John Wesley, Methodism and Staking out Mormon Doctrines

W. J. Abraham and J. E. Kirby’s The Oxford Handbook of Methodist Studies gives some insight into some issues of antebellum American Methodism that play into the shaping of Mormon doctrine, in the sense that Mormonism, at its outset, felt the need to define its positions in the controversies of the day. I quote:

Early Methodism . . . put a premium on experience, emphasizing that saving faith was “not barely a speculative, rational thing . . . but also a disposition of the heart.” . . . Although they were not indifferent to doctrine, their principal concerns were conversion and sanctification . . . the Wesley’s emphasis on assurance and their teaching on holiness were not shared by other evangelicals . . . who taught that election rather than assurance and who found John Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification unbiblical and bazarre. For Wesley, however, the assurance of salvation—the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness with the spirit of the believer that he or she was a child of God—while the possibility of Christian perfection was the very raison d’etre of the movement, the ‘grand depositum’ lodged with the people called Methodist.[1]

The announcement of where the Mormons stood on such issues did not take long. By the summer of 1830, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had produced the foundation statements of Mormonism and among them they wrote:

30 And we know that justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true;
31 And we know also, that sanctification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true, to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds, and strength.
32 But there is a possibility that man may fall from grace and depart from the living God;
33 Therefore let the church take heed and pray always, lest they fall into temptation;
34 Yea, and even let those who are sanctified take heed also.[2]

It would be difficult to find a more definite repudiation of the Calvinist bent among Protestants and while the Mormons didn’t quite use Wesley’s language ‘Calvinism is a Poison in Christianity’ it was clear that Christian Perfection (i.e., sanctification) had found a home in Mormonism. Another way of stating the argument would be the definition and operation of “grace.”

John Wesley and Joseph Smith had more in common than this, and loads of difference, to be sure. But Joseph’s position was a lasting one. At King Follett’s “first” funeral sermon (March 10, 1844) Wilford Woodruff reported,

This spirit of Elijah was manifest in
the days of the Apostles in delivering certain ones
to the buffitings of satan that they may be saved in
the day of the Lord Jesus, they were sealed by the
spirit of Elijah unto the damnation of Hell untill the
day of the Lord or revelation of Jesus Christ
Here is the doctrin of Election that the world
have quarraled so much about, but they do
not know any thing about it. The doctrin
that the Prysbeterians & Methodist have
quarreled so much about once in grace always in
grace, or falling away from grace I will say a word
about, they are both wrong, truth takes a road
between them both. for while the Presbyterian
says once in grace you cannot fall the
Methodist says you can have grace to day fall
from it to morrow, next day have grace again & so
follow it, but the doctrin of the scriptures & the
spirit of Elijah would show them both fals &
take a road between them[3]

Joseph’s take on grace however was a very special one. He co-opted the discussion to suit his own purpose, placing the idea of grace within the distinctly Mormon setting of “sealing.” First, it’s still clear that Calvinism gets rejected. You can fall from grace, even in this very special sense. Of course, finer distinctions would be rendered in Mormon doctrine as it matured. Joseph’s teaching would be parsed considerably by the 20th century. But grace, for Joseph in this special discussion, meant calling and election made sure (terminology he drew in part from one his favorite NT books: 2 Peter). This put the Presbyterians and Methodists out of their respective doctrinal pools, but Joseph didn’t care. They were fair game.[4]

“Calling and election made sure” in terms of 2 Pet. passage was one of Joseph’s favorite subjects during 1843 and the subject was closely connected to activities of the anointed quorum of Nauvoo and hence to future temple ritual. It was very sparsely mentioned in Utah until the 20th century. There is a bit of irony here.

[1] Page 158 of Martin Wellings article. Wellings’ article focuses on British Methodism, but much of it is applicable to the American versions. See also here. Particularly the reference mentioned in the comments.

[2] The “Articles and Covenants” D&C 20. That the section was a collaboratively inspired effort is clear from several sources.

[3] Wilford Woodruff journal, March 10, 1844. Holograph, CHL.

[4] For JS and calling and election you can search the Parallel Joseph for the term. But see the rest of the March 10 sermon.

5 Responses to John Wesley, Methodism and Staking out Mormon Doctrines

  1. W. V. Smith says:

    Sorry if your comments were deleted. There was some kind of problem. Hopefully now fixed.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Though that precise language was not used, Smith’s sacramentalized conceptions were readily evident through the nineteenth century. Perhaps because of the popularity of JFSII’s Teachings of the Prophet the language reemerged in the twentieth, though it seems devoid of the sacramental context.

    I’ve been eyeing the new Oxford handbook on Methodism. How is it?

  3. Christopher says:

    Nice post, WVS. Early Mormons themselves—many of whom were previously Methodists—recognized the affinity of some of their teachings with those of Wesley (see here for one such example). And if it’s not too presumptuous, might I recommend my MA Thesis for anyone interested in reading further on the connections between Methodism and Mormonism?

    J., The Oxford Handbook is excellent. Highly recommended (though a bit pricy).

  4. W. V. Smith says:

    Right, J. The ideas were embedded in the ordinance language and ritual. But somehow the NT connection sort of vanished, or at least became unimportant. Except of course, B. H. Roberts resurrected the text 40 odd years later.

    Thanks for the links Christopher – you are the expert. I second the motion on the Oxford Handbook.

  5. W. V. Smith says:

    You can get directly to the pdf of Chris’ thesis here.

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