John Wesley - Optimist of Grace (Henry Knight III) - A Review

JOHN WESLEY: Optimistof Grace (Cambridge Companions). By Henry H. Knight III. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018. Xv + 152 pages.

There was a time, not long ago, when conventional wisdom suggested that the eighteenth century was a time of religious negligence, marked by latitudinarianism and deism. The one bright spot was Methodism. Recent scholarship has offered a more nuanced perspective, but Methodism still plays a significant role in that story. While scholars explore the period, offering their perspectives on the various movements that were active in England and North America during this period, interest in John Wesley and the movement that he helped create is not only of historical interest. Wesley’s influence continues to this day, as adherents to the various forms of Wesleyanism number around seventy-five million. The descendants of Wesley’s movement include Methodism, but also various holiness churches, and Pentecostalism (though not all Pentecostals are Wesleyan). Thus, John Wesley helped launch one of the most influential movements in Global Christianity.  

Henry Knight III, a professor of Wesleyan studies and evangelism at Saint Paul School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary located in the metro-Kansas City region, offers us a brief but insightful introduction to the life, ministry, and vision of John Wesley. This small book is a contribution to the Cascade Companions series from Wipf and Stock Publishers. Knight accomplishes his purpose in writing this book. He introduces us to the theological foundations of Wesley’s work. He notes that in recent years scholars have begun to acknowledge Wesley’s importance not only as an evangelist and organizer (he was this, of course), but as an important theologian in his own right. Today he has been placed together with Jonathan Edwards as one of the key theologians of that age, and his influence has continued to this day.

My own interest in Wesley is rooted in my studies of high church Anglicanism and the Nonjuror movement (from the late 17th through mid-18th century). Wesley has roots in the movements that I have been examining over the years. His parents had high church inclinations and his mother had Jacobite sympathies. His interests in the primitive church, the frequent celebration of the eucharist, and practices such as fasting, have their roots in his studies of figures like the medieval monk Thomas a’ Kempis, as well as Anglican spiritual writers Jeremy Taylor and William Law (a Nonjuror himself), as well his encounters with Thomas Deacon, one of the more important later Nonjuror bishops and theologians. It was through Deacon and his group that Wesley was introduced to the 1549 prayer book and the ancient liturgies that the Nonjurors sought to restore. Those early influences would stay with Wesley throughout his life, but in time he would have other encounters that would add to his distinctive theological vision. Among those encounters was his introduction to Moravian Christianity during his journey to America early in his career. The Moravians introduced him to Pietism, to a more experiential form of spiritual life. While he seems to have experienced something conversionary because of this encounter, he didn’t abandon his earlier commitments. Rather he merged them, creating a new spiritually vital religious movement within the Church of England. It’s important to stress that while Wesley was known to push the boundaries of his church, he never separated from it.

Returning to Wesley the theologian, what sets him apart from Edwards and Whitefield is his Arminian theological commitments. While early on Whitefield and Wesley were partners in what they believed was a movement of spiritual renewal they would in time go their separate ways, because of theological differences. Unlike his Calvinist colleagues, he believed that the effects of Christ’s atoning death were universal. Salvation, in other words, was available to all, not only to the elect. While he was influenced by the Moravians, he ended up moving away from their form of pietism due to disagreement over the role of the Eucharist as a means of grace (the Moravians downplayed communion). In the end, he created his own pathway, drawing from these movements, but taking his own counsel as well.

In Knight’s portrayal of John Wesley, Wesley is a serious theologian. Standing at the center of his theology is an "'optimism of grace,' in connection with the goal of perfection in love" (p. xv). As the book progresses we see that love is the center piece of his vision, and that the perfection he counsels is one of love. His vision is communal as well. There are no lone-ranger Methodists. Here is where the organizing side of Wesley comes into play, but this commitment to community is deeply theological. 

As one would expect Knight begins with the spiritual and theological influences that helped form Wesley, including the aforementioned Nonjurors (who were Arminian as well) and the Moravians. From there he moves on to detail in brief, Wesley’s break with Whitefield and the Calvinist side of evangelicalism. With this break we can see the emergence of his vison of salvation as rooted in universal grace. For Wesley, humanity may have been affected by original sin, even experiencing total depravity. However, Christ’s atoning sacrifice negated the effect of that original sin, opening the opportunity for all humanity to respond to the offer of salvation. As we learn, as we move quickly through Wesley’s story, justification is not the end game. For Wesley, salvation led to sanctification—to growth in holiness. He spoke of Christian perfection, which led to misunderstanding. Like the author of 1 John, Wesley pursued the sinless life, but he also recognized that this was completely realized in this life. Perfection thus was more maturity, and an allowance for love to take hold of one’s life. In other-words, Wesley was committed to pursuing spiritual transformation that was marked by love.

This process of growth included engaging with the means of grace, and for Wesley that included Church discipline, community, and sharing in the Lord's Supper on a regular basis. Interestingly, he put less emphasis on baptism, seeing it as a sacrament of initiation and not a means of growth, unlike the Eucharist, which one would participate in regularly. That commitment to frequent communion would led Wesley to take steps that led to the kind of separation from the Church of England that he sought to avoid.

True to his vision of growth in love, Wesley believed that good works should flow from salvation. Thus, we encounter someone completely committed to what we might call social ministry. He believed that Christians should aid the poor. He was an ardent abolitionist. He was also committed to ministries of healing—both natural and supernatural. He even wrote a book on remedies for illnesses. Knight notes that in his book Primitive Physick, Wesley sought to "put basic healthcare back into the hands of ordinary people" (p. 101). I must say this particular chapter resonated, offering guidance for the contemporary church.  

As the century wore on Methodism grew in numbers and influence, and controversy would emerge around several issues. First, there was the question of what perfection meant. There was also the issue of the relationship of his movement to that of Whitefield and Calvinist evangelicals. Then there was the danger of separation from the Church of England. Wesley was committed to remaining in the Church of England, even though there was significant resistance to his movement from leaders, like Edmund Gibson. But what put Wesley on a collision course with the Church of England was the birth of the American nation. While he was horrified by schism, he also believed that the movement of renewal required his utmost commitment. Though Charles was opposed, he took steps that would lead to the eventual break of Methodism from the parent Church of England. Believing that frequent communion was necessary, and without sufficient clergy in the former colonies, Wesley took the step of ordaining ministers to celebrate the sacraments, first in America, and then as time passed for Methodist groups in the north of England. 

What Knight does in this short book is connect a figure rooted in the eighteenth century and make him relevant for today. Wesley had a theological vision that has stood the test of time. Even if one doesn't embrace all his vision, there is much to learn from Wesley. Knight doesn’t have space to develop the full story, but he sets the foundation for further examination of Wesley’s theology, practice, and legacy. I would say that Wesley’s focus on perfection in love is one that we would be wise to embrace. I also believe that his Arminian-influenced vision of universal grace (not salvation mind you, but universal access to salvation) is an important offering. Finally, his social vision is one that is ripe for reclamation in an age when social justice is often pursued separately from faith, or when grace becomes cheap. 

Bringing this review to a conclusion, I highly recommend this book, not only to Wesleyans, though I think it will be helpful for Wesley descendants to reflect on his legacy, but I think there is much here that will speak to a broader audience. Even Calvinists might find something to like here!  For that we can thank Professor Knight for his bringing Wesley and his vision to life. 


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