Hammond, Geordan. John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity. Oxford University Press. 2014. (237 pages)
From Dr. Geordan Hammond comes the first book-length study of John Wesley’s ministry in America. . . . and it is fantastic!
Geordan Hammond, Ph.D. is Director of the Manchester Wesley Research Centre, and Senior Lecturer in Church History and Wesley Studies at Nazarene Theological College, and his most recent publication is the kind of book that “Wesleyan/Anglican” type folks will thoroughly devour. It is true that it is not simply a book on liturgy, sacraments or worship. However, most Wesleyans who would describe themselves as being “on the Canterbury trail” John Wesley’s concern for continuity with the early Church is precisely what Geordan Hammond focuses on in this book.
|Dr. Geordan Hammond
are interested in those things, at least in part, because they point us back to the practices of the early Church.
Many of Wesley’s biographers tend to overlook Wesley’s time in Georgia, or they have simply treated it as a failure. Many nineteenth-century Methodists were guilty of “de-Anglicanizing” Wesley. For them, the mission to Georgia’s real importance is as a backdrop leading to Wesley’s evangelical conversion at Aldersgate. - Hammond easily demonstrates the flaws in this perspective.
Hammond presents an abundance of evidence from Wesley’s own writings, as well as those of his contemporaries, showing that Wesley used the mission in Georgia as a laboratory for implementing his understanding of the primitive Church. He argues that the desire to restore the doctrine, discipline, and practice of the early Church was the primary reason that Wesley took on the Georgia mission, and without that understanding, historians and theologians will not be able to adequately evaluate Wesley’s mission in America.
Hammond shows that Wesley’s ecclesiology matched that of the Usager Nonjurors. Thus, like other High Churchmen, Wesley stressed the centrality of the sacraments in worship. Further, Wesley’s views of the early Church are seen in his devotional discipline, sacramental doctrine and practice, and his conduct in leading worship. He sought to imitate the practices of the primitive church through his revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, precise sacramental observance, confession, penance, ascetical discipline, the utilization of deaconesses, religious societies, and his mission to the Indians.
Further, Hammond demonstrates that this concern for continuity with the primitive Church did not end in Georgia. Rather, it continued throughout John Wesley’s life. Indeed, there were areas of change in Wesley’s understanding and practice, but he maintained his belief in the primitive Church as a normative model for Christian faith and practice.
While the central argument of the book is that the ideal of restoring primitive Christianity was at the forefront of Wesley’s thinking and is crucial to interpreting the Georgia mission, a number of secondary themes are also found. Hammond seeks to analyze Wesley in context as an Anglican clergyman rather than interpreting his Georgia mission as a “preface to victory.” When possible, Hammond demonstrates the connection between Wesley’s reading and practice of primitive Christianity. Third, he provides a fresh perspective on Wesley’s interaction with the colonists, Moravians, Lutheran Pietists, and Miss Sophia (!) by interpreting those relationships within the context of Wesley’s desire to renew primitive Christianity.
In this work, Hammond also considers the primary documents written by Wesley and his contemporariesand evaluates those journals, diaries, letters, etc., with a particular view as to how other biographers have used or misused them. Further, Hammond makes thorough use of sources seldom utilized by other Wesley biographers.
In order to accomplish his goals, Hammond divides the book into five chapters. Chapter one investigates the influence of the concept of primitive Christianity on Wesley’s theology and practice prior to the Georgia mission. Chapter 2 focuses on the theme of primitive Christianity on the voyage to Georgia. Chapter 3 analyzes Wesley’s relationship with the Moravians and Lutheran Pietists through the lens of his devotion to his High Church Anglican understanding of primitive Christianity.
It is in chapter four that Hammond focuses on the application of Wesley’s view of primitive Christianity in Georgia, proper. Here we watch Wesley endeavor to imitate the practices of Christ and the early Church through his interest in prayer book revisions, sacramental observance, confession, penance, ascetical discipline, deaconesses, religious societies, and mission to the Indians. Though Hammond shows that Wesley’s confidence in the early church councils and canons were diminished by the time he left Georgia, he nevertheless shows that his pursuance of the form and spirit of the primitive church remained.
In the final chapter we take a look at the opposition to Wesley’s ministry. He was viewed by some as an enthusiast (or fanatic). Others accused him of being Roman Catholic. He was seen by many as being divisive. Further, Hammond argues that the Sophia Williamson controversy is best understood within the context of opposition by male colonists to Wesley’s ministry to women, in general.
At the conclusion of the book, Hammond produces an evaluation of Wesley’s mission to Georgia that stands in sharp contrast to those who have claimed it to be a failure. It is in this section that Hammond discusses continuity and discontinuity between Wesley’s views of primitive Christianity while in Georgia compared to his views later in life. He clearly shows Wesley’s continuing interest in the Church Fathers and the primitive church as normative models for doctrine and practice, and that he was convinced that Methodism was the restoration of primitive Christianity.
One critical note: Hammond seems to assume at a couple of points that those reading his book will come to it with a sufficient knowledge of English history, as well as an understanding of the identity of some of the “key players” in Wesley’s England. He does get around to explaining who the Nonjurors are, for example, but one has to wait a bit for it. This is not necessarily bad. However, it may require a bit of patience for the uninformed. Additionally, it may well spur on further investigation, which is always a good thing.
This book also raises some questions for Wesleyan/Anglican types, like me. If Wesley was so convinced of the Usager points while in Georgia, and if he continued to be so committed to primitive Christianity (and I agree with both statements!), then what was it that caused him to somodify his views when it came time to produce “The Sunday Service”? - It is understandable that he would not include instructions about using a mixed chalice. After all, he cuts out plenty of the instructional material from the BCP. However, why did he not include clear oblation language or a clear epiclesis during the Eucharistic prayers?
Those are some of the burning questions that I was left with after reading Hammond’s book. - I really wish that he would have answered those questions for me, but, alas, it seems that they were (frustratingly!) just beyond the scope of this work.
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As I indicated, this is a fantastic read!
It is a must for all students of John Wesley, and especially for those Wesleyan/Anglican types who read this blog.
(It is a bit pricey, but . . . ) I very highly recommend this book.
It is my hope that many 21st
Century Wesleyan/Methodists will (re)discover Wesley’s commitment to continuity with the primitive Church and will adapt such a commitment for their lives and ministry.
For information on purchasing a copy of Dr. Hammond’s book, please follow this link.