Age of Reason

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Course: Church History II

Lecture: Age of "Reason"

… recently about the final stages of the emergence of what we now recognize as the denominational pattern of Protestantism.  How this all came about.  But what I want to do today is go back over the period, not over the subject, but over the period, to look at something else that was happening at this time which was of equal importance, indeed, some people would say is of greater importance for the world in which we live in today.  Most of the Puritans and Episcopalians, and all these people whatever side they were on, were functioning with a mindset, with a world view, which in many ways would be more appropriately categorized as medieval than modern.  That is to say that they all believed in God; they all believed in providence, the providential ordering of the universe by a good and loving God; they all believed in the Bible as the word of God; they believed in the Trinity and the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.  What they fought over were things which to them were important, but if you think of it in those terms are really rather secondary.  Like, whether your church should have bishops or not, who you should baptize etc. etc.  These are the nuts and bolts of administration as much as anything else.  They are not sort of basic Christian truths.  It is not the same thing as denying the divinity of Christ or something of this kind.  It’s within a certain framework, within certain parameters that this kind of thing happens. 

Now, in the 17th century, we find a completely different movement of ideas which is the ancestor of modern atheism, unbelief, whatever else you want to call it, that we find so much around us today.  And this is something we need to look at because the two things are not unconnected.  One of the problems with Puritanism, as I pointed out, was that the Puritans could never agree among themselves.  This was actually quite a serious difficulty, because they all believed that the Bible was God’s word, first of all; that the Bible was clear, secondly; and that anything you wanted to know all you had to do was look at the Bible and you’d find the answer.  Now, that’s fine, provided you all come up with the same answer.  But of course, that didn’t happen.  People came up with very different answers.  I looked at some of this in passing, and I pointed out that the truth is the Bible does not give very clear answers about everything.  Right from the early days of the Christian church nobody ever thought that it should.  Discussions on this point you can find among the early Fathers, Tertullian and people like this, Augustine, and they say:  What do you about things that are not in the Bible?  They would list things that weren’t in the Bible.  For example, hymn singing in church.  It talks about singing from time to time, but there are no directions in the New Testament about Christian worship, hardly at all.  We don’t even know for example, whether the apostles were baptized.  You just assume they must have been, but it doesn’t actually say that they were.  It doesn’t say, for example, that you should have a weekly collection.  There were all kinds of issues that were argued about, particularly were argued about in the 17th century, that there is no one answer to.  What the Puritans discovered is that if you take the principles that they had, sola scripture, the Bible alone, whatever the Bible says you do; whatever the Bible doesn’t say you don’t do – you very quickly come to the point that you have to go beyond what the scriptures actually say.  Otherwise you cannot run a coherent church.  How you go beyond what the Bible says, what you add; how you do it – well that’s another issue.  What you do is something you have to work out among yourselves.  But you have to do something.  The Puritans had to learn this the hard way because they thought it was possible and it turned out not to be. 

However, in the process of doing this there were people who began to say to themselves; if this is the way they carry on; if they believe that the Bible is  the basis of truth and they don’t agree about what the Bible says and they start shooting each other because of it, which is also what they were doing - the civil war breaking out over this kind of issue, then clearly, this cannot be true.  Truth is objective.  If they had found the truth, presumably they would all agree.  There has got to be something wrong here somewhere.  The something wrong is wrong with the basic premise -- the basic premise that the Bible is the single source of all human knowledge.  If that premise is something you are going to reject, what are you going to put in its place? 

The answer of some people in the 17th century was human reason, that human reason is something which is shared by every human being.  It is an objective criterion which can be used to measure the truth or falsehood of any given statement.  Now today, we’ve lived through 300-400 years of rationalism and so we are in a position to see the weaknesses in this particular point of view.  But in the early 17th century, this was not only a new idea, it also seemed to be a very liberating idea, and in certain ways it was.  There is no denying that it did have a very powerful and in some respects very positive effects.  For example, over the whole question of witchcraft – what is witchcraft?  Are these people actually doing anything?  When you apply the criterion of reason to this sort of thing, witchcraft comes to appear absurd, ridiculous and not worth bothering about.  What about reading horoscopes?  Again, it is not logical that the stars should determine your destiny.  In many ways you can say that this movement is the beginning of what we call modern scientific discovery.  And without this fundamental shift, modern science as we now understand it would not have been possible.  People would not have the mindset which you would need in order to investigate it. 

