Wesley gained the reputation as the bard of Methodism and John’s role was primarily to edit collections and promote their use. Long after the Wesleys, hymns continued to play a major role within the Methodist movement.

In the introduction to Sermons on Several Occasions (1746), John Wesley famously asserted, “Let me be homo unius libri [a man of one book].” This identity reflected  Wesley’s theology and mode of expression, which is evident in his frequent use of biblical language in his sermons, tracts, and letters. Despite drawing on the whole Bible, Wesley certainly had a canon within a canon, often making use of 1 John or the Sermon on the Mount. For Wesley, 1 John represented “the deepest part of the Holy Scripture” and was the place where “sublimity and simplicity” are joined. Similarly, he identified the Sermon on the Mount as “the noblest compendium of religion which is to be found even in the oracles of God.”

Wesley wrote explanatory notes for the whole Bible that were intended to be short, simple, and accessible. His notes also drew heavily on other sources such as Bengel’s Gnomon Novi Testamenti and Doddridge’s Family Expositor. Later, Wesley would promote his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament along with his published sermons as doctrinal standards for Methodist preachers.

Although John Wesley may not have been recognized as the most eloquent preacher of his day, his role as a preacher was central to his identity. Wesley preached all over Britain and his sermons were frequently published. The written sermons often varied from the spoken sermons, but, according to Wesley, both written and spoken sermons contained the same theological substance. In the introduction to his collection of sermons published in 1746, Wesley indicates that his sermons were aimed at a broad audience (ad populum). Thus, despite his first-rate education at Oxford, he did not add excessive rhetorical flourish to his sermons, but instead he composed sermons that contained “plain truth for plain people.”

Detail of “Desiring Love” in John Frederick Lampe and Charles Wesley, Hymns on Great Festivals, And Other Occasions, 1753. [1753 LAMP]

John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 1757

John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, 1757.  [1757 WESL C]

John Wesley, “The Circumcision of the Heart: A Sermon Peached at St. Mary’s, Oxford, Before the University, On January 1, 1733.” Sermons on Several Occasions, 1748. [1748 WESL D]