In the mid-1700s, John and Charles Wesley were known as radical dissidents who had a lot to say about the church, faith and following God. The UMC’s General Commission on Archives and History’s chief executive, Dr. Ashley Boggan, shares why the Methodist movement message shared by John and Charles Wesley remains relevant almost 300 years later.
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This episode posted on August 19, 2022.
Crystal Caviness, host:In the mid-1700s John and Charles Wesley were known as radical dissidents who had a lot to say about the church, faith and following God. The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Archives and History’s Dr. Ashley Boggan shares why the Wesleys’ Methodist movement message remains relevant almost 300 years later.
Crystal: Ashley, welcome to “Get Your Spirit in Shape.”
Ashley: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here.
Crystal: Wow. This is so fun for me. We are on location. We’ve spent the day in Bristol, England, the United Kingdom, as part of the Wesley Pilgrimage. And I just have so many things to talk to you about because you are the expert on all things John Wesley, Charles Wesley, United Methodist history, just so many things that I know that we’re just going to have a lot of fun and just talk about what we’ve seen today and why even though that was in the 1700s it still matters. So, before we get started, though, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Ashley: Well, I’m Dr. Ashley Boggan. I’m the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. But more than that, I am a lay woman from Arkansas, daughter of two ordained clergypersons who served the Arkansas Conference for, like, 30-40 years. I’m a mom. I’m an academic. I study Methodist history in all of its wonderful quirks, and mostly the intersections of Methodist history with gender and sexuality.
Crystal: Well, today, I’ll tell you, going to Bristol and being in the New Room, which is the oldest Methodist building in the world…. It’s where John Wesley lived and preached and Charles Wesley lived and wrote hymns, and where the movement really caught fire. It really came alive for me. And it didn’t feel like it was history. It felt like it was…these are real people doing real work and real ministry. And that was just super cool to be there. How did it feel for you?
Ashley: It was awe-inspiring in the most serious sense of the word. I walked in and, you know, at first it was kind of overwhelming ‘cause, you know, we were getting coffee. And like everyone was rushing into the bathroom after a long coach ride. But when you come back in that space and finally sat down, and you just sense the spirit and this stillness of this room. It was incredibly powerful. And it’s moments like those that really are once in a lifetime where history comes alive. And it can be so overwhelming in the best way possible. And I know that I had goosebumps. I had tears swelling. I had smiles. Like, every emotion is just running through you. So, it was absolutely amazing.
Crystal: You know, when we came into the room, in the middle of the room were some pews that were, I think, from maybe the early 1900s, late 1800s. And I went and sat in one. And then we learned that the pews were not original to the New Room, that the people would have been sitting on benches. And so, at the first opportunity I got up and went to sit on a bench because I wanted to have the most authentic experience possible. And like you, to sit there and kind of put myself in that space and imagine…. I was talking about it to someone afterwards. And I did just start crying talking about how much it moved me. And I’m surprised by that. I was surprised that even though I’ve been a United Methodist, grew up in the United Methodist Church, I don’t know that I learned that much about John Wesley other than the name, of course, and the beginning of Methodism. Charles Wesley as a hymn writer. And on the Wesley Pilgrimage we’ve learned so much more about Charles’ role in Methodism. And we might have a chance to talk about that for just a minute. But I think…. I just want people to know that Charles’s life, John’s life, what they did matters now. It’s not just about the history. It’s really still so important. And that’s where you come in. I wanted to know that, but I don’t…I know what to tell them why. So, let’s talk about that. Why do we care about someone that lived in the mid-1700s and started this movement called Methodism?
