Disputing Holiness: Wesley's Debate with the Moravians


The materials in Part One of Volume 14 in the Bicentennial Works of John Wesley (forthcoming early 2022) have reference to Moravian theology, which both attracted John Wesley and concerned him. In eighteenth-century England, and in Wesley’s mind, this meant in particular the writings and emphases of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–60).

Wesley’s positive regard for the Moravians began when he first met a small group onboard the Simmonds on the way to North America. Wesley was on his way to Georgia with a small Anglican volunteer missionary team, and the Moravians were on their way to settle in the colony. The story of how Wesley was impressed with the Moravians’ calm and courage during a storm at sea is well known, but his attraction to them went much deeper. As they traveled and worshiped together, he discovered they shared his interest in using the primitive church as the model for their faith and life.[1] Further contact with them during his time in Savannah deepened Wesley’s appreciation for their communal discipline and spirituality. After he returned to England from Georgia, Wesley made contact with the Moravians that were in England, and he visited the Moravians in Germany. Yet even during his time in Georgia there were some tensions between Wesley and the Moravians.[2] In England, tensions became very significant. Wesley never lost his affection for the Moravians, but some areas of theological divergence prevented him entering any formal connection with them. Nonetheless, both their times of connection and the disagreements between Wesley and the Moravians shaped his theology significantly.

Moravians in England

The group that Wesley knew as "Moravians" had its roots in central Europe and arrived in England by way of Germany. A small group of exiles from the Moravian principality of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who traced their spiritual heritage back to Jan Hus through the Unitas Fratrum (Unity of Brethren) and who refused to be assimilated into Catholicism under the coercive measures used by the empire, found refuge in Saxony on the estate of Zinzendorf. The Count had been educated at Halle and the University of Wittenberg, so he was influenced by both pietism and classical Lutheran theology.[3] He embraced the ‘Philadelphian ideal’ held by many pietists of ‘brotherly love’, which focused on the religion of the heart of true believers rather than on institutional churches.[4] He saw giving refuge to religious exiles (not only from Moravia but also religious minorities coming from other regions) as a way of creating a Philadelphian community. In a time of strong confessionalism, Zinzendorf’s initial vision was not to create a church, but rather a fellowship of awakened Christians who need not leave their own churches in order to be one in Christ. As more people found their way to this refuge, the community known as Herrnhut not only grew in number but also experienced internal conflict. In 1727, the community had a collective religious experience that healed the conflict among the various groups and gave the community of Herrnhut a vision for Christian unity.[5]

The first Moravians to go to England did so out of an ecumenical desire to seek out others who shared their spiritual experience of God. They attempted to establish such relationships in England in 1728 by reaching out to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, which they believed to be a place of spiritual vitality. This attempt to find solidarity with other Christians in England was not very successful. Later, under external pressure more than ecumenical hope, Moravians turned to England again.

The external pressure began when Emperor Charles VI complained to the ruler of Saxony about Zinzendorf’s reception of refugees from the emperor’s lands, and some neighbors around Herrnhut suspected Zinzendorf of setting up a rival church. The Saxon government began to take a less hospitable view toward Zinzendorf and the refugees, convincing the Count that settlements outside of Saxony were needed. The British colony of Georgia was a promising location, so August Gottlieb Spangenberg was sent to London in 1734 to attempt to make arrangements for some Moravian colonists. Spangenberg succeeded in the complicated negotiations, and the first group of Moravians sailed for Georgia in January 1735. A second group sailed in October of that year on the same ship with John and Charles Wesley and two of their friends (Charles Delamotte and Benjamin Ingham).

Zinzendorf himself visited England in 1737, with two primary tasks. The first was to handle some practical negotiations with the Trustees of the colony in Georgia. But the second task arose from a need to revive Unitas Fratrum [Unity of Brethren] church structure within the Herrnhut community. Although Zinzendorf’s original vision for Herrnhut was as an ecumenical gathering of Christians, rather than a church, having a Moravian settlement in a British colony made it important for the colonists to be recognized as members of a legitimate church. In order to secure this recognition David Nitschmann, one of the Moravians in the group on board the Simmonds, had been ordained as a bishop by an episcopal leader in the line of bishops from the Polish province of the Unitas Fratrum.[6] The transition from ecumenical community to church served its purpose for settling in the colonies, but it created complications for the Moravians in Europe. Suspicion that Zinzendorf was forming a separate church that would be expanding led to his banishment from Saxony in 1736.[7] By 1737, Zinzendorf, who already exerted a great deal of control over the group to which he gave refuge, was considering his own possible consecration as a bishop in the Unitas Fratrum.[8] His deep ecumenical commitments and practical need for recognition by the Church of England in the colonies led him to discuss this move with bishops of the Church of England. By this time, Charles Wesley had returned to England so he was able to arrange some contacts for Zinzendorf. While he was in London, the Count also made contact with other Germans in the city, and he organized a society among some of them.

