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.

 

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Toronto, a.k.a. “The Methodist Rome”

Most Torontonians today have no idea of the immense impact that Methodism has had on our city’s history.   Methodism, in fact, played such a significant part in Toronto’s religious, cultural, and political life that in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries the city was known as “The Methodist Rome.”  Toronto had one of the largest Methodist populations in the world at that time, and became known for its rigorous moral culture (hence the other nickname, “Toronto the Good”). This may seem completely ridiculous to contemporary observers (especially in light of the antics of our current mayor), but in the past there were good reasons for identifying Toronto as a centre of Methodist influence.

The main reason that Toronto’s Methodist influence is hidden is because the largest Methodist denomination in Canada joined with Congregationalists and many Presbyterians to form the United Church of Canada in 1925.  Therefore, many Toronto institutions which have Methodist origins no longer bear the Methodist name.

One key reminder of Methodism’s importance in this city’s history is found in some of the landmark buildings that Methodists constructed.   299 Queen St. West (at John St.), is currently owned by CTV and operated as a media broadcasting centre.  However, it’s original name was the Wesley Building, and it was built to house the Methodist Book and Publishing Company in 1913.  After the Methodist Church of Canada joined new United Church of Canada, the building served as United Church headquarters.  It was sold in the early 1970s.

Wesley Building via wikimedia commons

Victoria College, part of the University of Toronto, also has Methodist heritage, having been founded by the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1841, and originally located in Cobourg Ontario.  The Cobourg campus still stands (and explains why Cobourg has a University Avenue), though it is no longer a university (more on that below).  It now serves as a retirement residence. VICTORIA COLLEGE Cobourg

When the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church merged in the 1880s, they decided there was no need for two separate colleges.  Victoria College was was the WMC school, and it was merged with the MEC’s Albert University, located in Belleville (originally Belleville Seminary).  Albert University was then converted to a private school, which still operates today as Albert College, though the current property and building do not date from the days when the institution trained clergy.  Incidentally, the former location of Albert University (where the current College Hill United Church stands) explains why Belleville has a College Street.

It was soon decided that it would be best to move the merged Victoria College to Toronto.  “Old Vic” is one of the many beautiful buildings on the U of T campus, built in the 1890s, and is the oldest building on the present Victoria College campus.  The inscription in stone over the main entrance way is a reminder of the building’s Methodist origins: “The Truth Shall Make You Free.”

Old Vic via wikimedia commonsA tour around Victoria College will take you to a number of buildings named after notable Methodists, such as Burwash Hall, named after leading Canadian Methodist theologian and churchman, Nathanael Burwash, and Annesley Hall, named after the mother of the Wesley brothers, Susanna Wesley (née Annesley).

Ryerson statue on campus via wikimedia commonsIf we were looking for buildings which speak to Methodism’s legacy in a more indirect way, we could mention Ryerson University, named after Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, scholar, and politician, who had a huge impact on social and political life on Ontario.  One of Ryerson’s achivements was founding the Toronto Normal School, a public teacher’s college.  The Normal School buidling was eventually turned over to the educational institution which would evolve into Ryerson University.  A portion of the facade of the Normal School has been preserved and incorporated into the current Ryerson campus.

Of course, Methodism’s greatest architectural legacy in Toronto is found in the many historic United Church buildings which trace their origins to the former Methodist Church.  Some notable examples would be Timothy Eaton Memorial Church on St. Clair Avenue West, St. Luke’s United (originally Sherbourne St. Methodist Church) at Carlton and Sherbourne Streets, and Trinity-St. Paul’s United Church on Bloor Street West (originally Trinity Methodist Church).

