From Oxford Don to Field Preacher

From Oxford Don to Field Preacher December 20, 2023

Thinker and civil rights activist James Baldwin once wrote, “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” In my historical research I try to find a balance between the beautiful and the terrible. This Christmas post, an ode to biblical history and Wesleyan history, focuses on the beautiful.

The gospel narrative depicts God becoming flesh. Jesus of Nazareth was born to a laboring mother in the throes of birthing pains. He experienced the fears of childhood, the angst of late childhood, and the temptations of mature adulthood — all (and this is where the similarities finally end) without succumbing to sin (Heb. 4:15). Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us (John 1:14; Phil. 2:6-7), and God’s identification with humanity changed everything. At the “heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation,” says Methodist theologian William Willimon. The ineffable Yahweh was embodied in Jesus, a lowly carpenter in ancient Nazareth.

John Wesley, Oxford don

John Wesley offers another model of incarnational humility. For Wesley, identification with the poor was not intentional, at least not at first. Much to his consternation, he was forced out of his native Anglican cathedrals by fellow clergy and bishops who were infuriated by the young preacher’s social improprieties. So the “dapper little don,” as Skevington Wood described him, who “was so very particular that he could not bear the slightest speck of dirt on his clerical attire,” began preaching on the filthy coal-blackened streets of an industrializing England.

Over time Wesley reincarnated from Oxford don to field preacher. Covering over quarter a million miles on horseback and preaching forty thousand sermons, he went to the people. He generally preached in the open air: in the fields, in the middle of streets, the main city square, the meat market, and on a flight of steps outside a malt house. He also went inside prisons, asylums, private homes, and hostels. According to theologian Albert Outler, the evangelist encountered what became his “chosen constituency: ‘Christ’s poor.’” Wesley embraced the heckles and odors of the “uncouth mob.”

His ministry took particular shape: not just to, but among the poor. He did not simply collect money for the poor, as most aid societies of the time did. In the context of a deeply stratified society that often blamed the victim, Wesley and his Methodist colleagues ate with, confessed with, and prayed with the poor. Class meetings were intimate, consisting of each member “relating his own experience during the previous week, his joys, and his sorrows; his hopes and his fears; his conflicts with the world, the flesh, and the devil.” The rich and poor alike sought to relate “the state of his or her soul.” Like Christ who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6-7), Christians should adopt a “gospel poverty,” said Wesley’s brother Charles, who believed that Christ and the first apostles “were themselves deliberately poor” because the poor “uniquely bear the image of Christ.”

Living with the poor—even becoming poor themselves—generated within the early Methodists a feel for the warp and woof of poverty. After extensive travel and research on the problems of hunger and unemployment, Wesley blamed government policy, economic management, and societal choices more than indigent drunkenness and idleness. He wrote, “One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. … Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it—and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.” By contrast, Wesley told his congregations, “in the place of every poor [person] and deal with him as you would [think?] God should deal with you.”

John Wesley, preacher among the poor

This emphasis on incarnation had profound consequences. Identification with “the other” provoked “a holy dissatisfaction,” according to theologian Theodore Runyon, that “goes beyond any status quo.” It provoked Wesley to object to industrial capitalism, the slave trade, patriarchy, and a religious establishment that valued intellectual assent and doctrinal conformity above all. Runyon suggests that the poor of England, as Wesley attended to them with humility, “found their voice.”

When Wesley declared that “the world is my parish” at Fetter Lane Chapel in London, it was not an imperial order from the upper classes to conform. “We require no unity in opinions, or in modes of worship,” declared Wesley, “but barely that they ‘fear God and work righteousness.’” An incarnational humility characterized his mission.

What we believe is important. But Wesley’s example — and the Christmas season — remind us that how we believe is just as important.

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