Wesleyan Wisdom: A bishop’s voice from our past

Wesleyan Wisdom | Donald Haynes | United Methodist Reporter

A few years ago I went back one more time to my office at a seminary where I was teaching (the seminary had vacated its old campus and moved to a new one).  There, on the hall floor, I saw discarded books that someone had tossed.  I saw that some were quite old,  and I  rescued a few from the dumpster.  One was a 1869 volume of  The Methodist Review, once the most widely read religious periodical in America!  Although I saved it, I did not read its small-print pages until this week.

Curiosity led me to the article entitled, “Methodism: Its Method and Mission.”  The author was J. T. Peck of Albany, New York.  After reading the very significant article, I looked up  the author in “Encyclopedia of World Methodism.”  What a man!  What a Methodist! What a Christian! And what a message for our own generation!  He was writing in a time of division—four years after the Civil War when the two “episcopal” branches were divided north and south, the AME and AMEZ were expanding rapidly into the states of the former confederacy, and the era when “the connection” did not mean the bounds of one’s annual conference,  but “from sea to shining sea.”

Bishop J. T. Peck was one of five brothers who were Methodist preachers from upstate New York.  He was a long time pastor in New York, Washington DC, and San Francisco, a district superintendent in California, and  president of the prestigious Dickinson College in Pennsylvania,  By 1867 he was a pastor again in Albany and then was appointed to Syracuse where he led in the founding of Syracuse University.  He pledged $25,000, more than all his possessions, but paid it in full.  In 1883, Bishop Peck gave $50,000 to the university, a sum that made him penniless but helped enormously at a critical time to jump-start a great Methodist University.   Peck was a delegate to five General Conferences from 1844-1872, and was elected a bishop of the Church.

So what did this significant voice of a very learned man  in a troubled time have to say to the connection?  His premise was that “the religious faith of mankind is not a logical conviction reached by argumentation, but the presence of a searching, revealing spirit.”  Then he  wrote, “the method of Methodism accepts this fact.”    Listen to this: “It is not by scholastic processes that justification by faith takes its place in our theological system, nor is its essence the dictum of a priest, but the ‘witness of the Spirit.’ By inspiration, scrutinized by severest logic, it is  the method by which the Methodist Church has received the clearest, best-defined, and least mutable system of theology known in the history of doctrine.”

Peck noted that Wesley was already an “Oxford divine” and a missionary to the New World when he was “inwardly moved.”  Then Wesley saw the  peril of souls in a Church in a fallen state, and felt compelled to try to save some.  He quoted Wesley, “What am I that I should withstand God?”

Dr. Peck  called the class meeting “ inspiration” and  considered its success “the logic that came in how to sustain, extend, and perpetuate it.” He  wrote, “With us preaching is not a profession, but a vocation.”  He cited the phrase “moved by the Holy Ghost” as “the expression of profoundest truth in the constitution of our holy ministry.”  As a former college president that trained preachers, he wrote, “The logical method would be to first learn to preach; then to preach.  We preach first and learn to preach afterward. That explains our grand itinerancy.   By all the laws of human forces, we should have been overwhelmed and annihilated, but instead we grew rapidly.  The system of our church polity is vitalized by inspiration and sustained by logic.”

He reiterated Wesley’s tandem of “doctrine and discipline.,” writing, “We made no pretensions to a ‘liberal’ Gospel. True we contained tenderness and compassion, but emphasized a narrow way that led converts from ‘license to law.’  How contrary to nature; yet multitudes were won by it; it was like  the marvel of apostolic times.”

Reflecting Wesley’s emphasis on pneumatology, Peck wrote, “the grand power which is to convert the world is not logic but inspiration. We must make the divine adjustment from the Gospel of creation to the Gospel of salvation. The minds of men are not first and chiefly logical, but sensitive. They have reason in various degrees, but the development of their logical consciousness is much later than the sensitive.  This is true of all classes of mind.  It follows that an emotional Christianity arrests and impresses more promptly and successfully than a form in which the intellectual predominates.”

