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A Truth He Did Not Understand

Among the early Protestant leaders in England, John Wesley might be the most attractive or interesting. He almost certainly was the most industrious. During his long years of preaching, he gave two or three sermons daily, giving 40,000 in all, and he rode a quarter of a million miles on horseback, crisscrossing England numerous times. Always considering himself a member of the Church of England and the promoter of the Methodist movement but not of an independent Methodist church, his legacy has been as the founder of yet another offshoot of an offshoot.

In 1745 he wrote a scolding essay to his fellow Protestants, chastising them not only for not knowing what a “Papist” is but also for not knowing what a Protestant is. “You call yourself a Protestant; but you do not know what a Protestant is. You talk against Papists; and yet neither do you know what a Papist is. Why do you pretend, then, to the knowledge you have not? Why do you use words which you do not understand?”

Wesley understood the words well enough, but, like those he was writing to, he labored under misconceptions about what constituted authentic Christianity and how even recent Christian history went. In his version of the story, “many errors crept into the Church, of which good men complained from time to time. At last, about two hundred years ago, the pope appointed many bishops and others to meet in a town in Germany, called Trent. But these, instead of amending those errors, established them all by a law, and so delivered them down to all succeeding generations.”

The “errors” that Wesley had in mind included the “doctrine of seven sacraments; of transubstantiation; of Communion in one kind only; of purgatory, and praying for the dead therein; of veneration of relics; and of indulgences, or pardons granted by the pope, and to be bought for money.”

Wesley even discovered a doctrine not listed as such in any Catholic catechism: “the doctrine of persecution.” He explained to his Protestant readers that “this has been for many ages a favourite doctrine of the Church of Rome. And the Papists in general still maintain that all heretics (that is, all who differ from them) ought to be compelled to receive what they call the true faith; to be forced into the Church, or out of the world.”

If one could say that there was a “doctrine of persecution,” it ironically could be found most grandly developed not among the “Papists” in far-off Rome but among Wesley’s own Protestants in England. Even in Wesley’s time, two centuries after the English Reformation, Catholics had few civil rights and were the objects of frequent public disturbances. Within living memory Catholics had been executed just for being Catholics. If any group believed that those who disagreed “ought to be compelled to receive what they call the true faith,” it was England’s Protestants who thought this way. It was they who believed in compulsion or, in the alternative, ostracism or worse.

For all his admirable personal qualities—and he had many—John Wesley was a man of his times, and he imbibed the anti-Catholic prejudices of his times. He thought the Council of Trent had as its purpose the reaffirmation of recently acquired errors, when in fact it reaffirmed ancient truths in contradistinction to the recent errors of the Reformation.

Wesley was quite correct in saying that his fellow Protestants understood neither Protestantism nor Catholicism, but Wesley himself did not understand the latter particularly well. His grasp of Christian history was as superficial as his grasp of the millennium-and-a-half of Christian theology that preceded the revolt that began, in England, under Henry VIII. Had Wesley known that history and that theology, his career might have been quite different. He might have given as many sermons and ridden as many miles, but his labors might have been in defense of a gospel more ancient and more complete than the one he actually preached.

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