14 November 2001

I noted yesterday, in a comment on Brian's blog, that Wesley's evangelical revival movement in the Anglican church was also something of a sacramental revival. Scott asked me to say a little bit more about this largely forgotten aspect of the Wesleyan revival. So here it is.

The Methodist sacramental revival is probably most clear in terms of the eucharist. It has to be remembered that the prevailing practice of 18th century Anglicanism was one of quarterly communion or, at the most, monthly (with the exception of certain High Church circles). John Wesley, among other things, wanted the eucharist to be celebrated weekly and to have an integral role in the Christian's personal piety and progress towards Christian perfection (see Saunder's "Wesley's Eucharistic Faith and Practice" in the Anglican Theological Review 48).

The eucharistic theology of the Wesleys can probably be best seen in the 166 eucharistic hymns that they produced (see Rattenbury's The Eucharistic Hymns of John and Charles Wesley). It seems that Wesley (following the 17th century Anglican divine, Daniel Brevint), held that the eucharist expressed three temporal directions: past, present, and future.

In terms of the past, the eucharist is a sacrificial memorial of the once-for-all saving work of Christ. As a sacrificial memorial the eucharist not only commemorates Christ's sacrifice upon the cross. Nor is it simply a sacrifice of all possible thanksgiving and praise for that sacrifice, in union with Christ. Rather, the eucharist is also a means by which we unite ourselves with Christ's own continual self-offering of himself to the Father as the one who was sacrificed once-for-all, in order that we may be accepted in him.

In terms of the present, Wesley held that the eucharist provides grace and spiritual nourishment for those who received it worthily in faith. And in terms of the future, he saw it as an anticipation and pledge of the final kingdom of God (see Crockett's "Holy Communion" in The Study of Anglicanism, 313-314). That is a fairly rich eucharistic theology and, though it is thoroughly in keeping with various Anglican and Reformed figures prior to Wesley, it also represents a retrieval of those earlier views.

The second area in which Wesley's views could be seen as a sacramental revival were his views on baptism (see Felton's The Gift of Water). With many previous Anglicans, Wesley held that through baptism (in the case of all infants and those adult receivers who received baptism in faith) God bestowed five benefits: removal of the guilt of original sin, entry into covenant with God, solemn admission into the church as Christ's Body, being made heirs of the kingdom, and spiritual regeneration--even if all these benefits were not enjoyed immediately. As such, baptism could prove "a real means of grace, effectually used by God to convict, convert, or sanctify."

Now, given his doctrines of conversion, Christian perfection, and his Arminian tendencies, Wesley also held that some of the benefits that were gained through baptism (particularly regeneration and justification) could be later lost and the baptized would need to be re-converted and renewed in order to enjoy them again. Indeed, he held that infants who received these benefits in infancy would, at the age of discretion, have to come into a fuller possession of them through repentance and faith or they would prove of no saving worth.

Still, I think it is clear that Wesley took the sacraments with the utmost seriousness and, given the sacramental piety of his day, his views were certainly something of a sacramental revival in tandem with his revivalism of a more evangelical sort. And in America, given our temperament and anti-sacramental tendecies, Wesley ended up having to play down his sacramental theology. Still, some Methodists today (like Thomas Oden) are trying to recapture something of Wesley's sacramentalism.