In 1738 another small group of four Moravians arrived in England. Three of them (including Peter Böhler) planned to arrange for and await transport to Georgia, while the fourth had been given responsibility to visit the German society initiated by Zinzendorf. The newly arrived Moravians found that, in the absence of leadership of someone well acquainted with the teachings of the Herrnhut community, the German society in London had not lived by those teachings. They worked to correct and organize the society for better effect.[9]

Peter Böhler had also been given the task, while in transit through England to Georgia, of making contact with Oxford students. John Wesley had landed back in England just a few days before Böhler arrived, and the Wesley brothers together took Böhler to Oxford, introducing him to students there. The departure of Böhler’s ship was delayed, so he spent a few weeks in Oxford. While the devotional practices of the students associated with the Wesley brothers were more formal and self-denying than to Böhler’s liking, he responded to their interest in Moravian teaching and helped a few of them form a band.

These Oxford students and other serious Christians in the Church of England were ready to learn from the Moravians. English religious life had for some time included small groups to foster piety. From the 1670s, Anthony Horneck had promoted Anglican religious societies as a means for assisting Christians to grow in disciplined holiness.[10] These societies brought together members of the Church of England, under the leadership of a priest, to talk about spiritual matters in order to promote lives of holiness. The Anglican religious societies were influenced by the collegia pietatis of continental pietism, so there was a historical link to some of the ideas and practices of the Moravians who had been shaped by pietism through Zinzendorf. Over time these Anglican religious societies had lost some of the energy and effectiveness that they once had, and by the 1730s there was need for renewal. A number of societies existed in London, and some members had read accounts of the Moravians written by English missionaries to Georgia. The stage was set for an interaction that would have far-reaching influence.

Although Böhler’s time in London after his return from Oxford was short, it was significant because it resulted in the founding of the Fetter Lane society. Böhler did not initially intend to organize small groups in England. His focus lay primarily with the German society. But members of English societies became interested in learning from him, and continued delay of his ship’s departure for Georgia allowed Böhler to begin interacting with them. Böhler could not communicate adequately in English, so he often used German or Latin when addressing English groups. James Hutton was one of those who translated for him. In late spring, Böhler decided to form a band for interested English persons, and he invited a few to meet together in Hutton’s home. John Wesley was among those who attended, although not because he intended to form and lead a society. Charles, who was in London, had taken ill and John was called to the city on account of his brother’s illness. The group that met at Hutton’s home was to grow into the Fetter Lane society.[11]

Fetter Lane Society and Division[12]

The Fetter Lane society was not formally a Moravian society, but it was not a typical Anglican religious society either. The membership came from the Church of England, but the rules were established under the guidance of Peter Böhler. Many marks of Anglican society were absent, such as the requirements for members to be Anglican, for leadership to be clergy, and for regular attendance at worship. Meanwhile, practices of the group like mutual confession showed Moravian influence. Moreover, under Böhler’s guidance many in the group had adopted a Moravian understanding of salvation, shaped under Zinzendorf’s influence. Zinzendorf had broken with his Halle education over the idea that Busskampf, or ‘penitential struggle’, was the necessary prerequisite for conversion. The Count stressed instead the simple acknowledgment of sinfulness and sincere reliance on the blood of Christ.[13] Faith is God’s gift, not our work. This theological understanding meant that rather than organizing around rules for pursuing holiness, the Fetter Lane society focused on the sinner sincerely seeking faith.

This Moravian understanding of salvation both prepared John Wesley for his Aldersgate experience and ultimately became a key point of division between Wesley and the Moravians. The trust in and assurance of Christ’s love that John experienced at Aldersgate demonstrated an utter reliance on Christ for salvation, as taught by the Moravians. But Wesley proved unable to abandon completely the importance of pursuing holiness.

The implications of abandoning the pursuit of holiness became clear as the Anglican members of Fetter Lane were influenced by Moravian emphasis on ‘stillness’ in receiving salvation. Zinzendorf insisted that the only ‘duty’ Christians had was to believe Christ’s word. If they truly believed, Zinzendorf was convinced that their nature would evidence holiness. But if they sought holiness itself as a ‘duty’, they would be defeated.[14] Likewise they had no duty, for instance, to receive Lord’s Supper—and should in fact ‘be still’, waiting for God to act to bring them to faith. While this stance was known from early in the life of the Fetter Lane society, it became a fracture point in 1739.

Although Moravianism had a dominant influence on the Fetter Lane society, they were also impacted by the Methodist revival. Unlike Moravians on the continent, for example, members of Fetter Lane sought and expressed the presence of the Holy Spirit with noisy responses, such as groaning and crying. In 1739 Spangenberg was back in London, where he met another German Moravian who was passing through London on his way to Pennsylvania, Philipp Heinrich Molther. The two Germans visited the Fetter Lane society and were shocked by the displays of ‘enthusiasm’ among the members. When Molther found his voyage across the Atlantic delayed for three months, he used the time to gather separately with many members of Fetter Lane, commending the ideal of ‘stillness’.

