Juvenile Instructor


From the Archives: John Wesley, the Latter-day Saint by Christopher
November 7, 2007, 7:28 pm
Filed under: 19th-century Mormonism, Archives, Christopher

Modern Mormons, it seems, are quite fond of “romanticizing the Reformation,” meaning that Mormons often portray Luther, Arminius, and other Protestant Reformers as being sort of proto-Latter-day Saints.  In my experience, this tendency is not limited to seeing Reformers as such, but often extends to Christopher Columbus and America’s Founding Fathers.  However, this is far from being a recent development in Mormonism’s worldview.  Parley P. Pratt, noted apostle and editor of The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, included the following in the June 1841 (Vol. 2, No. 2) issue of that periodical.

JOHN WESLEY A LATTER-DAY SAINT,

IN REGARD TO THE SPIRITUAL GIFTS AND THE APOSTACY OF THE CHURCH!!

Extract from the 94th Sermon of John Wesley, on “The More Excellent Way.”–”It does not appear that the extraordinary gifts of the spirit were common in the church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian, and from a vain imagination of promoting the Christian religion, heaped riches, power, and honour upon the Christians in general From this time they almost wholly ceased. Very few instances of this kind were found. The cause of this was not, as has vulgarly been supposed, because there was no more occasion for them, because all the world had become Christians. This is a miserable mistake! Not a twentieth part was then nominally Christians. The real cause was because the love of many waxed cold–the Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens! The Son of Man when he came to examine his church could hardly find faith on the earth.–This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church, because the Christians were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form left.”[1]

A couple of things, I think, are noteworthy.  While this may indeed be just another example of Mormons’ romanticizing the Reformation, I find it interesting that in early Mormonism, there seems to have been a special affinity for Wesley in preference to other Reformers.  This particular sermon included by Pratt suggests that one reason is that Wesley emphasized an apostasy and the need for spiritual gifts–two of the features many early Mormons used in establishing their identity as God’s true church.  It is also perhaps telling that this was published in the 1840s, suggesting that despite some evidence to the contrary, Methodist practices and beliefs continued to influence Mormon thought until near the end of Joseph’s life.  

_____________________

[1] The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star (Liverpool: June 1841), Vol. 2, no. 2, 23.

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13 Comments so far
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Thanks for posting this. Claims like this are part of a much larger negotiation with the Christian past that I’m working on for MHA and a journal article this year. I suspect that in this case what mattered was that Wesley was caught arguing for the charismata rather than that Wesley was Wesley (though I agree, the affinity for Methodism is quite strong in early Mormonism).

Comment by smb

Great excerpt, Chris. I think that this impulse is similar to that of the early Christians “Christianizing” the Old Testament. In this case Latter-day Saints were “Mormonizing” the Reformation figures.

Comment by David Grua

Wilford Woodruff has an entry in his journal during this time period which has the same sort of feel. On 2 July 1840 he records a vision Ann Booth had a couple months earlier. In it, she saw the killed David W. Patten in the Spirit World, and he proceeded to baptize John Wesley, who then went forward and baptized many more.

Comment by ben

Interesting, I hadn’t seen this kind of reference to Wesley before. With this type of appropriation of the past, there are two issues to keep in mind:
1. Is the citation accurate? Can it be traced to original sources? (There’s a well-worn quote of Roger Williams that Mormons use frequently, although the sourcing is to a 19th-century picture book.)

2. Sometimes those people really did see themselves fulfilling prophecy or preceding some kind of restoration. They may not have been anticipating Joseph Smith, but some of them really were looking for something.

Comment by Jonathan Green

I examined several editions of Wesley’s sermons published before 1841 and found minor inconsistencies with Pratt’s quotation.

“It does not appear that the extraordinary gifts of the spirit…” reads “It does not appear that the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost…” in several editions of Wesley’s sermons.

“…faith on the earth” reads “faith upon earth” in several editions.

“…vain imagination of promoting the Christian religion” reads “…vain imagination of promoting the Christian cause thereby” in several editions.

Pratt’s quotation omits the end of the following sentence: “…honour upon the Christians in general; but in particular, upon the Christian clergy.” (The quotation in the Millennial Star does end with a large space, possibly intended to mark the omission.)

Punctuation also differs in places. “…as has vulgarly been supposed” was placed inside parentheses in several editions. “…because there was no more occasion for them” was placed in quotation marks in several editions. “…love of many” and “waxed cold” received quotation marks or italics in some editions.

Comment by Justin

As always, thanks for doing the legwork on this, Justin.

Comment by David Grua

smb, I’ll look forward to your MHA paper. I think a primary reason early Mormons felt such a connection with Wesley is because of his emphasis on the charismata. My proposed MHA paper will examine this in fuller detail.

David, interesting parallel. Is there any literature on that that you know of?

ben, thanks for the reference. I was unaware of it. Fascinating stuff.

Comment by Christopher

Jonathan, thanks for stopping by. Great questions and comments. I have no doubt John Wesley and others were sincere in their efforts to find and practice true religion.

Justin, thanks for checking that out. You just cut down the time of my research for today significantly. Thanks.

As a interesting follow-up, I found that the RLDS republished the sermon in The True Latter Day Saints’ Herald in March 1863 (Vol. 4, No. 8), 177.

Comment by Christopher

This is a interesting excerpt and good discussion. Justin’s comment is quite important. I think that what Wesley was talking about isn’t what Mormon’s perceived him to be talking about. One example is healing, where Mormon’s viewed their rituals as valid and evidential charismata but methodists (and we have every reason to suspect that Wesley would have been in accord) viewed them as being very much outside of their tradition.

Comment by J. Stapley

In that regard, I would note Wesley’s introductory remarks which immediately precede the excerpt quoted by Pratt:

“In the preceding verses [preceding 1 Cor. 12:31], St. Paul has been speaking of the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost; such as healing the sick, prophesying (in the proper sense of the word; that is, foretelling things to come), speaking with strange tongues, such as the speaker had never learned, and the miraculous interpretation of tongues. And these gifts the Apostle allows to be desirable; yea, he exhorts the Corinthians, at least the teachers among them (to whom chiefly, if not solely, they were wont to be given in the first ages of the Church,) to covet them earnestly, that thereby they might be qualified to be more useful either to Christians or heathens. ‘And yet,’ says he, ‘I show unto you a more excellent way;’ far more desirable than all these put together, inasmuch as it will infallibly lead you to happiness both in this world and in the world to come; whereas you might have all those gifts, yea, in the highest degree, and yet be miserable both in time and eternity.”

Comment by Justin

I also came across a paper written by a Wesleyan that grapples with Wesley’s comments about the loss of the extraordinary gifts (see part 2 under “John Wesley’s Theology” after footnote 18).

Comment by Justin

Again, thanks for the research, Justin. It is also important to note that American Methodism, beginning in the second decade of the 19th century and continuing until the mid 1830s, underwent what a refinement that moved them into the middle class as part of the Protestant establishment.

While the Methodist Episcopal Church gradually moved away from their Wesleyan legacy of charismata, other Methodist groups, including Primitive Methodists (which John Taylor came from) and Reformed Methodists (Brigham Young’s family’s church), formed, placing an emphasis on what they considered pure Wesleyanism and true religion–specifically charismatic religious experience.

Comment by Christopher

I should also note that British Methodism underwent a similar transition, with similar splinter groups starting up there for the same reasons. The United Brethren (of Benbow Farm fame) that Wilford Woodruff found such success among, was a group that had its roots in primitive Methodism.

Comment by Christopher




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