The Quest for the Primitive Church

In this episode, we look at some of the important figures in the 17th century study of the early church and how they shaped the thought of Methodism.

Episode 21

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: The Quest for the Primitive Church

If only we could go back to the good old days. Or as the hymn has it, Give me that old time religion, Give me that old time religion, Give me that old time religion, it’s good enough for me. The desire to go back to a simpler time is older than Christianity. In ancient Greece, Hesiod wrote about the five ages of man, with the Golden age, the χρύσεον γένος, being the best of times. Hesiod writes:

Golden was the race of speech-endowed human beings which the immortals, who have their mansions on Olympus, made first of all…just like gods they spent their lives, with a spirit free from care, entirely apart from toil and distress1

The desire for a Golden age was not just in pagan civilization nor is it just found today when people talk about ‘the good old days’ or more simple times or that old timed religion. This language is filled with a naiveté that has little space for rigor.

John Wesley mentioned the phrase ‘Primitive Christianity’ or the ‘Primitive Church’ many times in many sermons and letters. When I first read Wesley, I assumed the phrase was a short hand for a Christian Golden Age. That is, for a time before corruption. That was not his intention or his use of the term. In fact, in the late 17th and early 18th century, there was an incredible trove of research about the early church and a desire to develop and expand the Sitz im Leben, or the setting in life of Christians closer to the life of Jesus than we are.

As mentioned in episode 11, on the creation of the King James Version, there were a number of extraordinarily educated Scholars in England at the turn of the 17th century. These are the types of folks who assume that a gentleman has a copy of the Syriac New Testament ready at hand. As the 17th century continued, the Reformation across Europe was going through adolescent convulsions that we have been laying out over the last 10 episodes. Compared to the English Civil War or the Glorious Revolution or even German Pietism, the quest for the primitive church may seem like a minor point in the history of Methodism, and yet it shaped the life of Samuel Wesley and offered a deep clarity for John Wesley’s understanding of the church that allowed for future Methodist Churches to begin with.

Shifts were taking place during this time that helped prepare English scholars for study of the early church, beyond just study of the Bible took place near the end of the reign of James I. The terms primitive church and early church will be used interchangeably, marking the time period immediately following the death of Jesus up to the next few centuries.

We will start with the words of Lancelot Andrews, the great preacher, who was also the chair of the Pentateuch in the King James Translation committee. Andrewes helps us frame this period in a sermon he preached in 1613, while he was Bishop of Ely, that “one Canon of Scripture put in writing by God, two Testaments, three Creeds, the first Councils, five centuries and the succession of the Fathers therein…draw for us the rule of religion.”2 Andrewes was not normative of the Church of England at the time, but his view of the early Church was significant.

Soon after this, James I sent a letter to Oxford in 1622 (he had sent a similar later to Cambridge in 1616) that said the following.

“ the Students in that procession should apply themselves in the first place to the reading of the Scriptures, next the Councells and ancient Fathers, and then the Schoolmen, excluding those Neotericks, both Jesuits and Puritans, who are knowne to be medlers in matters of State and Monarchy.3

The term James uses here, neoterick, refers to a set of superficial latin poets in the 1st century, so it is quite the jab against Jesuits and Puritans. You are free to use that in casual conversation, “they are such neotericks. Uhh”

The substance of this pedagogical shift was to move the training of new clergy from contemporary theologians or even Reformers like Calvin and Luther, to figures in ancient history of the church. Instead of seeing the early church as corrupted from the beginning, early Christians served as guides against contemporary errors like Popery or Puritanism. As Ted Campbell writes, “A great deal of effort was expended by the Anglicans in defense of their church’s polity, against Roman Catholic claims of papal supremacy and Puritan objections to episcopal church government.”4

The Primitive Church was used as a proxy in many of the controversies of the first half of the 17th century, like predestination. As well, after the end of the Royalist Cause in the Civil War, many Parliamentarians looked to the Bible and the early church as a source of developing right government.