Ashley: Well, I think why we should care and what we can learn is because…to put it, you know, kind of bluntly, John and Charles Wesley were God-loving agitators and Spirit-filled dissidents. They knew how to find a line, walk right up to that line and then jump right over it. I mean, they were living in a time that was very different than ours, but had a lot of the same social constraints, or social changes, I think, going on. One of the things that we’ve talked about a little bit on this pilgrimage, but I’ve always heard it slightly differently from other history teachers and historians is that the parish system at the time was breaking down. And previously the parish system, you know, each parish was a community, and you went to the local parish to get your whatever needs you needed—food, water, supplies, clothing, books, etc. And with all of the demographic shifts and population shifts were happening. People were moving from the rural communities to the city centers. And so, the rural parishes aren’t serving people. And the city centers are overwhelmed. And this is one of those spaces where places like the New Room filled in a gap. It wasn’t a parish. It was a meeting house, a preaching house. But it took over the role of providing the resources that that city needed in order to supplement the Anglican parish that was there. And in all of these shifts Wesley steps in and tells those that are coming from the rural into urban, You’re worthy, too. And that’s a powerful message that withstands time. And England had just gone through 150 years of religious change and transformation and challenge in a civil war. And there was such a deep divide between not only rural and urban, but low class and upper classes. There wasn’t even a middle class at this point. And Wesley steps into that and works as a bridge between those groups saying that there’s no difference in the eyes of God between you all.
Crystal: I love that at the New Room it was designed as a meeting house and those benches could be pushed up against the wall and people could come in and they could get food, or they could just…you know, whatever was needed in the community. And it felt much more interactive than just someone…. I mean, there was a place for a minister or a preacher to preach, but that wasn’t its main role really. It was just there to serve. And I think about our churches today. And there’s no lack of need for churches to serve in their community. And just…that was the model. That was the model for us. And I really appreciated the vision, and also appreciated that so much of what John taught and preached about honestly, we could drop him into today, and it’s still extremely relevant.
Ashley: And that doesn’t happen too often, right?
Crystal: No. Yeah, this timeless message, that’s been very exciting to learn about, and to know that he was kind of going…he was…you called him an agitator, a dissident. He was going against the norm. He was going against social, what had been socially acceptable. It took a lot of courage. So, what did he have at stake to do this?
Ashley: Oooh. I mean, I would say his own reputation. I mean, John Wesley was raised incredibly privileged. You know, his father was an Anglican minister. His mother was incredibly attentive, even though she was a little bit strict. But also, you know, very impowering of her children and especially women around her. But John’s reputation was at stake. He was an oxford don which carried a certain, I guess, air about it. And he sacrificed so many different aspects of his life for his ministry and his mission. He marries later in life and that’s really not something that he desired to do. He kind of committed to a life of celibacy and he never has children. His children are his ministers, his preachers. His family and his legacy is Methodist movement that we have. And that’s…. He put it all out there. I would say he put it all on the line because he was willing to go beyond and to push the boundaries. And it was his reputation that that was on.
Crystal: So, primarily John and Charles, their ministry, the Methodist movement, was meant to revitalize a church that….John had a lot of words for that. …the church was not behaving well perhaps, not serving the people. And he really wanted to infuse the Church of England with new life. So, talk about that for just a few minutes, what that looked like for what John and Charles were doing.
Ashley: So, there’s…this is actually a story about how I got interested in Methodist history. I was an art history major back in college and had always imagined myself getting back in art history. But I found in one of my history books…and I can’t remember which one it was. But there’s an engraving by William Hogarth who was a famous satirical engraver. And he satirized the Anglican church. And it's 2 engravings on 2 facing pages. And one is called 'The Sleeping Congregation.' And it's, you know, a very typical Anglican service of the 1730s where the minister is up top in the high pulpit raised up, and everybody is asleep. And then the other side is called 'Credulity and Superstition and Enthusiasm.' And it depicts Methodists. And the way we know it depicts Methodists is because John Wesley and George Whitfield are the main preachers there. And it has all of these scales that go from lust to enthusiasm. And those scales are sitting on John Wesley’s sermons and journals. And everyone in the crowd is dancing or fainting or shouting or doing something. And I think even though that’s satire we can learn a lot about how methodism was perceived and what it was challenging. John, when he was an Oxford don, he famously goes back to Oxford to give the university sermon. And it’s entitled ‘Scriptural Christianity.’ And he called out those persons in the audience, those Oxford dons, and says essentially that they aren’t living up to scriptural Christianity because they kept themselves inside the walls of the church. They kept themselves inside the walls of Oxford whereas John, when he was a Oxford, and through the Holy Club and partnerships with his brother and Blaine Morgan and George Whitfield, left the walls of Oxford, which is something that we learned on this trip. You did not do that then because there was such a dissidence between the town and the university. They left not only the walls of the church but the walls of the town and went out to the people of the town and minister to and with and among them. So that’s the challenges that he’s mainly coming up against, is how do we get away from a religion that is just preached to people and largely either goes over their heads or in one ear and out the other. How do we break down the walls of faith? And he did that at first by venturing out and doing mission, and then later with Bristol, like we saw today, he does it by preaching outside those walls, too.