As some Fetter Lane members abandoned practices such as communion, reading of Scripture, and even prayer, out of fear that by participating in these activities they were seeking salvation by works rather than faith, John Wesley became extremely troubled. His own view was that these practices were means of grace, ordained by God for our use.[15] Even those of weak faith (still having fear and doubt) should participate in them, so God could use the means to address their need. Conflict over this matter grew within the Fetter Lane society over several months, culminating in Wesley’s departure from the society in July 1740. Several members left with him, forming a new society that met in the Foundery, which Wesley had recently purchased as a center for Methodist work in London.[16] This departure strengthened the Moravian identity of the society that continued at Fetter Lane. Committed local leaders gave guidance, like James Hutton, who was a bookseller and issued some of Zinzendorf’s writings in English. In 1742 the remaining members of Fetter Lane were established as a Moravian congregation.[17]

This breach was significant, but it did not end all interaction between Moravians and Methodists. The Moravians had been integral to the English evangelical revival, and all parties wanted to be part of the work of God. There were conflicts among Methodists too, as George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers differed over Calvinist ideas. But for at least a time there was some fluidity among the groups. For example, John Cennick had a long relationship with Wesley but served as Whitefield’s representative in England while Whitefield was in the colonies, and he was steadily drawn toward Moravian teaching.[18] Charles Wesley continued for a time to learn from the Moravians and had his own brief period of stillness in 1741.[19] The possibility of reestablishing close working relationships between Methodists and Moravians remained an open question for several years. In 1743, there were two attempts at conversation to bring evangelical groups back together (not only Methodists with Moravians but among Methodists—to reunite Wesley and Whitefield). Neither attempt succeeded in bringing together all the voices needed for such conversation.[20] The following year, when Wesley convened the first of what became annual conferences of his preachers, the question remained on the agenda:

‘On Saturday, June the 30th we considered: Q. 1. Can we unite any farther with the Moravians? A. It seems not, were it only for this reason, they will not unite with us. Q. 2. Can we unite any farther with Mr. Whitefield? A. If he make any overtures towards it.’[21]

If there was enough commonality for the question of union to be an open one for Wesleyan Methodists, the similarities were utterly confusing to the general public, who regularly had trouble telling the evangelical groups apart.


Around the same time that Church started pressing Wesley on his role in reviving antinomianism, the public’s confusion about the interlaced evangelical groups also placed a damper on any hopes for union. A report about expulsion of Moravians from Denmark had reached England, and the reporter identified the Moravians with the Methodists. In light of their need to be recognized by the government and Church of England, the Moravians were unhappy to be associated with a controversial group in England. Hutton, quoting Zinzendorf on the Wesley brothers’ ‘false teaching’, published an open letter in the Daily Advertiser rejecting this association, to which Wesley responded.[31] Although Wesley made a few more attempts to restore fellowship (perhaps to make good on his claim of affection for them despite differences), those attempts did not bear fruit.[32]

So by the middle of the 1740s there were enough tensions dividing the streams of the evangelical revival that they were and would remain distinct groups. ...

Antinomianism and Stillness

To appreciate why stillness could have been the breaking point in the Fetter Lane society, and why Church’s charges about reviving antinomianism pushed Wesley to vigorous defense, one must remember that England had a prior history with antinomianism. After England became Protestant, English Christians debated among themselves about the proper way to think about God’s free grace and human responsibility. With ideas veering in different directions, often in reaction to each other, strong voices emerged stressing the duty of godliness and other voices insisting instead on passive reception of Christ’s ‘alien’ righteousness. The latter voices were judged by the first group to be championing antinomianism. A wave of such ‘antinomian’ teaching hit England in the 1640s, in the lead up to the English Civil War. Although free grace was clearly an important teaching of the Reformation, a theology that undermined law and duty proved unwelcome during the disorder of civil war.[33]

...When the Moravians came to England, their ideas about reliance on Christ sounded like those of the earlier English antinomians. In fact, some English Christians who were influenced by the Moravians began republishing some of these English ‘antinomian’ works. In particular, John Cennick, a member of the Fetter Lane society who eventually left the Methodists to join the Moravians, reprinted Abraham’s Steps of Faith by John Eaton, who is often thought of as the father of English antinomianism.[35] Cennick also wrote a statement of recommendation when William Cudworth, who was a school supervisor at Whitefield’s Tabernacle for a time and who was very attracted to Moravian theology, reprinted an extract of John Simpson’s Man’s Righteousness, No Cause or Part of his Justification.[36]

Utter reliance on Christ was the aim of Zinzendorf’s theology and spirituality. Because salvation is God’s gift and not a human achievement (even of human participation in a process), the believer needed to receive passively what God offered. Meditating on the wounds of Christ (especially the wound made in his side during the crucifixion, called the ‘side hole’[37]) allowed believers to be filled with Christ. Emptying oneself to be filled with Christ was a kind of mortification of the flesh, a dying in Christ.[38] Oneness with Christ was sought especially during Holy Communion, a practice that may account for some of the differences between the Moravians and Wesley regarding participation in Holy Communion.

