Julian E. Pace IV, “Pietist Credentials of John Wesley”

, , Comments Off on Julian E. Pace IV, “Pietist Credentials of John Wesley”

Abstract: This article explores how the Pietist impulse, in both its “churchly” and “radical” forms, profoundly shaped the theology and spirituality of John Wesley. Churchly Pietists such as the Moravians, as well as the radical Pietists Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769) and Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714) were some of the most important Pietist influences in Wesley’s life. Wesley applied much of what he learned from the Pietists to his own Methodist program ensuring that that the Pietist impulse would remain a live element in Protestant theology and spirituality.

Julian Edwin Pace IV (MA, Piedmont International University) is Assistant Pastor at Bloomingdale Alliance Church and is currently pursuing a ThD with a focus in Historical Theology at Evangelical Seminary. [This author information is from the time of the article’s original publication on 9/26/2020.]

[To view the footnotes on this page, scroll down to the bottom of the page. Clicking on the hyperlinked footnotes will take you off site to the notes in the original article location.]


Few figures in church history have received as much scholarly and popular attention as John Wesley (1703-1791). As one of the most seminal figures of Protestant Evangelicalism, Wesley’s continued influence on numerous contemporary Evangelical traditions remains evident. Scholars have not only explored Wesley’s contribution to what was then a newly emerging Evangelical movement in the 1700s, but the influences that formed him theologically and spiritually as well. Much research has been done on how the Anglican tradition shaped Wesley[1], as well as how Patristic voices contributed to Wesley’s theological and spiritual development.[2] Increasingly, there is a growing appreciation for how the Pietist tradition shaped Wesley.[3]

This paper will document how the Pietist tradition in both its’ “churchly” and “radical” forms shaped John Wesley theologically and spiritually. Wesley is perhaps best understood as a watershed figure in whom several distinct streams of Pietism converge, only to spread out again in the various Evangelical traditions that he helped give birth to. Wesley played a crucial role (probably unconsciously so) in ensuring that the Pietist impulse remained an important part of the broader Evangelical tradition by applying many Pietistic practices and spiritual/theological emphases to his own life, as well as his own Methodist program. Wesley helped give the Pietist impulse new life, ensuring its’ continued place in Protestant spirituality.

“Churchly” Pietism and John Wesley

Few Christian traditions have been influenced by Pietism as much as the Moravian tradition has and the Moravians ultimately played a crucial role in introducing John Wesley to Pietism. The Moravians inherited the Pietist impulse primarily through their Patriarch Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Zinzendorf became a convinced Pietist largely through the influence of his grandmother and, to a lesser extent, through his studies at the University of Halle (then a bastion of Pietism.)[4]

John Wesley’s earliest sustained contact with the Moravian Pietists took place during his voyage to Savannah, Georgia aboard the Simmonds in October of 1735During the voyage, Wesley was quite impressed with the composure these Moravians displayed when faced with a deadly storm, even singing hymns in the midst of the squall. Even before Wesley arrived in Savannah to assume his post as parish priest, he and the Moravians increasingly grew closer[5] and found several points of contact in terms of their theology and practice. Both Wesley and the Moravians were fascinated by the Patristic Church. Furthermore, both held out the hope that in the New World they would be able to establish a “purer” and more “primitive” Church.[6]

During Wesley’s roughly three-year stint in Savannah he continued to openly associate with the Moravians, often attending their worship services and taking communion with them.[7] Wesley became increasingly more impressed with the warm hearted piety of the Moravians (which was mostly lacking in his own life) as well as their unique “band” system whereby small groups of Moravians, organized by age and gender, would meet secretly for Christian edification.[8]

It should be noted that in some respects Moravian piety was rather ascetical with a strong communal element (as seen in their “band” system.) However, it also contained a highly personal and individualist element to it. Key to Moravian piety (and Pietist spirituality in general) was experiencing the “inner witness of the Holy Spirit” and enjoying a personal relationship with God. Shortly after arriving in Savannah, Moravian Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg (1704-1792) met with Wesley and almost immediately questioned him on whether he had experienced “the inner witness of the Holy Spirit” and was personally assured that Christ was his Savior.[9] Wesley, hardly a Pietist at this juncture, could only answer with rote doctrinal affirmations. This conversation had a double-edged effect on Wesley. 1) Wesley, then in a prolonged crisis of faith, only became more convinced of the inadequacy of his own spiritual condition[10] and 2) he became only more desirous of personal relationship with God.[11] Wesley longed to experience the “warm-hearted” piety that the Moravians enjoyed so richly.

