Theology in Georgia

In this episode, we look at some of the theological influences upon John Wesley during his stay in Georgia, especially the Moravians. We also include some background on the Moravians and their leader, Zinzendorf. The episode ends with a critique of John Wesley's theology written by other colonists in Georgia.

Episode 45

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s Episode: Theology in Georgia

John Wesley had a powerful religious experience on the Simmonds, the ship on which he sailed from England to Georgia. He was frightened but he noticed how the Moravians on the ship revealed deep faith in the midst of death during a storm. Wesley wrote in his journal: “This was the most glorious day which I have hitherto seen.”

In the common narrative of John Wesley’s life, this storm on the Simmonds is the precursor to Aldersgate. It repeats a motif of Martin Luther’s life how on July 2, 1505, Luther was stuck in a storm and prayed to St. Anne, “If you save my life, I will become a monk.” Luther lived and he changed careers. The scene also points back to Jesus quelling the storm in the Gospels and the power of God versus the power of nature.

However we interpret that moment on the ship, it was the beginning of a new religious education for John Wesley that took place throughout his stay in Georgia.

His first major dialogue partner was August Spangenberg, the head of the Moravians who had been in Georgia for a year by the time the Wesleys arrived. They spoke often of the early church or primitive church. Wesley noted in his journal that Spangenberg

told me several particulars relating to their faith and practice and discipline, all of which were agreeable to the plan of the first ages, and seemed to show that it was their one care, without desire of pleasing or fear of displeasing any, to retain inviolate the whole deposition once delivered to the saints.1

When Wesley finally left the ship to live on shore, almost twenty days after the boat landed, John moved in with some Moravians since the former priest of the colony had yet to move out of his parsonage. Spangenberg taught Wesley of the differences between the Moravians and the Salzburgers, another group of German-speaking colonists who lived in New Ebenezer. The Salzburgers were more heavily influenced by August Francke and Phillipp Spener, two figures discussed heavily in Episode 20. The Moravians followed the work of Nikolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf, a wealthy landowner who had provided a safe haven for the community in Herrnhut. Now is our chance to go into detail about Zinzendorf and the Moravians.

Born in 1700, Ludwig (as he was called by his friends) was the only son of Count Georg Ludwig von Zinzendorf und Pottendorf, an ancient noble family from Saxony, just north of what is today Czechia, but was then the Kingdom of Bohemia. Ludwig’s father died the year that he was born. It was a tumultous time in that part of the world. The Great Northern War was going on between Russia and the Swedish Empire of Charles XII, and Saxony was in the middle of it. When Ludwig was 6, the Swedish Army marched through his home and were impressed by the devotion of the young boy.2

Ludwig was formed in the pietist tradition of the University of Halle as well as the University of Wittenberg. His education prepared him for the pivotal moment of his life when, in 1722, Zinzendorf welcome refugees from northern Moravia into his estates and settled them in Herrnhut. In order to understand who these people were, we need to go back to Prague in the 1400s.

Prague was the capital of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was an elector state in the Holy Roman Empire. The method by which Holy Roman Emperors were to be selected had been laid down by King Charles of Bohemia in the Golden Bull of 1356. Charles was king during the Black Death, when much of Europe was depopulated.

Charles’s son was Wenceslas IV, not to be confused with Good King Wenceslas I, of Christmas Carol fame, who braved a winter storm in order to give alms for the poor. Wenceslas IV desired to be the Holy Roman Emperor, like his father, and so allied himself with the Pope in the process. At the same time, North of Bohemia, the Teutonic Knights had just been crushed by the Poles and the Lithuanians. 1408 also marked the Great Schism where there were two Pope’s who claimed Petrine Authority: Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon, so there were a lot of powerful players in the region who had many of ambitions.

In 1409, Jan Hus was appointed as Dean of Charles University. Hus was a priest and Bible scholar who had been influenced by the work of John Wycliffe, who challenged many of the assumptions of the Catholic faith. Hus spoke against the corruption of Rome and spoke in favor the Bible in the vernacular and communion in both kinds (at this time, communion was restricted to just the bread for non-clergy).

