|John Wesley statue by Samuel Manning and son|
Imagine you are a woman, and you get a letter from your husband that reads:
Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise. Be content to be a private, insignificant person, known and loved by God and me….of what importance is your character to mankind, if you was buried just now. Or if you had never lived, what loss would it be to the cause of God.
That’s an actual letter from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, to his wife Molly, in 1774. With the values most people hold today, that letter would constitute psychological wife abuse.
At the time, if you read the letter in its entirety, it’s clear that Wesley thought he was a good husband who simply had his priorities straight. God first, and all the rest of us, way down the line, second. It’s a one-sided view of their marriage relationship, since all you know of her is the way she is portrayed as something of a shrew in this missive by her husband. He claims she badmouths his brother, but you know nothing of reasons she may have for doing so. You know she has a temper and loses it regularly, and you know she has at least once fallen on her knees in guilt for having done so. What hell this woman endured one can only imagine.
Wesley comes across as an arrogant man. He writes to scold her, admitting that he doesn’t have his journal with the exact details of a fight they had earlier, and says he has only his memory to rely on. He then adds, “and that (memory) is not very retentive of evil.” Evil? He’s describing his wife’s outburst as evil?
“Before we married,” he writes, “I saw you was a well-bred woman of great address and a middling understanding.” You’ve got to love it. You’re not too bright, woman, but at least you’re well bred!
Molly thought her husband was paying too much attention to other women, wondering, for example about a Mrs. Lefevre, whom Wesley describes as a “dove-like woman, full of faith and humble love.” How dare you question, Wesley asks, “…if I did not lie with her.” There’s Mrs. Blackwell, whom Molly insists “did (him) no good.” Then there is the housekeeper, Sarah Ryan, who left their employ, says Wesley, because she could not stand Molly’s constant badmouthing of him.
All this could be seen as the everyday stuff of ordinary people experiencing the ups and downs of married life, and dismissed out of hand. But not to be dismissed so lightly, it seems to me, is what Wesley makes of it as an assault on his authority as a man. Moreover, here you have the founder of a major religious sect, and not just in the English-speaking world any more, displaying the pernicious doctrine that God uses people to teach other people lessons.
God has used many means to curb your stubborn will and break the impetuosity of your temper. He has given you a dutiful but sickly daughter; He has taken away one of your sons. Another has been a grievous cross; as the third probably will be. He has suffered you to be defrauded of much money; He has chastened you with strong pain. And still He may say, 'How long liftest thou up thyself against Me 'Are you more humble, more gentle, more patient, more placable than you was I fear quite the reverse; I fear your natural tempers are rather increased than diminished. O beware lest God give you up to your own heart’s lusts, and let you follow your own imaginations!
In the same breath as he demands her submission and obedience to him he then uses his position as spiritual advisor to inculcate a belief that she is the source of her daughter’s illness and the death of one of her sons. No apparent questioning of whether God was not punishing Wesley at the same time. Just her, apparently, by giving her financial problems, and physical pain. As she “lifteth” up herself against the Lord, she clearly “lifteth” herself up against her master, her husband, and God is not above surrendering her to her own “heart’s lusts” and “imaginations,” he tells her.
Twisting the knife he puts in her back, he then reminds her what an “unspeakable blessing” it is she has a husband “who can bear with it.” That’s the place, by the way, where he goes into that bit about how insignificant her character is, that she should go to such extremes to defend it. If she will just repent, he tells her, “…(t)hen shall I govern you with gentle sway, and show that I do indeed love you, even as Christ the Church.”
Ah yes, gentle husband. Govern me. Govern me.
I remember a time when I was in high school when I got into a discussion with somebody who had been schooled at the local catholic parochial school. “We are followers of Jesus Christ,” she told me, “not like you, who follow Luther or Calvin.” I realized just how much mis-education was going on in that parochial school. “We don’t follow Luther or Calvin. We follow the Gospels. Luther and Calvin were ordinary men, not gods, not even heroes. Founding fathers, yes. Saints, no.” I was proud of my pretty solid Protestant upbringing, and proud of the many particular traditions with which I had some familiarity. John Wesley was another founding father, this time of the Methodist Church, as well as a whole bunch of off-shoots like the Nazarenes and the Holiness churches.
It was good to be a Protestant. We knew of the corruption within the Roman church, the love of silks and satins and emeralds and diamonds the church leaders covered themselves in. We knew all about the Inquisition, the abuse of Galileo, and the fact that St. Peter’s in Rome was built with money from indulgences – the selling of forgiveness of sins you hadn't committed yet. We knew we were the good guys, the guys who had brought the church back to its original place and the source of the “good news” of Jesus Christ.
It would take many more years for it to sink in that for all our pretentions to a higher moral ground, historically speaking, there were missing parts in the Protestant narrative. And those were the blind spots that had worked their way into our so-called doctrinal truths. I remember the first time I buried myself in the bowels of the Green Library at Stanford and seriously read the works of Martin Luther – including the bits where he urges his people to burn the houses of Jews and run them out of town. German anti-Semitism was not simply an aberration in German history. It was grounded in the writing of its leading religious figure, the man who single-handedly created the modern German language, and one of Christianity’s leading reformers. Later, I learned from Daniel Goldhagen (A Moral Reckoning) the source of that anti-Semitism is the Gospels themselves.
Now here are the clay feet of John Wesley. Some will disagree with my take. They will excuse him entirely on the grounds that he could not be expected to be ahead of his times. Or they will simply agree with him that God wants women to submit themselves to men. After all, that idea is alive and well in much of the world, far beyond the stretch of Methodism or Lutheranism, and it still rules in official Catholic doctrine here at home.
One need not throw out the church because of the follies of its leaders, of course. There are plenty of other reasons to do that. But neither should one go on too loudly or too long about tradition. The traditions of our religious organizations have some very sinister aspects to them. The Enlightenment and an advocacy of universal human rights didn’t come out of nowhere. They came in response to the dark parts of our religious traditions.
“Traditional values,” – the phrase is meant to be shorthand for all things bright and beautiful.
Until you take a closer look. And when traditionalists speak of the “founding fathers” (and this is true for religion as well as for political history) they intend to be understood as appealing to authority.
But check it out. Some of the “greats” on whose shoulders we are supposed to stand may not be all that great. Follow them, if you insist. But follow with great caution.