But if Toronto was thought of as a “Methodist Rome,” then it’s cathedral would have been Metropolitan Methodist Church (now Metropolitan United), an impressive and imposing building constructed at Queen and Church Streets.  It is no coincidence that the nineteenth-century Methodists chose to construct their flagship church building here, between St. Michael’s Cathedral (Catholic, to the north) and St. James’ Cathedral (Anglican, to the south).  The picture below, taken in 1896, shows Metropolitan Methodist in the foreground, with St. Michael’s behind.  Recalling that these spires would have dominated the city skyline at that time, Metropolitan Methodist is an enduring architectural witness to Methodism’s role in shaping Toronto’s history.

Metropolitan Methodist Church via wikimedia commons

The Wesleyan Tradition’s Eastern Ontario Roots

I grew up north of Kingston, near the village of Sunbury, and I was raised in a church that is part of the Wesleyan family of denominations – The Salvation Army.  Most of my life, however, I had no idea that there was any significant connection between my geographical roots and my ecclesial roots.  As I’ve gone on to study Wesleyan history and theology, however, I’ve come to see that the historical roots of Wesleyan Christianity in Eastern Ontario are very deep indeed.

This has come home to me in a number of ways in recent months.

This summer, Tyndale Seminary received a generous bequest from Rev. Bill Lamb, who passed away in June.  Bill was a United Church minister and a historian of Canadian Methodism.  He left an amazing collection of historical literature to Tyndale’s library, and I was able to go to his home and help our head librarian, Hugh Rendle, sort through the materials.  Because the earliest Methodist churches in Canada were established in Eastern Ontario, Bill was also a student of Eastern Ontario history.

in 1925 the main Methodist body in Canada united with many Presbyterians and the Congregationalists to form the United Church of Canada – and that means that many of the United Church congregations that pre-date 1925 were in fact Methodist congregations.  Bill had written books on the history of two such congregations – Bridge Street Church in Belleville (Bridging the Years), and Wall Street Church in Brockville (The Meaning of the Stones).  He’d also written a book on the Old Hay Bay Church (The Founders), the first Methodist Church building in Canada, which still stands as a National Historic Site.  At the time of his death, he was working on books on two of the most important figures in Canadian Methodist history, William Case and William Losee.  Therefore he had amassed a very significant body of literature and archival material on Methodism’s spread in Eastern Ontario.

The fact that most Methodists joined the United Church in 1925 means that much of this Methodist history is not immediately apparent to a casual observer today.  People do not realize, for example, that churches like Bridge Street Church in Belleville, Wall Street Church in Brockville, and Sydenham Street Church  in Kingston are monuments to Methodist history.  All Belleville residents are familiar with Albert College and its beautiful campus, but most have no idea that this private school began as Belleville Seminary – a Methodist theological college.

Albert College interior by tjchampagne via flickr

But it is not only the mainline Methodist tradition that has strong Eastern Ontario roots.  The late nineteenth century holiness movement also had a significant impact on this part of Canada, especially in the legacy of Ralph Horner, whose biography I read and blogged about earlier this year.  Horner was from the Ottawa Valley, and had a ministry as an evangelist which centred around Eastern Ontario.   Originally serving with the Methodist Church of Canada, Horner eventually went on to found two holiness denominations: the Holiness Movement Church and the Standard Church of America.  Many of the churches that emerged out of the Hornerite revival in Eastern Ontario are still around today, although these two denominations also merged with others (HMC joined the Free Methodist Church in 1958 and the SCA merged with the Wesleyan Church in 2003).

Holiness Movement Church Hymnal via internet archiveIn addition to the fact that the Holiness churches have historically had a significant concentration of their congregations in Eastern Ontario cities and towns, there is also a rich history of revivals through camp meetings in rural locations.  Almost every little village was impacted.   Even Sunbury, where I grew up, had a Salvation Army corps at one time, and the Hornerite movement impacted nearby Inverary.   In Hastings County today, Ivanhoe may be known today as a place with a cheese factory along Hwy 62, but a century ago it was known as one of the most important holiness revival sites in Canada.  It was at the Ivanhoe camp meeting that Ralph Horner died in 1921, not long after preaching his last sermon.

