Consider Wesley

Realism and Hope in American Democracy

Henry H. Knight III

The Christian tradition has not been a hotbed of democratic ferment. For most of its existence, Christianity has found itself the subject of pagan or other non-Christian rulers or has served to legitimate Christian monarchies. Dissent from this often took a sectarian direction in forming counter-cultural communities apart from the larger society—and most of them were not democratic in governance.

If we think of the three major claims of the Declaration of Independence—that all persons are created equal, all have divinely given inalienable rights, and all have the power to alter or abolish an unjust government—it is clear the medieval Christian mainstream would have opposed them all. While the Protestant reformers began raising questions about some medieval assumptions and Calvin preferred an elected magistrate, representative democracy remained suspect in most Christian circles even in the eighteenth century.

How then did Christianity come to embrace democracy so enthusiastically in America? In particular, how did Americans in the Wesleyan tradition argue in favor of representative democracy?

In America’s God (Oxford University Press, 2002), Mark Noll provides a contextual history of American theology from Jonathan Edwards to the Civil War. It is a complex story that has at its heart a uniquely American synthesis of Protestant evangelicalism, republican political theory, and commonsense moral philosophy. The result was ambiguous. While “American Protestants almost converted the nation, so too did the nation mold the Christian gospel in the contours of its own shape” (443).

The attraction of commonsense philosophy was its democratic nature. It replaced the conversionist ethic of Edwards, which found true virtue in the redeemed, with the ethic of Francis Hutcheson, which claimed the presence of an innate moral sense in every person. It answered the critics who claimed that America, by overthrowing traditional authorities, opened the door to moral anarchy. Not so, said the Americans, for “[h]umans—if they exercised their inherent (albeit God-given) faculties in a disciplined way—could know ethical maxims simply by nature and could by nature will the good that harmonious human existence required” (110).

This was an optimistic anthropology tailor-made to undergird a fledging republic as well as unleash democratic and egalitarian impulses. Everyday people could claim the same virtue as the social elites. Itinerate preachers, called by God from their trades or farms, could claim equality with those privileged enough to attend Yale or Harvard. Those of liberal tendency could dispense with conversion entirely. Evangelicals could redefine conversion as freely yielding to divine persuasion. In neither case is a fundamental transformation of the heart necessary.

In Noll’s analysis, this new American theology was well-suited to its post-revolutionary context. Without something like a synthesis with republicanism and commonsense philosophy, Christianity would have been marginalized. In Europe, both Protestant and Catholic theology was opposed to republicanism, standing for maintaining traditional order against rising democratic impulses. But in America, Christianity and republicanism were allied. Instead of an inherently sinful populace needing authority to maintain order, American theologians argued that people were not bound by sin, but possessed the capacity to choose otherwise, and hence had the capacity as well for self-government. Instead of becoming a countercultural enclave out of step with the democratic impulses of the new republic, American Protestants proceeded to almost evangelize the nation.

Yet there was a huge cost to be paid by this alliance with commonsense philosophy. An optimistic anthropology led to a hermeneutic that no longer needed the guidance of tradition to interpret Scripture. Theoretically, reason, governed by commonsense, should lead to common understanding. Instead, it led to theologians, pastors, and laity all confidently asserting the clear and unambiguous teaching of Scripture—and having diametrically opposed accounts of what that teaching was. The most tragic instance of this was disagreement over slavery.

Noll states this bluntly: “Commonsense moral reasoning perceived directly and intuitively the propriety of the slave system and perceived with equal force its impropriety…. Reformed, literal approaches to the Bible could sanction slavery and also condemn it” (386). In fact, says Noll, the pro-slavery argument was the most persuasive as “more and more of the God-fearing in the most influential churches had come to believe what almost no Protestants elsewhere in the world still believed—that, at least in some senses and with respect to some purposes, the Bible did in fact sanction slavery” (387).

Reformed theologians in Canada and Europe, every bit as conservative and literal as their American counterparts, did not believe the Bible sanctioned slavery. Yet American opponents of slavery found themselves on the defensive. Noll believes that a major reason for this was the pervasiveness of racism in America. There was a nearly universal commonsense belief that African Americans were inferior. This racist assumption was so taken for granted by whites that most, on both sides of the issue, failed to see how this compromised exegesis.

This is only a portion of Noll’s complex argument, but it is enough to make the point. An American Protestantism with an optimism of human nature was able to embrace republican government yet was unable to clearly reject slavery. European Protestants with a pessimism of human nature could decisively reject slavery but could not embrace republicanism. The Americans would have been better served by a more realistic view of how sin influences perspectives and permeates culture, as well as a more accurate assessment of human limitations.

John Wesley was no friend of republican government or of slavery. Wesley’s views were more in the direction of a constitutional monarchy. But Wesley’s theology was strongly egalitarian, arguing that everyone was created in God’s image, everyone can receive salvation, and Christ died for all. God’s prevenient grace reaches out to every person. Wesley had an optimism of grace.

Early American Methodists inherited from Wesley an egalitarian alternative to commonsense philosophy in universal prevenient grace. What prevenient grace provides is both realism about sin and the hope for transformation. It fit well with the kind of representative government that emerged in America. Its egalitarianism denied invidious class distinctions, not by elevating everyone to a level of goodness, but by recognizing that no class has special, innate virtue.

It is no accident that the one group in Noll’s account that did not adopt a commonsense philosophy immediately after the Revolution was the Methodists.

The early Methodists retained a traditional Protestant notion of sin—a pessimism of nature—and defined “liberty” not in political terms but as freedom from sin. Noll considers them “an important counterpart” to his overall thesis, showing “that it was entirely possible for a traditional Christian message that had not been adjusted to the norms of American ideology to flourish in the new American nation” (340). This was, he notes, not because Methodism was “an otherworldly movement oblivious to concrete local realities; it is rather that the Methodist message was more shaping, than being shaped, by those realities” (341).

So, while early Methodism was in tune with the egalitarian tendencies of American culture, it got there with a very different theology. Noll believes that the key was the Wesleyan proclamation of the “universality of God’s love,” a love that offered “dignity to women and African Americans, whom the tides of republican freedom were passing by.” Noll concludes that the “Methodist concentration on an experiential message of hope is the indispensable context for understanding Methodist theology during the age of Asbury” (341).

Of course, by the 1830s the Methodists were well on their way to becoming the preeminent example of a tradition accommodated to American culture. The early Methodists delayed this fate, in part because they held on to both a pessimism of nature and an optimism of grace. Moreover, their egalitarianism was not based on innate human faculties but on God—God’s universal love for all persons, whatever their gender, race, or class, and hope in a salvation that God offers to all.

[Portions of this article are taken from my article “Realism, Hope, and Holiness in the Wesleyan Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 40, no. 1 (2005): 26–35.]

Posted Apr 26, 2023