Two Recommendations: Witnesses of Perfect Love and Transatlantic Methodists

These two new books will be of interest to those who study Methodist theology and history.

witnessesofperfectloveFirst, Amy Caswell Bratton’s Witnesses of Perfect Love: Narratives of Christian Perfection in Early Methodism (Clements Academic, 2014), tackles the doctrine of Christian perfection from a different angle: the personal narratives of Methodists who claimed the experience of perfection.  While Methodist conversion narratives are well-known, this book looks at how early Methodist narrated their continuing struggle towards Christian perfection.  By examining four particular cases in detail, Bratton is able to delve deeply into the way that early Methodists interpreted and understood their own Christian life in light of distinctive Wesleyan teaching on sanctification.

What must also be remembered is that such narratives were often published and circulated in Methodist circles.  Therefore, these narratives represent not only personal interpretations of the doctrine, but also one of the ways that Christian perfection was interpreted to the Methodist community.  In other words, theological studies of Christian perfection, which traditionally focus mostly on more traditional theological literature, should also consider these narratives as part of the corpus of Wesleyan holiness teaching.

You can find out more about the author and the book on her site.  Bratton’s book is the most recent volume in Tyndale’s Studies in Wesleyan History and Theology series.  Previous volumes were contributed by Howard Snyder and Victor Shepherd.

20140624_134307My second recommendation is Todd Webb’s Transatlantic Methodists: British Wesleyanism and the Formation of an Evangelical Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ontario and Quebec (McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013).  Webb, who teaches at Laurentian University, offers an account of 19th century Canadian Methodism that stresses its connections to British Methodism.

Against prevailing accounts, which downplayed the contributions of British missionaries to Methodism’s growth in favour of arguing for a distinctive Canadian Methodist identity, Webb argues that Canadian Methodism between 1814 and 1874 must be understood in terms of its relationship with British Methodism.  Canadian Methodists came to see themselves as transplanted Britons, and formed a British identity in a time when there we competing understandings of what it meant to be truly British.  It is not simply that the British Methodists exerted influence on Canadians, but developments in Canadian Methodism also affected the history of the home church during this time.

Webb’s excellent account not only narrates the history of the developments, which can be quite confusing, given the multiple mergers and schisms which took place on both sides of the Atlantic, but he but also notes how particular issues, such as finances (chapter4) and revivalism (chapter 5) can help to illuminate the complex relationship that existed between the various Methodist bodies.

As I’ve already said, both books are highly recommended.

 

Conflict with the Conference: Parallels between William Booth and Ralph Horner

I’m currently reading the recently-released book, Lift Up a Standard: The Life and Legacy of Ralph C. Horner, by Laurence and Mark Croswell.    Although Horner is not exactly a household name, he is definitely one of the most significant figures in Canadian church history, and perhaps the most significant in the 19th century Canadian holiness movement.

That is not to say that he was universally admired – on the contrary, he was a controversial person, and the dramatic and emotional nature of his services raised concerns from some of his colleagues.   Nevertheless, he was a very effective evangelist, and his ministry generated a lot of excitement in late nineteenth century Eastern Ontario.

Horner began his career in the Methodist Church, and as I’ve been reading of his conflict with the Methodist Conference (the governing body) I have been struck by the similarities between Horner’s story and that of William Booth, about 30 years earlier.  Both men desired to be itinerant evangelists, but came up against a Conference that was unwilling to allow them the freedom they were looking for in ministry.

Booth had joined the Methodist New Connexion in 1854 and was initially appointed as an evangelist in London.  He would have been happy to stay in this type of ministry, but after two years, the Conference began giving him circuit appointments – first to Brighouse, and then upon his ordination in 1858, to Gateshead.   Booth continued to communicate his desire to be free from pastoral responsibilities so he could focus on evangelism, but Conference continued to deny his requests.

Finally, in 1861, Conference attempted to appease Booth by appointing him to an important circuit in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and suggesting that he could engage in evangelistic work so long as he had properly arranged for the pastoral responsibilities of the circuit to be taken care of.   The Booths were not satisfied with this, however, so William resigned from the Connexion and went to work an independent evangelist.

Horner Revival Sermons via Internet Archive

Horner’s story is a bit different, but it centres around the same basic conflict between evangelistic and pastoral responsibilities.  Beginning in 1886, Conference appointed Horner to a series of circuits, however, every time, he refused to accept the appointment, arguing that he was called to a special ministry of itinerant evangelism.   Horner’s Conference, however, seems to have been much more forbearing, for in several instances they gave in to his requests and appointed him as Conference evangelist.

Conflict continued, however, and Conference used various methods in attempting to curtail Horner’s activities, including leaving him without an appointment at one time, and at another juncture instructing him to conduct services only under the direction of Conference.   Horner, for his part, was never willing to submit to restrictions on his “special” evangelistic activities.  As Croswell and Croswell summarize it:

It appears that the Methodist Church had no place for Ralph Horner’s ministry, and Horner had no place for the constraints of the Methodist Church (Lift Up A Standard, 62).

Unlike Booth, however, Horner was unwilling to resign, even when formally asked by the Conference.   Both sides seem to have genuinely desired to avoid a rupture of the relationship, but eventually it became clear that no resolution was possible.

It does seem Horner genuinely did not want to leave the Methodist Church, and to their credit the Methodists were doing all they could to keep Horner.   But Horner saw the church as drifting from the preaching and practice of early Methodism and consequently was trying to bring the church back to her roots…The Methodist Church was heading in a different direction and did not have a place for Horner’s interpretation of old-style Methodism.   Horner meant for his holiness revivals to be a renewal movement in the church, but the Conference saw Horner’s actions as insubordination and they could not treat him differently than any other minister (75).

So, after many years of conflict, the 1894 Conference again appointed Horner to a circuit, and decided that he would be removed from their Conference if he refused.   Of course Horner did refuse, and was suspended, before being formally deposed in 1895.  Horner would go on to found two denominations – the Holiness Movement Church and the Standard Church of America.

In part, of course, the stories of both Booth and Horner are part of the age-old conflict between established leadership structures and what are often called “charismatic” leaders.  Both men wanted to work outside the box of the established Methodist polity, and denominational leaders were unwilling to abide their apparent insubordination.

Croswell and Croswell also point to another issue, however (pp. 33-34), which I hadn’t thought of: the difference between the role of a “mass evangelist” (what Booth and Horner wanted), and the more traditional Methodist structures of ministry.   On the one hand, the early Methodist preachers were certainly evangelists rather than pastors.   Pastoral care and visitation in early Methodism was carried out mostly by class and band leaders, not preachers.   However, the early Methodist preachers were not free-ranging evangelists, like the “superstar” preachers of nineteenth century – Charles Finney, Phoebe Palmer, James Caughey, and later, Dwight L. Moody.   Methodist evangelists worked under the direction of Conference, and were appointed to specific circuits.   By the time of Booth and Horner, Methodism had clericalized to the point that the small-group structures were no longer in operation, and the circuit preachers had come to take on more traditional pastoral roles.

Influenced by revivalism, Booth and Horner wanted to exercise a truly itinerant and independent evangelistic ministry – something like the ministry of Finney.  Although these revivalistic evangelists had a significant influence in Methodist circles, their free-ranging evangelistic ministries were actually foreign to Methodist polity.   This helps to explain, in part, the conflict that both Horner and Booth faced with their respective Methodist Conferences.