Book review: Geordan Hammond’s John Wesley in America

February 11, 2015

hammond_bookIn the United Methodist-affiliated seminary I attended, we learned little in Methodist history class about John Wesley’s Savannah mission aside from its being an unmitigated failure: He sought an assurance of salvation, which he didn’t receive. He wanted to convert the Indians, which he didn’t do. And although he fell in love with Sophia Hopkey, his misguided zeal for his vocation prevented him from tying the knot, which led, indirectly, to his being run out of the colony.

In his new book, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity, Wesley historian Geordan Hammond corrects the record, or at least paints a fuller picture of what Wesley sought to accomplish in Savannah, and reassesses Wesley’s success in doing so. Unlike previous works devoted to Wesley’s journey to and ministry in the Georgia colony, Hammond draws upon a wider range of primary documents, including Wesley’s diaries, journals of both sympathizers and opponents, and other primary documents related to the Georgia colony at the time.

Hammond’s thesis is that Wesley’s main impetus for going to Georgia wasn’t, contrary to popular belief, to gain assurance of salvation or even to be a missionary to the Indians. He went primarily to make Georgia a “laboratory for restoring primitive Christianity.” To that end, an indigenous population yet untouched or uncorrupted by the Christianity of the Old World would provide fertile ground for doing so.

What did “primitive Christianity” mean to Wesley? Mostly it meant the Christianity of the first three centuries—pre-Nicene—as envisioned by a group of reforming High Church and Nonjuror Anglicans. The Nonjurors were a group of clergy who severed ties with the Church of England by refusing to take the “Oath of Allegiance” to William and Mary of Orange, believing that doing so broke faith with previous oaths to the Stuarts (Charles II and his heirs).

As Hammond writes, High Church and Nonjurors strongly emphasized “apostolic succession, episcopacy, divine right of monarchy, church discipline, liturgy, the Sacraments, and the authority of the Church Fathers,” especially the Fathers prior to the fourth century. (Does this explain, in part, Wesley’s well-known antipathy toward Augustine?) The specifically “Nonjuring” influence on Wesley came by way of a more radical subgroup known as Usagers, who insisted on Eucharistic practices that went beyond the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, including, for example, mixing water with Communion wine and praying on behalf the “faithful departed.” Each of these beliefs and practices—and others reflected in Patristic-era books such as the Apostolic Constitutions and Canons—were understood by Wesley and his fellow Oxford Methodists to better reflect the beliefs and practices of the primitive church.

Incidentally, while reading the chapter devoted to Wesley’s interest in primitive Christianity, I thought of an unpleasant conversation I once had with an acquaintance who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy from his strictly Calvinistic Presbyterian Church in America background. His main reason for converting to Orthodoxy, he said, was his strong conviction that it better reflected the belief and practices of the early church.

Wesley and the Oxford Methodists shared this same conviction about the Church of England!

This Methodist preacher's kids at the Wesley statue in Reynolds Square in Savannah in 2011.

Methodist preacher’s kids at the Wesley statue in Reynolds Square in Savannah in 2012.

I’ve already gotten deeper in the weeds about primitive Christianity than I wanted to, but there’s no way to appreciate Wesley’s ministry in Georgia without this background—even the controversies that ultimately led to his early departure from the colony. Wesley’s vision of restoring primitive Christianity provides the necessary context in which the Sophia Williamson (née Hopkey) scandal can be understood.

It’s true, for example, that Wesley denied Communion to Sophia and her new husband William Williamson. And this played an important role in the indictment that led this expulsion form the colony. But what Wesley asked of the Williamsons—to provide prior notice of their intent to receive the sacrament each week (so that they could be examined and found “worthy” to receive it)—he asked of all communicating parishioners. This was one of several unusual or unfamiliar practices highlighted by Hammond—including regular fasting and asceticism—which Wesley believed better reflected the practice of the primitive church. Parishioners even noticed and complained about Wesley’s changing the Church of England’s Eucharistic liturgy to reflect Nonjuring “usages.”

In this context, it’s understandable that Wesley’s opponents accused him of being a closet Catholic or, as his chief critic Thomas Causton said, “introducing I know not what new religion among us.”

Hammond explores other reasons for opposition to Wesley, including familiar Wesleyan themes related to social holiness and prominent roles for women in ministry, the latter of which also influenced the Sophia Williamson controversy.

In fairness to Wesley’s political opponents, however, conditions in the new colony were austere. The need for social cohesion was paramount. And Wesley was far more committed to the colonists’ souls than to their citizenship. He was seen by some as disruptive to an already fragile social order, however well-intentioned his efforts were.

Until I read this book, I failed to appreciate that the Church of England in Georgia wasn’t an established church. Many (if not most) of the colonists were Dissenters or otherwise non-Anglicans who resented Wesley’s High Churchmanship all the more. Some of the witnesses against Wesley in the Grand Jury hearing were Scottish Presbyterians who disliked Wesley for being Anglican.

Still, as Hammond argues in detail, Wesley’s ministry was far from complete failure—which may be understating the case. Worship attendance grew in the parish. Many colonists loved and appreciated their pastor, especially the care for their physical and spiritual health that he demonstrated every day by visiting “door to door.” And from his own contemporaneous diaries, it’s clear that Wesley returned his parishioners’ affection. Oglethorpe himself mostly approved of the job Wesley was doing.

If Wesley was in the midst of a spiritual crisis while he was in Georgia—as even some of his post-Aldersgate words indicate—he betrays no evidence of it in contemporaneous documents.

Moreover, Hammond argues that Wesley developed or refined many evangelical practices in Georgia that would later play an important role in the success of the Methodist movement—including preaching without notes, itinerancy, and fostering lay leadership among the religious societies he started. In fact, while Wesley moderated his liturgical practices (and not to mention his emphasis on apostolic succession!), Hammond takes pains to show that there is no significant discontinuity between Wesley’s American ministry and what happened later. Even the doctrines and liturgies he gave to the American church in 1784 enshrined some of his pre-Aldersgate emphasis on primitive Christianity.

Finally, as Hammond points out, Georgia was an especially tough place for any pastor to minister (don’t I know it!). If Wesley failed in Georgia, so did many others before and after him!

While Hammond is obviously writing to an audience that’s well-acquainted with Wesley, he takes for granted too much information related to the Sophia Williamson controversy and ensuing trial. I would have appreciated, as a refresher, a detailed summary of the events that led directly to Wesley’s trial and expulsion from Georgia. I’m sure other readers would as well.

Still, I heartily recommend John Wesley in America to my fellow Methodist clergy, to Methodist scholars, and to Methodist laypeople who are interested in the subject. I couldn’t say whether this work, eye-opening though it is, counts as revisionist history: How could I? Prior to reading this book, I didn’t know enough about Wesley’s history in Savannah to say whether Hammond is “revising” it. I suspect many of my seminary-educated colleagues will find themselves in the same boat.

What Hammond is certainly doing is adding needed context, color, and depth to the popular narrative that we Methodists have been given—and correcting it as needed. Well done!

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