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Wesleyanism, or Wesleyan theology, is a movement of Protestant Christians who seek to follow the "methods" or theology of the eighteenth-century evangelical reformers John Wesley and his brother Charles Wesley. More broadly, it refers to the theological system inferred from the various sermons, theological treatises, letters, journals, diaries, hymns, and other spiritual writings of the Wesleys and their contemporary coadjutors such as John William Fletcher.

Wesleyanism, manifest today in Methodist and holiness churches, is named for its founders, the Wesleys. In 1736, these two brothers traveled to the Georgia colony in America as missionaries for the Church of England; they left rather disheartened at what they saw. Both of them subsequently had "religious experiences", especially John in 1738, being greatly influenced by the Moravian Christians. They began to organize a renewal movement within the Church of England to focus on personal faith and holiness. John Wesley took Protestant churches to task over the nature of sanctification, the process by which a believer is conformed to the image of Christ, emphasizing New Testament teachings regarding the work of God and the believer in sanctification. The movement did well within the Church of England in Britain, but when the movement crossed the ocean into America, it took on a form of its own, finally being established as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. The Wesleyan churches are very similar to Anglicanism (in Church government and liturgical practices), yet have added a strong emphasis on personal faith and personal experience.

At its heart, the theology of John Wesley stressed the life of Christian holiness: to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself. See also Ministry of Jesus. Wesley’s teaching also stressed experiential religion and moral responsibility.[1]

Wesleyan and Arminianism

The doctrine of Wesleyan-Arminianism was founded as an attempt to explain Christianity in a manner unlike the teachings of Calvinism. Arminianism is a theological study conducted by Jacobus Arminius, from the Netherlands, in opposition to Calvinist orthodoxy on the basis of free will. After the death of Arminius the followers, led by Simon Episcopius, presented a document concerning the Arminian beliefs to the Netherlands. This document is known today as the five articles of Remonstrance. Wesleyanism, on the other hand, was founded upon the theological teachings of John Wesley, an English evangelist, and the beliefs of this dogma are derived from his many publications, including his sermons, journal, abridgements of theological, devotional, and historical Christian works, and a variety of tracts and treatises on theological subjects. Subsequently, the two theories have joined into one set of values for the contemporary church; yet, when examined separately, their unique details can be discovered, as well as their similarities in ideals.

Arminianism was officially recorded and presented to Dutch leaders in 1610 A.D., about one hundred and fifty years before the development of Wesleyanism. The doctrine is based upon five essential beliefs that are purposely biblical in nature. The first of these five points is the reason for the conflict between Calvinism and Arminianism in its basic foundation; it is the concept of free will. Arminius believed that even after the fall of humankind, all persons had the responsibility (by God's prevenient grace) to accept Jesus Christ and thus be saved. The second point of Arminianism declares conditional election. Arminius states that the choosing of the elect is based upon the foreknowledge of God as to who would believe; a person's "act of faith" was seen as the condition for salvation. It is this choosing by God's grace to accept Jesus Christ that elects one to inherit salvation. Thus, salvation is made to occur initially by God's prevenient grace and then one's free will, and only then is one chosen to be saved. Third, Arminianism explains that redemption is based on the fact that God loves everyone, that Christ was sacrificed for all, and that the Father's will is that no one perish. The crucifixion of Christ satisfied God's wrath, provided the means by which forgiveness can occur, and Christ's resurrection enables the forgiven to inherit life. However, once again, one must choose Christ in order to be saved. Hence Christ died for every person who has lived and will ever live, but only those that freely choose to follow Jesus are elected unto salvation. Fourth, the idea of Obstructable Grace states that since God does desire all persons to be saved, God sent the Holy Spirit to encourage and persuade all people to Christ. Yet, again because of free will, one may choose to reject salvation and thus resist God's will. God wills all people to be saved and worship God in spirit and in truth, but has sovereignly chosen to provide humankind with free will to freely choose to accept or reject Jesus. And finally, the practical idea that follows is that one may fall from grace; since it is one's will to accept Christ and be saved, a person may either continue in salvation and persevere in the faith or choose to voluntarily reject Christ and fall away from the faith.[2]