The surprising thing for me has been the way that my life has now come full circle.  As a professor Wesley Studies at Canada’s largest seminary, my teaching and research interests now coincide with my personal history in a way I never thought they would.   The connection between between my geographical roots and my ecclesial roots, of which I was unaware for most of my life, now seems to have been established by providential design.

Mystical and Missional: Elaine Heath on Phoebe Palmer

Heath Naked Faith the Mystical Theology of Phoebe PalmerI’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Elaine Heath’s Naked Faith: the Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer (Eugene OR: Pickwick, 2009).  Palmer had a massive influence in Wesleyan circles and beyond in the nineteenth century, but, as Heath notes, she has been largely forgotten or marginalized – even within her own tradition.   She certainly hasn’t been taken seriously as a theologian, though Thomas Oden sounded an enthusiastic call for the retrieval of her voice in his introduction to the collection of her writings he edited for publication (Phoebe Palmer: Selected Writings (New York: Paulist, 1988)).  John Farina, general editor of the series “Sources of American Spirituality,” of which the Oden volume was a part, briefly located Palmer in “that great mystical stream that runs like a golden river down through the ages” in his general introduction to the book, noting especially the interest in Catherine of Genoa in Palmer’s circles.  Heath has taken up this idea and written a book that attempts to both offer an interpretation of Palmer’s thought as an expression of mystical theology, and to hold out “Saint Phoebe” as a guide for the renewal of contemporary Methodism.

Palmer, for her part, would have resisted the “mystical” label, but Heath shows, through a discussion of the mystical tradition, that Palmer’s resistance was really to the antinomian perversions of the mystical tradition which she encountered (35ff).  Heath identifies mysticism as “the radically transformative experience of the Divine that is described by the great Christian mystics and saints throughout the ages” (41).  She also notes that genuine Christian mysticism will be Trinitarian, ecclesial, and transformational (42).

While a great deal could be said about the reception of mysticism in Protestant circles, and the degree to which John Wesley himself embraced some aspects of mystical theology at various points in his life (Heath deals with these issues), I was particularly taken by the way in which she connected mysticism with Christian mission.

Phoebe PalmerFor Palmer, the primary way this was expressed was in her own calling to a ministry of preaching and teaching, which followed immediately upon her “day of days” experience of sanctification.  Her profound mystical experience, then, became the source of an unprecedented (for a woman) ministry which had massive influence on the history of the Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions.  Even those experiences of “union” with God that make some Protestants nervous, Heath contends, impel the mystic to service, rather than retreat from the world (as many suppose):

“The fruit of unitive experiences is a powerful desire in the mystic to help all people experience salvation and sanctification.  This desire partly originates in visions of the mysic being made one with the Trinity, whose goal in the church is to seek and to save the lost. Thus the life of the mystic increasingly becomes one of humble service in the world” (59).

Heath also carefully distinguishes problematic mystical “Quietism” from a healthy sense of “quiet,” an active passivity that bears fruit in missional activity:

“The result of true mystical passivity is an increase of strength and spiritual energy, an increase of love for God and neighbour so that the individual is increasingly alive to God in the community and world as the process of passivity progresses” (75).

Interestingly, in some other reading I recently found Henri Nouwen making a similar claim: “Mysticism is the opposite of withdrawal from the world. Intimate union with God leads to the most creative involvement in the contemporary world” (The Genesee Diary155).

Heath’s work seems to break new ground on several fronts: a sustained interpretation of Palmer as a mystical theologian, a retrieval of her theology by distinguishing it from the ways in which it was distorted by her later followers, and a contribution to research into the mystical aspect of Wesleyan spirituality – and I could go on.

