Building a Theological Bookshelf: Wesley/Methodism

Kevin M. Watson

I am often asked to recommend a book on some aspect of Wesleyan Studies. I love books and enjoy questions that press for clarity. A query about the best book on a particular subject is a great way to bring precision.

For this essay, I was given some helpful guidelines. I am going to share them here, so you can take these into account. I have been asked to identify (1) the five best books in Wesley/Methodism, that (2) have appeared in the past ten years, and (3) are the most important books for seminarians/pastors to purchase for their libraries and digest for the sake of their vocational and personal formation.

I promise to take the assignment seriously on its own terms. These kinds of guidelines are both useful and a bit arbitrary. They are useful because they provide helpful boundaries for making the selection. They are arbitrary because the criteria rule out some and include others without a clear explanation or rationale. For example, why five books and not three, or ten? Or, why in the past ten years and not the last five, or twenty-five? The date range will lead to some obvious omissions. Rather than indulging the temptation to begin to name them, I simply ask the reader to keep in mind that anything published prior to 2013 does not meet the criteria for inclusion. And because I know that any list like this will provoke debate, let me just say at the outset that the book you most think should have been included within this list was the one that just barely didn’t make it!

Now before I meet the stereotype of a predictably fussy and disagreeable academic who must problematize everything, let me say wholeheartedly: I love this kind of assignment! I think it is genuinely a fun and worthwhile exercise. My only challenge is that I want to recommend more than five books! And that is one of the reasons these boundaries are necessary and helpful. So, I am going to simply accept the assignment as given to me on its own terms. What five books on Wesleyan or Methodist Studies, written in the past ten years, are essential for seminary students and pastors to have in their own libraries and digest for their own personal and vocational formation?

John Wesley, Sermons on Several Occasions. 3 vols. Edited by William J. Abraham. Wesley’s Foundery Books, 2021.

Every seminary student and pastor in the Wesleyan theological tradition must immerse themselves in the writings of John Wesley. There are multiple editions of Wesley’s sermons available. And there has been a lively argument about which of John Wesley’s sermons are rightly given particular weight as part of the Wesleyan theological tradition’s doctrinal foundation.

I agree with William J. Abraham that the sermons are best understood as a handbook on spiritual direction, “a resource to become, be, and remain a mature Christian” (x). Abraham divides Wesley’s Sermons on Several Occasions into three paperback books that focus on how to become a Christian (vol. 1), how to be a Christian (vol. 2), and how to remain a Christian (vol. 3).

Abraham is an expert guide on reading Wesley’s sermons as a handbook of spiritual direction and spiritual formation. He also does the reader a service in offering an edition that centers the reader’s attention on the sermons themselves, so the focus is on deeply practical concerns like repentance, conversion, forgiveness, new birth, assurance, sanctification, and so on.

Abraham was himself the spiritual father to a generation of Wesleyan laity, clergy, and scholars. This edition of Wesley’s sermons was one of Abraham’s final publications before his untimely death in 2021. I am convinced that Abraham was right to place Wesley’s sermons at the center of efforts to renew Methodism in our time and place. Seminaries and pastors must drink deeply from these wells if Methodism is to be renewed.

All pastors and seminary students will benefit from regular reading of Wesley’s sermons for their own edification and formation. They provide a helpful guide for the Christian life and will improve your own preaching, helping it to have greater depth and nourishment to those God sends you to serve.

Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, The Band Meeting: Rediscovering Relational Discipleship in Transformational Community. Seedbed, 2017.

Given the focus of the call for this essay on formation, I believe it is essential to include a resource that focuses on the history and practice of small group formation in the Wesleyan tradition. Small groups like the class and band meetings were essential for decades in both British and US Methodism, across a large variety of denominations. The class meeting, in particular, was required for membership in British Methodism and for the first three-quarters of a century in the Methodist Episcopal Church. The band meeting was the group where people who had come to faith in Jesus pressed in with one another to grow in holiness.

In The Band Meeting, Kisker and I outline the history of the band meeting in early Methodism. The book also outlines the theological rationale for small groups, focused specifically on confession of sin for the pursuit of growth in holiness (see Jas 5:16). We argue that the Wesleyan understanding of communal formation is essential for authentic and vital Methodism or Wesleyanism.

While this book is written by two academics, it is distinctive in that it also aims to provide a roadmap to reclaiming this practice in contemporary Wesleyan/Methodist churches. The final three chapters are explicitly practical, focusing on “How to Start a Band Meeting” (ch. 6), “The Keys to a Thriving Band Meeting” (ch. 7), and “A Life-Changing Experience” (ch. 8). This book has three key goals. First, it introduces the reader to the concept of the band meeting in early Methodism. Second, the book seeks to demonstrate the value of bands and their importance for Christian living. Third, this book seeks to provide guidance on starting these groups in contemporary Christian communities.

I am convinced that small groups like the class and band meetings will be at the center of the renewal of Methodism. Therefore, I believe it is essential for seminarians and pastors not only to understand this history, but to begin putting it into practice in their own lives. It has certainly been essential to my own formation.

Rimi Xhemajli, The Supernatural and the Circuit Riders: The Rise of Early American Methodism. Pickwick, 2021.