In 1414, Hus was invited, by Wenceslas’s brother, King Sigismund of Hungary, to come to a Council and defend his theological position. Hus was given safe passage, but once he arrived, he was arrested, tried, and burned at the stake. This led to an uprising in Prague and the Hussite Wars with the first Defenestration of Prague. The Hussites had a chalice on the flag to symbolize the centrality of communion for their movement. Five different Crusades were called against the Hussites and they all failed. Eventually, peace came in 1436 thanks to a compact between Rome and Prague that allowed Bohemians to receive communion in both kinds, priests in the kingdom could not own property, and the Bible could be preached in the vernacular.

This truce lasted until 1618 when the second defenestration of Prague took place at the start of the 30 Years War. After the defeat of Maximiliun at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, the Hussites were suppressed. Most fled Bohemia. Some went to the Netherlands, while others fled to Northern Moravia, an eastern region of what is now Czechia. It was this group that went north to Saxony in 1722. They were welcomed and protected by Zinzendorf and they were able to publicly practice their faith again.

In 1727, Zinzendorf and the Moravians (as I shall call them) put together a document called the Brotherly Agreement to govern their life together. There are 42 points, but I will read only the first two in order to give a sense of the document.

  1. It shall be for ever remembered by the inhabitants of Herrnhut, that it was built on the Grace of the living God, that it is a work of His own hand, yet not properly intended to be a new town, but only an establishment erected for Brethren and for the Brethren’s sake.
  1. Herrnhut, and its original old inhabitants must remain in a constant bond of love with all Children of God belonging to the different religious persuasions—they must judge none, enter into no disputes with any, nor behave themselves unseemly towards any, but rather seek to maintain among themselves the pure evangelical doctrine, simplicity and grace.

In 1732, they started to send out missionaries around the world. Zinzendorf was less concerned with denominational control than with Christian renewal.

In Georgia, the Moravians that John Wesley befriended encouraged him to write to Zinzendorf. Wesley began a long correspondance on March 15, 1736, before he had even settled in Georgia. Wesley wrote to Zinzendorf in Latin, saying, in Albert Outler’s translation,

“I would not dare to interrrupt your more weighty affairs with a letter of mine unless I believed you to be a disciple of him who would not quench the smoking flax nor break a bruised read (Isaiah 42:3). But since I am quite convinced of this, I earnestly implore you that in your prayers and those of the church that sojourns with you I may be commended to God, to be instructed in true poverty of spirit, in gentleness, in faith, and in the love of God and my neighbor.3

John received a long letter back that was written on October 23, 1736. Part of the letter consists in a set of doctrinal statements to which John should respond. The first concerns the divinity of Christ, the second the humanity of Christ, the third the salvific action of Christ, and fourth the nature of the communion, the fifth infant baptism, and the sixth ecclesiology.

John taught himself German during his time in Georgia in order to minister with the Moravians in the Colony. He prayed with them often and studied Scripture together. August Spangenburg, a leader of the Moravians in Georgia, was a friend and colleague of Wesley as well as a long time conversation partner.

When they first landed in Georgia, John met Spangenberg.

The next day, Wesley asked advice to Spangenberg. The German told him “that he could say nothing till he asked me a few questions. ‘Do you know yourself? Do you know Jesus Christ? Have you the witness of the Spirit in your heart?’4 John doesn’t record his answers, but he does give thanks for Spangenberg’s advice. The direct and personal nature of these questions will come back with force in the future of the Methodist movement.

Wesley didn’t agree with everything that the Moravians did. In July of 1737, Wesley noted in his Journal, that

Having been long in doubt concerning the principles of the Moravian Brethren, at Mr. Spangenberg’s desire, I proposed to them the following queries, to each of which is subjoined the substance of their response.

  1. What do you mean by conversion? ‘The passing from darkness into light, and from the power of Satan unto God’ (Acts 26:18.
  2. Is it commonly wrought at once, or by degrees? ‘The design of passing thus from darkness into light is sometimes wrought in the moment, but the passage itself is gradual.
  3. Is faith perfected by good works, or only shown thereby? ‘By works faith is made perfect.’
  4. Do you believe those called Athanasian, the Nicene, and the Apostles’ Creed to be agreeable to Scripture? ‘We do, if they are rightly understood.’
  5. Is it lawful to bear arms, or to defend one’s life by force? ‘No’

This last point came up in the meetings of the Trustees of Georgia.