In the early 1770s, John Wesley, aided by the theological writings of John William Fletcher emphasized Arminian doctrines in his controversy with the Calvinistic wing of the evangelicals in England. Then, in 1778, he founded a theological journal which he titled the Arminian Magazine. This period and the Calvinist-Arminian Controversy was influential in forming a lasting link between Arminianism and Wesleyanism

Wesley is remembered for visiting the Moravians of both Georgia and Germany and examining their beliefs, then founding the Methodist movement, the precursor to the later variety of Methodist denominations. Wesley's desire was not to form a new sect, but rather to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness as truth. However, the creation of Wesleyan-Arminianism has today developed into a popular standard for many contemporary churches. Wesleyanism well explains the two main events in the life of the believer; "saving faith," or justification, the threshold of the Christian life; and "the fullness of faith," or sanctification, as its goal. Wesleyanism also stresses good works through faith that acts by love, and the primacy of revelation in the scriptures.

The beliefs of Arminianism were influential through the generations until Wesley picked up the theories and expounded them further. Today, they have become a fused set of Christian ideals, deep-rooted basics for the life of the believer. Together, they have become a powerful set of beliefs, even for the modern Christian.

Wesleyan tradition

John Wesley

In the broad sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition identifies the theological impetus for those movements and denominations who trace their roots to a theological tradition finding its initial focus in John Wesley. Although its primary legacy remains within the various Methodist denominations (the Wesleyan Methodist, the Free Methodist, the African Methodist Episcopal, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion, the Christian Methodist Episcopal, the United Methodist, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and others,) the Wesleyan tradition has been refined and reinterpreted as catalyst for other movements and denominations as well, e.g., Charles Finney and the holiness movement; Charles Parham and the Pentecostal movement; Phineas Bresee and the Church of the Nazarene.

In the more narrow sense of the term, the Wesleyan tradition has been associated with Arminianism, usually in contrast to Reformed Calvinism. Historically, Calvinists have feared that Wesleyans have strayed too close to Pelagianism. On the other hand, Wesleyans have feared that Calvinists have strayed too close to antinomianism. In fact, neither is necessarily true. Calvin was no antinomian and neither Arminius nor Wesley was a Pelagian. Justification by faith is pivotal for both traditions. Although free will is an issue, in many respects the two traditions are not that far apart. For example, Wesley stated that he and Calvin were but a hair's breadth apart on justification. Sanctification, not free will, draws the clearest line of distinction. Good theology, for Wesley, was balance without compromise. This balance is most evident in Wesley's understanding of faith and works, justification and sanctification. Those who espouse such a tradition like to think of this as their peculiar genius.

Wesleyan distinctives

In a phrase, the Wesleyan tradition seeks to establish justification by faith as the gateway to sanctification or "scriptural holiness." Taken separately, justification by faith builds the foundation. In a sermon entitled "Justification by Faith", Wesley made an attempt to define the term accurately. First, he stated what justification is not. It is not being made actually just and righteous (that is sanctification). It is not being cleared of the accusations of Satan, nor of the law, nor even of God. We have sinned, so the accusation stands. Justification implies pardon, the forgiveness of sins. God justifies not the godly but the ungodly. They that are righteous need no repentance so they need no forgiveness. This pardon or forgiveness comes by faith. Then Wesley stated what faith is and what it is not.

It is not that faith of a heathen, nor of a devil, nor even that of the apostle while Christ remained in the flesh. It is "a divine supernatural, evidence or conviction, 'of things not seen,' not discoverable by our bodily senses." Furthermore, "justifying faith implies a sure trust and confidence that Christ died for my sins, that He loved me and gave Himself for me".[3] This faith is received by repentance and our willingness to trust Christ as the one able to deliver us from all our sins, which Wesley attributed only to God's prevenient grace.

