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Is It Just Nostalgia? The Renewal of Wesleyan Studies

by Ted A. Campbell

Ted A. Campbell is assistant professor of church history at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 18, 1988), copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Irving Howe sees a critical parallel between immigrant Jewish literature and literature of the American South in the 20th century. In each case, the passion to evoke a culture in letters seems driven by the authors’ sense that their cultures are fading away, doomed to certain and swift dissipation into the pervasive ethos of modern America. William Faulkner, chronicling the demise of the Compsons in The Sound and the Fury, and Howe himself, depicting the immigrant Jews of New York and their absorption into the surrounding culture in World of Our Fathers, both describe worlds that were, in their eyes, all but gone with the wind. Their enterprise, we might say, was one of nostalgia -- not in a bad sense, but in that each believed that the ethos he described could never again be a living culture.

It is worth pondering that observation now, for while signs of the decline of Methodism and old-line North American Protestantism grow ever clearer, a younger generation of Wesleyan scholars has taken up the task of recapturing the theology and ethos of Wesley and the early Methodists. As a self-avowed, practicing member of this band, I wonder (as we flee from the wrath that is surely to come) if our work will be a harbinger of renewal in the church or another instance of nostalgia over a religious culture rapidly disappearing.

To be convinced of the magnitude of the contemporary passion for Wesleyan studies, one need look no farther than the works being produced by graduate students and junior scholars: there are dissertations, monographs and scholarly articles, along with a sprinkling of more popular works. Although the field of Wesleyan studies was brought to life at mid-century by Methodists involved in the ecumenical movement (Cohn Williams, Frank Baker, Albert Outler, John Deschner and others) , it now flourishes with the ever-increasing output of the thirtysomething generation of Methodist traditionalists. Not only are graduate theological schools producing more theses and dissertations on Wesleyan subjects, but Methodist periodicals (Quarterly Review, Methodist History, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society) are increasingly printing their articles, and new publishing enterprises are emerging to take up their longer monographic works (among these are Zondervan’s Francis Asbury Press imprint, Abingdon’s Kingswood Books imprint, and Asbury Theological Seminary’s new series in Pietist and Wesleyan Studies) These scholars are quite likely to be found in the Wesley Studies Working Group of the American Academy of Religion.

Although it is difficult to generalize about this group, we can note that they gravitate toward the theological center. Some were weaned on the radicalism of the 1960s, and now seek deeper roots in their tradition. Others were reared in conservative Wesleyan and Methodist churches and seek a more intellectually credible account of their faith. Almost all reject the extremes of theological fundamentalism and liberalism. Their use of Wesleyan sources (meaning material from John and Charles Wesley or the "Wesleyan" traditions after them) typically blends historical investigation with concern for contemporary relevance. None (that I am aware of) envisions returning to the conditions of the 18th or 19th centuries (as is sometimes alleged) , but all find aspects of earlier Methodist experience that challenge what they perceive as the current deteriorating state of Methodism.

Even a cursory examination of these scholars’ works reveals their concern for contemporary issues within Wesleyan and Methodist circles. Responding to recent discussions of the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral of religious authority (Scripture, tradition, experience and reason) , a number of dissertations focus on Wesley’s understanding of religious authority -- for example, Rex Dale Matthews compared Wesley’s thought to that of the Enlightenment (Harvard University, 1986) ; Gregory Scott Clapper studied Wesley and the religious affections (Emory University, 1985) ; and I examined Wesley’s view of Christian antiquity (Southern Methodist University, 1984) Scott Jameson Jones at SMU is now exploring Wesley’s understanding of scriptural authority.

Some have looked to Methodist tradition for explicit models for contemporary theological reflection. Stephen Arnett Seamands studied the Christology of 20th-century Methodist neo-orthodox theologian Edwin Lewis (Drew University, 1983) Two scholars have given Wesley’s religious thought a contemporary, "postmodernist" interpretation. Clapper’s work and Mark Lewis Horst’s study of Wesley’s approach to Christian thought (Yale University, 1985) took Yale theologian George A. Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age as a key to revisioning the theological enterprise based on Wesley’s integration of practice and reflection.

Others have taken up contemporary concerns for the renewal of spirituality, preaching and liturgical life in their examinations of Wesley and even 19th-century Methodist figures. Steven Harper studied John Wesley’s devotional life (Duke University, 1981) Craig B. Gallaway examined the sense of divine presence expressed in the Wesley hymns (Emory, 1988) , while Henry H. Knight offered a critical appropriation of Wesley’s understanding of the "means of grace" (Emory, 1987)

Studies of 19th-century topics (with concern for contemporary relevance) have been undertaken by Gayle Carlton Felton, who examined Methodist baptismal teaching and practices in the previous century (Duke, 1987) , and by Carol Marie Norén, who studied the doctrine of Christian perfection as expressed in the preaching of a Swedish-American Methodist preacher of sanctification, Nels O. Westergreen (Princeton University, 1986) A dissertation on 19th-century Methodist services for marriage and burial is currently under way at Notre Dame by Karen Westerfield Tucker.

