John Wesley, the ‘folk theologian’

John Wesley (1703-1791). Engraved by anonymous engraver and published in Thomas Dugdale Curiosities Of Great Britain, United Kingdom, 1845.

A Methodist pastor once made a bold assertion that the unique thing about Methodism is that there is nothing unique about it. By saying that, he was echoing a prejudice held by Christians who assumed that John Wesley has no substantial theology to offer. Lutherans would readily introduce us to the works of Martin Luther and our friends from the Reformed tradition would point to John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion as examples of solid theological works.

Compared with the tomes of such theologians, John Wesley’s writings have, for a long time, been regarded as lightweight. That is why Wesley has often been poorly regarded as a theologian.

While there are still scholars and ill-informed Christians who continue to hold such a view about John Wesley, that view is no longer accepted as valid for Christians who have done critical studies of Wesley’s multi-voluminous works. One person who has been instrumental in persuading Methodists and other Christians that there is, in fact, depth in Wesley’s theological thoughts and wisdom in his theological task, is Albert Outler, one-time professor of Historical Theology at Perkins School of Theology.

Outler was the founding editor of the Bicentennial edition of The Works of John Wesley, which would have spanned 35 volumes when completed. Before his death, Outler had devoted a major part of his academic life to researching Wesley’s works. He was probably the best interpreter of Wesley, arguing that John Wesley had more theological substance than usually assumed. Wesley was not merely an outstanding evangelist, a gifted organiser and an active social reformer, though it is true that Wesley was all those things and more.

In Outler’s small book, Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit (1975), he contended that John Wesley was probably the best Anglican theologian of the 18th century. He was well-schooled first at home and then at Oxford University. The scope of his learning and interest included the Bible, classics, Patristics, languages, culture, history, and contemporary literature.

Looking at his academic interests and practical ministry, Outler dubbed Wesley a “Folk Theologian”, an apt description of a pastor-theologian known for his works among ordinary people, rather than the educated elites in society.

The ingenuity of Wesley as a “Folk Theologian” is not that he lacked depth and theological finesse. He was a well-read and learned man. What made him different from our picture of a serious theologian was his ability to preach a good sermon based on reliable biblical interpretation and sound theological support. With pastoral sensitivity, he used vocabulary and modes of communication which ordinary persons, like the poor, unschooled miners, could understand easily.

If Wesley has not received the recognition he deserves as a significant theologian, part of the problem is because his theological approach is deceptively simple and looks so ordinary, whereas a common complaint about other theological works is that they tend to employ language and arguments which can be incomprehensible and confusing not only to ordinary lay-persons, but also those who are theologically trained.

Wesley as a “Folk Theologian” spoke and wrote at a level that reached out to and benefitted the men and women in the street. Eschewing highbrow theologising, his Christian message made a direct impact on the way people went about their daily living. We may say that his theology is committed to sound scholarship and deep spirituality as it also encouraged Christians to pursue holiness, both personal and social.

Unless one takes the view of Ecclesiastes which says, “there is nothing new under the sun,” it is incorrect to assert that Wesley has nothing unique to contribute to the theology, life and ministry of the church. The fact that someone like Wesley was able to communicate the Christian message to the common people without being condescending, and to do so without compromising the core Christian beliefs, is a unique legacy which John Wesley, the “Folk Theologian”, has left for us. If we are true heirs of the Wesleyan spirit, perhaps it is time for us to put in more effort to reach out to “ordinary” people with the Gospel of Christ.

The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon –

is a retired (he prefers “retyred”) pastor currently re-engaged as a pastor at Christalite Methodist Chapel, and a part-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College. He is also the Chairperson of the Methodist Welfare Services.


Picture by Candyman/