With justification by faith as the foundation the Wesleyan tradition then builds a doctrine of sanctification upon it. The doctrine develops like this. Woman and man were created in the image of God's own eternity. They were upright and perfect. They dwelt in God and God dwelt in them. God required full and perfect obedience, and they were (in their unfallen state) equal to the task. They then disobeyed God. Their righteousness was lost. They were separated from God. We, as their seed, inherited a corruptible and mortal nature. We became dead, dead in spirit, dead in sin, dead to God, so that in our natural state we hastened on to death everlasting. God, however, was not to be undone. While we were yet sinners Christ died for the ungodly. Jesus bore our sins that by his stripes we might be healed. The ungodly, therefore, are justified by faith in the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice. This is not the end, however. This is only the beginning. Ultimately, for the true Wesleyan, salvation is completed by our return to original righteousness. This is done by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Although we are justified by faith alone, we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that makes us holy.

The Wesleyan tradition insists that grace is not contrasted with law but with the works of the law. Wesleyans remind us that Jesus came to fulfill, not destroy, the law. God made us in God's own perfect image, and wants that image restored. God wants to return us to a full and perfect obedience through the process of sanctification. As we continually yield to the Spirit's impulse, God roots out those things that would separate us from God, from ourselves, and from those around us. Although we are not justified by good works, we are justified for good works. To be sure, no good works precede justification, as they do not spring from faith in Christ. Good works follow after justification as its inevitable fruit. Wesley insisted that Methodists who did not fulfill all righteousness deserved the hottest place in the lake of fire. Fulfilling "all righteousness" or being restored to our original righteousness became the hallmark of the Wesleyan tradition.

To fulfill all righteousness describes the process of sanctification. Wesley insisted that imputed righteousness must become imparted righteousness. God grants the Holy Spirit to those who repent and believe that through faith they might overcome sin. Wesleyans want deliverance from sin, not just from hell. Wesley speaks clearly of a process that culminates in a second definite work of grace identified as entire sanctification.

Entire sanctification is defined in terms of "pure or disinterested love." Wesley believed that one could progress in love until love became devoid of self-interest at the moment of entire sanctification. Thus, the principles of scriptural holiness or sanctification are as follows: sanctification is received by faith as a work of the Holy Spirit. It begins at the moment of new birth. It progresses gradually until the instant of entire sanctification. Its characteristics are to love God and one's neighbor as oneself; to be meek and lowly in heart, having the mind which was in Christ Jesus; to abstain from all appearance of evil, walking in all the commandments of God; to be content in every state, doing all to the glory of God.

Four sources of theological authority

The Wesleyan tradition's defense has normally exercised four sources of authority rooted in the tradition of the Church of England: scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Although these authorities represent only a construct of Wesley's theology, the principles can be clearly identified.

Wesley insisted that scripture is the first authority and contains the only measure whereby all other truth is tested. It was delivered by authors who were divinely inspired. It is a rule sufficient of itself. It neither needs, nor is capable of, any further addition. The scripture references to justification by faith as the gateway to scriptural holiness are well known to true Wesleyans: Deut. 30:6; Ps. 130:8; Ezek. 36:25, 29; Matt. 5:48; 22:37; Luke 1:69; John 17:20-23; Rom. 8:3-4; II Cor. 7:1; Eph. 3:14; 5:25-27; I Thess. 5:23; Titus 2:11-14; I John 3:8; 4:17.
Although scripture is sufficient unto itself and is the foundation of true religion. Wesley wrote: "Now, of what excellent use is reason, if we would either understand ourselves, or explain to others, those living oracles".[4] He states quite clearly that without reason we cannot understand the essential truths of Scripture. Reason, however, is not a mere human invention. It must be assisted by the Holy Spirit if we are to understand the mysteries of God. With regard to justification by faith and sanctification Wesley said that although reason cannot produce faith, when impartial reason speaks we can understand the new birth, inward holiness, and outward holiness. Although reason cannot produce faith, it can shorten the leap.
Wesley wrote that it is generally supposed that traditional evidence is weakened by length of time, as it must necessarily pass through so many hands in a continued succession of ages. Although other evidence is perhaps stronger, he insisted: "Do not undervalue traditional evidence. Let it have its place and its due honour. It is highly serviceable in its kind, and in its degree".[5] Wesley states that those of strong and clear understanding should be aware of its full force. For him it supplies a link through 1,700 years of history with Jesus and the apostles. The witness to justification and sanctification is an unbroken chain drawing us into fellowship with those who have finished the race, fought the fight, and who now reign with God in his glory and might.
Apart from scripture, experience is the strongest proof of Christianity. "What the scriptures promise, I enjoy".[6] Again, Wesley insisted that we cannot have reasonable assurance of something unless we have experienced it personally. John Wesley was assured of both justification and sanctification because he had experienced them in his own life. What Christianity promised (considered as a doctrine) was accomplished in his soul. Furthermore, Christianity (considered as an inward principle) is the completion of all those promises. Although traditional proof is complex, experience is simple: "One thing I know; I was blind, but now I see." Although tradition establishes the evidence a long way off, experience makes it present to all persons. As for the proof of justification and sanctification Wesley states that Christianity is an experience of holiness and happiness, the image of God impressed on a created spirit, a fountain of peace and love springing up into everlasting life.