In two cases, contemporary social issues impinging upon the Methodists have inspired studies. Paul Wesley Chilcote took up the intriguing subject of the British women preachers of John Wesley’s era (Duke, 1984) and Douglas James Williamson wrote on the career of the 19th-century Methodist reformer William Fisk (Boston University. 1988)

This may not be simply a Wesleyan phenomenon: younger religious traditionalists of varied denominational backgrounds are now seeking academic credentials. Since George Marsden moved to Duke, a steady stream of graduate students from Fuller Seminary, Wheaton College, Gordon-Conwell Seminary and other traditionally evangelical schools are studying here, especially in the field of American Christianity. Presbyterian and Episcopalian traditionalists may share some of same frustration with the falling away of what used to be called "mainline" religion in America. On the other hand, newer evangelical denominations are thriving, and I suspect that students from these backgrounds (such as the Assemblies of God) have somewhat different motivations for pursuing academic credentials.

I suspect that those of older traditions of North American theological reflection look disdainfully upon the new scholarship. Old-style liberals will probably find the younger scholars’ stress on the integrity of Methodist faith narrow and limiting. The neo-orthodox, I presume, would find all things pietist and Wesleyan distasteful. Newer generations of liberals would find the reversion to 18th- and early 19th-century sources irrelevant in a postMarxian and post-Freudian context.

From within the movement, however, a different sort of critique arises, more or less on its own: Is it just nostalgia? Almost all in the movement (myself included) bristle at the thought: we entered scholarly study in the first place with the more or less avowed intent of helping to renew the church. But our intentions alone do not answer the question; it haunts us as we crank up our computers in the morning, as we read Scripture and pray, as we cart volumes home from the library and as we lie awake at night. Are our works, perhaps unintentionally, just a lament over the inevitable passage of a distinctly Methodist ethos, a futile shriek that goes up as Methodist people are further swallowed into the bland anonymity of fern-bar, shopping-mall and video culture? The question will not be answered soon, but one thing has become clear to many of us: the critical study of a tradition does not ensure its life; in fact, the critical study of a tradition may well be a sign of its death.

The academic study of the Methodist tradition could produce good feelings but little religious renewal. Consider how Martin Buber’s studies of Hasidism evoked rather good feelings from well-educated, middle-class Jews toward the Hasidic tradition (relieving the prejudice that the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, had raised against the Hasidim) Consider also that very few of these folk seriously contemplated taking up a Hasidic lifestyle. Perhaps a generation of Methodist professionals and well-educated laity some decades hence, proud of their tradition, will display nice coffee-table books about Wesley and early Methodism, content to know that the scholarly archives have all the footnotes, but without any serious intention of taking up the early Methodist faith and mission. "I can remember in the old days we used to have Sunday evening services," they will say, with the same fervor with which one might recall Ed Sullivan.

Some might object to this prediction, insisting that there is within our movement a considerable emphasis on personal spirituality and corporate liturgical life that should keep the movement from being merely academic. That is true; but one need revise the scenario only slightly to take this fascination with spirituality and liturgy into account. In addition to owning coffee-table books, our future Methodist traditionalists might be equally well educated about liturgical vestments, seasons and colors, and quite willing to discuss their conversion experiences over coffee with Amaretto. Perhaps they would attend a discipleship meeting every month or so to say a prayer or read the Scriptures, and then discuss the latest works in Wesleyan scholarship.

It is not an encouraging scenario, and as a historian I know better than to insist that the script has to be followed. It just has a certain compelling logic to it, and if I am not mistaken I can see it unfolding even now in the ethos surrounding the renewal of Wesleyan studies. We are, I’m afraid, more intellectuals than evangelists. And, realistic as I wish to be as a historian, I’d confess to a certain degree of nostalgia in my work. Perhaps only a sense of tragic loss can compel the urgent search for one’s roots.

Some would say (is that a Calvinist whispering in my ear?) that we must refer the issue to Providence. I shall do so after this paragraph. But we shall not easily avoid reflection on our movement and the contribution we want to make to the church. Moreover, I am not content simply to refer the issue to Providence. It is, I suspect, Providence in the first place that brings us to a kind of conviction, in asking whether we will provide a vision for the renewal of the church or just nostalgic memories to be enjoyed for a season, and then forgotten.


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