The Influence of Mysticism on John Wesley

EXTRACT FOR
The Influence of Mysticism on John Wesley's Theology

(Ernest R. Rugenstein)


The Influence of Mysticism on John Wesley's Theology

Preface

 

The genesis of this book came from my master thesis of the same title for an MA in Ministry/Religion. I have since earned an MA in European History and PhD n Cultural History.

Interest in the topic came from the course work for the Ministry/Religion degree and being an ordained minister (at the time,13-years) and the significance of the denominational distinctives of the organization I was connected to in 1999.

I was ordained in the Full Gospel Methodist Church headquartered in Rochester, NY in 1986 (Licensed 1984) serving as an Evangelist.  In 1988, while ministering as a youth leader in a local Wesleyan Church in Ogdensburg, NY, I began the process of transferring my ordination.  During this time, I started filling pulpits finalizing my transfer in 1992 and entering pastoral ministry shortly thereafter. While an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church I served as a pastor in three different churches, served as the Director of Christian Education and of District Youth in the Easter New York – New England District, retiring from ministry in 2006.

The Wesleyan Church came about from the unification of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Pilgrim Holiness Church in 1968. The Wesleyan Methodist Church (an abolitionist church) separated from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1843. The Methodist Episcopal Church had its beginnings in the Great Awakening of the 1730’s & 1740’s with Methodism (which originated with John Wesley) spreading across the colonies by the 1760’s. John Wesley ordained the first ministers in 1784. In 1968 the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Evangelical United Brethren united to form the United Methodist Church.

Methodist denominations have Wesley’s theology in common and the distinctive of not just justification by faith but additionally the distinctives of sanctification and entire sanctification, the idea of Christian perfection.

This concept of Christian perfection fascinated me; to be perfect, how?  How did this theology of John Wesley come about? How is it actuated? Was mysticism involved? This is what led me to the thesis and later to this book.

 

Rev. Dr. Ernest R. Rugenstein

 

 

 


 

Introduction

 

When the majority of people hear the word “mystic” or “mysticism” a certain interpretation is enjoined, and certain images arise. Frequently when people hear or read the word mystic, they automatically assume Eastern Mysticism with its beliefs and practices. To others the New Age movement with its mysticism and somewhat cultish followers is proffered as an ideological possibility. Still there are those who think of Christian mystics, those who sat on poles, in trees, or lived in caves to prove their devotion to God and to experience a special closeness.

There is no doubt that mysticism has long been part of the Christian church. Certainly, we find it in the “Old” Testament as well as in the Gospels and Epistles. The best example of mysticism in the New Testament is the Day of Pentecost. This is Biblically specified as the presence of the “Holy Spirit” falling upon the crowd with “tongues of fire” upon their heads allowing them to speak in other languages. It was seen in a Biblical sense as a union between God and humanity with outright manifestations.

Christian mysticism didn’t disappear at the close of the Apostolic Age nor was it resigned to the ascetics. Many within the church saw it as a viable expression of divine interaction changing the believer with subtle changes over a long period of time or in some cases catastrophic in the blink-of-an-eye change. An investigation into Christian mystics such as Saint Teresa, Francis de Sales, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas á Kempis, William Law and others who show that they wrote or testified to this mystical experience having a dramatic impact on their lives.

What’s interesting is that these mystical experiences not only affect the individual, but through the individual it can affect institutions, ideologies, and denominations around the world. Sometimes it affects the understanding of the Eucharist as to whether it take the form of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or is it simply a memorial to what was taught in scriptures. Other times it seems to manifest itself in the process of salvation or even in forms of personal piety. Mysticism has been seen to manifest in all forms of Christianity. It has found expression from the cult-like such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community to those who are socially accepted as more fundamental Christian denominations, for example Pentecostal, Charismatic, Evangelical and Holiness movements, to mainline Protestant denominations and of course the Catholic church. The Holy Catholic Church and its present iteration the Roman Catholic Church has for centuries acknowledged and generally accepted the mystics within their midst. Even though some in the church may not have readily accepted these mystics they none the less realize the richness they added to the church.

When we look at the how mysticism was an influence, we find that the founders of these denominations or at least significant influencers had been either positively or negatively influenced by an experience that they labeled as mystical. When we look at these individuals who had such an impact we find people from Mother Ann Lee, John Noyes, Madam Guyon, Joseph Smith, Charles Fox Parham, to Saint Teresa , Francis de Sales, Gregory of Nyssa, Thomas á Kempis, Meister Eckhart, William Law. It is supposed by many that John Wesley who was one of the founders of Methodism was also affected by a mystical experience.

Bishop William R. Cannon, Bishop of the United Methodist Church, stated in the forward of Dr. Robert G. Tuttle’s monograph, Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition, that Rev. John Wesley was highly influenced by Christian mysticism and that it formed the essences of his Doctrine of Christian Perfection.[1] However, there are those who feel Wesley wasn’t just influenced but was a mystic himself.

Wesley both praised and condemned mysticism a number of times both before and after his Aldersgate experience. Wesley was in a group reading of Luther's introduction to the Epistle to the Romans and as they were reading Luther's description of the alteration God makes in man's heart, he underwent a conversion experience. Luther said he had his assurance of salvation where his intellectual conviction was changed into a personal experience.[2]

The book is divided into six major sections. The first of which is entitled Definitions and Terms. Because the terms used in the book can have varied definitions and connotation the ‘chapter’ of the book gives a common understanding to each,

What is mysticism is covered in the first chapter. Various mystics and types of mysticism are investigated in this chapter and give us an introduction to Chapter 2: The Mystics in john Wesley’s Life. It is here we see how widely read Wesley was on the subject even reading mystics he disagreed with.

One of the mystics Wesley was fascinated with from a young age was Thomas á Kempis. Kempis was a favorite of Wesley’s mother, and she encouraged John Wesley to internalize his distinctives and writings. Chapter 3 investigates this intellectual interaction between Kempis and Wesley.

Chapter 4 takes a closer look at mysticism and the effect it had on Wesley’s theology with Kempis’ mysticism at the base of it. The final section is a literature review of some of the more important sources used.

It is well known that Wesley was well read in the writings of the mystics and even praised a few, yet it seems many believe that Wesley’s theology hadn’t any connection to mysticism at all. So, the question some may ask: Did mysticism have an influence on John Wesley’s theology?

 



[1] Robert G, Tuttle, Jr. Mysticism in the Wesleyan Tradition (Grand Rapids Michigan: Francis Asbury Press, 1989), 14.

[2] Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. S.v. "Aldersgate Experience." Retrieved June 22, 2020 from https://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Aldersgate+Experience