In 1651, the work of the French Protestant, Jean Daillé, Traicté sur l’Employ des saints Pères, was translated into English as “A Treatise on the Use of the Holy Fathers.” On the continent and in England, Daillé became a touchstone for how one viewed the Church Fathers. For instance, whether the early church could be used in arguments about faith and practice, or if the only source and authority for church discipline and formation would be quotations from the Bible itself. As Ted Campbell writes, “Daillé himself called upon early Christian writings in order to question the authority of early Christian writings!”5 Thus the voice and authority of the early church was not uniform. Edward Scrivener, one of the first to refute Daillé, wrote how “Puritans, when tormented by the weapons of the ancients, make haste to their Jean Daille’”6

As the country lurched towards the Restoration of Charles II, in the 1650s, a number of works on the early church were published which proved influential for the future Methodist movement. Summing many of them up, Bishop John Pearson wrote, in 1659, that “in Christianity there can be no concerning truth which is not ancient; and whatsoever is new, is certainly false.”7

Edward Stillingfleet was a 17th century Bishop, later termed pejoratively a latitudinarian. In 1659, before becoming bishop, he wrote, Irenicum: Or, a Weapon-Salve for the Churches’ Wounds. In this text, he did not try to support the old Church of England, Independent, Presbyterian, or any such polity, but to offer clarity about the early church and to put forward the argument that there was no coherent ecclesiology upon which we could base our contemporary system. Therefore, we couldn’t use the early church as a bludgeon against ecclesiologies with which we disagreed. Wesley quoted this work in multiple letters in which he affirmed the validity of elder ordination without a Bishop.8 Although, as Albert Outler notes in his edition of Wesley’s sermons, “Stillingfleet had subsequently repudiated his earlier position and had argued, in the Danby case, for the special jurisdiction of Anglican bishops.”9 And yet, Wesley still used him as a source even in 1780 in a letter to his brother, Charles.

Wesley’s other important source on the possibility of ordination outside of Apostolic succession came from the Noncomformist Peter King, who wrote An Enquiry into the Constitution, Discipline, Unity, and Worship of the Primitive Church. Like Stillingfleet, King also later repudiated this position, going so far as to become an Anglican, Baron, and Lord Chancellor of England, but Wesley still cites King in his open letter to ‘Our Brethren in America,’ on Sept 10, 1784, which introduced Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury to Methodists in America. Wesley’s understanding of ordination, apostolic succession, and ecclesiology, were all shaped by these studies on the early church. Wesley writes:

Lord King’s account of the primitive church convinced me many years ago that bishops and presbyters are the same order, and consequently have the same right to ordain.10

Without the ordination of Coke and Asbury, American Methodism and Wesleyanism would have looked radically different, and without the work of King and Stillingfleet and others, Wesley would not have thought of the possibility of their ordination.

Another key figure was William Cave, whose work, from 1672, titled Primitive Christianity, helped prepare a generation of spiritual writers by focusing on the spirituality of the early church and arguing for the relevance of the lives of the early church fathers for the Christianity of his day. As Geordan Hammond writes, “William Cave was one of the key exponents of presenting the primitive church as a model to be restored in the Church of England.”11 Instead of focusing on martyrdom and just their death, Cave looks at the lived virtues of many in the early church. For instance, Chapter 11 is titled “Of Their Heavenly Mindedness, and Contempt of the World.” He writes of Justin Martyr and Quintianus and Gregory Nazianzus, while lifting up virtues like simplicity. Cave writes:

“The simplicity of Christians then kept them from aspiring after honour and greatness, and if at any time advanced to it, their great care was to " keep themselves unspotted from the world;”12

Anthony Horneck, who was essential in the creation of English Religious Societies, mentioned in Episode 18, wrote a work on the early church, Lives of the Primitive Christians, which Wesley published in his A Christian Library.

Horneck wrote:

The Church in that age, though an infant, was from its birth so lusty and vigorous, that though it never crushed snakes or vipers in its cradle, yet it conquered tigers, lions, and, what is worse, fires, and flames, and the sharpest torments. It knew nothing of the infirmities and weaknesses of a tender age, but did in its youth things becoming the seriousness and sobriety of the oldest men. And though its growth was prodigious, yet even upon its first entering into the world, its bigness and vastness seemed to vie with that of the earth; for it introduced a new world into the universe.

