Lessons from Wesley for All Churches

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Martin E. Marty once observed that between the time of Luther and Calvin and our own time, John Wesley symbolized the genius of adaptation to modernity. In his foreword to E. Brooks Holifield’s Health and Medicine in the Methodist Tradition (1986), Marty reminds us that the Wesleyan movement was so successful that for one or two centuries it was one of the strongest movements in Western Christendom. Marty’s discussion of the reasons for Wesley’s pioneering genius suggests important lessons for churches today.

Embrace knowledge. Wesley was not afraid of modernity. He was no enemy of science, and he was a friend of medicine. Some of his medical theories seem bizarre today; yet they were not far off the mark of the best scientific efforts of his time. They also showed a passionate regard for humans in their suffering and a clear sense that his workers were to care and cure not only in the realm of the spiritual.

Emphasize social relations. Wesley knew the importance of social relations in the search for well-being. He provided classes and patterns of discipline. This practice led one scholar to argue that most of what is worthwhile in contemporary group therapy is consistent with, and in some ways flows from, Wesley’s understanding that people need the support of other people, and also that they like to provide such support.

Journey toward wholeness. Wesley’s doctrine of holiness and sanctification involved a journey toward wholeness. He did not talk about a “state” of health or a “condition” of well-being. Instead, we are pilgrims, restless ones, seekers.

Respect the values of pluralism. Marty understands that contemporary bearers of the Wesleyan tradition both encourage and fear pluralism. Wesley made a deliberate decision to promote the development of freedom so as to assure that Methodism did not become narrow, confining, and easily defined.

Improve people’s lives to change the world. Wesley believed that churches and church people had to promote well-being wherever they were. He understood that religions of the West tended to be part of the status quo. Wesley was far from a revolutionary, but it is true that wherever the Wesleyans went, people were helped and the conditions of their lives became better. In this sense, the movement was a “positive virus” that changed the world.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, distinguished professor of church leadership emeritus at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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