While Wesley was helped by the Moravians to recover the priority of God’s gracious work in salvation, he increasingly worried about antinomian overtones in their teaching. Since he recognized that the English persons who had adopted Moravian views sometimes took them to extreme,[39] he took up this question with Zinzendorf directly in an extended conversation (in Latin, since neither was fully comfortable in the other’s native tongue) that Wesley published near the end of the fourth extract of his Journal.[40] The point at issue was whether Christians have any inherent perfection or holiness in themselves. The Count contended that God gave believers justification and sanctification at the same time, so in an instant we receive not only forgiveness but also holiness (understood entirely as God’s gift, not our personal growth). Moreover both forgiveness and holiness were imputed, so there is no holiness inherent in the believer but only through Christ. Our only duty is faith, and faith makes us wholly holy. For Wesley this narrow understanding of duty implied antinomianism, for it made the law void both in what it commands and what it prohibits.[41]

The Church of England had worked to find a way between the extreme views of English Christian thought, and Wesley had been convinced of the rightness of this approach. The Church had a high view of sacraments, and through its religious societies encouraged people to pursue the discipline of holy lives. Holiness had also been a key element of Wesley’s mother’s teaching during his childhood.[42] He understood the importance of our participation in the path that God has given Christians to walk, and he was convinced that disregarding the means that God has provided for moving along this way would keep us from becoming more like Christ. Although the appreciation for the priority of faith that he received from the Moravians was important for Wesley’s saving experience of God and for his theology, total passivity did not fit his idea of Christian life. He could not see how reliance on Christ ruled out participation in the very things God had given us as means to grow in Christ.

Moravian stillness, especially insofar as it meant not taking communion until one had strong faith (fully assured so without fear and doubt), was particularly disturbing to Wesley. The Moravians had denied Wesley participation in communion during a visit he made to Germany shortly after his heart-warming experience in 1738, because they saw he was troubled.[43] There was likely some personal sting for him in their way of urging and regulating stillness. But it was not simply his own experience that shaped Wesley’s view. He knew the case of Mrs. Crouch, who had been advised not to take communion until she had strong faith, but who was converted when she obeyed God and received the elements. She joined Wesley and some other Fetter Lane members deeply shaped by Anglican sacramental piety, to whom the idea of abstaining from communion was shocking.[44]

Moravian Acceptance and Controversy

The initial journey by the Moravians to England in 1728 was to establish spiritual solidarity with other Christians. This hope was fulfilled in part eventually as they built relationships with Methodists, relationships that continued to the extent that John Wesley retained affection for them even through profound disagreements. However by 1737 Zinzendorf clearly wanted more—he wanted recognition by the Church of England for the Unitas Fratrum as a sister episcopal church. This hope was more complicated and had mixed results.

Zinzendorf visited several bishops of the Church of England to seek their support in this recognition, and encountered a mix of interest with hesitations. The suggested presence of another episcopal church in England raised questions about the role and authority of the Church of England as an established church. What did it mean to be a national church with another episcopal church within the nation’s borders? Why should the Moravian Church be treated differently from English dissenters? Could and should the Moravians be brought into the Church of England itself?[45]These questions were serious enough that even though some bishops expressed openness, Zinzendorf encountered significant resistance to recognizing the Unitas Fratrum in England as anything other than a dissenting church.[46]

While falling short of Zinzendorf’s goal, these conversations in 1737 paved the way for the bishops of the Church of England to support a bill that was passed by Parliament a decade later. The colonies in the New World were disputed territory as Great Britain, France, and Spain laid claim to contiguous areas and native people were displaced. Disputes over land could lead to armed conflict, and the British expected their colonists to fight on behalf of British interests. Like the Quakers, the Moravians did not take oaths or bear arms, and in 1747 a petition was sent to Parliament to extend to other foreign Protestants (such as the Moravians) the exemption given to the Quakers regarding military service and oaths on account of religious liberty and the scruples of conscience. Another petition dedicated specifically to the Moravian situation was passed by Parliament in May 1749.[47] Although the formal Act that was adopted focused on military service and oaths, it included an important statement in the preamble which referred to the Unitas Fratrum as ‘an ancient Protestant episcopal church’.[48] This recognition by Parliament gave the Moravians some positive public standing.