After the Glorious Revolution, many of the Nonjurors who refused the Oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy to William and Mary, wrote and studied on the early church and became influential in Wesley’s life. This influence began in his own home growing up.

Eleven years before John’s birth, Samuel Wesley, in a pamphlet, entitled The Young Student’s Library, written only a few years after his ordination and after the coronation of William III, recommended “All the Fathers, as St. Ambrose, etc.”13 When John decided to seek ordination, his father wrote to him advice, including the specific advice to read John Chrysostom’s “On the Priesthood,” and to master it.14

Still at Oxford a few years later, Wesley became connected to the Manchester High Churchman, John Clayton, who heavily influenced Wesley’s last years of schooling, starting in 1732, by inspiring him to embark upon “an intensive study of the church fathers... (Wesley) embraced the ideal of restoring primitive Christianity under the influence of Clayton and a group of Nonjurors in Manchester whom Wesley labeled “the Essentialist Nonjurors.””15

This work even shaped Wesley missionary trip to Georgia, In a letter to John Burton, the Trustee who had recruited Wesley for the Georgia Mission, Wesley writes: “From these, therefore, I hope to learn the purity of that faith which was once delivered to the saints, the genuine sense and full extent of those laws which none can understand that mind earthly things.”16 The saints, for Wesley, were not confined to the Bible but included the primitive church. Geordan Hammond goes so far as to say that “the appeal of primitive Christianity as a theory and a goal was a central yet integrated part of the overall series of influences which culminated in Wesley’s decision to leave his native land.”17

Wesley did not use the Primitive Church in a naive way as a golden era.

As Ted Campbell writes, John Wesley was born into an age in which Christian antiquity, far from being a subject of merely historical interest, had been a focal point for theological, ecclesiastical, and moral discourse for more than a century.”18 Instead, the Primitive Church was a source among many for the possibility of renewal and conversion here and now in Georgia, England, and around the world.

But the world into which Wesley was born was very different from our own. Wesley was shaped by ideas and scholarship, but the Methodist movement was deeply shaped by the realities of class, race, and gender in England in 1703. So before we finally get to Susannah Wesley and more familiar figures in Episode 22, we are going to spend some time on the contextual reality of the time and place of John Wesley’s birth, next time on the History of Methodism Podcast.


Ted A. Campbell, John Wesley and Christian Antiquity (Nashville: Kingwood Books, 1991).

William Cave, Primitive Christianity (1672).

Geordan Hammond. "Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley's Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737." Journal of Moravian History, no. 6 (2009): 31-60. Accessed September 3, 2021.

Geordan Hammond, The Search for the Primitive Church: The Use of Early Church Fathers in the High Church Anglican Tradition, 1680-1745

Samuel Wesley, The Young Student’s Library (1692).

Hesiod, Works and Days, trans. by Glenn W. Most (Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library, 2008).

Anthony Horneck, Lives of the Primitive Christians

Jean-Louis Quantin, The Church of England and Christian Antiquity: The Construction of a Confessional Identity in the 17th Century (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009).

Anthony à Wood, The History and Antiquities of the University of Oxford (Oxford, 1796).

  1. Hesiod, Works and Days 109-115., LCL 57:95-97. ↩︎
  2. Quantin, 155. ↩︎
  3. Anthony à Wood, 343. ↩︎
  4. Campbell, 14. ↩︎
  5. Campbell, 11. ↩︎
  6. Quantin, 345. ↩︎
  7. John Pearson, Exposition of the Creed ↩︎
  8. Letter to James Clark, July 3, 1756, ↩︎
  9. WW 1:86. ↩︎
  10. John Wesley, Open Letter to America ↩︎
  11. Hammond, 32. ↩︎
  12. Cave, 184. ↩︎
  13. Samuel Wesley, iv. quoted in Campbell, 24. ↩︎
  14. Campbell, 25. ↩︎
  15. Hammond, 33, citing Wesley Works 18:212. ↩︎
  16. WW 25:39. ↩︎
  17. Hammond, “High Church”, 175. ↩︎
  18. Campbell, 21. ↩︎