Crystal: Yet that main message was ‘go.’ And you know I was thinking about that, of what that means for me. What does that mean for me and my faith? What does that mean for me as a part of a congregation? It felt empowering perhaps, to be … kind of to hear that ‘go.’ But also scary. I’m going out now. What does that…what’s going to be required of me? That sounds like a message that we need right now. We need to go and get out because there are people who want to know more about God and God’s love. They need that. ...we’re commissioned to go. So that was really cool to hear, that that was really so much of…in one word, that was kind of John Wesley’s mission and ministry. So what pieces of that, in addition to ‘go,’ do we need to hear today?
Ashley: I think from today what stuck with me the most…. And I’ve attended a few Methodist lectures over…not only like upbringing with the two ordained clergy, but also since dedicating my professional life to studying Methodism, but the way that David Worthington, who’s the Director of the New Room, put and framed and contextualized John Wesley’s arrival to Bristol, I think, speaks volumes to that message of go. He reminded us that John Wesley was not a fan of field preaching. Like, he was willing to push some boundaries, but field preaching was just…radical faith ???? And so, George Whitfield already in Bristol, he’s calling for Wesley to come and help him. And Wesley gets there and he sees George Whitfield preach outside, and he’s kind of judgmental of it. Right? He sees that it might be working, but he’s talking in his journal about how that is even too outside the lines for him. But then the next day…. Two days later he quote ‘at 4 o’clock in the afternoon submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation.’ I think that submitting to be more vile, that being vile for the sake of God is so moving. And when he submits to be more vile and goes out and preaches in the fields he, a few days later, receives a letter from the Anglican ministers stationed in Bristol that says, Hey…. (This is complete paraphrasing.) …says, Hey, Wesley, I’ve heard you’re in town and I don’t want you here. Because…. And that shows us that he was already known for pushing the boundaries. And here he comes to Bristol and essentially obliterates those boundaries by preaching outside in the field. And his response back to the Anglican minister is, “I see the world as my parish.” And at that moment when David was sharing this story with us, I know it’s part of our mission statement, right, that we go out into the world and make disciples. But the world is our parish is probably one of the most well-known John Wesley quotes. I have always heard it in terms of evangelism. But in its context…. And this is why history matters and is so important, critical. In its context it’s a defense of going against the institutional church, going where the Spirit of God leads you and breaking the rules for the sake of the Spirit. And I think that makes the world as my parish so much more meaningful to me. I can relate to that more than I can to it as an evangelistic statement. It is meant to defend preachers who break rules, who push boundaries. And it’s mean to… in John Wesley’s words, it is meant to say, You can’t tell me I can’t preach here. God tells me where to preach.
Crystal: I love that you sharing that and that perspective on that because, yeah, it’s a totally different line. It’s a totally different message. And we don’t hear the quote quoted very often, John Wesley saying, today I became more vile.
Ashley: I submitted to be more vile.
Crystal: We probably wouldn’t, you know, hear okay today I’m going to submit to being more vile. That’s not how we would talk. So, what would that look like? If we submit to be more vile in 2022, what does that look like for us?
Ashley: I don’t know if it would look that different than what John Wesley was doing. He was going where the people who felt uncomfortable in the walls of a church. He was taking the word of God to them. And you know, in today’s world it’s no secret that we have the largest increasing religious identification are the nons and the dones. And we can take the word of God to them and do it in a way that meets them on their level, and do so in action. Right? Doing those works of mercy combined with the works of piety that we’ve heard so much about on this pilgrimage. And I think that if we go to where people are and we join them in some sort of mission, if we embody the love of God, then that can be read in a way that is being vile ‘cause you’re being vile to the systems that created the injustice in the first place. You’re not being vile to God. You’re being vile to the systems that hold the power and breaking those down.
Crystal: Because, if I understand correctly, the people that John was preaching to, they probably would not have been welcomed in the church of England at that time.