What about the things you can’t explain?  There are different ways of dealing with this.  A consistent rationalist would say that there is an explanation for everything; it’s just that we may not have found it yet.  For instance, if it is true that apples fall to the ground, there has got to be a reason for this even though we don’t know what it is.  You start with that assumption and before very long Sir Isaac Newton discovers the law of gravity.  All this kind of thing starts to bubble up in the middle of the 17th century, largely in reaction to what was perceived by a lot of people to be the excesses of Puritanism. 

Now, the question of whether or not there is a God for a long time was answered in the affirmative.  There must be a God because it is logical to believe that there is.  The arguments like if you have a watch, there must be a watchmaker.  Therefore if you have a creation which functions in such a beautifully rational way, there has got to be a mind behind it.  The argument from causation – that cause and effect is what keeps the world going – there must have been a first cause, a first mover.  Of course you go back to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks who said as much, I mean they said the same thing.  Somebody must have started the ball rolling.  This was generally held belief, that yes there was a Supreme Being who created the world and who created the world in this kind of way.  So in that sense belief in a god was held to be rational. 

The question then arises – does this god intervene in human affairs?  That is a totally different question.  This is where you talk about the supernatural.  What exactly do you mean?  In the 17th century, this question gets asked for the first time.  Is it possible to have miracles?  Trying to define what exactly a miracle is - is not that easy.  Is a miracle something which can be explained in terms of natural phenomena but it just happens to be very rare?  Therefore you regard it as a miracle because in your experience it’s never happened before.  But, it’s only because of your perspective that it’s a miracle.  Take that versus a different kind of phenomena which is a phenomena that goes against the laws of nature, like walking on water, or virgin birth, or rising from the dead – these things are not in accordance with the natural laws and so we have to ask ourselves – is this kind of thing possible?  The rationalists of the 17th century came to doubt this.  You can’t say that they all doubted it immediately at the same time and to the same degree.  But in the course of the 17th century as people began to reflect more deeply on this kind of thing, as rationalism made progress in science and so on, then gradually the sphere for divine action, unexplained and inexplicable divine action gets less and less.  And eventually it disappears altogether, because even if you spot an unidentified flying object, the scientists will say that’s only because you haven’t got the equipment or the data or the whatever it is that it takes to resolve the mystery.  It’s not because there is a genuine mystery.

Now, the problem with rationalism is that rationalism has a huge long uphill battle against ordinary people who simply are not rational.  In purely objective terms, most people simply do not function in a rational manner.  That is to say that horoscopes, for example, are just as popular now as they were in the 16th century.  People who ought to know better read them.  Then you have perfectly respectable organizations like the Catholic Church which go around claiming that if the priest says the right words over the bread and wine it turns into the body and blood of Christ.  Clearly rationalism has a long uphill battle ahead of it.  It’s not going to make an easy triumph.  This has been the history of rationalism.  It continues to be the history of rationalism.  It is something deep in the mentality of most people who support rationalism.  It may not seem very rational to you and me to find some professor from Harvard going on about ignorant fundamentalists who are preventing his sort of program for instant euthanasia by e-mail or something like this, but from his point of view he is trying to push back the frontiers of ignorance. 

We live in an age when we realize that rationalism by itself is not the answer to every problem – that rationalism is fine within its limits, it has something to say, and reason can be used in the right way, if it’s used in the right way it works out fine, but it cannot be the final answer to every question. 

Rationalism has always been attacked as a philosophy, since the 18th century.  Some of the attacks on it are very well known. It’s just that you don’t realize that that’s what they are.  For instance, Alice in Wonderland is a marvelous attack on rationalism, because Alice in Wonderland basically takes the thesis that as long as you create the right framework then within that framework all kinds of funny things are possible.  You can create rules which will function within that universe.  Every cartoon strip basically follows the same pattern.  You get Bugs Bunny who gets blown up and 2 seconds later he’s back running around again.  This is not rational.  The early rationalists believed that rationalism was purely objective.  There was only one form of reason which was possible. Therefore you could not create your own little sub world which functioned according to its own and rather different rules. 

