Shocking Beliefs of John Wesley

“I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God.” 

~ Oswald Chambers

If you’re new to the “Shocking Beliefs” series, I’ll open this post by quoting from the preface to the first installment on the Shocking Beliefs of C.S. Lewis.

This explains why – precisely – I’m producing this series.

A well-known Christian author whom I greatly respect encouraged me to begin a series on the shocking beliefs of some of the great Christians who have impacted church history.

Every follower of Jesus is a rough draft. Over time, the great Editor – the Holy Spirit – shapes our lives and views. But until we see the Lord and “know even as we are known,” we’re are in process.

This is also true for those Christians who have gone before us.

Therefore, one of the mistakes that we must guard against is to dismiss a person’s entire contribution because they may hold (or have held) to ideas that we find hard to stomach.

Speaking personally, if I demanded that a person’s views on every subject under the sun be identical to mine as a condition to be helped by them, then if I had met myself 20 years ago, I’d have to disfellowship myself!

The truth is, my views on some topics have changed over the years.

And so have yours.

Point: we are all in process. None of us gets everything right all the time. That stands true for every Christian who has ever breathed oxygen.

So my purpose in highlighting some of “the shocking beliefs” of those upon whose shoulders we all stand is not to burn these folks in effigy. Nor is it to dismiss their positive contribution to church history.

Rather, it’s to demonstrate that even though they may have held to views that would raise the eyebrows of most evangelicals today, that doesn’t overturn nor negate the valuable ideas they contributed to the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals are quick to discount — and even damn — their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ over alleged doctrinal trespasses, even if those same brothers and sisters hold to the historical orthodox creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Such discounting and damning can always be avoided and it serves no one on the Kingdom side of the aisle.

When diversity within orthodoxy is encountered, grace should be extended. Just as we would want grace extended to us, seeing that none of us sees perfectly (Matthew 7:12).

The words of Paul of Tarsus contain thunder and lightning for us all, “Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:9, NLT).

Note that these beliefs will be “shocking” to some evangelicals, but not all. Some evangelicals claim that they aren’t shocked or surprised by anything.

Since I’m not writing this for scholars, I’m intentionally not documenting each statement with page numbers. But the source books are listed so you can verify them yourself if you’re skeptical.

Today, we’ll be looking at some of the shocking beliefs of John Wesley.

John_Wesley_1

Wesley was remarkable. He rode over 250,000 miles on horseback and preached over 40,000 sermons. Strikingly, he was only 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighed 128 pounds.

Wesley faced intense opposition from every quarter, and he had a boatload of enemies who tried to take him down in every way imaginable. Despite this, God’s hand was on the man. Wesley’s legacy has impacted hundreds of thousands of Christians in every generation, including ours.

Wesley habitually read the New Testament in Greek, and one of his most enduring legacies in the realm of Bible interpretation was his work on 1 John.

(Yes, 1 John — that’s the book that Christians read under their beds with a flashlight and lose their salvation after they’re finished!) :-)

For Wesley, 1 John was the capstone of biblical revelation and the synthesis of all that had been written before. For that reason, some scholars call Wesley “the theologian of 1 John.”

That said, I’m aware that many Reformed Christians, both in the past and today, regard Wesley as a “dangerous heretic.” But to my Reformed friends, consider what these respected Reformed leaders had to say about him:

“If there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.”

~ Charles Spurgeon

“Whether we like it or not, John Wesley was a mighty instrument in God’s hand for good; and, next to George Whitefield, was the first and foremost evangelist of England a hundred years ago.”

~ J.C. Ryle

“I know of no one to whom I owe more as an instrument of divine grace.”

~ John Newton

Interestingly, Wesley’s teaching on “heart religion” was almost identical to Jonathan Edwards’ teaching on the “religious affections.”

Nevertheless, Wesley – like every other servant of God – had feet of clay. And he also held to some strange views.

Here are some surprising beliefs that Wesley advocated. If you are aware of more, add them in the comments section and I’ll fact-check them with the intention of adding them to the list.

1. Wesley believed that church buildings should be built in the octagonal form (with eight sides) and the interior should have a rail in the middle to divide the men from the women.

(How do you feel about that one, Ladies?)

2. Wesley believed in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena.

There was even a ghost known as “Old Jeffrey” in the Epworth parsonage where Welsey grew up. The children thought of the ghost as almost a part of the family!

