“The Mystery of Iniquity”: John Wesley’s View of the Apostasy

By October 4, 2010

Continuing on this theme, I wanted to give a little summary of John Wesley’s view of the apostasy. Wesley, whose Methodist movement was highly influential on Mormonism, was very interested in “the mystery of iniquity” or how Christianity had become corrupted. His speech by that name covers his views on the issue (Wesley’s Works vol. 3, Sermon 61) and offers additional, useful ways to look at the apostasy.

To Wesley, the apsotasy wasn’t about doctrine or priesthood, but about the conduct of Christians. Wesley sees the apostasy beginning in the Book of Acts, first with the failure to adhere to the community of goods and then with the disputes between Greek and Jewish Christians. Ananias and Sapphira were proof of one of Wesley’s major concerns: the danger of riches. “Mark the first plague which infected the Christian church! Namely the love of money! And will it not be the grand plague in all generations, whenever God shall revive the same work?” (456). Wesley sees Paul’s letters, particularly that to the Corinthians, as further proof that the mystery of iniquity had begun shortly after the ascension of Christ. In fact, Wesley wasn’t impressed with the apostolic church, generally. “We have been apt to imagine that the primitive church was all excellence and perfection! … But how soon did the fine gold become dim! How soon was the wine mixed with water! How little time elapsed before the god of this world so far regained his empire that Christians in general were scarce distinguishable from heathens, save by their opinions and modes of worship!” (461).

Yet after the apostles, Wesley sees continual decline. Yet God chastened the early Christian through persecution and thereby was able to regain pure Christian practice. This all ended with Constantine which removed the persecution, increased the wealth, both of which has disastrous consequences for Christian piety. Wesley did not see the apostasy as total, however. “Indeed, I would not dare say with George Fox that this apostasy was universal; that there never were any real Christians in the world from the days of the apostles till his time. But we may boldly say that wherever Christianity spread, the apostasy has spread also. Insomuch that although there are now, and always have been, individuals who were real Christians, yet the whole world never did, nor can at this day, show a Christian country or city” (466). The Reformation brought a minor reprieve but again, for Wesley, true Christianity was about conduct not doctrine and rituals. “It is certain that they were reformed in their opinions as well as their modes of worship. But is not this all? Were either their tempers or lives reformed? Not at all…. Ye fools and blind! To fix your whole attention on the circumstantials of religion! Your complaint ought to have been, the essentials of religion were not carried far enough. You ought vehemently to have insisted on an entire change of men’s tempers and lives; on their showing they had ‘the mind that was in Christ’, by ‘walking as he also walked.’ Without this how exquisitely trifling was the reformation of opinions and rites and ceremonies!… How little are any of these reformed Christians better than heathen nations!” (465). And later, “Which are the most corrupt, infernal, devilish in their tempers and practice? The English or the Indians [Asian]? Which have desolated whole countires, and clogged the rivers with dead bodies? ‘O sacred name of Christian! how profaned!’ O earth, earth, earth! How dost though groan under the villainies of thy Christian inhabitants!” You get the idea.

Wesley’s hope was to revive true Christian practice in Great Britain and beyond by focusing on instilling greater piety in peoples lives through earnest preaching (see above) and class meetings to keep people on the path of righteousness.

Anyway, that piety is more important than doctrine and ritual, that riches is the biggest danger, that the initial decline began with the failure to have all things in common, and that the apostasy wasn’t total as long as there were righteous individuals on the earth are all useful things to consider.

As a further question, did Joseph Smith, or other early Mormons point to any time periods or events in the early Christian church as being significant for the cause of the apostasy? Are any specific issues or dates mentioned?
__________________________
For an overview, see Darren Schmidt, “The Pattern of Revival: John Wesley’s Vision of ‘Iniquity’ and ‘Godliness’ in Church History,” in Revival and Resurgence in Christian History, ed. Kate Cooper and Jeremy Gregory (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2008).

Article filed under Christian History


Comments

  1. A post after my own heart, Steve. Thanks. Do you have any sense of how this trickles down into the general discourse of Methodists in GB and America? My forthcoming JMH article engages Wesleyan notions of “the form and power of godliness” a bit, wherein Methodists describe other Christians (Episcopalian, Presbyterian, etc.) as possessing the form but lacking the power of saving religion (by which they usually mean popular piety and an emphasis on experimental religious practice), which they see Methodism as possessing. JS’s first vision narrative speaks to this issue, of course, by turning the tables on Methodism and quoting deity as telling him that the Methodists (along with all others) have a form of godliness but deny the power thereof.