Another criticism which is now very powerful, which we tend to accept very readily, is that there are things in life which are not susceptible to rational explanation.  We’ve talked about this before.  I mean the whole question of love.  All you have to do, falling in love yourself is pointless for examining this because you are involved, is watch two other people fall in love, and then try to figure out why.  What logical explanation can there be for this?  You only get so far, but you can’t finally explain it that way.  Same with hate.  This is again something which rationalists have to struggle with, because why, for example, should people hate for something like racism.  What is the logic in this?  There is no logic in it.  It doesn’t make sense.  And yet it is a reality.  It’s not just racism, but nationalism, or sexism or any kind of thing like this that people kind of turn against others for.  You stand back from this and you ask yourself, what’s the point?  Why are they doing this?  You realize that you are dealing with a force which is not rational.  This does not mean that it’s not real.  It’s very real.  It has to be dealt with in that sort of way. 

Now, this has tremendous implications for society, because if you are trying to run a society on purely rational lines, you won’t get very far.  This has been tried.  It’s been the subject of all kinds of books, both for and against.  A lot of science fiction is basically dealing with this.  What happens in a purely rational universe?  What you end up with is always something horrific. People sense that a society of robots is not going to work.  Yet, there have been times over the last few centuries when rationalism of this kind has dominated and dominated to the point of actually having a long-term effect on the way people live.  All you have to do is look at a map of the United States, and the further west you go the more rationalistic it begins to look.  Look at Colorado for instance or Wyoming and ask yourself, who designed them?  Obviously it was a mathematician on a drawing board who said this, this, this, we’re going to create a nice square there.  This is the way they did it.  And they didn’t worry about things like rivers, mountains, people or other things that got in the way.  They just said the line is going to be a straight line.  These lines are totally fictitious.  They are purely in the mind of whoever sort of carved up the globe like that.  They have no correspondence with any physical reality.  And yet they provide the framework for the creation of a unit of government.  This is only possible in a basically rationalistic society.  Nothing else can explain it.  The reason is an abstraction. 

Now, it’s one thing to carve up land in that way.  But it’s quite another thing to start carving up people in that way.  This is the great criticism or Marxism.  When Marxism has been applied to societies, it has tried to do that with people, and say right; we’re going to have a standard human being.  What was known as the homo sovieticus.  The cookie cutter human being.  And you just go out and kind of produce a whole lot of them.  For some reason or other, either it didn’t work at all and you ended up with different human beings which was not what you wanted, or the similarities were such that it was not very edifying, like they all got drunk on vodka on Friday night, and then on Saturday night, and then on Sunday night, and then on Monday morning, and this kind of thing, so the common characteristics were not very helpful.  That’s the other problem when you try to do something like that.  It doesn’t work.  But the fact remains that it was tried, and it was tried fundamentally because people believed that reason was powerful enough to change society, to change people for the better of course – that if you could do this, you could solve every problem, stop every war and you could go ahead in the most rational and sensible way possible. 

Now, we have lived through enough horrors in the last century to know that this is not the only answer.  But in the 17th century, this was still a new thing, an untried thing, and to some people at least it appeared to offer an escape from prejudice - people who were sort of beating each other over the head or worse, because of their interpretation of some obscure biblical verse, which didn’t seem to them to make any sense. 

Well, the initial deistic people, they were in southwest England at a country house which was called, Great Tew, it’s a manor house not far from Oxford. And they were known as the Great Tew Circle.  The home belonged to a man by the name Lord Falkland and the most distinguished member of the circle was a man called Lord Herbert of Cherbury.  Lord Herbert was the elder brother of the poet George Herbert.  These people together, working in the 1620’s and 1630’s tried to produce a kind of philosophy based on the idea that only rationally defensible notions could be regarded as valid, as fundamentally viable. The Great Tew Circle was broken up because of the civil war in England.  You couldn’t do this kind of thing when people were fighting.  In Cromwell’s time, there was no scope for that kind of activity.