8 June 1737. The Trustees read a letter from Mr. Causton (mention’d Fol. 194) that the Moravians in Georgia declared they could not in conscience fight, & if expected So to do would leave the Colony. A Copy of their letter to Causton was Sent us. In a 2d letter they expressed their intention to go away. Bad Subjects for a frontier Colony.5

As we discussed in episode 40, one of the major goals of the Georgia colony was frontier defense. The pacifist Moravians fell short of this.

Henry Rack, Wesley’s biographer, also claims that Wesley learned about the use of hymns from the Moravians. He translated many German hymns into English, and even published his first hymn book while in Georgia (though the printing press was in South Carolina).

The relationship with the Moravians was a two-way street. Wesley didn’t just absorb their practices, he helped them. As Geordon Hammond points out in his book, John Wesley in America,

Moravian sources prove that Wesley’s appeals to primitive practice were not ignored by them…Wesley took the initiative to encourage Spangenberg to implement some of the primitive practices that were dear to him; these included, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at every public meeting, the celebration of Saturday, the observance of fast days, and the administration of the Lord’s Supper every Sunday.6

As mentioned before, there was another group of German speaking refugees in the Colony to whom John Wesley had actually written two days before he wrote to Zinzendorf. They were referred to as the Salzburgers. They had fled Salzburg after the Catholic Archbishop of Salzburg expelled all non-Catholics from the city. Twenty thousand fled. Samuel Urlsperger, with the SPCK, petitioned George II to allow Salzburgers to come to the new colony and he agreed. Before he had left England, Henry Newman, the Secretary of the SPCK, had asked John to reach out to the Salzburger leaders: Johann Bolzius and Israel Gronau.

The Salzburgers created the city of New Ebenezer north of Savannah. Salzburgers were Lutherans of a pietist bent (both Bolzius and Gronau had studied with August Francke in the University of Halle). It was a different tradition than the Moravians. However, since both had experienced persecution, they were both more religiously tolerant.

In August of 1737, Wesley and Spangenberg went to visit New Ebenezer. Wesley was impressed by the cleanliness and design of the settlement. The leaders of New Ebenezer mildly debated Spangenberg about what they saw as the deficiencies of Moravian thought and Zinzendorf’s views of Scripture and public prayer.

Lutheran’s historically had Bishops but the Salzburgers did not. For Wesley’s views at the time, this meant that Moravian ordination and baptism was valid and the Salzburger ordination and Baptism was not.

Wesley also taught himself Spanish during his stay in Georgia to converse with Spanish Jews in the colony. Wesley wasn’t always happy about the results of his conversations, but he did enter dialogue often and willingly and without the common patronizing tone of many of his contemporaries towards Jews. He writes in his Journal on July 7, 1737:

I was unawares engaged in a dispute with Dr. Nuñez, a Jew, concerning the Messiah. For this I was afterward much grieved, lest the truth might suffer by my weak defense of it.7

Wesley is not upset at Dr. Nuñez for not converting, he is frustrated at himself for not giving a more compelling account of the Messiahship of Jesus Christ.

John Wesley may have become a proponent of deaconesses in Georgia. Geordan Hammond thinks that Wesley was training Margaret Bovey to be a Deaconess. Wesley visited Miss Bovey almost every day in Georgia. Hammond writes:

The available evidence allows for a strong possibility that Bovey was being trained as a deaconess, based on Wesley’s close friendship with her and his objection to her getting married.152 He may have hoped that she would remain single in accordance with the Apostolic Constitutions (VI.17), which requires deaconesses to be virgins or widows. The probability of this is somewhat strengthened by the fact that Wesley subsequently continued to esteem the deaconesses of the early church, whom he believed Methodist women imitated by visiting the sick.8

The distance from episcopal oversight in Georgia offered John the opportunity to promote the ministry of women in Georgia. As Hammond writes, “At a minimum, there is clear evidence that Wesley used women in pastoral roles, although formal ordination as discussed with Spangenberg does not seem to have been attempted.”9

Not everyone agreed with what John was doing theologically. Patrick Tailfer, a doctor, and his other authors, included a bitter theological attack on John Wesley in their history of the colony titled A True and Historical Narrative of the Colony of Georgia in America It was published in 1741 but it gives us a provocative look at how John was perceived by at least some of the colonists. I will read a large selection from it because of the breadth and novelty of the critique.