Ashley: Oh, no. Yeah. And there’s so many reasons why, whether it is simply class status, whether you have Sunday off to go to church. Many of these people are coal miners. And they didn’t have…. Weekends weren’t a thing back then. The sabbath was a thing for the privileged. And weekends didn’t exist until the late 19th century, if not early 20th century. And so many didn’t have the opportunity. They felt uncomfortable in the spaces they were allowed in because they either were…never had access to education, so were illiterate and couldn’t understand or couldn’t follow along or read along with the passages. And it ws preaching back then, and this is another thing that makes Wesley so unique. Preaching on most Anglican ministers was very theoretical and very theological. Wesley preaches in quote/unquote plain speech. He speaks in the words of the people in stories that they’ll understand. It’s a lot like taking the parables of Jesus and kind of adapting them to the 18th century. It’s stories that have lessons and not so much these grandiose theological things.
Crystal: And the more I learn about John Wesley, especially during this pilgrimage, is that if nothing else he was radical.
Crystal: And unapologetically radical. And I see, man, he must have been so charismatic. Do you think that’s true? That people were drawn to him?
Ashley: I do think people were drawn to him. I think they were drawn to him because he saw people and told them they were worthy. And you know, there’s no way for us to go back in time unless, you know, someone mentioned to me, to really hear him, but I’ve heard from different people who have studied Wesley. He probably was a more quiet person. He had a loud preaching voice, but he was charming but not necessarily as quote/unquote charismatic as someone like George Whitfield. George Whitefield, you know, was…knew how to turn a phrase and make anybody weep at the drop of a hat. John Wesley, I think, met people because…and brought people to him…because he was saying I see God in you, and I see worth in you. And then giving…not only saying that, but then giving them a space and a place to embody the love of God and giving people who had been restricted different aspects of society, power and a voice through class meetings and societies, making them leaders, making them not only recipients of God’s grace but participants and leaders in God’s grace.
Crystal: You’ll have to come back, Ashley, and talk about the structure and the system because honestly, I think it’s brilliant the more I learn, and I think we need it. We need it today. So, we’ll have to do that. We’ll have to talk about that at another podcast. I do want to talk about Charles before we finish because history, I feel like, has given Charles a little bit of the…there’s more due him than he’s really getting in history. The younger brother of John, but we heard today that was Charles who was in Bristol first and already had this Methodist movement…. Anyway he was at least stoking the fire of it before. When John got there it was already going and you know, we’ve learned about his family. We went to his house today, where he and Sarah and their 3 children lived. It was just really…. I loved that so much. So, let’s talk about Charles a little bit and why maybe he needs maybe a bigger plaque in history.
Ashley: I think a lot of the reason he’s kind of been pushed to the back burner is because he is the second one. Or, I guess, the third son. But younger than John. And you know, part of that is just due to western constructions of family and how it worked back then. But the other part, I think, is that John was very much a control person. And he has a narrative. But I always say that Charles was the brilliant PR person. Charles knew how to keep John in check. He knew how to emotionally relate to people. And you’re right…. I mean, there’s an interesting kind of pattern of 3 that we’ve heard a lot about on this pilgrimage. You know, not only I think he’s 3 years younger than John, but he has quote/unquote Aldersgate experience 3 days before John does. You know, he starts the Holy Club at Oxford before John does. And then he’s in Bristol before John is. And so, it’s…. When I try to talk about the relationship between John and Charles to, you know, younger persons I’ve explained it that John is kind of the awkward older brother who doesn’t really know what to do with his life. And Charles is like the shining young son who has it all together, is exploring his faith, is making a name for himself in anyway he can. And John kind of sees what he’s doing. It’s like, yeah, I think I’ll do that, too. And then because he’s the older brother, that’s just how English society works. So, he gets the credit. But Charles absolutely needs to be given credit. I mean, he wrote over 6,000 hymns and there’s more Wesleyan theology in those hymns than there is in John’s sermons. More people know Charles Wesley’s hymns than they do John’s sermons. Anybody, if they put up a Charles Wesley hymn and a John Wesley sermon ask which one Wesleyan they pick a hymn. So he…he definitely deserves more credit than he gets. And he’s also a good model, I think, for today. You know. In the pandemic our work/life balance has gotten blended, especially for a lot of clergy. And Charles settled down in Bristol and had a family and had, you know, 3 children that survived to adulthood, and became musical prodigies of their own. But he leaves the circuit and settles and has that sense of work/life balance that we don’t get from John. And so, there are myriad reasons why we should look at Charles. But I also think that, especially in today’s climate, we need to look at him for a work/life balance.