After a mostly disastrous ministry in Savannah, Wesley returned to his native England. Though appreciative of the Moravian’s piety, he had not yet experienced the “religion of the heart” that they so enjoyed. He returned to England a spiritually defeated man. Nevertheless, Wesley attached himself to the Moravians again in London and joined the Fetter Lane Society. While the Fetter Lane Society was not an exclusively Moravian society, many Moravians belonged to it nonetheless. Here, Wesley would continue to be nurtured in Moravian piety. On May 24, 1738 at a meeting of the Fetter Lane Society in Aldersgate, a borough of London, Wesley had his now famous conversion experience where he felt his heart was “strangely warmed” and he came to a personal recognition of Christ as his Savior.[12]

I am convinced that Wesley’s conversion experience ultimately held out major implications not only for his own spiritual life, but also for his ecumenical theology. It should be noted that the Pietist tradition has tended to emphasize personal connection with God, sometimes through mystical experience, and holy living as more central to authentic Christian experience than rigid confessional orthodoxy. Phillip Jakob Spener (1635-1705) (sometimes called the “Father of Pietism”) writing in the Pia Desideria expressed frustration with the often highly polemical (some would say “hair-splitting”) theological literature of his day. In the Pia Desideria Spener frequently chastises his Lutheran colleagues for their incessant and often rancorous polemics against the Reformed and the Anabaptists, whilst consistently ignoring what each of these traditions held in common, particularly their shared emphasis on holy living.[13]

Spener was no doctrinal indifferentist and was himself a highly trained theologian and exegete. However, Spener dreamed of a day when disagreements between people of different theological persuasions would be carried out in charity. Furthermore, each side would recognize each other as authentically Christian despite their theological differences. For Spener, authentic relationship with God and holy living ought to be the most important points of contact between Christians of different theological persuasions.[14]

The Moravians continued to embody the ecumenical posture of Spener and probably even outdid the earlier churchly Pietists in this respect. The Moravians actively sought out good relations with the Anglican and Lutheran Churches as well as other Protestants. Zinzendorf actively and consistently downplayed denominational differences in his ministry, often insisting that a common experience of Jesus Christ and holy living could ultimately transcend denominational boundaries.[15]

Through the Moravians, Wesley experienced firsthand the ecumenical posture common to so many of the churchly Pietists and he could not help but be affected by it. Although ironically doctrinal differences would eventually put some distance between Wesley and the Moravians, (Wesley could not accept the Moravians’ doctrine of “stillness,”[16] and Zinzendorf could not accept Wesley’s doctrine of perfection[17]) over time Wesley became a much more ecumenical figure. Increasingly, Wesley’s test for fellowship was the condition of one’s heart and the quality of your Christian life rather than rigid confessional adherence.

Indeed, Wesley’s statement in a letter to the Rev. Vincent Perronet entitled A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists (written in 1748, long after his earliest encounters with the Moravians) that “orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it all”[18] only makes sense in light of his sustained contact with the Moravian Pietists. Wesley’s ecumenical sensibilities are also clearly seen in his later sermons such as “Catholic Spirit” where he repeatedly downplays denominational differences. In this sermon, Wesley consistently makes the case that Christian love and experiential, warm-hearted piety can transcend, without erasing, denominational distinctions.

Wesley was also quite ready to affirm that Roman Catholics who had a genuine relationship with Christ and lived holy lives were not excepted from salvation, even though he could be fiercely critical of many doctrines peculiar to Roman Catholicism.[19] It is hard to conceive of the early Wesley, often a rigid High Church Anglican, expressing such sentiments. However, such sentiments make perfect sense considering the Pietist’s influence on Wesley.

Like Spener, it would be unfair to call Wesley a doctrinal indifferentist, especially considering the many sermons and tracts he produced that deal explicitly with doctrinal issues. Throughout Wesley’s sermons the doctrines of the Trinity, the deity of Jesus Christ, and justification by God’s grace through faith alone are affirmed and defended strenuously. Indeed, in the already discussed and famously ecumenical sermon “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley states that the Christian is “as fixed as the sun in the heavens concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”[20] However, Wesley’s experience with the Moravian Pietists, who had a long tradition of ecumenism going all the way back to Spener, probably mellowed his confessionalism somewhat and he was increasingly ready to make careful distinctions between “primary” and “secondary” doctrines. By the late 1740s, Wesley was insisting that having one’s heart right with God and living a holy life were more central to authentic Christian experience than rigid adherence to confessional standards.