Phoebe Palmer via cyberhymnalI think it is particularly important as a contribution to contemporary discussions of the “missional” character of the church.  I’ve sometimes worried in the past that some strands of missional thinking are anti-ecclesial, and create a false dichotomy between the church’s inner life (thinking here in terms of spirituality) and its mission.  In other words, the church is not only sent into the world, but also gathered together, and it is in the gathering that we are centred on the particular identity of the God of the gospel, who then sends us out.   Heath’s work on mysticism and mission helps to bridge this perceived gap between “inner” life its fruit in “outward” activity.  There is a strong connection between the arguments in this book and the account of the new monasticism in Longing for Spring, which Heath co-wrote with Scott Kisker (see my review here).  I still need to do some further reading of my own on mystical spirituality, as it is not an area with which I’m familiar, but my initial reaction to Heath’s work on Palmer is to give it a hearty endorsement.   Next on my list is her 2008 book, The Mystic Way of Evangelism.

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.

Charisms and the Methodist approach to Christian Ministry

Recent ecumenical dialogue has turned to the theology of charisms as a way of building a common approach to Christian ministry.  As the landmark text Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1982) puts it:

the Holy Spirit bestows on the community diverse and complementary gifts. These are for the common good of the whole people and are manifested in acts of service within the community and to the world. They may be gifts of communicating the gospel in word and deed, gifts of healing, gifts of praying, gifts of teaching and learning, gifts of serving, gifts of guiding and following, gifts of inspiration and vision. All members are called to discover, with the help of the community, the gifts they have received and to use them for the building up of the Church and for the service of the world to which the Church is sent (§M5).

The benefit of this approach is that it both a) grounds Christian ministry in the activity of God (because the Spirit gives the gifts which enable the various ministries) and b) grounds the theology of ordained ministry in the broader context of the ministry of the whole people of God (since the gifts are given to all, and therefore all are given a vocation to ministry).

I would argue that this consensus that has emerged regarding the theology of ministry comports well with the approach to ministry that has been practised in the Methodist tradition throughout its history.  This approach involved candidates proceeding through various orders of ministry, beginning at the local level, depending on the evidence of their gifts as seen by the community of faith. The early Methodist tradition followed a “bottom-up” pattern of discerning gifts for ministry, in which “local preachers” were chosen to assist in preaching and teaching the gospel in one location, and local preachers who showed evidence of gifts chosen to serve as “helpers.” “Assistants” were chosen from among the helpers, to assist Wesley in the oversight of a given circuit of Methodist Societies (hence their title was changed to “Superintendent” after Wesley’s death).   That was the basic track to what would later become ordination.  Beyond that, there were other important roles, such as that of the class leader, who basically acted as a pastor and spiritual director to the members of their neighbourhood small group.

This bottom-up approach to ministry makes particular sense when considered from the perspective of oversight.  Charisms are not self-authenticating, and they need to be discerned in the context of Christian community.  Each charism is interdependent, and in a sense is limited by the other charisms, like the parts of the body are interdependent and limited by their relation with other parts of the body.  Among the gifts is the gift of oversight, and those who have this particular charism are called to help others in the community discern and faithfully exercise their own gifts.

All of this best takes place in the local Christian context, where people know each other and can see each one living out their gifts in the context of the body of Christ.  So, first and foremost, the discernment of a call to any kind of ministry, including the role of pastor or teacher, should begin at the grassroots level.

Now, the fact of the matter is that the Methodist approach to ministry did not develop on the basis of an extended theological reflection on the gifts of the Spirit.  It was not even the result of thoughtful planning.  Rather it emerged, as Henry Rack says, through “a series of accidents and improvisations” (Reasonable Enthusiast, 237).  Wesley improvised the order of his movement in response to the needs of the time, believing that matters of church order were subservient to the church’s mission:

“What is the end of all ecclesiastical order?  Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God?  And to build them up in his fear and love?  Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not it is nothing worth” (Letter to “John Smith,” June 25, 1746, in The Works of John Wesley, 26:206). 

In spite of Wesley’s “improvisational” approach, I would argue that the process that emerged is in fact quite consistent with a New Testament approach to gifts and ministries, and with the ecumenical consensus on these issues that has emerged in the past few decades.  Perhaps this was one of the ways in which divine providence was shaping the Methodist movement during its early years.

