A scene from the Leben der heiligen Altväter (1482)
John Wesley as a Happy Puritan
I recently finished writing a book on John Wesley, soon to be released in a new series from Crossway. The book is titled Wesley on the Christian Life: The Heart Renewed in Love. It was a delight to have a chance to immerse myself in the writings of John Wesley for a while. I first learned Wesley in the Methodist Church where I got saved, and first studied his work during an M.Div. at Asbury Theological Seminary.
As I re-read all that Wesley, I kept noticing that he sounded curiously like certain other spiritual writers I had read over the years. In particular, when he defended “heart religion” and insisted on the transforming work that the Holy Spirit works in our affections, he kept reminding me of seventeenth and eighteenth century Protestant writers: the Puritans.
The similarities show up all over the writings of Wesley, but I especially noticed them in his emphasis on happiness. Wesley famously wrote, “True religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness, as well as holiness.” (Sermon 7, The Way to the Kingdom) Wesley was serious about this happiness.
In recent times, “happiness” has come to sound like a shallow feeling, especially in response to good circumstances. Most of us think that “joy” might be deep, but “happiness” just sounds shallow. But in the eighteenth century, the word happiness carried a much deeper significance. Popular philosophers used it in a way that resonated with classical Greek and Roman ideas about the purpose of life. When they talked about “human happiness” they were pointing to the purpose for which humanity was originally created, and envisioning the complete fulfillment of that purpose. This is why the Declaration of Independence (1776) could list the pursuit of happiness along with life and liberty as basic human rights that came from God. Wesley would never have distinguished between a shallow, merely emotional happiness on the one hand and a deep, settled joy on the other, because the word happiness did not connote frivolity or shallowness to him. Happy is a good word in his vocabulary, and he uses it freely, interchangeably with the word joy. Historian Gordon Rupp points out that “happiness is a great key word in the first Methodist hymn-book, which began with a section entitled ‘Of the Pleasantness and excellence of religion.’”
Some modern readers of Wesley treat happiness, in fact, as a distinguishing mark that especially sets him apart from the Puritans of the generations before him, contrasting Wesley’s “optimism of grace” with the Puritan pessimism about humanity. But the way I see it, this emphasis on happiness is precisely what puts Wesley on the same page with the Puritan tradition….