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Return to Methodism’s roots

by
18 December 2015

A good, if occasionally irritating, introduction, says J. R. Watson

The Way of the Wesleys
John R. Tyson
Eerdmans £11.99
(978-0-8028-6954-8)
Church Times Bookshop £10.80


THIS book is sub-titled “a short introduction”, but is much more. Tyson presents 14 discrete chapters, each discussing one aspect of the belief of John and Charles Wesley as partners in the gospel. We discover their lives, not through their history, but through their theology.

Beginning with the Bible, for both were what Tyson calls “Bible Christians”, they are examined through their working out of responses to the questions that exercised them (and us): among them sin, the new birth, grace, the Persons of the Trinity, and the Trinity itself. Particularly impressive are the chapters that deal with holiness and with Christian perfection, two frequently misunderstood fundamentals of Methodist thinking; but the whole book is a treasure-house, demonstrating the Wesley brothers’ sound doctrine and good sense.

The way in which these things relate to their behaviour is beautifully handled: John Wesley’s frugality (remarkable) and his generosity (amazing) are just two of the features of his life which emerge from this study.

The principal evidence in each chapter comes from the sermons of both brothers and from Charles’s hymns. Each chapter is introduced by a phrase from a hymn, and Tyson shows through the hymns how close, for most of their lives, the brothers were in thought and belief. One of the joys of this book is to rediscover these hymns in their original form, not mutilated as they are in the current Methodist hymnal.

Each chapter concludes with “Questions for Reflection”, which I found disconcerting (“How do you think of human sin?” “What role does the doctrine of the Trinity play in your own Christian life and thought?”). This is like being buttonholed by a zealous preacher when trying to slip out after service.

There are one or two errors, such as “Annsley” (page 1) and “raise” (page 23, for “rase”, meaning “erase”: “to raise out of our souls the likeness of the destroyer” would not have pleased John Wesley). But this book can be read with profit by anyone who would like to know more about the beliefs of the Wesley brothers.

In particular, this vade mecum ought to be in the pockets of every Methodist minister in the country. It might recall British Methodism to an awareness of its great tradition, that “source of the old prophetic fire”.

 

Dr J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham.

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