Methodist and Pietist

British Methodism is being hailed as ‘a discipleship movement shaped for mission’. This slogan may be more aspiration than reality, but it does capture the spirit of our early Methodist origins. John Wesley’s vision of discipleship was deeply influenced by German Pietism, especially through his well-known contact with the Moravians. Pietism is not a denomination as such, but a spiritual movement that emphasizes a transforming experience of the Spirit in the soul, and the life of holiness which it empowers. This ‘heart religion’ is focussed on the importance of ‘new birth’, personal conversion and evangelistic mission. It elevates ‘practical divinity’ for the making of disciples over lifeless forms of speculative theology; and makes the ‘catholic spirit’ more important than reckless dogmatics. Biblical faith, doctrinal confession and holy living are formed in community, and especially through intentional small groups. And the resulting commitment to discipleship in mission has been an enduring legacy of Pietist movements.

This book, Methodist and Pietist, traces the historic legacy of Pietism in American Methodism. In 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) Church to form the United Methodist Church (UMC). The EUB was itself the merger of two German Pietist traditions, the United Brethren and the Evangelical Association. Although the immediate purpose of the book will be particularly valuable for those interested in world Methodism, it also serves as a good introduction to the main themes of Pietism and the way they interact with our common Methodist heritage. Most fascinating, for me, is the way different essays illumine the tensions within Methodism as a movement-turned-church; and any light they might shed on trying to reverse the trend! The book shows how Pietism was expressed in ecumenical networks of small groups, with ordinary people committed to holy living, and led by preacher-evangelists. The progressive transformations to church-status brought a struggle for denominational identity, settled in ecclesiastical polity and administered by clerical authority. In this transition, everyday evangelistic mission gets eclipsed by issues of wider social concern and institutional self-preservation. Sound familiar?

The book was written from a concern that the tradition of Pietism has been largely overlooked in the UMC and that there is a danger of it being lost altogether. There is no claim that the spirit of these movements can be recovered, but it does present a modest attempt to remember why they should be taken seriously. For us to do the same might help save British Methodism from empty sloganeering, by calling us back to the heart of what it means to be a mission-movement.