And now to make our subjection the more complete, a new kind of tyranny was this summer begun to be imposed upon us ; for Mr. John Wesley, who had come over and was received by us as a clergyman of the Church of England, soon discovered that his aim was to enslave our minds, as a necessary preparative for enslaving our bodies. The attendance upon prayers, meetings and sermons inculcated by him, so frequently, and at improper hours, inconsistent with necessary labor, especially in an infant colony, tended to propagate a spirit of indolence and of hypocrisy amongst the most abandoned ; it being much easier for such persons, by an affected show of religion, and adherence to Mr. Wesley's novelties, to be provided by his procurement from the public stores, than to use that industry which true religion recommends; nor indeed could the reverend gentleman conceal the designs he was so full of, having frequently declared, that he never desired to see Georgia a rich, but a religious colony.

At last all persons of any consideration came to look upon him as a Roman Catholic, for which the following reasons seemed pretty convincing.

  1. Under an affected strict adherence to the Church of England, he most unmercifully damned all dissenters of whatever denomination, who were never admitted to communicate with him until they first gave up their faith and principles entirely to his moulding and direction, and in confirmation thereof declared their belief of the invalidity of their former baptism, and then to receive a new one from him.
  2. While all dissenters were thus unmercifully damned, and shut out from religious ordinances, contrary to that spirit of moderation and tenderness which the Church of England show towards them ; persons suspected to be Roman Catholics were received and caressed by him as his first rate saints.
  3. his endeavors to establish confession, penance, mortifications, mixing wine with water in the sacrament, and suppressing in the administration of the sacrament, the explanation adjoined to the words of communicating by the Church of England, to show that they mean a feeding on Christ by innovations, which he called apostolic constitutions.
  4. As there is always a strict connection betwixt Popery and slavery ; so the design of all this fine scheme seemed to the most judicious, to be calculated to debase and depress the minds of the people, to break any spirit of liberty, and humble them with fastings, penances, drinking of water, and a thorough subjection to the spiritual jurisdiction which he asserted was to be established in his person and when this should be accomplished, the minds of people would be equally prepared for the receiving civil or ecclesiastical tyranny. the body of Christ ; the blood of Christ " by appointing deaconesses, with sundry other faith, saying, no more than

All Jesuitical arts were made use of to bring the well concerted scheme to perfection ; families were divided in parties spies were engaged in many houses, and the servants of others bribed and decoyed to let him into all the secrets of the families they belonged to ; nay, those who had given themselves up to his spiritual guidance (more especially women) were obliged to discover to him their most secret actions, nay even their thoughts and the subject of their dreams at the same time he gave charge to juries in all civil causes that came before the court imagine what all this would end in: complain we might; but to no purpose. 10

Many of these criticisms were brought up during the Sophy Williamson trial and contributed to John Wesley leaving the colony in December of 1737. John returned to an England that had recently lost its Queen. George II’s wife, Caroline, died on November 20, 1737. George II was crowned King in October of 1727 and he would go on to reign until 1760. He was the monarch reigning during Oxford Methodism, Georgia, Aldersgate and the early and middle periods of the Methodists under Wesley. But who was George II? How was he different from his father? And how did he shape the England to which John returned from Georgia? Next time on the History of Methodism.

  1. John Wesley’s Journal Febryart 7, 1736, cited in Hammond, 85. ↩︎
  2. John Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956). ↩︎
  3. WW 25:449. ↩︎
  4. WW 18: 352. ↩︎
  5. Earl of Egmont's Journal 8 June 1737 ↩︎
  6. Hammond, 86-87. ↩︎
  7. WW: 18:525 ↩︎
  8. Hammond, 138. ↩︎
  9. Hammond, 138. ↩︎
  10. Tailfer, 208-09. ↩︎


Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014).

John Weinlick, Count Zinzendorf(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956).

Patrick Tailfer, A true and historical narrative of the colony of Georgia...(1748).