3. Wesley believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ earthly mother.

In his Letter to a Roman Catholic, Wesley stated, “I believe that he [Jesus] was made man, joining the human nature with the divine in one person; being conceived by the singular operation of the Holy Ghost, and born of the blessed Virgin Mary, who, as well after as before she brought him forth, continued a pure and unspotted virgin.”

4. Wesley had a static electricity machine and thought it was a good idea for people to be “electrified daily” for their health.

He lived in the age of Ben Franklin and read everything Franklin wrote on electricity. Wesley’s electricity machine can still be viewed in his London home.

5. According to his Primitive Physick, some of Wesley’s prescriptions for medical ailments are strange.

Example: for sinus colds, Wesley recommended curling up an orange peel and inserting it into the nostrils. (Don’t try that at home.) Keep in mind that Wesley cared deeply for the sick and was a bit of experimentalist in that regard.

6. In his library, Wesley owned the “subversive literature” of Molinos, Guyon, Fenelon, and other Christian mystics.

Although he disagreed with the mystics’ tendency to draw away from the world, Wesley believed in a mystical quest for God.

7. Wesley believed that wearing jewelry and costly clothes was sinful and that Christians weren’t to engage in such behavior.

Specifically, he was strongly against women wearing rings, earrings, and necklaces. Consequently, the early Methodists were known for their plain dress and absence of jewelry. The Methodist Church upheld Wesley’s stance on apparel and jewelry until 1852.

8. Wesley was a big fan of the controversial early church figure Montanus.

Wesley regarded Montanus as being “one of the best men then upon earth” who “under the character of a prophet” had revived what had been lost in the body of Christ.

Montanus is regarded by many evangelicals as a “dangerous heretic.”

WARNING: The Blog Manager who moderates comments is a John Wesley fan. Therefore, if anyone wields accusations like “John Wesley is the mouthpiece of Satan” and other such sentiments, our beloved Blog Manager says he won’t approve the comment.

So to the both of you who found this post on the Web somewhere and are starting to march toward the comments box with pitch forks, blow torches, and blunt objects in order to delegitimize, castigate, or marginalize Wesley beyond repair, your remark will vanish into the electricity after he hits the DELETE key.

What other strange, odd, or shocking beliefs were held by John Wesley? Please provide source.

Other Posts in the Series – The Rest will Appear in the Upcoming “Shocking Beliefs” Book

Shocking Beliefs of Jonathan Edwards

Shocking Beliefs of C.S. Lewis

Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin

Shocking Beliefs of D.L. Moody

Shocking Beliefs of Augustine

Shocking Beliefs of Martin Luther

ShockingBeliefsBook

SOURCES

The Radical Wesley by Howard Snyder. (Special thanks goes to Howard for extra information about Wesley beyond his book.)

Christian History, Vol. 11, No. 1 – “John Wesley: Revival and Revolution.”

The Works of John Wesley.

Wesley on the Christian Life by Fred Sanders.

All Things Wesley Online and More.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Jim Sepi

    The Church of the Nazarene attribute the doctrine of “entire sanctification” or “second work of the holy spirit” to John Wesley. Does anyone know if Wesley taught this doctrine?

  • kc

    I cannot say for sure that this flows directly from John Wesley but in the Methodist Hymn book and liturgy there are these two (could be more) corporate prayers:
    1) O God, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, and that in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: Draw near to us now with they power and steadfast love, that in thy presence we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen and
    2) I don’t have the whole prayer on hand but it says “…so that as doers of the word and not just hearers we may be saved.”

    I told a friend that no Christian should say these prayers because salvation then is by works. Heard of them? Did they come from John Wesley?

    KC

  • Bryr Brannigan

    I’ve been on the receiving end of excommunication and heretic and this truly humbles me, reminds me to see the bigger picture and helps me to be gracious to those who treated me as such. I need to be on the receiving end of grace as much as they do. Just because someone is wrong, doesn’t mean they are ALL wrong and not used by God. Thanks for sharing.

  • LorraineinBC

    That was fun. Thanks! I’ve been saying for a long time, that if I had all the junk I wrote years ago published, folks would think me rather odd (even odder than now?!). We grow, we learn, we know more of Jesus as we travel the way. Extend as much grace to your brother as you would have him extend to you. :-)

  • Abranda

    I think…one side would definitely smell better than the other side. :)

  • Mark Neale

    The more I learn about Church history and the voices God used, the more I realise how incomplete or confused some of their beliefs were. However, we should all be thankful that it wasn’t my writings that were kept and poured over by preceding generations. I’m with you Frank – great men and women not yet perfected, and I am thankful for them all.