But, at the restoration in 1660, people who shared these ideas got together and founded a society called the Royal Society, therefore indicating that it had the patronage of the king.  The Royal Society was dedicated to the pursuit of science.  All discussion of religion and theology was banned from this.  Not because people thought that religion and theology were nonsense, but because they thought that they were so divisive that they’d rather just get on with what they were doing.  The Royal Society still exists.  It’s a very prestigious organization, now.  Sometimes you find people that have the initials after their name, FRS.  If you see someone with that it means Fellow of the Royal Society.  You get prominent biologists, chemists and all that kind of thing belonging to it.  So, it’s still a going concern now.  But it was the first grouping of its kind, where people got together to pursue intellectual interests exclusive of religion.  As it grew and developed, Sir Isaac Newton was a very major person in it in the early days, and people like John Locke were closely associated, I don’t think Locke was actually a member.  And a whole new way of thinking came into being at this time. 

Now, another thing which paradoxically influenced this was the settlement of religion in 1662, which drove the Puritans, the more radical ones anyhow, out of the national church.  This meant for the ordinary person, the clergy well that was one thing, but ordinary lay people could no longer send their children to the universities, because the universities were reserved for people who belonged to the state church.  They established academies of their own.  These were called Dissenting Academies and there were quite a number of them set up during this time.  In the dissenting academies religion was excluded, but great emphasis was placed on the sciences, mathematics, natural science, and so on.  In other words, providing what we today would call a modern education.  The ancient universities concentrated on things like Latin, and Greek, and theology and law and to some extent medicine. 

The dissenting academies didn’t teach religion or theology?  And yet they were set up by the Puritans?

They were set up by the Puritans to give their children an education – not by the ministers.  The ministers left, there were about 2000 of them, but that’s a relatively small number, but what about their congregations?

It seems like the Puritans would set up more religious universities.

They didn’t.  It sounds like it, but they didn’t. 

Well, there would be things like chapel attendance and that kind of thing.  Although this sounds odd to us, you’ve got to remember – well Sanford University is a good example you see of something in this tradition, because it was established in 1841.  The divinity school was established in 1988.  So, for 147 years there was no theology taught at Sanford.  And it is supposedly a Christian university.  That’s a good example of this kind of thing.  I mean there would be religion of a kind, like basic stuff, but not professional training for theology. That’s another thing.  And why not?  Well, I don’t know.  Looking back on it now, it seems very strange.  I suppose, partly they were afraid – the Puritans, one of the things they believed in was freedom, and freedom to think what they wanted to think, so I suppose they were afraid that if they set up theology faculties right left and center, the theology faculty would have a confession of faith, and before very long it would become very narrow and their freedom would disappear. 

You meet it in Southern Baptist circles, people who believe that a Southern Baptist is someone who is free to think whatever he likes about anything. 

This is all very strange to me coming out of Covenant College, where there is very little studying Bible, and yet all the faculty has to sign the Westminster Confession.  We were always taught that the foundation for modern science wasn’t the enlightenment, but it was the reformation and this letting go of Greek philosophy and believing that God created the world in a regular way so you could learn about it because God made it that way.

Which is a half truth.  There’s an element of truth in that.  But, by the time this got going on a large scale, by the time you get to people like Newton, for example – I mean Newton was a theologian.  He thought that his theological works would outlast his scientific ones, and took them much more seriously.  Whereas today, most people don’t read Newton’s theology, most people don’t even know he wrote any.  It’s one of those ironic things. 

Protestantism came to be regarded as the religion of rationalism, because Protestantism had got rid of the sort of non-scientific medieval accretions of the Catholic Church, and had created a religion which sensible people could believe.  That was also part of it to a large extent.  The difficulty then came over the parts of Protestantism which unfortunately didn’t fit this description, like the Trinity.  There were struggles over this in the late 17th early 18th century. 

