The Legacy of Albert Cook Outler: Nostalgia, Challenge, Prospect (Part 1)

Leicester R. Longden

[Editor’s note: The following is the first in a three-part series, making available Longden’s Fondren Lecture at Perkins School of Theology’s Bridwell Library, 2015.]

The invitation to lecture on the legacy of Albert Outler is both an honor and weighty responsibility. I have felt his penetrating gaze upon me writing this lecture. I hope my reflections today will, even when critical, do him both honor and justice, and win a new hearing for him. He was unfailingly gracious to me when I came here in 1987 to interview him for my dissertation on the “theological vocation of Albert Cook Outler” (“To Recover a Christian Sense of History: The Theological Vocation of Albert Cook Outler” [PhD diss., Drew University, 1992]). Characteristically, he suggested to me various unfinished projects of historical theology in our time that he hadn’t gotten around to and that I might better pursue instead of what he called the “frankly preposterous notion” of writing about him. I will always be grateful to my dissertation mentor, Tom Oden, who wryly counseled me, “Let Albert finish his own projects; you concentrate on him.”

I offer this lecture with deep gratitude for Outler’s influence on my ministry and theological formation. Like many of my generation, and many since, I experienced Outler as the guide who opened pathways to the depths and vistas of historical theology, and he was the “elder” and forefather who “traditioned” to us a large portion of the riches of the Wesleyan heritage.

But the questions before us in this lecture are questions of legacy. Will Albert Outler’s legacy as scholar, churchman, and Methodist Elder, continue to shape and mold United Methodism’s theological and ecclesial maturing in the 21st century? Could it be that his legacy is now largely surpassed and remembered gratefully but nostalgically? What challenges have been made to his various projects? And, conversely, does he still challenge us? Exploring such questions can help to provide a provisional account of the prospects for Outler’s continued contribution to United Methodism.

Some may think that applying the “legacy” of one man to a whole denomination’s existence and future is a bit of a stretch. Yet, the current holder of the Outler Chair, William Abraham, has claimed that “contemporary United Methodism stands to Albert Outler as the first generation of Methodism stood to John Wesley. His footprints are all over United Methodism…. Outler is the absolutely crucial architect of United Methodism.”

As we unpack the elements of Outler’s legacy, I want to assert that his legacy is intimately related to the character and future of United Methodism. Indeed, his very strengths and weaknesses are reflected in our church itself. There is evidence for something like the following claim, which I offer somewhat brashly, for the sake of exploration and argument: To the extent that United Methodism is renewed in spiritual power by the Holy Spirit through engagement with our deep roots in our Anglican and classical Christian heritage, to that extent the strengths of Outler’s legacy will be affirmed and enhanced. At the same time, to the extent that United Methodism continues on its current path of indecision, double-mindedness, and accommodation to the shifting winds of culture, to that extent the weaknesses of Outler’s legacy will undo his positive work, relegating him to the list of merely “past” theologians.

To put it more succinctly, the basic thesis I offer to you, both for testing and correction, is this: The divided mind of United Methodism can be traced to Albert Outler himself.

In this brief lecture, I can hardly assess all the evidence for such a claim, but I can suggest an angle of vision or lens for looking at the newly available archival records. Perhaps I can inspire some research projects that will launch something that has only been hinted at so far, namely, “Outler studies.” Even better, I hope this lecture will be a first step and call for a fully critical biography of Albert Outler and his significance for United Methodism.

One caveat: Lectures like this one are often focused entirely on questions of academic legacy. Such questions include: What new academic projects can be sponsored by this figure? What new dissertations may be written to launch academic careers? What innovations in theological method might this figure from the past still engender?

But I am conscious that this lecture is being delivered at “Minister’s Week,” to practicing pastors and teachers of congregations. If Outler has a legacy yet to be received, what is it for the practitioners of the Methodist Way? Is it a legacy that can give us direction as a church, pointing us forward in ways that are in continuity with the deep roots of our past, and yet open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in the midst of many conflicting spirits?

These are appropriate questions to ask because Outler was a scholar frequently criticized by his academic colleagues — he even criticized himself — for putting off the books he could write by making himself constantly available for preaching and ministers’ conferences. He was deeply conscious of a legacy, a patrimony, a heritage that was a gift to be shared not only with Academia but Ecclesia.

Let me turn now to defining Outler’s legacy more specifically. I will follow this with a brief account of various challenges that have been made to his work, as well as the continued challenges he offers us, in which we may find prospects for an appreciative yet critical appropriation and re-reception of Outler’s legacy for United Methodism.


A legacy, of a person or a movement, can be defined and assessed in a number of ways. It may simply be a nostalgic heirloom, a hand-me-down of a family member; in that case a possibly irrelevant if not flawed legacy. It may on the other hand be something received, as from an ancestor or predecessor, as a real gift, present, or donation that empowers the recipients of another generation. An even older definition, from Webster’s Third International Dictionary: a legacy may be seen as “the business or commission that a legate is sent to perform.”