  • Angela

    Love Wesley. Wrote my church history paper in Bible college on his spiritual life. Course I didn’t know anything about Guyon then, or much about the spiritual life!. But he certainly impressed me. You don’t say anything about his beliefs on Christian Perfection. I don’t know what they were but I “hear” they are controversial.

  • terrymengle

    Thanks for the correction. The last time I attended a Free Methodist church the jewelry ban was still in effect, but that has been many years.

  • Doug Dawson

    As a Free Methodist pastor I wanted to let you know that Free Methodists are O.K. with jewelry.

  • terrymengle

    The free Methodists, to this day, still think jewelry should not be worn as “self-adornment”.
    PS- This three piece series on unusual beliefs is, in my opinion, one of the best and most interesting things you have written. It brings humility into focus when we hold to our “right doctrine” pride.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    Presently reading it. Suspending judgment until I’m finished.

  • Kati Clair

    Joking aside, Frank, what do you think of Wesley’s work on 1 John? (Sorry if this is extraneous.) Wesley’s teaching on perfection seems to have struck fear into many hearts.

  • Jim BIshop

    I have to agree with you Dave. These really made me search what I really believed. I was truly blessed by them.

  • Dave Dittman

    Thank you Frank. This is a wonderful series and I get your point. I guess I was not clear. I believe that the deeper Christ-centered teaching that we write, read, and share, is often considered to be unorthodox, or even heresy or “subversive literature” by some whose faith is limited by the teachings of a man-centered controlling church system. Therefore, like Christ, we can expect misunderstanding, rejection, and persecution as we present the fullness of the One who is the Living Truth.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    “Subversive literature” was tongue-and-cheek. That is what some evangelicals call these works. It gets back to the introduction of the post and why I decided to write the series. Sorry that point was missed.

  • Dave Dittman

    You write that Wesley owned the “subversive literature” of Molinos, Guyon, Fenelon,
    and other Christian mystics. Yes Frank, we who read and share this intimacy
    with the Lord as experienced by these and others will always be a serious threat
    to the man-centered religious system. I have been re-reading “The Spiritual Guide” by Michael Molinos and the book cover itself is revealing in that it displays a reprint of the Papal Decree of 1687 “Anyone Found in Possession Of This Book will Be
    Excommunicated.” Why was this book hated and burned? Mollinos writes in his Introduction that “One condemns out of ignorance and one condemns out of lack of experience.”

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    Hi Michael, accountability groups have been immensely popular since the 1970s and are back in vogue today in most evangelical circles as evidenced by just about every “discipleship” book in print in recent years.

  • Michael Hoke

    I would also include Wesley’s societies. He believed that accountability groups were essential to maintaining personal and corporate integrity….”righteousness” in the transformation process. This would be seen today as highly intrusive into one’s personal life. I participated in such groups while attending Asbury University and Asbury Seminary and found them very helpful.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    This view is held by many evangelicals today of the Arminian persuasion. Which, according to Barna, is more prevalent than the Reformed.

  • Chavoux

    To me the most shocking thing is that Wesley believed that the saved can loose their salvation. This would seem to contradict John 10:28-29. 😉 But fortunately, God says that both Wesley and Whitefield as well as Jonathan Edwards and C.S. Lewis, belongs to us, and not we to them. 😉 (1 Cor.3:21-23)

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    Right, but it’s something that will surprise many evangelicals who have demonized Montanus and have held Wesley in high regard.

  • http://www.RobbyCharters.co.uk Robby Charters

    Regarding Montanus, most of what we know about him is from sources that were critical towards his movement. In those days, critics weren’t very objective in their reporting, so he might have been no more radical in his day than some slightly-left-of-mainstream preachers of our day.

  • http://www.frankviola.net/ Frank Viola

    Precisely. Have you seen this article by Boyd and me on the MISuse of the term “heresy”? http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/heresy/

  • Jason Sanborn

    These are well-written and worthwhile blogs, Frank. I’ve been called a heretic for listening to the teachings of a certain preacher, simply because of 1 or 2 “odd” beliefs he has.