Wesley did not only appreciate the warm-hearted piety of the Moravians, but their “band” system as well. Moravian bands were organized by age and gender and these small groups would meet regularly for Christian edification.[21] It should be noted that meeting in small groups for the spiritual benefit of those involved, as well as for the benefit of the larger Church, was already a perennial Pietist tradition.[22] Phillip Jakob Spener organized small groups called “conventicles” for the purpose of Christian edification in his Pietist program.[23] Although Spener’s small groups were not identical to the Moravian bands, (Spener’s small groups were mixed gender gatherings mainly targeted towards adults of varying ages) their purposes were similar and the Moravian’s own band system was certainly inspired by Spener’s earlier conventicles.

Scholar of Pietism and Methodism, J. Steven O’Malley sees strong parallels between Spener’s conventicles and Wesley’s class system that he began to utilize for his own Methodist program in Bristol, England in 1739.[24] O’Malley notes that there were some differences between the conventical system of Spener and Wesley’s own class system. Perhaps most notably, the conventicles that Spener started were almost exclusively clergy-led (though later Pietist conventicles were sometimes lay-led.) On the other hand, Wesley’s classes were almost exclusively led by lay people. Furthermore, Wesley’s classes probably had a stronger evangelistic focus than either Spener’s conventicles or the Moravian’s bands.[25]

However, the similarities are probably more striking than the distinctions between the different systems. Both Spener’s conventicles and Wesley’s bands existed for the cultivation of Biblical holiness and the betterment of the larger, and established, Church.[26] This concern for the larger Church can be seen in both Spener and Wesley’s insistence that the members of their small groups continue to worship and take communion in the established Church.

O’Malley also notes that Wesley experienced firsthand the Moravian bands while in Savannah, Georgia, and in the Fetter Lane Society in London. Just as the band system was an integral part of Moravian spiritual life, so would the class system be in early Methodism. Although Wesley was adamant in his preaching, teaching, and writing that a personal relationship with God was central to authentic Christianity, he also valued the communal aspects of the Christian life. Wesleyan scholar Steve Harper notes that Wesley’s class system became a cornerstone of early Methodist spirituality and was an important component of their early evangelistic efforts as well.

Harper notes that when the class system began to deteriorate in early Methodism Wesley intervened himself to reinforce this aspect of the Methodist program. To demonstrate, Harper quotes Wesley at length

“Never omit meeting your Class or Band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens or tends to weaken our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community….The private weekly meetings for prayer, examination, and particular exhortation has been the greatest means of keeping and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached and diffusing it to others….Without this religious connection and intercourse the most ardent attempts by mere preaching, have proved no lasting use.”[27]

A few points of Wesley’s quote are notable. 1) It is interesting that Wesley uses the terms “Class” and “Band” interchangeably betraying the strong influence of the Moravian band system on his own Methodist class system. 2) Wesley apparently believed quite strongly that the class system was an integral part of the Methodist program calling it the “very sinews of our Society.” Wesley’s attitude here reflects Pietist influence as well. Some Pietist scholars, such as Harry Yeide Jr., have even argued that the most distinctive and integral element of Pietism is its’ small group dynamic.[28]

3) According to Wesley, early Methodist classes were dedicated to “prayer, examination and particular exhortation.” Such features are evident in Spener’s conventicles and perhaps even more so in the Moravian bands.[29] 4) Wesley seems to indicate towards the end of the quote that one of the most important functions of the Methodist classes was to reinforce the “word preached” which presumably the class members would have heard in the established Church on Sunday. The inherent conservatism of Wesley, shared by the earlier churchly Pietists, with their common desire to see small groups spiritually benefit the larger established Church is clearly on display.

As we have seen, John Wesley was strongly influenced by the churchly strain of Pietism. Through the Moravians, Wesley inherited the warm-hearted piety common to so many of the Pietists. This ultimately had major implications on his own spiritual life and ecumenical theology. Later, Wesley would incorporate both emphases into his own Methodist program. Wesley also adopted the small group dynamic, common to the Moravian and Spenerian Pietists into the Methodist program and this aspect of Methodism was partially responsible for its’ early success and growth.