However, this recognition also made evident to some how little the English were aware of how Moravians were regarded on the continent, where their theology and practice had found several critics. Zinzendorf’s vision was ecumenical, but his theology was rooted in the Lutheran tradition. Questions about his ‘orthodoxy’ arose in Europe because of ways he reshaped this Lutheran heritage.[49] While Zinzendorf had been educated and ordained as Lutheran, devotion to Christ, not formal theology, was always paramount.[50] He stressed reliance on the blood of Christ, which led to great attention on the wounds of Jesus. He also embraced celebration of the gifts of God in the world, so he did not draw a sharp distinction between the sacred and the secular. The hymns he (often wrote and) encouraged his people to sing regularly focused attention on Christ’s wounds, and envisioned the Moravian faithful as birds or bees circling and resting in the wounds. These hymns drew scorn from writers on the continent. But this scorn did not find voice in England until February 1749, with the publication of a satirical pamphlet titled Hymns composed for the Use of the Brethren by the Right Rev. and Most Illustrious C Z. The pamphlet compiled excerpts of hymns that the compiler considered most ridiculous in a recent Collection of Hymns published for use by the Moravians in England by James Hutton. While he did not include his name in print, it was Wesley who compiled and circulated this pamphlet (so it is included in this section), possibly in response to discussion of the pending Act in Parliament.

Zinzendorf’s theological convictions meant that areas of life not usually regarded as sacred, such as sexuality and even sleeping, could be brought into the realm of worship.[51] For example, he described relationship with Jesus Christ extensively with marriage imagery. Portrayal of union with Christ as marriage already existed in the Christian tradition, but he took it to be more than mystical imagery.[52] He applied the imagery literally to human marriage. He taught the Moravians that they could have sex without lust so that sex in marriage became sacramental.[53] In addition, because of the incarnation, all parts of the body, including genitalia, were honored. Hymns spoke openly not only of Christ’s wounds but of his male body (another tendency which John Wesley disapproved).[54]

Celebrating sexuality in devotional practices in a communal living arrangement required strict regulation to prevent sexual expression from disrupting the community. The strict organization of members into single-sex ‘choirs’ served as social control. Single members were expected to remain celibate until marriage, but they experienced the mystical marriage union according to their single state. For instance, they were taught that in sleep they rested in Christ’s arms (especially in contact with the wound in his side).[55] Yet even within such structured regulation of life Zinzendorf encouraged a spirituality of childlike playfulness, in contrast to the serious Busskampf and moral behavior known at Halle.[56]

The utter reliance on Christ that Zinzendorf endorsed led him to a very complicated view of sin. The Count affirmed the Lutheran maxim ‘simul justus et peccator’, insisting believers do not leave behind their ‘sinner-form’ even as they are made completely holy in Christ.[57] They have an imputed holiness, while they are really sinners.[58] And yet, the point of emptying oneself and being filled with Christ was to become like Jesus.[59] Zinzendorf conveyed this aspect of his theology by saying those born of God ‘cannot sin’.[60] This complicated view of sin and holiness was difficult to understand, not only for Wesley, but also for some Moravian members who took ‘cannot sin’ as meaning they were sinless.[61]

Zinzendorf’s emphases in spirituality were part of the appeal of Moravian theology for many people, but they were also open to misconstrual. In the late 1740s, just as Parliament was coming to recognize the Unitas Fratrum as an ‘ancient Protestant episcopal church’, certain behaviors in Moravian communities were brought to Zinzendorf’s attention that drew his reprimand. This situation is known as the ‘sifting time’.[62] The terminology derives from Luke 22:31, using Jesus’s words to Simon Peter to refer to Satan sifting the church as wheat.[63] The combination of marital theology, the encouragement of playfulness, and the idea of sinlessness that accompanied being filled with Christ led some (especially but not exclusively in Herrnhaag) to extend the idea of sex as a sacrament of mystical union with Christ beyond marriage to extramarital sexual relations.[64] There was also a notorious ceremony led by the Count’s son, Christian Renatus (Cristel) Zinzendorf, that declared the single men to be women in anticipation of their eschatological mystical marriage with Christ.[65] When these things came to the attention of the Count, he wrote to all the main congregations regarding ‘some disorders that had taken hold’.[66] In the midst of the ‘sifting time’ some members of the Moravian Church (such as Andreas Frey) began to leave and speak openly about their life in the community.[67]


Zinzendorf left England in 1755 and the publication of anti-Moravian literature gradually abated. The Count died in 1760. After the ‘sifting time’, and especially after the Count’s death, the Moravian Church reshaped itself into a more conventional Protestant church—in part by distancing itself from many of the emphases of Zinzendorf. The Moravian Church continued (and continues) in England, but significantly different from what it was when it first arrived.

Ongoing Impact of Wesley’s Reflection on Moravianism

Zinzendorf’s departure and death did not draw to a close Wesley’s reflection on questions that his encounter with Moravian theology had raised. One of the issues long disputed among English divines had been whether justification by faith alone excluded any requirement for holy living.[78] While Zinzendorf did not introduce this problem to England, or to Wesley, the need for self-definition with regard to other evangelical groups meant that Wesley had to find his place among the options in his context.

