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BOOK REVIEW: Book offers inviting intro to founders of Methodism Sam Hodges, Jan 25, 2012
By Sam Hodges Managing Editor
John & Charles Wesley: Selections from their Writings and Hymns Paul Wesley Chilcote, editor & annotator Skylight Illuminations, 2011 263 pages, paperback
I was an easily distracted college student with little aptitude for abstract thinking. But I liked to hang out with philosophy majors, and under their questionable influence I signed up for a course in the works of Søren Kierkegaard.
I read the reading list, and that was about it. Every time I picked up one of the texts the print seemed smaller, which was never the case with Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated.
Somehow I passed the course, but with my world view undisturbed. I did, however, pick up from the lectures and class discussion that “guilt” was a big deal for Kierkegaard. And I felt guilty for not having given his books a fighting chance.
Many years later I would come upon an anthology of Kierkegaard’s works called Provocations. I say “anthology,” but really it’s a collection of extended quotations, organized under themes.
I began warily, then eagerly, to read it. This philosophy-by-dollop approach—no section more than a page or two—worked well for me. I romped through it, underlining, even making the occasional excited margin note.
All this is by way of saying that some of us need help in making an assault on the heavy thinkers. We can do it, but we need a foot stool. Such is now available for John and Charles Wesley, the brothers who founded Methodism. The book is called John & Charles Wesley: Selections from their Writings and Hymns, and the editor and annotator is Paul Wesley Chilcote.
Dr. Chilcote is professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies and director of the Center for Applied Wesleyan Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. His previous books include Recapturing the Wesleys’ Visions: An Introduction to the Faith of John and Charles Wesley.
For the introduction of the new book, Dr. Chilcote offers a biographical sketch of the Wesleys, as well as a synopsis of their astonishingly busy lives as writers.
Charles Wesley composed some 9,000 hymns and sacred poems. He also wrote sermons, and kept a journal. The definitive edition of John Wesley’s writings is, Dr. Chilcote reports, a 31-volume project still in production, encompassing sermons, commentaries, hymns, journals, letters and more.
Who would not be intimidated at the prospect of getting lost in such a wood? But Dr. Chilcote has been of great help, finding short, salient passages of John Wesley’s prose, choosing equally telling passages of Charles Wesley’s verse, and arranging them under such themes as “The Triune God of Grace and Love,” “The Way of Salvation,” “A Community of Grace” and “A Compassionate Mission.”
In this book, right-hand pages are reserved for the Wesleys’ words. On the left are Dr. Chilcote’s annotations. They are concise, but far-ranging, offering theological insight, a close reading of images and metaphors, and the occasional historical and biographical detail, in the interest of context.
For example, he quotes a Charles Wesley hymn text that begins: “Life and death are in thine hand / In thine hand our child we see / Waiting thy benign command / Less beloved by us than thee.”
On the opposite page, Dr. Chilcote explains: “Smallpox devastated families and communities in the eighteenth century. In this hymn, ‘For a Child in the Small-Pox,’ Charles pours out his heart to God in prayer on behalf of his son. . . . Like most families of that time, he and Sally grieved the loss of children to death, and this experience in life deepened Charles’ capacity for compassion. The child of whom he sings here, a musical prodigy by all accounts, did not survive this ordeal.”
Charles Wesley is not the other brother in this volume. If anything, he seems to be quoted more often than John. Dr. Chilcote is passionately committed to pointing out both the theology and poetic devices embedded in Charles’ verse.
But John Wesley is hardly neglected, and the comprehensiveness of his influence on Methodism gets a good underscoring here. That he had a gospel-directed heart for the poor comes through in a letter he wrote to a wealthy young woman who found charitable ministry difficult.
Wesley wrote her: “The lengthening of your life and the restoring of your health are invaluable blessings. But do you ask how you shall improve them to the glory of the Giver? And are you willing to know? Then I will tell you how: Go and see the poor and sick in their own poor little hovels. Take up your cross woman. Remember the faith! Jesus went before you and will go with you. Put off the gentlewoman. You bear a higher character.”
Dr. Chilcote is a good guide in this book. He writes well. He also cross-references the Wesleys with other Christian thinkers—Paul, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—but never in a show-offy way: only to shed more light on his subjects’ faith.
Some might say that John & Charles Wesley constitutes a heavy sprinkling as opposed to a full-immersion in the brothers’ thought and expression. But I’m confident that any individual or small group who undertakes studying this book will emerge more deeply Wesleyan. And some will go on to wander themselves, happily, in the Wesleys’ vast wood.