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General Conference

Submit to be more vile

Learning from our past will help us move into a faithful future as The United Methodist Church

by Dr. Ashley Boggan

Editor’s note: After General Conference in the spring of 2024, Dr. Ashley Boggan, general secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History, spoke at multiple United Methodist annual conferences with a message of history and hope. This post is an adaptation of her lecture, shared with permission. Enjoy!

I have a confession to make before you read this article: I am a full-blown Metho-nerd, and as a Metho-nerd, one of my hobbies is wrestling with Scripture. Isaiah 42:18-19 reads, “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it?” I know I have a few things I’d like to forget, and surely you do as well. As United Methodists, perhaps we’d love to forget some of our history.

Yes, sometimes forgetting would be nice. But I’m a historian by trade, so I spend a lot of time “considering things of old.” However, there’s a difference between being historically informed and being nostalgic. We can take Isaiah’s good advice to move forward while also holding ourselves accountable to our past. This means both reclaiming our Wesleyan identity and making sure we don’t repeat past harms. History is not meant to lure us backward but to propel us forward.

Becoming Methodist

The first Methodists were a people who bent the rules, who were ridiculed, who did the unthinkable, all in order to spread the love of God to as many people as possible. In fact, the moniker “Methodist” was given to us as an insult.

After graduating from Oxford in 1724, John Wesley, founder of Methodism, was unsure of what to do with his life. He knew he did not want to be a parish priest like his father, but he also had a deep calling from God to make a difference in the lives and faiths of those around him. But how? He continued to hang around campus with his younger brother Charles, who was still enrolled. Charles had just begun a Bible group on campus, a group picked on for their peculiar method of doing religion. They rose early, studied Scripture intently, prayed incessantly, fasted, talked openly about their spirituality, visited the sick, and held one another accountable. They centered their lives on faith as love in action. And this was weird. Most people at that time in England practiced their faith by going to church (if they had the proper dress, a church nearby, and the luxury to take the day off from their labor). There was no action required of them except filling a seat in the pew on Sunday and paying their taxes.

The weird Method-ists broke political norms by leaving the walls of the city and going to the poor and the outcast. They not only breached physical walls but transgressed the boundaries of who was deemed worthy of God’s love. They began to minister with the folks outside the walls, ask them what their spirits needed. They took food, drink, medicine, and reading materials to those imprisoned. They prayed and held worship services. They held authorities accountable for inhumane treatment.

Wesley and his friends were called many things for this peculiar way of faith: Bible Moths, Sacramentarians, Holy Club. The term “Methodist” was coined in December 1732 in Fog’s Weekly Journal, according to historian Peter Forsaith. After listing the various rules of this group, the article states, “These Methodists have occasioned no small stir in Oxford.” What earned them this quote and new nickname?

Wesley and his friend John Clayton had taken an interest in Thomas Blair, a man on death row for having a sexual relationship with another man. Wesley and Clayton believed that Blair was being victimized by fellow inmates, and they sought to ensure his protection and his humanity. The day of Blair’s trial, Wesley rose at 4 a.m. and rode 12 miles on horse to be present. Blair was found guilty, but his life was spared. He was fined 20 marks (more than $6,000 by today’s standards). Wesley raised the money for his release.

I’m not saying that Wesley was defending the actions of Blair, but he also was not condemning him for them. To ensure that Blair felt worthy of God’s love, Wesley was willing to risk all. Forsaith describes this as the act of public witness that “tipped the balance between the Methodists being tolerated and being castigated.” 

This “no small stir” birthed the term “Methodist.” This is how the Methodist church got its name. This is what it means to be Methodist.

Wesleyan “viletality”

I’ve started referring to the core of our identity as “Wesleyan viletality,” referring to Wesley’s journal entry from April 2, 1739, in which he described his decision to preach outside of a church as: “I submitted to be more vile.”

Now, you might be hoping that “vile” meant something different in the 18th century. It didn’t. In Wesley’s day, just like in ours, vile meant something that was morally reprehensible, extremely unpleasant, or foul. So why am I suggesting we become more vile?

Wesleyan viletality is a willingness to look beyond today’s acceptable practices and norms and bend the rules in order to ensure that more people can experience the love of God.

For centuries the English national landscape was divided into parishes, with people paying taxes to their local church. As the 18th century progressed, millions of people left their family lands in search of industrial jobs. The parish system quickly collapsed, and migrants suffered for the lack of support systems. Many people at this time were disillusioned with the institutional church because it did not meet their needs (and it refused to change in order to do so).

It is during this time in the seaport town of Bristol that Wesley found his viletality. Bristol was the second largest city in England, an industrial center, and an important port of the Atlantic slave trade. And it was massively overcrowded.

Wesley was called to Bristol in 1739 by his longtime frenemy, George Whitefield. Wesley arrived on March 31 and was astounded to find Whitefield preaching to thousands in the fields. He wrote in his journal, “I scarcely could reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields.”

Up until this point, John had followed the preaching standards of his day: “I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”

By April 2, only two days after his arrival, he does something he never thought he would: “At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”

Methodist historian Ted Campbell reminds us that it wasn’t simply the act of preaching outdoors that broke the rules. In order to preach within a parish, you needed permission from the bishop. Wesley preached in a field, and without permission. When castigated by the parish’s bishop, Wesley responds, “Sir, I look upon the world as my parish.” Wesley knowingly and directly violated church law and human-made boundaries in order to take God’s love to those who needed it most.

