Archive for February, 2014

25
Feb
14

Comparing William Booth and Isaac Hecker: my paper at WTS

I’m looking forward to the annual Wesleyan Theological Society meeting late next week at Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho.  I’ve never been to Idaho, so I’ll be glad to see it first-hand, although I must confess I’d rather visit that state during a warmer time of the year!

This year’s theme is “Atonement in the Wesleyan Tradition,” and features keynote addresses by Ben Witherington III, Randy Maddox, and Jason Vickers.  A recent press release discussing the speakers and award recipients is available here.   You can find the full schedule of papers here.

I’ll be presenting a paper that builds on my dissertation research.  It will be presented in the Ecumenical Studies section, and the title is “Universal Atonement or Ongoing Incarnation? Comparing the Missional Theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker.”  Here is the abstract:

This paper will compare the missional theologies of William Booth and Isaac Hecker, two founders of 19th century missionary agencies. Booth, who started The Salvation Army in East London in 1865, was a Wesleyan revivalist who had previously been ordained in the Methodist New Connexion. Hecker was also raised in the Methodist church, but after a roundabout spiritual journey, became a Roman Catholic, first serving as a Redemptorist Priest, and then founding the Paulist Fathers in New York City, in 1858.

William Booth via wikimedia commonsBooth and Hecker were both possessed by visions of universal revival and reform in their later years, and both believed that God’s vision for universal reform extended beyond spiritual life, to social and political structures. However, the theological assumptions behind their universal visions for mission were markedly different, and are illustrative of divergences in 19th century Wesleyan and Catholic theology. The scope of Booth’s vision was founded upon the universality of the atonement, which provided a missionary mandate to evangelize the whole world, with a particular focus on those people not being reached by “the churches.” Hecker’s vision, on the other hand, was built on the universality of the Catholic Church as the historical extension of Christ’s presence in the world. These differing Christological starting-points funded two very different understandings of work of the Spirit, the place of the Church in God’s universal mission, and the relationship of their respective missionary bodies to established church structures. Whereas the Church has a rather ambiguous place in Booth’s understanding of world-wide redemption, Hecker’s view is thoroughly ecclesiocentric.

I will close by reflecting on the potential pitfalls of each view, and suggest some ways in which contemporary Wesleyans and Catholics might think together about universal mission in a way that avoids the theological extremes of our 19th century foreparents.

Hecker via wikimedia commonsFor Booth, the scope of Christian mission is very much related to his convictions about the universality of Christ’s atoning work, and the full implications of the atonement for human life.  As he got older, he came to believe that Christ had come not only to offer “spiritual” redemption, but to “destroy the works of the devil in the present time” by relieving humanity of temporal as well as spiritual evil (see his article “Salvation for Both Worlds” for example).  On other hand, for Hecker, the Catholic Church’s unviersality meant that the church was called to take up and incorporate the best of all the cultures of the world.  Hecker had a keen sense that the Spirit was guiding universal history, and had given “characteristic gifts” to the different cultures and races of the world, all of which needed to be directed to their proper ends and brought together in the one universal Church so that they might enrich the church’s life and bring glory to God.

As I’ve previously note here, I think Booth and Hecker are a very interesting comparison.  They are both compelling figures in their own right, but also provide an fascinating window into broader trends in the nineteenth-century church.   Hopefully the paper will help to bring out the contrast between the ecclesiological ambiguities of Wesleyan-holiness revivalism and the ecclesiocentrism of Catholic thinking from the same period.

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