English Presbyterianism, for example, disappeared.  They all became Unitarians.  Unitarianism grew up at this time.  It grew up among people who had been Puritans.  In the United States, where is the home of Unitarianism?  It’s Boston and around there.  You go there and you find that all those Puritan Churches that had been established in the 1630’s went Unitarian in the 18th century.  Now, if you go to Cambridge Massachusetts, the old church, the church that has been there since goodness knows when, is Unitarian.  This was the drift.  It didn’t happen in Scotland.  Scottish Presbyterians stayed firm.  It didn’t happen in the United States to all of them.  But this was certainly a strong tendency. 

Now why?  There could be many reasons.  I think one reason was, the Puritans were disappointed in the fact that although they appeared to be winning their battles, they lost in the end.  Their strong predestinarian way of thinking helped them as long as they were fighting because they felt they were on God’s side and that everything was going to work out in their way.  But when they lost, and when they were forced out of power, then a lot of them began to think, what’s God doing?  How come this is happening?  Gradually there was a hardening of faith.  A lot of people really lost their faith over this, although it might not be expressed in so many words.  As time went on, as theology was studied less, science was studied more, and Puritan type people were regarded as dissenters, sort of outsiders who had to fight for their rights, inevitably this kind of rationalistic thinking began to take root and to grow and develop much more than one might otherwise imagine. 

Now, this can be exaggerated.  By about 1720 or so, dissent both in England and in the Colonies was moving away from orthodoxy. It was moving out of the traditional Christian faith, or else dying out.  A lot of people went back into the state church.  This was true in the American Colonies.  The divinity school at Yale became Episcopalian, totally.  They all converted, in I think it was 1722, or something like that, having been Puritan up till then.  There was a definite movement in that direction all through the early part of the 18th century among those who remained orthodox Christians. It’s quite possible, that had that carried on the churches that we think of today as say Baptist or Congregationalist, or Presbyterian might have died out eventually, if things had just gone on like that. 

Of course, what changed everything, what totally revolutionized the entire scene was the Great Awakening, the revival.  I want to look a little bit at that – because this is what really created the modern religious scene that we know today. 

Now the revival is invariably associated with the name of Wesley.  But, it’s bigger than Wesley.  Wesley was by no means the only person involved.  A lot of the people who profited from the revival, the Great Awakening, if you want to call it that, in the middle of the 18th century were people that Wesley hardly knew about. 

Baptists are a very good case in point.  In the early years of the 18th century … it was getting smaller and smaller.  It might well have eventually faded out altogether, but what brought it back to life was revival.  The revival in the 1740’s 1750’s and so on just fanned the flames here and all of a sudden what had been a small and declining group was able to expand dramatically.  If you read for example, the history of the American South, you’ll find that in 1740, there really were no Baptists at all in the South.  There was very little development of that kind at all.  But by 1800, they might have been the majority.  There was a tremendous upsurge in the course of the 18th century.  Why?  Several reasons.  I think one of the main reasons being their flexibility.  Because in times of revival, that’s what you need.

The Episcopal Church was the worst place to deal with revival, because it was the most highly organized. If all of a sudden there are 300 people at the door who have just been slain in the Spirit, the Episcopal Church finds this difficult to cope with, because it doesn’t fit the image.  Suddenly they want to go out and serve God in some way and they look at you and say: like how?  You’ve got to go to college; you’ve got to get your degree; you’ve got to be properly ordained; you’ve got to be recommended by the right people; you’ve got to learn to play golf; how on earth are you going to minister like this?  So, in a sense, revival passes them by, because they can’t deal with it.  It’s too alive. Whereas a church which doesn’t have all this, a church which says alright, you’ve got the biggest voice, and the biggest Bible, you can be the preacher, and out they go is ideally suited for revival conditions.  Because, with the Baptist Church, you could go off in the middle of nowhere and build a Baptist Church and who was to tell you no.  You can’t do that with an Episcopal Church.  You can’t do that with a Presbyterian Church.  It’s much more centrally controlled.  It’s organized from the center.  People who do that are suspect. 