Methodist Influence on Isaac Hecker

One of the reasons I chose to study the Paulist Fathers alongside The Salvation Army in my dissertation is because the Paulist Founder, Isaac Hecker, had connections to the Methodist tradition.  Hecker’s Methodist grounding was tenuous, and nothing like William Booth’s ardent devotion to all things Wesleyan.  Booth is famously quoted as describing his early commitment to Methodism in the following terms: “To me there was one God, and John Wesley was his prophet.” (Booth-Tucker, Life of Catherine Booth, I: 52). Hecker had a fairly negative view of all the Protestant denominations, and spoke very negatively of his religious upbringing.  However, some have suggested that Methodism had more of an influence on Hecker than he himself might have wanted to acknowledge.

Issac Hecker was born in New York, the son of German immigrants, in 1819.  His parents married in the Dutch Reformed Church, but his mother Caroline soon joined the Methodist Church, and was a faithful member of Forsythe Street Church for the remainder of her life, even though most of her family members had no association with Methodism.  Of the four Hecker children, only one, Elizabeth, joined her mother’s church.  Caroline Hecker seems to have maintained a remarkably tolerant attitude in matters of religion, and was quite content to let her sons worship in other traditions.

Although not a great deal is known of Isaac Hecker’s involvement with the Methodists, it seems clear that he did have at least some exposure to Methodism as a child, and he had his first job working for a Methodist publishing house.  Vincent Holden, one of his biographers, claims Hecker “became acquainted with fundamental Methodist doctrine and with the Methodist form of worship.”  (The Yankee Paulp. 7)

Indeed, it has been argued that some of the Methodist ethos remained with Hecker in subtle ways throughout his life.  The point is made by John Farina, both in his Introduction to Isaac T. Hecker, The Diary: Romantic Religion in Ante-Bellum America, as well as in chapter 2 of his book, An American Experience of God.

Farina highlights several features of Methodism that would have been formative to Hecker’s early religious instruction, and which remained prominent in his own thinking and experience throughout his life:

  • The ideal of Christian community
  • A doctrine of God’s special providence
  • The doctrine of Christian perfection
  • A focus on personal experience
  • An emphasis on free will and human agency

Anyone picking up Hecker’s own writings, or reading the story of his life, can see how these emphases remained an important part of his spirituality after he became a Catholic.

Hecker was surely exaggerating when he later claimed, “no positive religious instructions were imparted to me in my youth.” (The Paulist Vocation, 49).  By the time he had reached adolescence, however, he seems to have decided that Methodism was not sufficient for the spiritual desires he felt had been placed in his own heart.  He started off on a circuitous spiritual quest that led him through political action and Transcendentalism, before he came back to the Christian Church, and eventually entered the Roman Catholic church.

Hecker was an enthusiastic Catholic, and had some strong criticisms for the Protestant traditions. In a document submitted to his spiritual directors in Rome as part of his petition for permission to found the Paulists (1858), Hecker recalled that he considered the various protestant bodies but “none answered the demands of my reason or proved satisfactory to my conscience.” In The Paulist Vocation, 52.

More specifically, regarding Methodism, Hecker commented in 1887: “…in our time it had no stated intellectual basis.  It was founded totally on emotional “conversion,” with the notorious exclusion of the intellect.” See “Dr. Brownson and Catholicity,” The Catholic World 46 (November 1887): 231.

Farina suggests that his critique of the “intellectual basis” of Methodism (and other protestant traditions) was aimed not at the internal coherence of protestant doctrine, but more fundamental questions about the nature of religious faith, and the correspondence between inner religious experience and the external world (Farina, An American Experience of God, 29).

In spite of his criticisms of the Methodism he had known as a child, I think Farina is correct in suggesting that Methodist influence can be seen in Hecker’s own thought.  I hope that at some point in my future writing I will have a chance to take up this question and provide a thorough scholarly demonstration the Methodist influence on Hecker.