Why Did Wesley Attack Whitefield’s Calvinism?

Derek Ouellette —  September 8, 2010

While dialoguing with my friend Danny in a recent post, I discovered that John Wesley was not so tolerant of “Calvinism” when it came to George Whitefield. Danny also told me that George, “for his part”, did not generally respond to John in kind. For someone who looks up to and admires John Wesley, I wanted to probe further into the “why” question. Why would John, a man so adamant in support of unity and tolerance within Methodism and the Church of England and whose theology is based squarely on the love of God, equally adamantly oppose his friends Calvinism?

The next day I pulled a book off my shelf which I haven’t had an opportunity to read yet, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, only to discover – to my disappointment – that what Danny told me is absolutely correct. But I also found the historical context of their (often one sided) debate very telling, and I want to propose a hypothesis as to why John (justifiably?) opposed George as he did. Disclaimer: I use the term “seems” often and in a critical fashion because this is the only book I’ve read on the subject and so I am endeavoring to keep that in mind. Any historical fallacies in this analysis are probably my own failure to accurately retell the story I’ve read in the book. And now I begin.

The Beginning…

The Wesleyan movement began when three young Oxford students (including Charles) began to have regular meetings and invited the older alumni, John, to return to Oxford and help lead and facilitate their weekly renewals. George Whitefield was not an original member of these meetings, but he joined the group when the gatherings were still small. I begin this way because it is important to keep in mind that John saw himself (and most everyone else saw him) as, in some sense, the leader of the Methodist movement (indeed, the “Methodist” label came from his pen, p.48).

Strengths and Weaknesses Contrasted:

It seems George quickly rose to prominence within the movement, and in many ways even beyond John. For example, George was the first to begin outdoor preaching [p.90] of which John followed only on George’s pressure to do so [p.92]. John was a gifted speaker, but it seems that of the two, George was the more charismatic. It seems that if John preached to hundreds, George preached to thousands, and everywhere that John moved; George came up behind him and “picked up the reins from John” [p.93-4, a phrase used four times in two pages]. George’s influence was such that when the bishops attacked the Methodist movement at first, it was George, not John, which they had in mind. George’s influence was vast.

Now John had a strength which George clearly lacked (it seems). John was an organizer (thus the “method” in “Methodist”). Thus, a methodological approach to the Methodist movement by John would eventually work out in a way as to demarcate other groups who did not share their basic theological stance, which was pretty much the same as the Anglican Church: via media, a la Arminianism.

John Fails while George Succeeds (Who’s the Boss):

In time John felt a call to “the New World”, Georgia in particular, and so he heeded the call to the detriment of both his work in England and his work in Georgia. His whole time in Georgia was an absolute flop which crashed and burned in a romantic scandal which nearly got John arrested had he not escaped and caught the next ship back to England. Now keep in mind that while John was in America failing, George had taken up John’s reins in England, particularly London, with great success. When John’s ship from Georgia arrived in Deal harbor, George Whitefield happened to be at the same harbor at the same time boarding a ship for Georgia. (As I write this I am suddenly struck by the pattern of George “taking up the reins after John” – Absalom comes to mind. But I really should just chop this pattern up to coincidence.) When John heard that George was about to set sail for Georgia, John (“by now long accustomed to exercising his role as spiritual director for his friends”) sent George a note requesting he stay in London. “Whitefield, however (as his diary indicates), had begun to grow accustomed to his role as leader of the Methodists in England in John’s absence. He took notice of (and offence at) Wesley’s note” and proceeded to Georgia anyways [p.74].

The Church of England Fallout Begins:

John’s work in London and other places became increasingly difficult because of George’s influence and theology. Persecution began from Bishops and ministers of the Church of England because of what they perceived to be a separatist movement which was forbidden by law. Keep in mind that the Church of England was distinctively Arminian (via media), and Whitefield’s Calvinism could be seen by those in the Church of England as an attempt to subvert or undermine their stability established in the Golden era of Elizabeth. Contrary to this, John made every effort to “strongly assert that they had no intention of separating” from the Church of England.

Justifiable Cause Against George’s Calvinism

In light of this shallow overview I believe John’s continual attack on George’s Calvinism can be explained with justifiable ground.

For starters, the Methodist movement began with four friends who gathered three or four times a week for prayer, devotion, study and discipline with strenuous emphasis on holiness. John fought against antinomianism (greasy grace, lawlessness) throughout most of those years, especially from the Moravians (Lutherans) and he saw the same potential error to be rooted in Calvinism’s doctrine of “once saved always saved” (and their interpretation of Justification by Faith or imputed righteousness). His concern to this end was sanctification (holiness). He saw Lutheranism and Calvinism as simply an overreaction to Roman Catholicism, and followed the Anglican Churches traditional and theological stance of via media (the middle way). In light of this, George’s theology mingled with his influence within Methodism (that italic point is important) posed a threat to undermine Wesley’s work and the Church of England.

Secondly, the fact that George’s theology undermined the Church of England put many Methodist at risk of persecution from the state church for unduly reasons. It was against the law to establish another church in England (while it was legal for people to hold to their beliefs privately or in small gatherings) and as I said above, George’s work and influence appeared to the established church as an attempt to establish a rival institute with a distinctive Calvinist bent. Considering the political upheaval during the English Reformation from Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I (bloody Roman Catholic Mary) and finally the Golden Age of Elizabeth I with her distinctive via media philosophy (and the theology of via media established by Richard Hooker), to establish a rival Calvinist church in England could amount to nothing less then treason.