Wesley’s engagement with the Moravians convinced him that exclusive focus on imputed righteousness tended to eliminate concern for one’s own righteousness, and could therefore work against interest in obeying God’s commands, even those commands to show compassion to others. This primed Wesley to respond critically when his old friend James Hervey published Theron and Aspasio the same year that Zinzendorf departed England.[79] In this set of fictional dialogues Aspasio gradually brings his friend Theron to an exclusive emphasis on the imputed righteousness of Christ in salvation. Hervey’s decision to publish this work, despite criticisms Wesley had sent privately before its publication, led Wesley to send Hervey an extended criticism in a letter, which Wesley then published in Preservative Against Unsettled Notions in Religion (1756). Hervey drafted his rejoinder to Wesley’s criticism in several private letters, but hesitated to send it to Wesley, and even more to make it public. But in 1758 (at the age of 44) Hervey died, and a colleague chose to publish the letters, drawing a second published response by Wesley.[80] Thus in the late 1750s Wesley was again moved to defend some kind of ‘inherent’ or ‘implanted’ righteousness in believers, the point he had discussed with Zinzendorf. This carried over into the next decade, as Wesley issued in 1762 both Thoughts on the Imputed Righteousness of Christ, in response to William Mason,[81] and A Blow at the Root, which made reference to Count Zinzendorf (and is included below). In these publications one can discern the ‘mature integration of the primacy of grace into his enduring concern for Christian holiness’ that found expression in Wesley’s 1765 sermon The Scripture Way of Salvation and his later writings.[82]

Wesley’s concern to explain how faith should show itself in a life that honored God was not confined to doctrinal treatises. The minutes of his annual Conferences with his preachers held in 1753 and 1759 record that one topic of concern was whether preachers were giving adequate attention to ‘practical religion’—that is, ‘duties, using the means of grace, private prayer, self-denial, fasting, seriousness’.[83] Similarly, the minutes of Conference in 1758 included discussion about a proper understanding of ‘perfection’.[84] In particular, the conference addressed a question about ‘mistakes’ and concluded that they are transgressions of God’s perfect law and still need atonement through Christ. Because the possibility of mistake is not eliminated in Christian perfection, even perfect love of God does not leave us ‘sinless’. This matter was important because the early 1760s brought an explosion of claims to instantaneous perfection among Wesleyan Methodists (particularly in London). Although Wesley denied sinless perfection himself, some of his followers were not so careful. Indeed, some of those claiming perfection at this time voiced extreme understandings such as: 1) being so entirely without sin (even without the propensity to sin) as to no longer need the atoning blood of Christ, 2) being infallible, and 3) refusing to join in the Lord’s Prayer at the band meeting.[85]

While Wesley was willing to believe that God was working powerfully in the societies, he was very concerned about such claims. So in 1762, the same year that he published A Blow at the Root, Wesley issued Cautions and Directions Given to the Greatest Professors in the Methodist Societies, addressed to Methodists who professed to be ‘really renewed in love’, or to have attained ‘Christian perfection’. Wesley’s third caution was to beware of antinomianism. In other words, in claiming perfection, do not think you are above the law or can live apart from it. In this caution, Wesley referred to the Moravians and their ‘refined antinomianism’.[86] Wesley allowed that many of the Moravians he had known had felt the living power of God in their lives, but added that in feeling this power they sometimes lost sight of the ways Satan was still trying to work on them. He cautioned those Methodists professing renewal in love not to make the same mistake. They should not become ‘still’ in the sense of ceasing the works that keep them close to God. Proper stillness would instead involve ceasing to talk about their perfection and not doing things that would lead them to lose it.

When Wesley sought to counter the potential antinomianism of Moravian emphasis on faith as the sole Christian duty, he made the goal of personal holiness the center of Christian life. What he discovered through the controversies that arose in the 1760s was that claims to present attainment of personal holiness can also be vulnerable to antinomianism. Not only was authentic Christian holiness not ‘sinless’, but the ‘perfect’ remain vulnerable to temptation; so holiness is ‘always capable of being lost if it is not nurtured’.[87] Methodists should never grow lax in using the means that God has given us to nurture holiness. This is perhaps the abiding lesson that Wesley learned through his engagement with the Moravians.

[1]Geordan Hammond provides an excellent study of this common interest in John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2]For an account of the tensions that arose in Georgia, see Hammond, Wesley, 91–96.

[3]Gary S. Kinkel, Christian Life and Witness: Count Zinzendorf’s 1738 Berlin Speeches (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), p. xv.

[4]Paul Peucker, A Time of Sifting: Mystical Marriage and the Crisis of Moravian Piety in the Eighteenth Century (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015), 12–14.

[5]For an explanation of Zinzendorf’s ‘ecumenical ecclesiology’, see Colin Podmore, The Moravian Church in England 1728–1760 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 159–67. For an assessment of Zinzendorf’s ecumenical efforts and vision, see Anna Marie Johnson, ‘Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf’, Journal of Religious History 8 (2014): 241–62. The remainder of this section of the essay summarizes material covered in more depth in Podmore’s volume, pp. 5–39.

[6]Hammond, Wesley, 81.