This was Wesley’s trouble, because Wesley was exactly that kind of person.  Wesley went about preaching in the open air.  This was very bad form.  He was hauled up before his bishop who told him that he was to cease preaching in the open air.  Wesley said he had to go and preach where the Holy Spirit lead him, which was not what the bishop wanted to hear.  The bishop wound up telling him; enthusiasm serves a very horrid thing, which is kind of the epitaph of that sort of religion. The whole mentality is not geared to this kind of behavior.

Now Wesley is a very interesting case because Wesley came from an ex-Puritan family.  His grandfather, his father’s father, in fact both grandfathers as far as I know, had been Puritans, and his father’s father had been a Puritan minister.  His own father, figuring that Puritanism had no future, conformed to the national church; he became a Church of England parson vicar in Epworth in Lincolnshire.  The young Wesley’s, John and Charles and the rest of the family grew up there in this way.  Now Wesley’s mother had enough Puritanism left inside her from her upbringing that she actually organized bible study in the home, which was a very unusual thing to do in those days. So Wesley had some inkling of this; he knew the kind of thing that would go on.  But father was very starchy, very rigid, no nonsense, and he just stuck to the traditional church way of doing things.  He was quite anti- any kind of personal expression of religion and so on. 

The young Wesley’s when they went to Oxford, had imbibed this kind of thing and they tried to live, they must have been extremely unpleasant young men, they formed at Oxford something called the Holy Club trying to lead a holy kind of life by fasting and prayer and all this sort of thing - almost in a sense by going back to medieval notions of monasticism.  This was Wesley’s spirituality in his youth. 

Then he signed up for foreign missions which was a very unusual thing to do in those days.  But he ended up in Georgia as chaplain to the colony there.  He didn’t last very long because he made the mistake of falling in love with somebody who wasn’t in love with him, and refusing her communion when she went and married somebody else.  Anyway, he got himself into hot water one way or another, and after 18 months he was back on the boat home.  It was on the boat that he met Moravians who had come from central Europe who had developed a kind of communal piety with their own hymns and prayers and so on, a deeply personal kind of religion.  Then when Wesley was back in London, he went to one of their meetings in 1738 in Aldersgate Street in the city of London, and it was there, he later said that his heart was strangely warmed and he felt that God was at work in his life, and he repented and became a true believer.  From that moment on, nothing would stop him.  That was the beginning of his revivalist tendencies. 

Now Wesley was not the only person to experience spiritual awakening at more or less this time.  George Whitefield was another. Whitefield also felt a spiritual awakening independently of Wesley and was also concerned to go out and preach the gospel in the highways and byways.  But Whitefield came from a very different theological stable.  Whitefield belonged to the group of people in the Church of England who had remained faithful to Puritan theology.  They might not be Puritans in terms of their liturgical practice necessarily, but in theological terms they hadn’t really gone very far.  They had conformed to the national church but they had retained a traditional 16th 17th century Calvinistic kind of theology.  This immediately provoked division because when Whitefield and Wesley met up, which they did very soon after, 1740 I think it was, and tried to cooperate in the work of evangelism it didn’t work.  They couldn’t because Whitfield had a Calvinistic view, that everybody was a sinner and going to hell and that they needed to be saved by grace and only God’s grace would actually do this work and so on, and he was a 5 point TULIP man and all that. 
And Wesley who had been converted out of a totally different background, even to call him Arminian is dignifying his theology with a word that is too academic.  But Wesley did not believe in predestination.  Wesley thought that predestination was a wicked doctrine, that it was a bar to evangelism, and that if you believed in predestination you would never preach the gospel to anybody.  This was Wesley’s stated belief.  He ditched predestination and along with that the view that you could never fall away.  Inevitably in Wesley’s preaching you would have people, who would make a profession of faith, as you still do, and then they don’t show up again, or they come for a little while and they turn away.  How do you account for that?  Well, Wesley came to the conclusion that these people had been converted, but then they had fallen away, because falling away was possible. Whereas, Whitefield would say these people had never really known the grace of God to begin with. 

