The Influence of Arminianism in England

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The following is part of Geoffrey F. Nuttall’s address presented at the Arminius Symposium in Holland, August 1960: “The Influence of Arminianism in England.”

I am inclined to begin by recounting two recent incidents which together may serve as an interesting pointer. Among the papers required for a higher degree in one of the English universities is an essay with three or four alternative subjects, and one of these subjects a few years ago, I remember, was: “Since Wesley, we are all Arminians.”

One of the alternatives that year was an invitation to discuss the dictum, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” ~ so we need not assume that the assertion that Arminianism is now universally accepted was regarded as indisputable! It is interesting, nonetheless, that the assertion could be made.

The other incident happened more recently. I was speaking of this Arminius Symposium to a friend who, though not a minister, has written one or two books on subjects relating to Wesleyan Methodism; and I received the answer, “Do you know, I never realized that there was anyone called Arminius!”

In part, no doubt, this reflects the contented ignorance of theology common among Englishmen, but to a shrewd observer it may suggest the genuine triumph of Arminianism. In the last decades there has been a revival of Calvinism in Europe, but a revival of Arminianism is difficult to imagine. “Since Wesley, we are all Arminians” whether we know it or not, whether we have ever heard of Arminius or not. Arminius has triumphed much as, in a far shorter time, Sigmund Freud has triumphed; all of us think differently because of Freud, even those who have never heard of him.

“The influence of Arminianism in England” is a vast subject. “How interesting!” said a clergyman of the Church of England to me; “Lancelot Andrews and Archbishop Laud and all those people in their struggles with the Puritans in the seventeenth century!” Truly, the doctrinal transformation of the Church of England in the generation between the Synod of Dort and the death of Laud would amply repay a paper on its own account. The oft-repeated bon mot [epigram] in reply to the question, “What do the Arminians hold?” namely, “The best bishoprics and deaneries in all England,” was by no means devoid of truth. . . .

Any English Methodist regards Arminianism as his own communion’s peculiar preserve ~ and not unjustly. Did not the Methodists institute in 1778 a periodical with the brave title The Arminian Magazine: Consisting of Extracts and Original Treatises on Universal Redemption? Even in 1778, apparently, an Arminian could regard the Battle of the Decrees [i.e. Calvinism] as won. “Whatsoever was the case in times past,” writes the editor, John Wesley, in the first number, “very few now receive them (the Decrees) even in Holland. And in Geneva they are universally rejected with the utmost horror. The case is nearly the same in England.”

In 1778 Arminius’ name was still in use, as a bogey [apparition]; it was not much more. “We know nothing more proper to introduce a work of this kind,” Wesley continues, “than a sketch of the Life and Death of Arminius: a person, with whom those who mention his name with the utmost indignity, are commonly quite unacquainted; of whom they know no more than of Hermes Trismegistus [the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth respectively]”. . . .

But it is not only in the variegated life of those denominations which makes the story of English Protestantism such a multicolored picture that the subject, “The influence of Arminianism in England,” is vast. If at all adequately dealt with, it would include, besides the gradual, and eventually almost insensible, adoption of the doctrine of general redemption, the consideration of the increasingly large place allowed to reason in religion as over against superstition; also it would show the growth in mutual tolerance among Christians and the toleration of multiformity in religion by the State, which came to accompany this.

All these phenomena undoubtedly had other theological, and also other more secular, contributory causes besides what may, broadly speaking, be called Arminianism; but Arminianism played no small part. In the English scene in the seventeenth century the cause of religious liberty owed much, undeniably, to the Independents; but “it is a natural conjecture,” as Douglas Nobbs has written, “that the Independents were directly inspired by Remonstrant principles, particularly as (Philip) Nye developed theories closely related to the argument of Episcopius [Arminius’s successor],” who “valued liberty of sects as a moral pearl of great price”. . . .

The strength of Arminianism in the district [where John Wesley was born] may be attributed in part to the fact that during the reign of Charles I, 60,000 acres of the surrounding swamps . . . had been drained by Dutchmen under the supervision of Cornelius Vermuyden, and that in course of time some two hundred Dutch families had settled here. . . . It is at least suggestive that the greatest English Arminian was reared in a village and neighborhood to which active and self-confessed Arminianism had long been no stranger. . . .

There was indeed no need for [Wesley] to go to his Baptist [General, or Arminian Baptist] neighbors to learn Arminianism. He learned it at home from his parents. As good Anglicans, the rector of Epworth and his wife were of course Arminians. Of course, but not as a matter of course. Both Wesley’s parents were remarkable people, his mother no less than his father. Each of them had grown up in Calvinistic Dissent in a family which had braved suffering for conscious’ sake.

For both of them Arminianism was a position fought through to, when, independently of each other, they had abandoned the influence of home and ancestry for the Established Church. Wesley’s father “fearlessly repudiates the doctrines of election and reprobation” in more than one of his published pieces. In the first number of The Arminian Magazine Wesley printed a “Hymn to the Creator” by his father, which includes the lines:

No Evil can from Thee proceed:
‘Tis only suffer’d, not decreed.

In 1725 when Wesley was just twenty-two, his mother Susannah Wesley, wrote to him thus: “The Doctrine of Predestination, as maintained by rigid Calvinists, is very shocking, and ought utterly to be abhorred; because it charges the most holy God with being the Author of Sin.” This letter Wesley also printed in the first number of The Arminian Magazine. . . .

“The world is my parish”: these famous words on Wesley’s memorial in Westminster Abbey have a peculiarly eighteenth-century ring. They breathe the universalism of the eighteenth century in a far larger sense than the theological, and could scarcely have been uttered in any earlier age [universalism, meaning the potential for all to be saved, not the realization that all will be saved, cf. Matt. 7:21-23].

But they also breathe the missionary and evangelical concern which was Wesley’s overmastering passion. To execute this concern Wesley needed ~ could hardly have succeeded apart from ~ Arminianism. If universalism had not existed [see same comment above], one may almost say, he would have had to invent or discover it. The theology of Calvinism arises, naturally and properly, as a theology of the people of God within the household of God. An Arminianism theology arises equally naturally and properly as a theology of mission to the unbeliever.

Among the Puritans of seventeenth-century England not only was any missionary enterprise almost entirely absent but also there was little or no missionary concern. This is apt to surprise us, but our surprise is a measure of the triumph of Arminianism. . . . Speaking historically, the missionary overspill of Christianity during the last 170 years would hardly have been possible psychologically but for the Arminianism of the Wesleyan Methodist movement, which first broke down the dikes in the fifty years before that. . . . [Concerning the complaint of the Calvinist toward an Arminian theology of potential universalism, it could be stated that within] a theology still largely necessitarian the doctrine that God wills all men to be saved could, in fact, be as inimical [harmful] to the notion of missions as could the doctrine that God wills only some men to be saved. . . .

I began by suggesting that today we are all Arminians whether we know it or not, and in a sense this is true. It is also true that in England Arminianism, or what Arminianism has turned into, appears to be dead or dying [as would any Christian movement] where it lacks missionary concern [emphasis added]. Perhaps this is only a particular application of the broader truth that faith without works is dead, and that faith worketh by love.

Geoffrey F. Nuttall, “The Influence of Arminianism in England,” in Man’s Faith and Freedom: The Theological Influence of Jacobus Arminius, ed. Gerald O. McCulloh (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1962), 46-63.