The thousands of people who gathered to hear Wesley that day were mostly coal miners. Various journals describe the streaks of tears through their ash-covered faces as they heard—many of them for the first time—of their worth.  Wesley was being transgressive yet prophetic. He isn’t being vile for the sake of being vile but to risk being improper because he was called by God.

God often calls us to do the things that make us uncomfortable. Sometimes, in order to spread the love of God we have to be pushed outside of our boxes. Wesley was willing to make himself uncomfortable, to leave behind the standards that he had long conformed to because there were people who needed to know of God’s love. What are you willing to do to spread the love of God?

When it comes to prophetic offense, I’m often drawn to the words of Mary Fletcher Bosanquet. She preached often and to large crowds and is considered one of the early Methodist deaconesses. In the 1700s, she and Mary Ryan established Cross Hall, a Christian community that housed and educated children and destitute adults. Of her own preaching, she stated, as quoted in Donna Fowler-Marchant’s Mothers in Israel: “I am conscious how ridiculous I must appear in the eyes of many for so doing. Therefore, if some persons consider me an impudent woman, and represent me as such, I cannot blame them … and as to reproach thrown by some on me, what have I to do with it, but quietly go forward saying, ‘I will still be more vile, if my Lord requires it.’”

Happy in God

After Bristol, Wesley worked to unify a missional movement in the midst of chaos as to who was Methodist and who wasn’t. (Sound familiar?) He developed a new ecclesiology for the people called Methodist. They were going to do church differently.

In his 1742 treatise “Characteristics of a Methodist,” Wesley defines a Methodist as “one, who has the love of God shed abroad in [their] heart, by the Holy Ghost given unto [them]: one who loves the Lord [their] God with all [their] heart, and with all [their] Mind and with all [their] strength. God is the Joy of [their] heart, and the desire of [their] soul.” He says that Methodists are distinguished from other sects because they are “happy in God,” for their understanding of “perfect love [has] now cast our Fear [and so they] rejoice evermore.” He describes Methodists as persons full of hope, persons who unconditionally love all of humankind and seek to act on that love of all, as persons who are pure in heart because they seek to do the will of God alone and “to abound more in Love and in Good works.”

In “Advice to the People Called Methodists” in 1745, Wesley reminded his followers that they were new in name, in principle, and in practice. We have the same opportunity today: A moment to be hope-filled, to be proactive, to be prophetic, to be vile. Are we brave enough to do it?

“Do not pretend you can avoid giving offense,” Wesley said.

We cease to be Methodist when we forget that our name was first an insult. Not everyone is going to like who we are or what we’re doing. The love of God compels us to be weird, to do things that others wouldn’t, to love people who others say aren’t worthy of it.

People who joined the Methodists were seen as an absurd, ridiculous group. They didn’t gamble or drink. They walked around talking about universal salvation. They visited the sick and the imprisoned. They let women and laypersons preach. They critiqued slavery at the height of the Atlantic slave trade. All of this was quite offensive to most people in England. But what an example they were!

How can The United Methodist Church reclaim this type of prophetic offense? How can we dare to love God and spread God’s love in such ways that gets under others’ skin? What if we were to praise people who dared to do ministry differently? What stances should we take publicly that will cause no small stir?

Wesley in his treatise also reminds Methodists that God is always with us. The struggle, strife, and ridicule is worth it because we will be living a life of inward and outward holiness.

We should take a moment to grieve United Methodism as we’ve known it, but we also need to let ourselves dream, hope, prophesize, and change the conversation. “Instead of the wickedness of [people] you might be talking of the goodness of God,” Wesley says. Let’s proclaim the goodness of God louder than ever.

We strayed from God’s path when we compromised our stances on slavery, when we split into a northern and southern church, when we created the segregated Central Jurisdiction. We strayed when we denied women seats at General Conference, preaching licenses, and full ordination. We strayed at the 1972 General Conference, when a paragraph meant to affirm all persons instead became a means to declare LGBTQ+ siblings “incompatible.” These sins have plagued our ability to embody our Wesleyan heritage to its fullest extent

However, it is a new day. For the first time in our history we are not legally excluding anyone from any rank or status or access to the ministries of the church. Let’s use this opportunity to revive the Spirit of God working in and through us and renew those inside and outside of our churches. We have an opportunity to be happy in God! We must first be willing to preach in new fields and create new communities in a disconnected world. We must embrace Wesley and dare to risk, to fail, to be ridiculed, to be the talk of the town. If we want to be vital again, we need to be more vile. It’s up to all of us to join together, hand in hand, hands in new hands, in the hope of what lay ahead.

Dr. Ashley Boggan in the general secretary of the United Methodist General Commission on the Archives and History.

Cover photo: Founders of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, which today is United Women in Faith: Clementina Rowe Butler, Lois Stiles Lee Parker, Eliza Mortimer Tucker Flanders, Frances Ellen Henshaw Kingsbury, Maria L. Taylor Rich, Mary Dyer Merrill, Rebecca A. M. Spear Taylor, Mary A. Phillips Stoddard.

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