One of my favorite pieces of Methodist history to teach relates to the early Methodist circuit riding preachers. These preachers gave their lives fully to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, traveling constantly as far and wide as they could in order to bring as many people as they could to saving faith in Jesus. Circuit-riding preachers showed an uncompromising commitment to the gospel that is in many ways a model and example from which contemporary Wesleyans would benefit.

And yet, as much attention as historians of Methodism have given to circuit-riding preachers in early American Methodism, one aspect of their ministry has been overlooked, underappreciated, or perhaps even suppressed due to the frequent anti-supernatural preconceptions historians bring to their study of Methodism. In The Supernatural and the Circuit Riders, Xhemajli works to correct this deficiency in Methodist Studies.

The Supernatural and the Circuit Riders is a detailed historical investigation of the role of the supernatural in the lives and ministries of early Methodist preachers. Xhemajli gives particular attention to the role of the supernatural in John Wesley’s own life and ministry. There are also chapters that focus on the role of the supernatural in the private lives of early Methodist circuit riders and on the role of the supernatural in their public ministries. Xhemajli describes and discusses instances of people being slain in the Spirit, delivered from demonic oppression, and receiving dreams or visions, as well as supernatural healings and even raising the dead.

The Supernatural and the Circuit Riders is an important corrective to previous scholarship that shows that early Methodism was soaked with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This book is important for pastors and seminarians to wrestle with in order to increase their understanding, expectation, and desperate dependence on the Holy Spirit for their own ministries.

James V. Heidinger II, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism. Seedbed, 2017.

So-called mainline Methodism was relatively late arriving on the scene of theological education in the US. When Methodism did arrive, it struggled to occupy and articulate a distinct space in the Wesleyan theological tradition. The first Methodist seminaries grew up alongside the growth and development of Liberal Protestantism. Methodist theological education in the US was heavily influenced by the rise of Liberal Protestantism. There were voices of dissent over the first decades of denominational seminaries, but these were not decisive or able to redirect their institutions. Thomas C. Oden’s career is one of many examples of an academic committed to basic Christian orthodoxy who ultimately failed to bring renewal to the institution at which he served.

One of the stories that has yet to be fully told is the role of theological education in the life of the Wesleyan theological tradition in the US. There have been a variety of approaches across the spectrum of the Wesleyan family most broadly construed. However, the approach of the United Methodist Church and its predecessors is particularly influential because of the resources of many United Methodist seminaries that are embedded in research universities, which prioritize faculty research and writing.

The impact of mainline Methodist theological education on the church has not been given much attention by Methodist academics. This is likely because most of the academics in institutions with the resources to support such scholarship are largely in agreement with the direction of mainline seminaries that have largely embraced Liberal Protestantism. This is what makes Heidinger’s The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism so valuable. Many will dismiss Heidinger’s work because of his connections to Good News and the Confessing Movement. This would be a mistake. Particularly in a time when United Methodism is dividing and the Global Methodist Church is being formed, the time is ripe for a careful look at the unexamined assumptions of theological education and its impact on the church.

As the title suggests, Heidinger’s book argues that theological liberalism has been a contributing source of the decline of United Methodism, in particular. This book makes an important argument that has the potential to spark a much-needed conversation on the relationship between church and academy.

Kevin M. Watson, Perfect Love: Recovering Entire Sanctification: The Lost Power of the Methodist Movement. Seedbed, 2021.

I wrote this book at a time when the United Methodist Church was beginning to fracture. I am deeply convicted that the doctrine of entire sanctification was at the heart of the Holy Spirit’s purpose in raising up Methodism. This book provides an introduction to the doctrine of entire sanctification, with a particular focus on the biblical warrant for this teaching. Attention is also given to the testimonies of Wesleyans and Methodists over the years who have testified not only to believing the doctrine is true, but that they have experienced it in their own lives.

I recommend this book to pastors and seminary students for two reasons. The first is historical. The doctrine of entire sanctification was at the heart of the early Wesleyan Methodist revival. The Wesleyan theological tradition is built on the conviction, as Charles Wesley so beautifully put it, that Jesus Christ “breaks the power of canceled sin, sets the prisoner free.” The Methodist movement was built on the audacious optimism that the work of Jesus Christ makes forgiveness and pardon from past sins possible (justification). Christians can not only experience freedom from sin’s grip on their lives, but they can also love God and neighbor with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength. Simply put, pastors and seminary students need to wrestle with this doctrine because you cannot understand Methodism without understanding the doctrine of entire sanctification.

The second reason I recommend this book for pastors and seminary students is more important. The doctrine of entire sanctification is based on the teachings of the Bible. It is a promise for what God intends to do in the lives of those who are in Jesus Christ. We must settle for nothing less than the whole counsel of God, particularly in denominations where those who are ordained are asked before their ordination these questions (with positive answers expected): “Are you going on to perfection? Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Are you earnestly striving after it?” (The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016 [United Methodist Publishing House, 2016] 270).

Methodism, or the Wesleyan tradition more broadly, is in desperate need of renewal. It will not be renewed unless and until the church receives afresh the doctrine the Holy Spirit raised us up to steward.

Posted May 03, 2023