[7]Zinzendorf was first banished in 1732, but this banishment was suspended after the death of the elector of Saxony. See Johnson, ‘Ecumenist’, 246–47.

[8]Zinzendorf had already been ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1734.

[9]Adjustments included not only structural changes, such as organizing bands, but also inculcating a Moravian understanding of Christian life, namely abandoning one’s own efforts to be holy. Podmore, Moravian Church, 31.

[10]Kevin Watson, Pursuing Social Holiness: The Band Meeting in Wesley’s Thought and Popular Methodist Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 16–22.

[11]Podmore stresses that forming this group was not Böhler’s long-planned intent, but a response to the English people who were interested in Moravian teaching. He also stresses the chance involved in JW’s presence at the first meeting. See Podmore, Moravian Church, 34–39.

[12]See Podmore, Moravian Church, 39–83, for more details and documentation of the developments summarized in this section.

[13]See Johnson, ‘Ecumenist’, 247–48; and Arthur J. Freeman, An Ecumenical Theology of the Heart: The Theology of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (Bethlehem, PA: Board of Communications, Moravian Church in America, 1998), 180–81. Freeman describes the concern Zinzendorf had about a struggle for faith that can become a work.

[14]This stance is clear in the wording of the first English translation of Zinzendorf’s Sixteen Discourses on the Redemption of Man by the Death of Christ Preached at Berlin (London: James Hutton, 1740): ‘To believe his [Christ’s] word is our duty and the only law, whereon our whole salvation depends’ (p. 15); and ‘Faith is his duty and holiness his nature’ (p. 41). When JW issued an Extract of Count Zinzendorf’s Discourses on the Redemption of Man by the Death of Christ (Newcastle upon Tyne: Gooding, 1744), he changed the wording in the first case to ‘To believe his word is the firstduty on which our salvation depends’ (p. 4, emphasis added), and elided sections casting doubt on the importance of other ‘duties’!

[15]See JW, Sermon 16, ‘The Means of Grace’, 1:376–97 in this edn.

[16] For JW’s account of this conflict and the final breach, see Journal, Nov. 1, 1739 to Sept. 3, 1741, 19:115–224 in this edn. See also Podmore’s account, pp. 66–71.

[17]For background on how it became a congregation, see Colin Podmore, ‘Zinzendorf and the English Moravians’, Journal of Moravian History 3 (Fall 2007): 31–50.

[18]Podmore, Moravian Church, 83.

[19]Ibid., 76.

[20]See ibid., 78; and the Introduction to the Minutes of Conference, 10:6 in this edn.

[21]‘Minutes’ (June 30, 1744), 10:146 in this edn.

[22]See 19:116–18 in this edn.

[23]19:224 in this edn.


[31]Hutton’s letter appeared in the Daily Advertiser of Aug. 2, 1745, p. 1; JW’s response in the Sept. 7, 1745 issue, p. 1. Both can be found in 26:150–51 in this edn.

[32]See Podmore, Moravian Church, 79–80.

[33]Tim Cooper, ‘The Antinomians Redeemed: Removing Some of the “Radical” From Mid-Seventeenth-Century English Religion’, The Journal of Religious History 24 (2000): 247–62.

[34]London: William Marshal, 1690.

[35]London: J. Hart, 1745.

[36]London: J. Hart, 1745.

[37]See Peter Vogt, ‘“Honor to the Side”: The Adoration of the Side Wounds of Jesus in Eighteenth-Century Moravian Piety’, Journal of Moravian History 7 (2009): 83–106.

[38]Peucker, Time of Sifting, 88.

[39]See JW’s comments about the difference between the English and the Germans in Sermon 13, On Sin in Believers, I.6–7, 1:319 in this edn.

[40]JW, Journal, Sept. 3, 1741, 19:211–15 in this edn. The conversation was sparked by the Count’s suggestion that JW had ‘changed his religion’. The record of the conversation shows no progress toward resolving their difference of understanding. Cf. Gary Steven Kinkel, ‘The Big Chill: The Theological Disagreement which Separated John Wesley and Count Zinzendorf’, Unitas Fratrum 27–28 (1990): 89–112.

[41]Journal, Sept. 3, 1741, 19:222–23 in this edn.

[42]Susanna Wesley read and had her children read a variety of theological writers. She continued to engage in theological conversation with them into their adulthood, including expressing her reservations about the way John and Charles began to think about assurance of faith after their exposure to Moravian ideas. For a description of her intellectual life and her engagement with Charles over his conversion, see Charles Wallace, Jr., ‘“Some Stated Employment of Your Mind”: Reading, Writing, and Religion in the Life of Susanna Wesley,’ Church History 58 (1989): 354–66.

[43]Daniel Benham, Memoirs of James Hutton: Comprising the Annals of His Life and Connection with the United Brethren (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1856), 40. JW’s friend and traveling companion Benjamin Ingham was admitted.

