A letter from Lewis Benson to
Digitized by Ellis Hein
on July 15, 2016
I think I need to know more about Brian Soper with respect to his views on the relation of Methodism to Quakerism– or of the relation of Wesley’s Christianity to Fox’s Christianity.
Maurice Creasey maintains that Wesley was the George Fox of the 18th Century and other Quakers take a similar view. I have done enough reading to satisfy myself that the Quakerism of Fox and the Methodism of Wesley do not coincide to any significant degree. What I know about Fox is based on primary sources, but what I know about Wesley is based on secondary sources. Nevertheless the prominent place of “Evangelical” Christianity in American Quakerism makes it important for N. F. workers to try to understand the “Evangelical” tradition and the way it has influenced American Friends, many of whom owe more to Wesley than they do to Fox.
Since it has been my experience that information about Fox gleaned from secondary sources is of dubious value and I have reason to suspect that what I have learned about Wesley from secondary sources may be untrustworthy. But since you are in a hurry, I have no choice but to try to respond as best I can.
To what extent, then, does the Quakerism of George Fox and the Methodism of John Wesley coincide? To what extent can the neo-Quakerism of the New Foundation movement find common ground with Methodism?
If we look at present day Quakerism throughout the world it is as much influenced by Wesley as by Fox. In so far as the NFF is a movement to recover and reproclaim the apostolic gospel preached by Fox it is compelled to critically examine the Evangelical Tradition within Quakerism.
Wesley’s influence on Christian history is immense and consequently his form of Christianity will be encountered by NF workers everywhere and we need to know something about it.
My own attempts to find out exactly what Methodism is in a way that can be compared with Fox’s teaching and message have usually left me with a feeling of frustration. Fox and Wesley do not operate on the same wave length.
Fox’s theology has a starting point, namely, the “everlasting gospel” preached by the apostles. And, like the apostles, he has a gospel message about Jesus Christ which is rooted in the promises and prophecies and messianic expectations of God’s old covenant people. His teaching concerning the authority of the Bible, worship, ministry, priestcraft, sacraments and church order are all closely related to this gospel message and cannot be properly understood apart from the gospel experience. This gospel is the foundation for all of Fox’s teaching and for his whole vision of the nature of God’s people in the New Covenant.
But, according to Winthrop S. Hudson (“American Protestantism”, University of Chicago Press, 1961), Wesley’s theology was very largely taken over from Calvin, with the exception of the doctrines of predestination and perfection. Hudson says that Wesley’s Evangelicalism was “more of a mood and an emphasis than a theological system . . . Its stress was upon the importance of a personal . . . conversion experience . . . it was a revolt against the notion that the Christian life involved little more than observing the outward formalities of religion.” (p.30)
The growth of the Methodist movement was due to the exhortations of powerful preachers whose object was to lead people to make a public declaration that they accepted Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. On such occasions the number of people who made such a public declaration could be immediately ascertained. This was the means by which the Evangelical denominations made such phenomenal growth in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Methodist and other Evangelical churches into which new converts were inducted were, in the main, conformable to a conventional standard of church structure. They were not “churches of the cross” in the sense that Quakers and Mennonites understood this term. (see my Moorestown tape on “the Church of the Cross”) They were mostly committed to the belief in the primacy of the sacraments and the authority of the written word in church life.
So I have been forced to the conclusion that the Methodist gospel and the Quaker gospel did not produce the same results especially with regard to worship, ministry, church order and corporate testimonies involving corporate suffering. And this appears to be the conclusion you have reached.
Fox’s claim that he had recovered the primitive gospel preached by the apostles has no parallel in Wesley’s preaching. Fox’s gospel turns people to Christ, who is near and present and in the midst of his people as their living teacher, leader, guide, counsellor, and orderer. Christ is therefore known by what He does and what He says. The appropriate response to Fox’s gospel is to receive Christ in all His offices and to hear Him and obey Him in all things. He saves us because He teaches us God’s righteousness and gives us the power to obey. He is our priest, our bishop, our prophet, our orderer. Christ’s church is a fellowship of disciples who learn together, obey together , and suffer together. Receiving Christ in His gospel and new covenant must therefore lead to the gathering of a church which is radically different from the ancient churchly ecclesia.
Wesley’s gospel preaching is rooted in his own personal experience of salvation (on a certain day, at a certain hour). This was an experience of the love of God in sending Christ to offer forgiveness for sin. His gospel preaching in aimed to evoke in others a similar experience and he expects his hearers to have such an experience immediately as a result of his gospel preaching. People reared in this christian tradition desire above all things to have this experience, and they esteem the vocation of an evangelist of this type to be the highest calling that a man or woman can receive. A pollster’s recent attempt to discover who most Americans regard as the greatest American of our time revealed that Billy Graham is regarded as the greatest living American.