Crystal: When we went into the home, we walked in and yes, you know, we were walking through a historical house, but it felt like a home. And I just stood in the rings and imagined children playing or welcoming friends into the parlor. Of course, I’m just romanticizing the whole thing. But that was a really happy, loving place to be. And then we learned that John, because he was traveling so often, he didn’t have a home. He had a room at the New Room. And so, it was much more of a transient. It wasn’t a settled life. It was much more of a transient life. That was his ministry, for sure. But I did walk into the Charles Wesley house and really felt a sense of…much more of a sense of why the ???? for whatever, me making it up because we don’t know. But you know, there was the appearance of that in a life that was informed of…by what we’ve learned about Charles this week.
Ashley: I mean, just contrast…. We’ve done a lot of contrasting this week. We looked at Francis Asbury’s house compared to the Epworth ??? and kind of the size and class status that came with that. And then when you look at Charles Wesley’s home, you know, it’s really narrow but has 5 floors. It does have that sense of warmth. And then you compare it with the tiny room of John in the New Room. Like, when I turned that corner and I looked around, it really was small. And it just catered to, you know, his sense on the road and the way that he had a zero work/life balance.
Crystal: Well, I’ve just got a couple of questions as we kind of finish up here. It’s just been such a blessing to me to get to go through this pilgrimage with you. And we’ve talked a lot this week. And so, we could, you know, share more stories for hours, but we won’t do that, you know, in this one episode. We’ll have to have a series. But is there anything that you wanted to make sure we talked about about John and Charles that we haven’t yet discussed?
Ashley: I think one of the things that really clicked for me is…there’s always a lot of emphasis on John’s Aldersgate experience where his heart is strangely warmed after he leads in a bible study or class meeting. And he has that experience. But the way that David Worthington put it today is that, you know, he comes to Bristol about a year after his heart is strangely warmed, and it’s here that it’s set afire. And linking those two events and saying that, yeah, his heart may have been warmed in London, but here is where it started to engage. That is…. And it really sends home the message of you can get all the warm, fuzzy feelings you want to, you know, kind of sitting in church and listening to beautiful music and inspiring sermons, but if you want your heart to be afire you have to go out and go to the people and break some rules.
Crystal: Well, the last question we ask all of our guests on Get Your Spirit in Shape is Ashley, how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Ashley: I ask questions constantly, incessantly, annoyingly so. I think part of that is just my discipline—not my Wesleyan sense of discipline, but my field, my research. But part of it, I’ve got to lovingly blame my parents. When I was little, I would ask questions, you know, as all kids do. And they would never answer them, they would say, Well, what do you think? And it would drive me nuts when I was little ‘cause I was just looking for some answers. But what they were teaching me and instilling in me is that you have to have a hunger for knowledge. And you have to go out and search it and interrogate it and never be settled or satisfied with the answer. And I’ve applied that to my faith. I’ll never be settled or satisfied in my faith, and always question so that it will always grow.
Crystal: Wow. That’s pretty powerful. So, I would say the Wesley pilgrimage has been real spirt-filling for you.
Ashley: It’s been amazing. I didn’t know it was possible for me to become more dorky and geeky about Methodism and Methodist history, but I think it’s happened. And I feel very sorry for everybody when I get back.
Crystal: I’m very appreciative of all the work and how you are bridging that gap from the history to now and why…why it matters and why we need to care and what we can learn so that we can go into the future with more vibrance…
Ashley & Crystal: …more vile…
Ashley: Be more vile.
Crystal: Well, thank you so much, Ashley, for being here.
Ashley: Thank you.
Crystal Caviness: That was Dr. Ashley Boggan, General Secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Archives and History. To learn more about Ashley and the work of the General Commission on Archives and History go to UMC.org/podcast and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.