Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Welcome to the first episode, What is in a name? In which I will introduce the podcast by digging into the history of the name itself, Methodism.
When Charles Wesley, his brother, John, and their friends began the Holy Club in 1729 in Oxford, England, a number of insults soon began to be hurled at them. The one that stuck was Methodist. The standard story is that the Wesley brothers and their friends were very methodical. Thus, Methodist. Yet this narrative doesn't quite match the context of early 18th century Oxford. The all-male, mostly wealthy students of Christ Church College (where most of the nobles attended in the 18th century spoke Latin during exams on the classics. They studied Plato and Aristotle, Horace and Virgil, Demosthenes and Euripides and practiced rhetoric. They studied Galen and the classical basis of medicine. Medicine, in the world of the Roman Empire, was often divided into three schools: Dogmatic, Empiric, and Methodic, or Methodist. Hmm. Ancient Methodists were the stern rivals of the Empiricists and the Dogmatists. They were unique in claiming that anyone could be a physician. All it took was following a certain method of diagnosis and therapy. This contrasted heavily with the other schools who saw medicine as an art restricted only to the gifted and wise.
Galen, who took influences from both Empiric and Dogmatic schools) won out with history and he and his students became the models for modern medicine. Most students at Oxford would see similarities between Galen and themselves and they would be insulted by the presumption of Methodists in medicine and Methodists in religion. Holiness is not possible for everyone, these elite students might think, but only for those who have been gifted by God for such a purpose like studying at Oxford or Cambridge. The class stratification of 18th century Oxford was monumental. The elites at schools like Oxford and Cambridge were, like what Barry Switzer once said: was born on third, but think they got a triple.
Is holiness for an elite few or possibly for all? This tension is found in the very name Methodist and this same tension lasts throughout the history of the people called Methodist up until the present day. Should the church be respectable or provincial? Should the church be relevant or be resident aliens? Did the Methodist movement begin at Oxford among elites or is that just where the name comes from?
My name is Wilson Pruitt and I am a United Methodist pastor in Austin, Texas. I often ask other clergy or academics, ‘What is a Methodist?’ to see how they respond. Sometimes the response is theological. For instance, they mention sanctification or free will. Sometimes the response is moral, and they mention Wesley’s General Rules of First Do no harm, do all the good you can, and follow the ways of God. Sometimes it is the hymnody. Sometimes it is social activism. Sometimes the combination of the head and the heart. Sometimes they can’t give a good answer at all. John Wesley had a number of pamphlets about the meaning of Methodist. On more than one occasion, he defined the term is someone who Loves God and neighbor fully. So is a Methodist only the perfected Christian, or is a methodist the mass of people who show up on Sunday trying to live a humble faith in this broken world or is the perfected Christian the one trying to live a humble faith in this broken world?
What I would like to suggest with this podcast series is that we cannot understand what a Methodist is without understanding history. We cannot understand John Wesley without understanding where and when he lived, what he read, how he acted. In order to see the future of the people called Methodists, we need to better know its past.
In the same way, to better know John Wesley, we need to better know his past, so to begin this series we are going to start over 200 years before the birth of Wesley with Martin Luther. I hope to publish twice a month which means it will take about a year to even get to the Wesley's. John Wesley was not a unitary genius stealing the fire of the gods. He was man in a tradition who used the tools of his tradition to help others transform their lives through the Holy Spirit. In order to begin to understand Wesley, we need to begin to understand the traditions and that influenced him. Next time, on the History of Methodism.
Graham Midgley, University Life in Eighteenth-Century Oxford (New Haven, CO: Yale University Press, 1996).
Philip J. van der Eijk, Medicine and Philosophy in Classical Antiquity: Doctors and Philosophers on Nature, Soul, Health and Disease (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005).
Vivian Nutton, Ancient Medicine (London: Routledge, 2013).
John Wesley, "Second Letter to Dr. Free", Wesley Works 9:324.