Development of Wesleyan thought

The emphasis on justification by faith as the foundation and sanctification as the building upon it kept the people called Methodist moving perpetually toward God. Even entire sanctification as an instantaneous experience was never cause to sleep. Not to improve it was to lose it. One was to grow in love. Perfect love continually plumbed some new depth of the human experience. These distinctives of the Wesleyan tradition were powerful tools for the perpetuation of the evangelical revival. Unfortunately, many of these doctrines have been either lost or misdirected. Many within the Wesleyan tradition have slipped into legalism, for example. Their understanding of sanctification has become too closely identified only with the form of godliness. Wesley intended that sanctification should be a disposition of the mind or a condition of the heart from which spring all good works.[citation needed]

The Wesleyan emphasis upon holiness has been renewed in the work of many theologians to locate love as the core of holiness. Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl, for instance, argue that love is the core notion that unites and gives meaning to other understandings of holiness found in scripture and tradition. This emphasis upon love as central to holiness corresponds with John Wesley's own statements.[citation needed]

Variants: the Methodist and holiness movements

The Wesleyan movement began as a reform within the Church of England, and, for a while, it remained as such. The movement separated itself from its "mother church" and became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church in America and the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Britain. Many divisions occurred within the Methodist Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century, mostly over first the slavery question and later the inclusion of African-Americans. Some of these schisms healed in the early twentieth century, and many of the splinter Methodist groups came together to form The Methodist Church by 1939. In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Pietist Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist church in America. Other groups include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Congregational Methodist Church, the Evangelical Church of North America, the Evangelical Congregational Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and the Southern Methodist Church.

In nineteenth-century America, a dissension arose over the nature of sanctification. Those who saw sanctification as a never completed progressive task, remained within the Methodist churches; others, however, believed in instantaneous sanctification that could be perfected. Those who followed this line of thought began the various holiness churches, including the Church of God (Holiness), the Church of God (Anderson), the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, and the Wesleyan Methodist Church, which later merged with the Pilgrim Holiness Church to form the Wesleyan Church, which are present today. In the nineteenth century, there were many other holiness groups; many of these groups became the foundation for the Pentecostal movement. Other holiness groups that rejected the Pentecostal movement merged to form the Church of the Nazarene.

The Salvation Army is another group which traces its roots to early Methodism. The Salvation Army's founders Catherine and William Booth founded the organisation to stress evangelism and social action when William was a minister in the Methodist Reform Church.

See also


  1. Commonplace Holiness: Wesley & Methodism
  2. Huzar, 330
  3. Works, V, 60–61
  4. Works, VI, 354
  5. Works, X, 75
  6. Works, X, 79


  • Huzar, Eleanor, "Arminianism" in the Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, 1994).
  • Outler, Albert C., "John Wesley" in the Encyclopedia Americana (Danbury, 1994).
  • J. Wesley (ed. T. Jackson), Works (14 vols).

Further reading

  • Wallace Thornton, Jr., Radical Righteousness
  • Wallace Thornton, Jr., The Conservative Holiness Movement: A Historical Appraisal