This kind of evangelist is preoccupied with “saving souls or winning souls”. Christ is saviour because through forgiveness the sinner is Justified before God and will not suffer the consequences of sin in the life to come. Rupert E. Davies (“Methodism”, Pelican Books, 1958) says that “If there is one religious fault that can be found with the whole ’body’ of Methodists, it is an atomistic doctrine of salvation, and have an undue preoccupation with their own souls.” (p.151) This is a fault of Pietism in its many manifestations. Pietism accepts the existing church order while seeming to cultivate a deeper spiritual life in the individual. Because of its individualistic view of salvation, Methodism has not made any significant contribution to our understanding of eschatology. “The Day of the Lord” is not only something that can be experienced in the heart of the individual but it can also be experienced as an historical event.
The early Quaker movement began with a proclamation that the Day of the Lord was dawning. Something new and from God was breaking into the historical situation. Wesley seemed to have little awareness of the eschatological present as it is related to God’s redemptive work in history. Because of its individualism, Methodism has not produced anything very revolutionary, or even distinctive, in the way of church order. For Wesley, the existing church order may need to be reformed but is not to be overthrown nor replaced by an entirely different order. The Methodist church order that evolved was not designed nor intended to replace or supersede the existing church order in which Wesley himself lived and died. The Methodist church he helped to organize was the unintentional prototype for denominational Christianity.
Religious sociologists divide christian communities into three classes: the church, the sect, and the denomination. The denomination is the type of christian community that is the dominant form of christian association in America. The denomination is not a sect because “sect” implies a negative value Judgement toward some other group or groups. “The word denomination, on the other hand, is an inclusive term—an ecumenical term. It implies that the group referred to is but one member, called or denominated by a particular name, of a larger group—the church—to which all denominations belong.” “Each denomination is regarded as’ constituting a different ‘mode’ of expressing in the outward forms of worship and organization that larger life of the church in which they all share” (W. S. Hudson, “American Protestantism”, 1961, p.34). If Wesley was a denominationalist before the rise of denominationalism, then this sharply differentiates him from Fox, because Fox was anti-denominationalist before the rise of denominationalism.
Fox often deplores “the many names” in Christendom, and these “many names”, he says, are a mark, or sign, of the fallen church. Both the Quakers and Mennonites have been evolving toward becoming denominations in the 19th and 20th centuries but there has also been some resistance to this trend in both groups.
Fox’s opposition to both sectarianism and denominationalism can be amply documented. The distinctive thing about Fox’s christianity is that church order is not a secondary feature. It is not something that can be supplied by any church leader with a flair for organization. For Fox, gospel fellowship, gospel worship, gospel ministry, and gospel order are all part of the gospel itself. They belong to this gospel and are inseparable from it. Fox disclaimed authorship of the gospel order. He trusted the gospel he preached to produce a new and revolutionary church order. He told the Quakers “your gathering together hath been by the Lord to Christ His Son, and not by man”.
Denominationalism is a doctrine of the nature of the church that implies that church order is not of the essence of Christianity but is a secondary thing and can be arranged in any way that suits the church members. The fierce loyalty of the first Quakers to the gospel order that had been given them was not a denominational loyalty. They were not simply perversely absolutizing a denominational structure and order. Fox says, “You may as well deny the gospel as to deny gospel order”.
It has often been pointed out that perfection is a place where Methodism and Quakerism overlap.
For Wesley, the saved soul is justified and made acceptable to God through repentance and acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal saviour.
It is to Wesley’s credit that he saw that the saved soul was under obligation to live righteously and he taught that the saved soul can also experience sanctification by God’s grace, and this can even occur instantaneously. Thus the Methodist not only knows that he is saved and sanctified but he also knows when he was saved and sanctified. The sanctified soul of Methodism is the Justified soul that, by the grace of God, has also had an “experience of sanctification”. For Wesley’s followers, the “experience of sanctification” is a “second blessing” or second experience of grace.
Fox’s teaching concerning perfection goes back to Genesis and the prerfall experience of “taking counsel with God and walking with God”. Fox sees Jesus Christ as God’s answer to our need to be restored to the original relationship with God of hearing and obeying. God sent his son, saying, “This is my beloved Son, hear him”. Man was created for a life of hearing and obeying the creator and Jesus Christ restores man to this perfect life which he lost through not hearing and not obeying. If man becomes again a hearer and obeyer through discipleship to Jesus Christ whom God sent, then he is restored to what God intended for him in the beginning and he is perfect to the extent that he listens to what God teaches him through Christ and to the extent to which he obeys.
There is much more that could be said by way of comparing Fox’s and Wesley’s doctrines of perfection but this letter is getting over-long. At some point you will need to consider Fox’s doctrine and teaching about how the whole church can be led by Christ to make a corporate witness on moral issues as it is led to do so by Christ. Perhaps you have already discussed this with Brian Soper. It is such a big subject that I will not attempt to enlarge on it here.
I have tried to indicate the direction that I think a Quaker/Methodist dialogue might take. But most of all I have tried to express my concern that the revolutionary character of the New Foundation witness needs to be stressed in any dialogue of this kind. You were present at a public meeting when [xxxxxx xxxxx] asserted that the New Foundation witness is nothing more that a belated restatement of the Methodist type Quakerism that he represents. We must be prepared to make a clear distinction between Evangelical Protestantism and the gospel we preach.