John Wesley on Schism and Catholic Spirit #UMC

John Wesley is cited by both those who are talking about the need to separate from the UMC and those who oppose separation.   Two of his sermons in particular get quoted in bits and pieces throughout the blogosphere:  Sermon 75 On Schism and Sermon 39 on Catholic Spirit.   


If you read the first 75% of Wesley’s sermon On Schism you will find a lot of ammunition against schism.  He does call it evil and he does talk about how schism and heresy are one and the same, both being factions within a church that seek to rip it apart.   It seems to me that his main argument is that schism has little to do with separating from a larger church body (ie. the Roman Catholic Church or the Church of England) but more to do with factions within the local body of believers.   Each local church should strive to live in peace with one another is what I hear Wesley saying.

But lets say we all agree that schism on any level (local or global) is evil.   Does Wesley give any indication of a time when it would become necessary?    Indeed, he does.   Towards the end of his sermon he states the following reasons, even commands, for schism, or separating from a Church (I’ve highlighted the most important bit for those who don’t want to read the whole quote):

But perhaps such persons will say, “We did not do this willingly; we were constrained to separate from that society, because we could not continue therein with a clear conscience; we could not continue without sin. I was not allowed to continue therein with breaking a commandment of God.” If this was the case, you could not be blamed for separating from that society. Suppose, for instance, you were a member of the Church of Rome, and you could not remain therein without committing idolatry; without worshipping of idols, whether images, or saints and angels; then it would be your bounded duty to leave that community, totally to separate from it. Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case, (but blessed be God it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England. I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation, by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with. But, setting aside this case, suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation. 


From the above, it seem that Wesley allows for, even commands, schism if the Church is making allowance for sin, or if you cannot abide by it’s teachings with clear conscience.

The second sermon is On Catholic Spirit.   An oft quoted line in that sermon is this one:

If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand”

It’s often used as a means to call for unity or a call to let us all agree to disagree.  But when one reads the entire sermon, it is clear that Wesley is talking about differences in modes of worship, calling people to get along whether they worship this way or that way.   Just prior to the above quote, he writes,

I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same.


Wesley had a particular way of understanding what it means to “love God,” as well.  It was not enough to simply say you love God. This love had a certain form and character about it.   A bit further on in that sermon he describes those people with whom his heart is joined.   One such description is this:

 Does the love of God constrain thee to serve him with fear, to “rejoice unto him with reverence” Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell. Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory Upon this ground, dost thou “hate all evil ways,” every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man”


I wonder how many Methodists today would describe their love of God in this way and are therefore of one heart and mind in the same way Wesley thinks of being of one heart.   Do we truly fear displeasing God more than any other thing, even death or hell itself?  Do we “hate every transgression of his holy and perfect law”?    Sadly, it seems that we cannot even agree that God needs to be feared or that his law is holy and perfect.



3 thoughts on “John Wesley on Schism and Catholic Spirit #UMC

  1. Chad, great post! Context does make a difference. While I am not eager for a split, I see it difficult to avoid. Another thing to take note of Wesley regarding “division” is that, if I remember my history correctly, Wesley held a tight reign on the teaching of the pastors in the societies. If they did not adhere to his theology and teaching they were not welcome to preach in the societies he started. This is the reason we have the trust clause so that the church at large has authority over who can fill a pulpit. In my limited opinion, Wesley welcomed hearty debate with other “denominations” but was strict on what was taught within the societies.

    • Thanks, Wade! The reminder about Wesley’s tight reign on who could preach in Methodist societies is instructive. I wonder if something like that is even remotely possible these days given our size? Perhaps if we had more D.S’s….I dunno.

  2. Pingback: Schism Has Already Taken Place #UMC | umc holiness

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