“Radical” Pietism and John Wesley

Scholars have long appreciated the influence of the churchly Pietist tradition on John Wesley. His interactions with the Moravians and other churchly Pietist sources (e.g. the strains of Pietism birthed by figures like Auguste Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and Phillip Jakob Spener) are well documented and have received much attention in the scholarly literature. However, scholars are only just beginning to appreciate the influence of “radical” Pietism on John Wesley.

Radical Pietism has perennially served as an umbrella term for a rather diverse number of movements and people who were all in some way (either marginally or substantially) affected by the Pietist impulse. Radical Pietism has historically tended towards moral rigorism and was often sectarian and separatist. Whereas the churchly Pietists tended to remain within the established Churches to renew them from within, the radical Pietists frequently (though not always) exited the established Churches frustrated by their corruption and lack of spiritual vitality.[30]

Remarkably, some of John Wesley’s earliest interactions with radical Pietism came while he was still aboard the Simmonds with the Moravian Pietists. An important element of Moravian piety was robust hymn singing and they brought several hymnbooks aboard with them. Within the Moravian hymnals were many hymns written by the radical Pietist Gerhard Tersteegen (1697-1769). Although reared in the Reformed tradition, Tersteegen separated himself from the established Reformed Church and began to attend separatist conventicles. Nevertheless, Pietist scholar J. Steven O’Malley has noted the strong influence of the Reformed confessional standard, the Heidelberg Catechism, on the hymns of Tersteegen.[31]

Tersteegen is easily one of the most fascinating figures in all of Pietism.[32] Although he separated from the established Church and was thus perceived as a radical, it is difficult to find a “sectarian” or “narrow” spirit (common in other radicals) in Tersteegen. Tersteegen could be rather mystical in his approach to spirituality, but his theology was generally quite orthodox. He is best known for the collection of hymns and poems he published in 1729 called the Spiritual Flower Garden of Ardent Souls.[33] Several of Tersteegen’s hymns were republished in the Moravian’s hymnals.

To improve his German skills John Wesley began translating songs out of the Moravian hymnals and he discovered the hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen. Wesley translated several hymns by Tersteegen while aboard the Simmonds including “Thou Hidden Love of God,” and “God Himself Is with Us.”[34] The latter is probably Tersteegen’s best-known hymn. It would eventually prove to be a major influence on John Wesley’s spiritual life as we will later see. Besides translating the hymns of Tersteegen into English, Wesley almost certainly sang these songs, in German no less, at the Church services the Moravians regularly held while onboard the Simmonds.[35]

J. Steven O’Malley notes that the hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen made a major impact on John Wesley during a time of profound spiritual darkness and may have even prepared him for his later Aldersgate experience.[36] Within the hymns of Tersteegen the immanence of God, his knowability, and his loving presence with his people are stressed and celebrated. O’Malley notes that through the hymns of Tersteegen, Wesley was discovering what it looked like to live a genuinely holy life “in the gracious presence of the living God.”[37] Such themes were also commonplace in Moravian piety as well. Thus, it is not hard to see why they adopted the hymns of Tersteegen so readily. Furthermore, we can easily surmise that John Wesley, who longed for a warm personal relationship with God, was deeply attracted to the type of piety so clearly on display in Tersteegen’s hymns.

Tersteegen’s hymns continued to influence Wesley long after his Aldersgate experience. In one of Wesley’s best-known books, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, he quotes Tersteegen’s hymns at least twice and alludes to themes contained within them quite frequently.[38] Thus, Pietist thinking almost certainly played a role in the development of John Wesley’s distinctive (and often controversial) doctrine of “perfection.”

J. Steven O’Malley has also shown convincingly that John Wesley’s final words “The Best of All, God is with us” are almost certainly an allusion to Tersteegen’s best-known hymn “God Himself is With Us.”[39] Thus, the hymns of Tersteegen not only prepared Wesley for his Aldersgate experience, but continued to be a source of constant comfort and spiritual encouragement throughout his entire life. There can be little doubt that Pietist hymnody left an indelible and lasting mark on the piety and ministry of John Wesley.

The Pietists’ love of hymnody and robust hymn-singing was effectively transplanted into the Methodist movement by Wesley. Indeed, one of the most distinctive aspects of the Methodist revival was its’ use of hymns and hymn-singing to transmit its’ message.[40] Such emphasis on the singing of hymns no doubt contributed to the movement’s vitality and staying power. Although the Moravians certainly deserve credit for giving Methodism its’ distinctive emphasis on hymnody and robust hymn-singing,[41] the contributions of radical Pietism to this aspect of the Methodist movement need to be recognized as well.

