John Wesley, mysticism and enthusiasm

April 13th, 2015

If the report below is correct, John Wesley is a mystic who hated “mysticism.” Further, he offers a rigorous and transformative mystical spirituality that guards against unbiblical distortions sometimes associated with mysticism.

Of course, the trick is figuring out what mysticism is in the first place.

Since becoming excited last year about Elaine Heath’s works on mysticism and evangelism (see here and here), I’ve been pondering continuities between Wesleyan Christianity and pre-modern mysticism. (Heath is an evangelism professor at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.)

Amy Hollywood

I just ran into the work of Amy Hollywood of Harvard Divinity School. Hollywood was a student of Bernard McGinn, the great historian of Christian mysticism. Part of what Hollywood is up to is trying to figure out how to tell the story mysticism in modernity. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, there are various mystical theologies, many indebted to the early sixth century works of the Syrian monk known as Dionysius the Areopagite. Post-Reformation, mysticism is, on the Protestant side, a loaded term, usually a negatively loaded term. So where does all the mysticism go in lands and Christians marked Protestant?

To investigate this requires observing premodern mysticism at other levels besides the sheerly intellectual and theological, since the theologies of many Catholic mystics are strenuously rejected in Protestant circles. Bernard McGinn pointed out that we must “remember that mysticism is always a process or a way of life” and that “everything that leads up to and prepares for this encounter [between God and the human] … is also mystical.” In short, mysticism is not just certain experiences or certain theologies. It is also the spiritual disciplines and practices that prepare one to experience God.

Do the practices and spiritual disciplines employed by the ancient mystics continue in Protestant circles even while those Protestants explicitly reject (what they think of as) “mysticism”? Indeed they do. Enter Amy Hollywood with her theory about how to trace the Christian mystical tradition into modernity.

Hollywood's theory is that in Protestant circles, “mysticism” becomes re-described as “enthusiasm.” And “enthusiasm” itself becomes a slur and epithet in many contexts. The upshot? Imagine Protestants who (sometimes unwittingly) continue the desires and practices of the ancient mystics while strongly opposing (Catholic) “mysticism.” Their Protestant peers then deride them as “enthusiasts.”

A brief run through Richard Heitzenrater’s book “Wesley and the People Called Methodists” reveals that Amy Hollywood’s theory fits John Wesley exactly. (Look up “Mystic(s)” in Heitzenrater’s index and read those pages. It is fascinating!)

Wesley, searching for an authentic Christianity while a young man, is attracted to the writings of many (Catholic, often French) mystics. However, he soon enough becomes very anti-mystic due to what he perceives as the antinomianism and unbiblical heterodoxy of some of the mystics he is reading. Yet at the same time as Wesley rejects what he knows as the theology of the mystics, he wholeheartedly endorses and practices the ascetic and semi-monastic life commended in the mystical tradition, the kind of life McGinn says both is mystical and prepares one for experiencing God. Hence Wesley embraces and spreads a rigorously disciplined and ascetic devotional path, pursuing Christian perfection, continuing spiritual disciplines used by mystics and monks over the course of the tradition. For this, in his own 18th century English church context, he is derided and opposed for —  you got it —  “enthusiasm”.

So, what do you think? John Wesley the mystic? John Wesley the anti-mystic mystic?

Note that Elaine Heath shows that the same kind of thing as is true of Wesley is true of the great Methodist holiness preacher, Phoebe Palmer. See Heath's book “Naked Faith: The Mystical Theology of Phoebe Palmer.”

comments powered by Disqus