“Let it be therefore considered settled that there is absolutely no conversion without inspiration and that this work of the Holy spirit must antedate all other influence and prepare the soul for them. The soul must see, not argue!   Then he really waxes eloquently in a very long sentence:

“Warm fervent, powerful prayers which call down the Spirit’s baptism; clean earnest instruction that comes from sound beliefs and dissolving souls in love, and singing full of melting pathos and glowing inspiration, move thousand into the arms of Jesus, while the cool, intellectual processes of cautious logic, in the same period of time, bring comparatively small numbers into the light.:”

Peck wrote something in 1869 that I have never found in the respective biographies of Patrick Henry or Andrew Jackson—“the connection between Methodist fervor and spiritual efficiency proved a clear necessity to such minds as those of Patrick Henry and Andrew Jackson, who were powerfully converted under its influence and became Methodists late in life.” ( I cannot document this statement to date, but will “die trying.”)  Subsequently, Peck wrote, “all grades of mind became Methodists in spirit, first by conversion and not by indoctrination; and as inspiration from God, this is the grand secret of our power and the method of our progress.”  Then he comments, “Let it be asked,’ what will be the religious of the people which will inspire and control the civil life and destiny of the Republic?’ The answer, given in clear historic revelations is, ‘It will not be the necessarian Calvinism, it will not be Roman Catholicism, it will not be slave despotism; it will be what Wesley called ‘Christianity in earnest. ’This battle, the Arminian Methodists fought nearly alone.’”

As Dr. Peck concluded his twenty-seven page essay,  he warns in language that sounds Churchillian, “We must go on as we began, to preach the Gospel to sinners wherever we find them—in private home, in barns and school houses, in the streets and in the groves, as well as in the more convenient and superb edifices. We should give due attention  to the order of the church in discipline, appointment, and ordination of the men to sacred office, but we must not wait for this before we try to save sinners. We should recognize and hail with tears of gratitude and joy, the Gospel entreaties of the young convert when in broken accents he begs his companions to come to Jesus.  We must multiply our Exhorters, Local Preachers, and itinerant ministers by the thousands, pushing them into every open door to proclaim to the vilest and the poorest as well as the highest and the richest the ‘unsearchable riches of Christ.’ and we must include a meaning deeper and higher every year when we ask candidates for Holy Orders, ‘Do you trust that you are moved by the Holy Ghost to take upon you this sacred office?’

I must insert a word of my own here. Rather than closing our small membership churches across the connection, why can we not imagine what it is like to have a dozen or fifteen people in our home as guests, that we have a “houseful” and celebrate the crowd!  Unfortunately these days if we have that many at church we say, “No one was there.”  The pastor might well say what one said of my home church in 1944 when I was nine years old—“those few women and children are not worth my rationed gas.”  He moved to close our church, but my mama persuaded her brother, an “approved supply”  to ask his District Superintendent to add us to his circuit.  He too had five churches fifty miles away and his travel was limited to that same World War II “rationed gas,” but before the war ended, with building materials also rationed, he had torn down the old church and built a new smaller chapel, secured an evangelist with a song leader to conduct a revival, and tripled our attendance.  One convert was my forty-seven year old father.  Daddy and I joined the church the same day.  I often wonder what would have happened to Daddy and to me if the conference had closed our little church.

I tell this story to reiterate in anecdote form the point Dr. Peck was making in 1869—we need to use our local pastors, recall the office of “Exhorter” who can lead a class meeting, and appoint hundreds more part time clergy and laity to provide a servant leadership for our small membership churches. For the sake of God, stop closing them!

Dr. Peck closes with a soliloquy on worship:

“In acts of holy worship, we must do as we began.  We must pray first and then learn to pray.  We must sing first and then learn to sing.  We must teach our young converts by no means to wait for study of speech or forms of prayer, but with glowing love and conquering faith to begin at one to plead with God for the conversion of souls.  Our singing must not be limited to science nor restrained by instruments, but our joyous melodies and ringing choruses must roll out from warm, gushing hearts, sending the inspiration of spiritual life and power thrilling deep down into the hearts of common sinners, moralists, formalists, and infidels alike.  Then let the highest culture increase the breadth of importunate prayer and give accuracy and taste in musical science and art.  This is the method of inspiration, and it is, we insist, the exact Methodism that is apostolic Christianity. We can pray with the Spirit and with understanding also. We can sing with the spirit and with understanding also.”

“Let us then move forward in our own method to the accomplishment of our mission, rendering illustrious and true the heroic announcement of Wesley, ‘the World is my parish.’”

It will be so easy to dismiss these words of  Bishop Jesse Truesdell Peck (1811-1883) as a voice from a past that “was and is no more.” Certainly they reflect an older paradigm.    But perhaps both my and my grandson’s generations will both be well advised to follow the wisdom of Isaac: “Isaac dug out again the wells that were (first) dug during the lifetime of his father Abraham.”(Genesis 26:18 CEV)

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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Dave Hurst

Another thought-provoking column, Dr. Haynes. Thank you. If you don’t mind a suggestion, perhaps you could write a column sometime on the “office of ‘Exhorter.'” I’ve seen many references but don’t have a clear understanding of how exhorters were different from pastors. Were they simply the traveling evangelists of the day or was there more to the “office”?

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