Through the hymns of Tersteegen, (and certainly through the Moravians’ hymn-singing as well) Wesley learned of the power of hymns to transmit vital theological and spiritual emphases. As a result, Wesley became an avid compiler and editor of hymns and his brother Charles composed thousands of hymns during his lifetime. Wesley quite shrewdly understood that hymns were far more easily memorized than the passages of scripture they were based upon and knew that they could fulfill a valuable catechizing function for the new Methodist movement.[42] Tersteegen’s hymns had taught him about the joys of a life lived in the presence of a loving and holy God. Perhaps, they could inspire other Methodists in precisely the same way. Furthermore, Wesley had found Tersteegen’s hymns helpful and comforting during his prolonged spiritual crisis. Perhaps hymns, sung both in public meetings and in times of private and intimate meditation, could help other wavering Methodists as well.

Thus, we have seen that the hymnody of both churchly and radical Pietists converge in the person of John Wesley. He was particularly fond of the hymns of the radical Pietist Gerhard Tersteegen, valuing them throughout his life. Furthermore, Wesley had been so positively influenced by the vivid and spiritually vital hymnody of Tersteegen (as well as the Moravians) that he ensured that the Methodist movement would continue to be a hymn-singing movement for the foreseeable future.

Tersteegen was not the only radical Pietist to influence John Wesley in important ways. We know that in 1720s and 1730s Wesley was reading the works of a wide range of Pietists including the churchly Pietist August Hermann Francke[43], the proto-Pietist Lutheran spiritual luminary Johann Arndt (1555-1621)[44], and the radical Pietist Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714).[45]

Gottfried Arnold, like Gerhard Tersteegen, is a fascinating radical Pietist to study. Initially, Arnold put some distance between himself and the established Lutheran Church displaying the distinctly separatist tendencies that have historically been common to radical Pietism. Despite his radical tendencies, Arnold was apparently on good terms with the famous churchly Pietists Phillip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke and the three men corresponded quite regularly.[46] Although Arnold is notable for his separatist streak, his apocalypticism, and his strikingly egalitarian views on women in ministry, his most notable contribution to Pietism would have to be his controversial work of Church History entitled Impartial History of Churches and Heretics (1699-1700.)

In his Impartial History, Arnold assumes the interpretive paradigm of the “Constantinian Fall of the Church” arguing that one of the greatest tragedies to befall the ancient Church was its’ increasingly cozy relationship with the state during the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine.[47] For Arnold, state power, rather than helping the Church, actually corrupted it and  eventually lead to the detriment and reversal of “true” Christianity. Arnold’s then radical interpretive paradigm led him to reevaluate the many so-called heretics scattered throughout the Church’s history. Scholar of Pietism Douglas Shantz notes

For Arnold, the true history of Christianity was to be found in the “radical underground,” the marginalized and the persecuted, including Anabaptists, Spiritualists, Quakers, Behmenists, Quietists, Paracelsist physicians, and women visionaries. Luther, by comparison, gets “Relatively short shrift.”[48]

Furthermore, Arnold devotes in his Impartial History roughly 300 pages to the rather radical spiritualist figures Caspar Schwenckfeld (1490-1561) and David Joris (1501-1556). Arnold was delighted by their spirituality that emphasized a warm personal relationship with God and an “Inward Christianity of the Heart” whilst concurrently downgrading the importance of strict confessional adherence.[49]

Arnold’s book proved extremely controversial during its’ time. The Orthodox Lutherans, so often opposed to Spener and Pietism in general, excoriated the book for its’ radical premise and its’ lack of emphasis on Luther. The Orthodox Lutherans, who believed in a strong Church/state relationship, had to refute the idea that a closely related Church and state could be detrimental to either entity. On the other hand, the radical Pietists were delighted by the text. Churchly Pietists like Auguste Hermann Francke were more cautious. At any rate, Arnold’s Impartial History with its’ impressive scholarship, extensive use of primary sources, and radical premise was a work that no well-educated theologian or Church historian could conveniently ignore or dismiss.[50]

Interestingly, when Arnold married in 1701, he took up a Lutheran pastorate and lived out a rather conventional existence as a clergyman within the established Church. Nevertheless, Arnold’s radicalism never entirely died down and there is some evidence he intentionally took a position within the established Church to spread his radical Pietist ideas within that body.[51] However, Arnold’s greatest contribution to Pietism would not be his ministry within the established Church, rather his greatest and most enduring contribution to the Pietist cause must be his Impartial History of Churches and Heretics.