So, you have divisions of this kind which soon became very deep, very serious and divided the revival almost from the very beginning.  There were two groups.  Wesley’s group were the ancestors of the Methodists.  Whitefield’s group were the ancestors of conservative evangelical people either who stayed in the national church of England, or in the Baptists, or the Congregationalists or these other groups, the ones who retained a Calvinistic theology, it came about in that sort of way.  But this was an actual problem and division between these two men with their different theological perspectives at the time.   Whitefield and Wesley themselves personally respected each other and they never really stepped on each other’s toes all that much. 

But some of their followers were a different story.  Some of their followers could be really nasty.  I hate to say it, but the Calvinists were nastier than the Arminians.  But you have people like Augustus Toplady who wrote, “Rock of Ages” who was a really nasty character.  He used to go around threatening hell fire and damnation not just on unbelievers but on Methodists as well.  Some of them felt it really very strongly, too strongly really for their own good.  They forgot about things like love.  I suppose in the context of revival you have to allow for that.  There is always going to be extremism on one side or the other.  In the early days everything was sort of bubbling up so much so quickly and so fast that nobody really knew what was happening.

Now, Wesley never wanted to leave the state church.  He was a Church of England clergyman, remained such until the day he died, he always said he was an Anglican, he never wanted to leave and start his own denomination and he was very negative toward those who did.  During his lifetime, he did everything he possibly could to forbid his followers to set up their own church.

Then why did he ordain himself a bishop

He didn’t.  He didn’t ordain himself a bishop. 

He said he could ordain, yes.  He took on himself the power of ordination. He didn’t actually make himself a bishop.  He just overturned the traditional structure.  This is one of the inconsistencies because, although he was very insistent on belonging to the state church and continuing in that way, he also had the problem that he had an awful lot of followers who needed teaching, who needed organizing, who needed to be looked after, and the church was not prepared to do this, for various reasons – either because they didn’t have the personnel and weren’t able to do it, or because they didn’t agree with it or there would be all sorts of reasons.  So what Wesley, in effect did was organize cell groups of his own, appointed leaders to these cell groups, and in effect ordained them to function as recognized leaders of these groups.  These were he Methodists, so called because they had a methodical approach to spirituality.  There were certain things you did, like the quiet time, the daily prayer, daily bible study.  This kind of thing really came into being on a widespread basis as a result of the evangelical revival of the 18th century.  People did not normally do this sort of thing before – not on a structured regular basis.  Read through the Bible in a year according to a fixed plan, this sort of thing, doing it on your own.  Having your own prayer time, and keeping a diary with a list of things you pray about and people you pray for.  All the things that to us are normal and natural, Wesley introduced these things. 

Hymn singing, which prior to this had been unusual.  In the prayer book of 1662 there is a little note that says: in choirs or places that sing, here followeth the anthem.  That’s the only mention of music there is.  There is no provision for hymn singing other than that. 
Wesley, and of course his brother Charles really popularized hymn singing as a means of evangelism.  Because there were very few hymns available, other than metrical psalms and things like that, they sat down and wrote them.  We still sing Wesley’s hymns today.  We sing today about 60 of them.  We sing a selection, 3 or 4 verses.  If you go back to the 18th century and get the original texts, you will find that John and Charles Wesley, between them, wrote something like 1200 hymns, most of them had something like 53 verses.  They were designed as propaganda.  Even through the hymns people learned their beliefs.  The ones that have survived are the ones which are good and have lasted.  But it’s very instructive if you’re ever interested in this kind of thing to go back and see what they originally wrote – things like Arminianism set to music.  This has gotten written out now, because people don’t do this.  You’ve got John Wesley writing these Arminian hymns.  Of course, Augustus Toplady writing hymns on the other side saying exactly the opposite.  Hymn singing as a basic component of worship really dates from this time.  Although to us it’s so basic and so obvious, we forget that the hymnal made the church to a very large extend.  You can see this today, still, because people tend to be identified almost more by the hymnal than by anything else. It still plays a very central role in a lot of churches.  Certainly it causes an awful lot of feeling if you try to change it.  The music is so central to our worship.  That is really the fruit of Wesley and his deliberate policy in the 18th century to inculcate his preaching of the gospel through music.  And that’s why it’s so central to us even now.


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1 Church History II - Quiz 20

Church History II - Quiz 20


1 hour 11 min

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