Monday, December 5, 2011

A Great Book!

I just finished reading a book that every pastor in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition ought to read.  It is John Wigger's, American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists.  It is (as the title implies!) a biography of Francis Asbury, the "Father of American Methodism."

I think it is fair to say that American Methodism (as seen in the United Methodist Church, specifically, but also in it's various other branches, from African-American expressions to Holiness expressions) would not be what it is today, if it were not for Bishop Asbury.  In fact, one could argue that Methodism would never have spread and grown to the size that it is, if it were not for Asbury.

The book provides, not only insight into Asbury's life, but also insight into the life of other early American Methodists, as well as the inner workings of Methodism, itself.

I really think that this book, in a number of ways, is foundational for understanding our Wesleyan/Methodist denominations, today.

Let me quickly mention a few areas of insight:

The relationships between Asbury and Coke (and Wesley), and between the two bishops and the presiding elders and other preachers was illuminated in this book.

As one might suspect from my blog, I found the information about Bishop Coke's attempt to bring together the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Episcopalians to be fascinating.

The nature of the Methodist superintendency/episcopacy was interesting.  -  In comparing Asbury's episcopacy to that found in the current United Methodist Church, The Wesleyan Church, and the Church of the Nazarene, I think that it can be argued that none of these denominations have maintained the kind of episcopacy that Asbury favored, though each have certain areas of connection.  For example, I think that both the Wesleyan and Nazarene general superintendents function much more like Asbury had in mind when it comes to itineracy (Nazarenes even more so than the Wesleyans, given the nature of their global structures).

United Methodists speak of an itinerant episcopacy, but the bishops really reside within their (usually) one conference for a term of multiple years.  On the other hand, the Nazarene general superintendents, while rotating between the six of them (!) their assignments, nevertheless do not reside, but rather travel the entire globe to cover all of their districts.

On the other hand, Nazarenes and Wesleyans break from Asbury by having the district superintendents (presiding elders) elected by each district/conference.  At this point, the United Methodist's maintain Asbury's vision by having pastors and district superintendents appointed by the bishop.

So, while Wesleyans and Nazarenes have democratized the Methodist polity (which Asbury opposed), United Methodists have made their bishops much more residential (which Asbury would have opposed).

Interestingly, during Asbury's time, a proposal for residential bishops did come up which would have made Asbury a kind of "Arch Superintendent," or "Arch Bishop" (his language).  This he opposed.  And yet, given the development of the district superintendency within the Nazarene and Wesleyan denominations, this really is the way that the boards of general superintendents function, with district superintendents being "residential" (i.e., district!) bishops.  -  This will be even more so for The Wesleyan Church, if the 2012 General Conference reduces their number of general superintendents to one (c.f., previous article).

There were a couple of things that I found disappointing in the book.  I would like to have had more information on the worship structure of the Sunday worship services.  There was no reference (as I recall) to Asbury ever using any part of Wesley's Sunday Service.  (I know that the Methodist Episcopal Church early abandoned the use of the Prayer Book, but Wigger doesn't give us much of anything along those lines.)  Likewise, I would like to have seen how the Lord's Supper was administered.

Also, I found Wigger to be a bit biased when it came to his discussion of Asbury's position concerning the doctrine of Christian Perfection and Entire Sanctification.  He left one with the impression that, while Asbury was keen on teaching and preaching on Christian Perfection, and even on pressing for others to experience it in this life, nevertheless (Wigger implied) Asbury really believed that we all should strive to "go on to perfection."  That is, consistent with much of United Methodism, Wigger pictured Asbury as not really believing that we can reach such perfection or really be entirely sanctified.

Nevertheless, the concern that Asbury did show, along with the reports from around the connection of those who were sanctified, work to point out Wigger's bias on this point.  (One also wonders if this isn't a part of what Wigger means when, in his notes, he refers to Darius Salter's biography of Asbury as assuming "a decidedly Wesleyan perspective.")

Still, with those two complaints aside (especially the last one, where the material counteract Wigger's bias), this was a truly fantastic read!

One final comment concerning Christian Perfection:  The reports given by Asbury, presiding elders and other preachers show that the "sloppy" use of the broad term sanctification when meaning entire sanctification was a part of American Methodism even before the advent of the "Holiness Movement," as such.  Thus, it is difficult to blame later holiness leaders for using the imprecise language that had been part of their heritage for years.

Wigger's book is a 2009 publication of Oxford University Press.  It is 543 pages long, inclusive of end notes and Index.  It is available as an e-book, but it is not much more expensive to have a hardback on your shelf!

1 comment:

Todd Stepp said...

Just one further thought concerning archbishops/superintendents. Not only is this the way that general superintendents seem to function within the Nazarene and Wesleyan churches given their development of the district superintendency, but also, with the move of presiding elders being called district superintendents within even mainline Methodism, this really is what we have by definition.

In the UMC, bishops are still referred to as general superintendents. They have general (arch!) superintendency (even though, for them, in many ways it really is located within the conference). On the other hand, district superintendents have more localized superintendency (for them, still subject to the general superintendent/bishop).

So, in Wesleyan terms: superintendent = bishop; general = arch, while district is localized.