As a well-read Churchman himself, Wesley read Arnold’s Impartial History sometime in the late 1720s or early 1730s. Scholars such as J. Steven O’Malley and Thomas Buchan have both noted in their work how Arnold’s Impartial History contributed to Wesley’s thought and probably helped give rise to a distinctly “primitivist” impulse within Wesley.[52] An impulse he seemed to retain throughout his life.

The primitivist impulse in Wesley has long been studied and appreciated. Indeed, Wesleyan scholar Geordan Hammond has given this topic extended treatment in his published work.[53] Lest we be unbalanced while exploring Wesley’s primitivist inclinations, we must first recognize that Wesley’s primitivism was partially, but undoubtedly, shaped by his Anglican heritage. During his early ministry, Wesley was decidedly of the “High Church” persuasion and it had a notable effect on how he approached the Church’s history. We have already noted that while Wesley was just beginning to fraternize regularly with the Moravians, aboard the Simmonds and in Georgia, both parties found common interest in the Patristic Church. Wesley and the Moravians alike articulated a strong primitivist impulse and both shared in the idealistic hope that in the new world they would be able to see primitive Christianity restored.

However, Wesley and the Moravian’s perceptions of the essential traits that made the early Church so dynamic, and therefore a model to emulate, occasionally differed. The Moravians tended to emphasize that the revival of communal discipline and warm-hearted experiential piety were ultimately the most important aspects to restoring primitive Christianity.[54] Wesley shared the Moravians’ appreciation for communal discipline, and he was just beginning to appreciate their piety. However, he tended to emphasize that a renewed appreciation for ancient liturgy and apostolic succession were the keys to restoring primitive Christianity.[55]

Wesley’s Anglican heritage and appreciation for the Patristic Church certainly helped give rise to his primitivism and should not be ignored. However, scholars are increasingly realizing that more attention needs to given to how Pietist sources, such as Gottfried Arnolds’ Impartial History, contributed to Wesley’s primitivism.[56]

Pietism scholar Thomas Buchan notes that at least nine of Wesley’s sermons demonstrate his acceptance of Arnold’s central thesis of a “Constantinian Fall of the Church.” Furthermore, this emphasis only grows throughout Wesleys’ career with it becoming a truly pronounced theme in Wesley’s sermons delivered during the 1780s.[57] Perhaps Wesley’s Sermon “Of Former Times” demonstrate his sympathies with Arnold’s interpretive paradigm most clearly. In this sermon, Wesley states

I have been long convinced from the whole tenor of ancient history that this very event – Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and power on the Christian Church, the clergy in particular – was productive of more evil to the church than all the ten persecutions put together.[58]

A few aspects of this quote, besides its’ clear espousal of Arnold’s interpretive paradigm in the Impartial History, are also notable. 1) Wesley’s statement that he had “been long convinced” that Constantine’s supposed conversion and patronage of the Church were ultimately detrimental to its’ spiritual vitality indicate that his earliest readings of Arnold’s Impartial History in the 1720s and 1730s made a very strong impression on him. 2) Wesley also seems to cast doubt on the genuineness of Constantine’s conversion only saying that Constantine “called” himself a Christian. Such language betrays Wesley’s Pietist sympathies as he is quite ready to make a distinction between a purely “outward” and “sterile” Christianity, and a “vital, inward, and authentic” Christianity of the “heart.”

The record seems to indicate that Wesley’s primitivism was in large part shaped by two streams of thought that are not easily reconcilable. Wesley the High Church Anglican would have been quite ready to affirm the accomplishments of the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) which took place long after the supposed “Constantinian Fall of the Church.” Nevertheless, Wesley the Pietist, influenced by Arnold’s Impartial History, was also quite ready to affirm that the Church’s spiritual vitality declined significantly in the fourth and fifth centuries due in large part to the patronage of Constantine. Buchan notes that more research needs to be completed on how Wesley reconciled these competing impulses in his own thought.[59] Recognizing the Pietist contribution to Wesley’s primitivism complicates our vision of who he was by introducing competing elements into his thought, but the historical record dictates that it simply cannot be ignored.