And finally, given Wesley’s clear authority in the Methodist movement, he saw himself (and rightly so) as the one most responsible to rein in George’s dangerous theology. A few things could have changed the situation, of which John would have left George alone, 1) if George had changed his views or 2) if he stopped associating himself with the Methodist movement. But as long as he did, John saw George’s theology mingled with his influence to be dangerous to the Methodist people and the goal of the movement. Dangerous to the Methodist people because it resulted in many of them being persecuted for establishing another church in England. Dangerous to the goal of the movement because Wesley saw Calvinism as one of the roots of antinomianism (greasy grace) which stood opposed to the philosophy of a “holiness revival”.

With this Wesley saw Whitefield’s claim “to offer Christ to everyone” as nonsensical to him. How can Whitefield be a revivalist preacher who offers Christ to everyone when his theology forbids it? Maybe an illustration can help:

You have been given a piece of paper from the city magistrate with five names on it and told, “here are the names of the prisoners which I have elected to be set free from prison. I want you to go to the prison and announce the good news of their salvation”. What sense would there be in announcing salvation to everyone in the prison if only the five elected ones are able to receive that message? Your announcement wouldn’t be sincere at all.

For Wesley, this theology presented a serious problem for the preacher of holiness. “Just because Whitefield could say he offered Christ to everyone did not mean that he had no basic differences with Wesley’s Arminian theology. For Wesley, the consequences of these differences and the choices they entailed were crucial to the very heart of religion itself, holy living” [p.144]. It is important to keep in mind that despite all of this, Wesley held out hope – no matter how remote – of convincing Whitefield for the sake of everything mentioned above and also for the sake of their own friendship.

As the Methodist movement matured, Wesley – the gifted organizer – methodically began to host conferences to hash out issues which were in need of being hashed out if the movement was to go forward. In an effort to find common ground for the Methodist cause Wesley invited Moravians and Calvinists to these conferences and was willing to extend an “olive branch to the predestinarians such as Whitefield” [p.142]. This was not to be a kangaroo court like Dort, the intention was for sincere unity among the diverse. Alas, neither the Moravians, nor the Calvinists (not even Whitefield) attended the conference. As sad as their absence was, as a consequence those conferences amounted to a demarcation of the Calvinist and Lutheran positions from the Methodist. Yet still Richard Heitzenrater leaves this comment about the final conclusion drawn from the conference:

On the last day, the question of union with the Moravians and Whitefield was discussed. The former was given up as a lost cause; the latter was allowed if he should make any overtures. [p.145]

The Methodists saw the Lutherans as a lost cause, neither worth debating or pursuing in fellowship. But they would attempt if at all possible to keep the doors of dialogue and fellowship open to Whitefield for as long as possible in hopes that “he”, Wesley or Whitefield, should find a way to bridge the relationship.

In light of this overview, I’m not sure if we ought to give too much credit for Whitefield’s avoidance of this debate or discussion. I think Wesley was rough around the edges and perhaps too much of a think to allow his mind to avoid serious tension. He simply couldn’t ignore the issues or their consequences. We could say Whitefield was a lover, not a fighter. But I think such a holy high ground is not always so holy.


The point of all of this is that the issue with Whitefield is not one of John simply attacking a Calvinist, but it is an issue of protecting and maintaining stability of Methodism and those who belong to the movement, as well as attaining to – as much as possible by 1744 – continued union with the Church of England, of which the Methodist belonged and of whose theology Wesley and the Methodists shared.

So Wesley could say that Arminians ought not speak overly ill about Calvinism in a general context (see here), while continuing to press for debate with George Whitefield in a specific context as a matter of inter-denominational dispute, even preaching it from the pulpit to correct the error if it has infiltrated his gathering. My hypothesis is that Wesley could do this without a great deal of irony attached.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://jose.cr Jose HC

    Wow Derek! You certainly put a lot of work into your posts. I admire you for that. I am not sure about this and of course it doesn’t necessarily impact the thread of your story, but isn’t it on Wesley trip to Georgia that he actually ‘becomes saved’ (and I hate to say it like this). We tend to look back at that encounter that John had with the Moravians as a pivotal moment in his faith, ministry and walk with the Lord.

    I owe you a response to that hosting email/question you sent… but I would also like to chat with you one of these days to catch up. The family is down your side of the world but I stayed in Toronto. Let me know and I can call you tonight.

    God Bless and press on!

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Hi Jose, it’s good to hear from you.

    You are right that it was this period in which John encountered the Moravians and had some sort of spiritual encounter which he defined as his heart being “strangely warmed”. So we can say for sure that something happened during his fearful ship voyage which was pivital for John’s personal life as well has his future ministry.

    But his ministry in Georgia bore almost zero fruit and ended with him hopping ship to avoid the law. Very interesting story.

    I believe I answered the host question (found here), but feel free to call anytime tonight after 9:30 if that’s not too late.


  • http://www.jonathanandersen.com Jonathan Andersen

    If you want to look more in depth at how Whitefield and Wesley’s debate played out Wesley’s Free Grace sermon was first, followed by Whitefield’s letter of rebuttal, and then Wesley’s tract Predestination Calmly Considered. Reading these in that order greatly help to illuminate their discussion.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Jonathan I’m definately going to get around to doing just that.