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Andrew C. Thompson ~ Want to Know More About John Wesley?

I received an e-mail from a pastor in Tennessee a few days ago posing this question:

A church member asked me to recommend a biography on John Wesley, and I didn’t know what to suggest. Wondering if you could suggest something?

That’s not an infrequent request to get for a seminary professor who teaches Methodist history. When I get an e-mail or a phone call along those lines, there are always a few book titles I suggest. We are living in a time where there are a lot of top-notch Wesleyan historians and theologians working on different aspects of the Wesleyan tradition. So fortunately, there are a number of good books you can pick up depending on the specific area of your interest.

Here are a few titles I’ve recommended in the past with some notes about how they can be used fruitfully:

A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Kenneth J. Collins)

  • Kenneth J. Collins’ book, A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Abingdon, 2000), is a relatively brief treatment of John Wesley’s life. It is a true biography in that its subject matter is the person of John Wesley, from his birth to his death. If you are looking for a relatively short book and one that focuses solely on the figure of Wesley, then this is probably the way to go.

Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Richard Heitzenrater)

  • Richard Heitzenrater’s book, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (2nd ed., Abingdon, 2013), is a longer work that focuses on Wesley in the context of the rise and development of early Methodism. Heitzenrater includes background material in an opening chapter on the English Reformation and the development of the Church of England in the late 16th and the 17th centuries. He also includes some material on the early development of American Methodism in the late 18th century as well. So this book is a biography as well, but it is more like a biography of early Methodism (with Wesley, of course, as the main character). Naturally, learning about the broader context of early Methodism is a very helpful way to understand Wesley himself better. For someone who wants to understand not just the man John Wesley but also the movement to which he committed himself for most of his adult life, this is the book to choose.

Both of the authors—Collins and Heitzenrater—are top-notch historians. Both also have a real gift for historical prose writing. The quality of their books is at an academic level, but both books are written so well that they are easily accessible by a lay audience. So if you are interested in a very readable account of John Wesley’s life and ministry, you can’t go wrong with either one!

Sometimes I’ll also get requests from people who are less interested in a biography than they are in a book that explains Wesleyan theology in a way that can be really embraced by a congregational audience. For people who are interested in the distinctives of the Wesleyan approach to spirituality and discipleship, I often recommend these books:

Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision (Paul W. Chilcote)

  • Paul W. Chilcote has written one of the most compelling books on Wesleyan theology for a popular audience with Recapturing the Wesleys’ Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley (Intervarsity, 2004). He divides his subject matter up into broad topics that arise from the Wesleyan approach to the Christian life: Message, Community, Discipline, and Servanthood. If that sounds so broad that it’s hard to get your mind around what he’s talking about, I think you’ll find that the individual chapter titles explain where he’s going well enough. The section on “Message” includes chapters on the Wesleyan understanding of grace; “Community” has chapters on the importance of growing in discipleship within a fellowship of believers; etc. Chilcote has chosen an effective arrangement of his subject matter, which highlights the way in which the Wesleyan vision embraces the “both/and” rather than the “either/or” in various areas of the Christian life. So in the choice between faith or works, the Wesleyan approach is to hold both faith and works together. In the question of whether faith should be embraced rationally by the head or affectively by the heart, the Wesleyan approach is to say that it is both head and heart. (You can draw out such pairings at length: form and power, law and gospel, pulpit and altar, justification and sanctification, God’s grace and human response, etc.) Chilcote refers to these as the “conjunctions” in Wesleyan theology. Encountering the richness of such a holistic conception of the life of discipleship reveals why the Wesleyan tradition is so utterly compelling.

John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life (Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.)

  • Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.’s, John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life (Abingdon, 1996) is a book that covers a number of themes in Wesleyan discipleship. Yrigoyen’s opening chapter offers a short biographical background on Wesley’s life before moving into a series of chapters that focus on the framework of Wesley’s theology (grace, salvation, etc.) and the practices known as the means of grace (which Yrigoyen identifies by the Wesleyan terms “works of piety” and “works of mercy”). He then adds chapters on Methodism in the American context and on the possibility of Wesleyan renewal in the present. It is a book that has a little of everything, which makes it a good introduction for someone who doesn’t know much about Methodism. There is one caveat to mention, though, which is Yrigoyen has written the book from a self-consciously United Methodist perspective. Wesleyans from other denominational backgrounds might find all the references to the UMC a bit off-putting. A helpful feature of the book is that it includes a substantial study guide, prepared by Ruth A. Daugherty. The guide—which is somewhat misnamed and ought to be called a “teaching guide” in that it is designed for a teacher to use in preparing a series of lessons—could be used profitably in small group or Sunday school settings.

A Blueprint for Discipleship (Kevin M. Watson)

  • Kevin M. Watson’s A Blueprint for Discipleship: Wesley’s General Rules as a Guide for Christian Living (Discipleship Resources, 2009) is the best book available on the General Rules of early Methodism. These three rules—which consisted of doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon the “ordinances of God”—were developed by John Wesley to guide the life of the early Methodist Societies. They served both as the pattern for how Methodists understood their engagement with the means of grace and as a disciplinary mechanism that defined what was required to remain in the membership of a class meeting. There has been a great deal of interest in the General Rules in recent years because of their potential to help form mature Christian discipleship today, and Watson’s treatment of them is the best resource available.

I’m always encouraged when pastors and laypeople express an interest in finding out more about our tradition. Ultimately however, if we want not only to learn about Wesley but also to become Wesleyan, we should take John Wesley’s approach to the Christian life seriously. It isn’t just about becoming familiar with a fascinating figure in church history. It is about letting that figure serve as a guide to point us toward Jesus Christ and the salvation that he wants to give us. In that sense, I always hope that those who go off to buy books on Wesley or Wesleyan theology do so with the intention of using them as a resource for their own practice of discipleship.