There is also some evidence that Wesley’s “Pietistic” primitivism continued to be a perennial theme in his successors. Melvin E. Dieter has noted that Wesley’s Pietistic primitivism lived on in early Holiness denominations like the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene and the Pilgrim Holiness Church.[60] Dieter also notes that Holiness spiritual luminaries like Phoebe Palmer saw themselves as distinctly connected to the ethical and scriptural rhythms of the ancient church.[61] Perhaps more than any others, Wesley’s Pentecostal descendants have displayed a strongly primitivist impulse seeing themselves as the modern day inheritors of the ancient Church’s spiritual vitality. Either for good or for ill, Wesley’s Pietistic primitivism, influenced so strongly by Gottfried Arnold, shows little sign of abating.


When the historical evidence is carefully examined, it becomes clear that John Wesley was strongly influenced by the Pietist tradition. The Moravian Pietists were probably the most influential in Wesley’s spiritual and theological development. They articulated a warm-hearted piety that left a deep impression on Wesley. In time, Wesley would become an exemplar of the Moravians’ piety and pass it on to his Methodist successors. Furthermore, his adoption of their warm-hearted piety ultimately held out major implications for his own ecumenical theology. Wesley was also impressed with the Moravian’s band system and promptly adopted a modified form of it into his own Methodist program.

Radical Pietism also influenced Wesley in important ways. Through the Moravians, Wesley discovered the hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen. Wesley cherished these hymns throughout his life. Tersteegen’s hymns demonstrated to Wesley in a powerful way the catechetical utility of hymnody. Thus, from the very beginning Methodist theology would not only be preached, it would be sung. Finally, the radical Pietist Gottfried Arnold contributed substantially to Wesley’s primitivist outlook. Wesley’s descendants, particularly in the Holiness and Pentecostal traditions, have continued to show a primitivist streak from time to time.

In the future when Church historians list the great figures of Pietism – Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Francke, Gerhard Tersteegen and many others, John Wesley must also be mentioned. John Wesley adopted the Pietist impulse into his own life and passed it on to his Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal successors ensuring that the Pietist impulse would remain a live element within Protestant Spirituality.


Buchan, Thomas. “John Wesley and the Constantinian Fall of the Church: Historiographical Indications of Pietist Influences” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, edited by Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst, 146-160. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

Dieter, Melvin E. “Primitivism In The American Holiness Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 30, no.1 (1995): 78-91.

Dreyer, Frederick “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” The American Historical Review 88, no. 1 (Feb 1983): 12-30.

Hammond, Geordan. “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” Journal of Moravian History, no. 6 (2009): 31-60

——— “John Wesley’s Relations with the Lutheran Pietist Clergy in Georgia.” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, edited by Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst, 135-145. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

———  John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Harper, Steve. John Wesley’s Message For Today. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.

Hempton, David. “John Wesley (1703-1791)” in The Pietist Theologians, edited by Carter Lindberg 256-271. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Johnson, Anna Marie. “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” Journal of Religious History 38, no. 2 (June, 2014): 241-262.

Lewis, A.J. Zinzendorf, The Ecumenical Pioneer: A Study in the Moravian Contribution to Christian Mission and Unity. London: SCM Press, 1962.

Morgan, Daniel T. “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 64, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 253-262.

Nelson, James. “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 23, no. 3/4 (1984): 17-46.

Olson, Roger E. and Christian T. Collins Winn. Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015.

O’Malley, J. Steven. “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 53, no.1 (2018): 56-78.

———  “The Pietist Link To Wesley’s Deathbed Confession,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 51, no.2 (2016): 79-88.

Shantz, Douglas H. An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Stein, K. James. Phillip Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch. Chicago: Covenant Press, 1986.

Ward, W. Reginald. The Protestant Evangelical Awakening, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Yeide Jr., Harry. Studies In Classical Pietism: The Flowering Of The Ecclesiola. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997.

[1] Thomas Buchan, “John Wesley and the Constantinian Fall of the Church: Historiographical Indications of Pietist Influences,” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, ed. Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 146-160.

[2] David Hempton, “John Wesley (1703-1791)” in The Pietist Theologians, ed. Carter Lindberg (Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), 257.

[3] Ibid, 256-271.

[4] A.J. Lewis, Zinzendorf, The Ecumenical Pioneer: A Study in the Moravian Contribution to Christian Mission and Unity (London: SCM Press, 1962) 21-32. It should be noted that even though Zinzendorf’s experience at Halle was often unpleasant, his Pietist convictions never waned and may have even been strengthened during his stay at Halle.