Although Webster’s cites that last definition as obsolete, it does seem to fit Outler’s strong sense of being “called to a specific task.” As he put it in his famous essay, “How My Mind Has Changed,” “I have taken as my ‘theological calling’ the effort to exhibit the continuity of historic Christianity in the contemporary world.” Elsewhere in that essay he declares that “the one constant and evolving concern” of his theological vocation was “to recover a Christian sense of history” (in How My Mind Has Changed, ed. Harold E. Fey [Meridian, 1961], 44, 41).

We should remember that it was in the decades after this vocational declaration that he took up the task of unbinding John Wesley from Methodism’s parochial conceptions of him and demonstrating his place in the larger Christian tradition.

Vocation, here, has the sense of gifts given and received and shared. And United Methodism has long celebrated the gifts it has received from Albert Outler: the groundbreaking anthology of Wesley still used in seminary classes, the painstaking editing of Wesley’s Sermons, the essays setting an agenda for Wesley Studies, the introduction of the Quadrilateral as a proposal for theological method. And then there is his long career in ecumenism with his deep engagement with Vatican II, as well as his significant contribution in the Faith and Order studies on “Tradition” and traditions, his studies in Patristics and Augustine and Origen, and his long conversation with psychotherapy and pastoral care.

We could prolong this list of disciplines and fields of learning and ministry in which he was engaged, but given our long past and deeply ingrained habits of Methodist triumphalism, we must always be on guard against the sweet temptations of nostalgia in our historical reckonings.

If we are to speak of Outler’s legacy, we must exhibit a resolute diligence to see him whole, in his context, and to refuse to make him an object of nostalgic remembrance or triumphalist pride. Honor him, we must; but he himself would be distressed if we turned him into an occasion for Methodist nostalgia. His legacy needs to be explored with one of his own urgent warnings in mind. As he wrote in a 1981 essay on “Methodism in the World Christian Community”:

[There is] a crucial difference between a sense of heritage (i.e., claiming the past for the future) and a sense of nostalgia (i.e., the mortgaging of the future to the past). With your heritage, I am deeply concerned; with your nostalgia…. I would wish to be sympathetic but not consoling…. What makes all the difference is whether one’s heritage is chiefly a source of pride or a resource for use, whether it is being hoarded or shared. (The Wesleyan Theological Heritage: Essays of Albert C. Outler, ed. Thomas C. Oden and Leicester R. Longden [Zondervan, 1991], 242)

His warning is apt, since he is already a source of nostalgia for many. Jason Vickers argues in his tribute for the Outler Centennial that a number of Outler’s proposals for Wesleyan theology have already begun to be treated as “platitudes [or criteria] about what it means to be Wesleyan” (“Albert Outler and the Future of Wesleyan Theology: Retrospect and Prospect,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 43, no. 2 [2008]: 57, 58). William Abraham calls attention to this with his complaint that the “church lives off the memory of the Outler of popular faith and not the real Outler of history” (Dialogues amongst the People Called United Methodists [Highland Loch Press, 2014], 33).

But nostalgia is not the only danger to a clear view of Outler’s legacy. Selective memory plays a distorting role, too.

I came across an example of this recently while browsing through the Sourcebook, vol. 2 of The Methodist Experience in America, edited by Russ Richey, Ken Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt, worthy Methodist historians, to be sure ([Abingdon, 2000], 614-17). The document chosen to represent the Uniting Conference of 1968 is Outler’s justly famous sermon on that occasion, “Visions and Dreams: The Unfinished Business of an Unfinished Church” (a manuscript draft of the sermon, in Outler’s handwriting, can be found in “The Albert Cook Outler Papers,” in the Archives of the Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology). The editors do note that the sermon has been excerpted, and dutifully provide an ellipsis to indicate something has been omitted. What they do not tell the reader is that the core three sections (4½ pages), laying out a vision (i.e., the “unfinished business”) and “goal points” of how this new church might become truly catholic, evangelical, and reformed — this is left on the cutting room floor!

We do not have time to debate editorial decisions here, but this example of selective memory is a warning that Outler’s legacy cannot be read from excerpts or merely partial accounts of the full impact of his vocation.

Keeping in mind these possibilities of legacy – that is, as vocational gifts offered and received, as well as nostalgia and selective memory – let’s turn now toward some of the challenges that have been made to Outler’s theological endeavors and proposals. Surely, it is in the testing of a theologian’s work over time, assessing its unintended consequences, weighing those proposals in the light of the church’s continued pilgrimage, seeing the work “whole” in the contemporary context, as well as seeing it more clearly in its own historical setting – these are the means by which the scope and character of Outler’s legacy for United Methodism will take shape in our time.

[Part 2]

Posted Mar 16, 2015