[44]Brian Curtis Clark and Joanna Cruickshank, ‘Converting Mrs. Crouch: Women, Wonders and the Formation of English Methodism, 1738–1741’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 65 (2014): 66–83, provide evidence that other women in Fetter Lane were troubled by the doctrine of stillness.

[45]It should be noted that there were questions for the Moravian Church also. Could it be an ecumenical community that brought into fellowship true Christians in every church if it became an institutionalized church itself? Did it really dissent from the Church of England? Should it receive members from the Church of England?

[46]For accounts of Zinzendorf’s encounters with particular bishops see Podmore, Moravian Church, 205–27.

[47]23 Geo 2, Chapter 30: ‘An Act for encouraging the people called Unitas Fratrum or United Brethren to settle in His Majesty’s colonies in America’.

[48]Podmore, Moravian Church, 228. Podmore discusses the motives and agents involved in the petition and the passage of the act itself in Chap. 8.

[49]Whether Zinzendorf was more influenced by Lutheranism or mysticism has been a longstanding question. See Peucker, Time of Sifting, 42.

[50]Zinzendorf’s education left him trying to navigate between the pietism of Halle and orthodox Lutheran theology. While at Wittenberg he formally studied law rather than theology, but he read and heard lectures on theology as he could. See Kinkel, Christian Life, xi–xvi.

[51]Podmore, Moravian Church, 152, 157. For a discussion of how Zinzendorf understood relationship to Christ to shape Christian living, see Freeman, Ecumenical Theology, 206–41.

[52]Other sources of this marriage imagery in the Christian tradition are highlighted in Peucker, Time of Sifting, 82–83; and Podmore, Moravian Church, 134.

[53]Peucker, Time of Sifting, 3–4.

[54]See his criticism of their hymns for speaking of Christ in terms that were overly familiar or ‘fondling’ in Sermon 123, ‘On Knowing Christ After the Flesh’, 4: 97–106 in this edn.

[55]Craig D. Atwood, ‘Sleeping in the Arms of Christ’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 8 (1997): 25–51.

[56]Peucker, Time of Sifting, 19.

[57]For a discussion of this complex theology, see Freeman, Ecumenical Theology, 162–205; esp. pp. 188–90.

[58]JW recorded in his conversation with Zinzendorf at Gray’s Inn Walks that Zinzendorf insisted even the best people are ‘most miserable sinners, even unto death’. See Journal, Sept. 3, 1741, 19:211 in this edn.

[59]Peucker, Time of Sifting, 88.

[60]Zinzendorf, Sixteen Discourses, 201.

[61]Peucker very clearly connects the idea of sinlessness with the ‘Sifting Time’. See Time of Sifting, chapter 4.

[62]For a discussion of the characteristics and periodization of these developments, see Peucker, Time of Sifting, 58–92. Peucker argues that is better to think of the ‘sifting time’ as a particular crisis than a period of time. Podmore (Moravian Church, 132–36) treats it more as a period of time characterized by particular expressions of spirituality that corresponds to Moravian expansion in England.

[63]Peucker, Time of Sifting, 55.

[64]Ibid., 166–67.

[65]Ibid., 1–2, 105, 132.

[66]Ibid., 58.

[67]JW read A True and Authentic Account of Andreas Frey (London: 1753) and remarked in his Journal on the bitter manner is which Frey spoke of the Moravians; see Oct. 27, 1753, 20:480 in this edn.


[78]See the editorial introduction (by Randy L. Maddox) to JW’s Extract of Mr. Richard Baxter’s Aphorisms of Justification, 12:45–52 in this edn.

[79]London: Rivington, 1755.

[80]The exchange between JW and Hervey can be found in 13:321–56, 374–90 in this edn.

[81]See 13:367–73 in this edn.

[82]See Randy L. Maddox, ‘Introduction to Wesley’s Doctrinal and Controversial Treatises’, 12:19 in this edn.; and Sermon 43, The Scripture Way of Salvation, I.4 (2:158 in this edn.), with its emphasis on a ‘real’ as well as a ‘relative’ change in believers.

[83]See Minutes (May 22–24, 1753), Q. 1, 10:263 in this edn.; and the description taken from a letter about the London Conference Aug. 8–11, 1759, 10: 288 in this edn.

[84]Minutes (Aug. 15, 1758), 10:284–85 in this edn.

[85]Gareth Lloyd, ‘“A Cloud of Perfect Witnesses”: John Wesley and the London Disturbances 1760–1763’, The Asbury Theological Journal 56:2–57:1 (Fall 2001–Spring 2002), 117–36.

[86]JW, Cautions to the Greatest Professors, §III, 13:86–87 in this edn.

[87]Paul W. Chilcote, ‘Introduction to Treatises on Christian Perfection’, 12:25 in this edn.


This article is excerpted from Sarah Heaner Lancaster's contribution to the Bicentennial Works of John Wesley, Volume 14 (forthcoming in 2022). Other available volumes in the ongoing Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial edition, can be found here

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