[5] Geordan Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” Journal of Moravian History, no. 6 (2009): 34.

[6] Ibid, 35.

[7] James Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 23, no. 3/4 (1984): 29.

[8] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 22.

[9] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 26.

[10] David T. Morgan, “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 64, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 254.

[11] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 26.

[12] Anna Marie Johnson, “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” Journal of Religious History 38, no. 2 (June 2014): 253.

[13] Roger E. Olson and Christian T. Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 45.

[14] Olson and Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition 39-40. Spener’s ecumenism can clearly be seen in his often-appreciative stance towards Reformed expressions of Pietism (Spener was strongly influenced by the Reformed Pietist Jean De Labadie) as well as his more congenial attitude towards Jews and Roman Catholics.

[15] A.J. Lewis, Zinzendorf, The Ecumenical Pioneer, 138-160.

[16] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 57.

[17] Johnson, “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” 255.

[18] John Wesley “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists,” Works, 8:249.

[19] Frederick Dreyer, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,” The American Historical Review 88, no. 1 (Feb 1983): 13-14.

[20] John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” in The Sermons of John Wesley: A Collection for the Christian Journey, ed. Kenneth J. Collins, Jason E. Vickers (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 428.   

[21] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 22.

[22] Harry Yeide Jr., Studies In Classical Pietism: The Flowering Of The Ecclesiola (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1997) In the preface, Yeide seems to suggest that the small group tradition we see in Pietism is its’ most distinct and enduring element.

[23] K. James Stein, Phillip Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1986) 85-93.

[24] J. Steven O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 53, no.1 (2018): 67.

[25] Steve Harper, John Wesley’s Message For Today (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 135-136.

[26] O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” 67-68.

[27] Harper, John Wesley’s Message For Today, 136.

[28] See Harry Yeide Jr’s Studies In Classical Pietism: The Flowering Of The Ecclesiola

[29] Olson and Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition 42.

[30] Douglas H. Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013) 147-179. Shantz’s book contains a more thorough and nuanced explanation of “radical” Pietism that the reader may find helpful.

[31] O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” 65.

[32] W. Reginald Ward, The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) 230.

[33] Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe, 62-65.

[34] Ibid65-66.

[35] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 36-37.

[36] O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” 65.

[37] J. Steven O’Malley, “The Pietist Link To Wesley’s Deathbed Confession,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 51, no.2 (2016): 88.

[38] Ibid, 83-88.

[39] O’Malley, “The Pietist Link To Wesley’s Deathbed Confession,” 79.

[40] Hempton, “John Wesley (1703-1791) in The Pietist Theologians,” 260.

[41] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 60.

[42] Hempton, “John Wesley (1703-1791) in The Pietist Theologians,” 260.

[43] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 34.

[44] Johann Arndt’s True Christianity, a devotional text with a distinctly mystical bent, would continue to be a favorite of Wesley’s for years to come.

[45] O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” 62.

[46] Olson and Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition 62.

[47] Olson and Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition 64.

[48] Shantz, An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe, 18.

[49] Ibid16-18.

[50] Olson and Winn, Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition 64-65.

[51] Ibid, 65.

[52] Buchan, “John Wesley and the Constantinian Fall of the Church: Historiographical Indications of Pietist Influences,” 146-160.

[53] Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.)

[54] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity,” 60.

[55] Geordan Hammond, “John Wesley’s Relations with the Lutheran Pietist Clergy in Georgia,” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, ed. Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 139-143. Wesley’s appreciation for apostolic succession is part of the reason he attached himself to Moravians, whom he perceived as having apostolic credentials, so readily whilst sometimes snubbing the Lutherans of New Ebenezer, Georgia just six miles upriver. Wesley’s relations with the Lutherans of New Ebenezer were consistently hampered by his perception that they lacked apostolic credentials.

[56] O’Malley, “Pietism and Wesleyanism: Setting The Stage For A Theological Discussion,” 65-66.

[57] Buchan, “John Wesley and the Constantinian Fall of the Church: Historiographical Indications of Pietist Influences,” 147.

[58] John Wesley, “Of Former Times,” Works, 3:450.

[59] Buchan, “John Wesley and the Constantinian Fall of the Church: Historiographical Indications of Pietist Influences,” 152-160.

[60] Melvin E. Dieter, “Primitivism In The American Holiness Tradition,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 30, no.1 (1995): 80-81.

[61] Dieter, “Primitivism In The American Holiness Tradition,” 83.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]