Sacred Texts

John Wesley, like his Protestant forerunners, believed that fallen humans could only be saved by the promises of God's forgiveness found in the Bible. The Bible, both Old and New Testaments, had such a large authoritative role for Wesley that in his writings, as he argued for certain beliefs or actions, he felt it was sufficient to prove his point simply by citing a passage of the Bible that supported him. No other arguments were required or offered. Wesley and his followers, like all Protestants, exclude certain books (called apocryphal) that are included in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.

As for texts that are authoritative for Methodists in particular, rather than just those shared among all Protestants or Christians, Wesley named three in a letter to American preachers: "Let all of you be determined to abide by the Methodist doctrine and discipline published in the four volumes of Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament, together with the Large Minutes of the Conference." In addition, he published the Twenty-Five Articles of Religion as a definitive source for Methodist belief.

The Conference played an important role in the organization of Methodism. John Wesley relied on circuit preachers who regularly visited each of the small societies that met for Bible study, prayer, hymn singing, and encouragement. In 1746 there were seven circuits in England and Wales. By the time of Wesley's death in 1791 there were 114 circuits in Britain. The first conference met in 1744. It was a gathering of clergy and lay preachers to advise Wesley on doctrine and discipline. It became an annual gathering of all of his itinerant preachers. This was the forerunner of the Annual Conferences, which form an important part of the polity of Methodist churches. The Minutes of the Conference set out the chief Methodist doctrines. Wesley's disagreements with Calvinists who believed in predestination, and the establishment of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1784 added substantially to the original Minutes.

Wesley published four volumes of his sermons, in 1746, 1748, 1750, and 1760. They were not necessarily transcripts of sermons he preached; rather, they were written to educate the lay preachers in matters of doctrine and faith. These sermons are still widely read and form one of the important bases for understanding critical points of Wesley's theology.

Wesley published a revision of the King James Bible (most likely in 1755), with his own notes, to make it accessible to ordinary people. He simplified some of the language, and added notes of explanation, so that those without any specialized training beyond the ability to read could understand the Bible for themselves.

Finally, Wesley edited the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which is the defining statement of doctrine for that church. In his edited version, Wesley excluded the articles on hell, predestination, bishops, creeds, excommunication, and church authority. Other articles he shortened or edited. What remains are the twenty- five articles on which Methodist belief and practice are based. This forms a basic creed for the Methodist churches, and highlights some of the key points of difference between the theology of Wesley and that of Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and others.

Study Questions:
     1.     What texts are of particular importance to Methodism?
     2.     Why was attendance at circuit conferences important to the future of Methodism?
     3.     Describe the role of publishing in the spread of the Methodist tradition.
     4.     What are the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England? What was left out in Wesley's edits and why?

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