    I’m not familiar with Schmidt’s article, and appreciate you pointing it out here. I’ll have to get my hands on it.

    Comment by Christopher — October 4, 2010 @ 7:24 am

  2. Also, regarding your last questions:

    As a further question, did Joseph Smith, or other early Mormons point to any time periods or events in the early Christian church as being significant for the cause of the apostasy? Are any specific issues or dates mentioned?

    Richard Bennett and Amber J. Seidel wrote a somewhat brief but useful piece on LDS notions of the apostasy from 1830-1834 and concluded that early Saints spoke in fairly general terms (i.e. a corrupt and confused Christianity with blasphemous doctrines, the scattering of Israel, etc.) about the apostasy and usually did not emphasize the loss of priesthood authority as being central to that apostasy.

    Comment by Christopher — October 4, 2010 @ 7:44 am

  3. Of course the early Church at that time didn’t really have much of a concept of priesthood either and probably didn’t even have much contact with Catholics relative to various protestants. Indeed the rise of priesthood within the Church was problematic to many.

    Comment by Clark — October 4, 2010 @ 10:37 am

  4. Steve, if you don’t mind another comparison to continental developments, German Anabaptists made similar arguments about Lutherans and Calvinists. The need for true Christians to exhibit a godly life was one reason that some Anabaptist groups insisted that ecclesiastical discipline was one of the signs of the true Christian search, with a greater emphasis on banning, shunning, and excommunication.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — October 4, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

  5. Thanks, Chris. As far as the influence, I don’t know. However, Schmidt in the article I cite mentions a work by Wesley that would be worth looking into. It’s Wesley abridgment and annotation of Johann Mosheim’s extensive work on the history of Christianity. Wesley’s abridgment is 4 volumes with an introduction, annotations, and his own history of Methodism tacked on at the end. The intro, says Schmidt, reiterates the themes mentioned in his sermons. Thus it would be interesting to see how popular Wesley’s abridgment was. William Appleby cites Mosheim when he talks about the history of Christianity. Schmidt did not do an analysis of Wesley’s annotations but that would be interesting also.

    Thanks for the note on Bennett and Seidel. Clark, good point about the priesthood, that would be an unfamiliar concept to most converts (what is the good research on the topic?)

    Thanks Jonathan. I think I may put a post on Troeltsch next.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 4, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

  6. Didn’t Francis Asbury talk about apostasy after the first century and view methodism as a sort of restoration?

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 4, 2010 @ 6:44 pm

  7. Thanks J., that would be consistent with Wesley’s views. Do you remember where you read that?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 4, 2010 @ 11:12 pm

  8. thanks for keeping these rolling, steve.

    as christopher could tell us, there is an abridged mosheim among the titles of joseph smith’s nlli contributions. not sure whether it’s wesley’s abridgment though.

    Comment by g.wesley — October 5, 2010 @ 8:34 am

  9. IIRC, Hatch briefly mentions Asbury’s views on an apostasy, but I’ll have to check when I get home today to be sure. Is that where you read it, J?

    Comment by Christopher — October 5, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

  10. Yeah, Christopher, that is what I was thinking. pp. 82-3 and 167.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 5, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  11. Thanks all. Moshiem seems like the important link here. William Appleby wrote a history of the apostasy called A Dissertation on Nebecudnezar’s Dream in the 1840s where he uses Mosheim. He slams on everybody, Catholics and Protestants but is positive about Wesley. This fits Wesley’s pattern: he ends Mosheim with his own history of Methodism.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 6, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  12. How does this play into the classic arguments of formalism vs. enthusiasm? There’s a lot of work done to find oneself in the Christian past by inspecting it with a selective lens. (evangelicals often invoked the Moravians, no?) JSJ and the Mormons did it a lot, as mb and I argue in a paper I’d really like to have the time to finish revising. More broadly I see people carrying and quoting Rollins, Ancient History in this period.

    Comment by smb — October 6, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

  13. Wesley uses that (enthusiasm/formalism) when he defends Montanus, an early heresy that was in to prophesy. That’s about all I saw though. He also defends Pelagius but for different reasons.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 6, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  14. Ah, Steve–I’d momentarily forgotten Appleby, who is certainly relevant here.

    As an aside, have you given any additional thought to publishing a critical edition of his journal?

    Re: JS’s copy of Mosheim listed in the Nauvoo Library records: Quinn suggests in Magic World View that Smith’s copy was the 1833 abridged edition published in both GB and the US because the records indicate that it was “1 Vol” (see p. 497, n78).

    Comment by Christopher — October 6, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  15. Thanks for the note Chris. And yes, I do want to publish Appleby’s journal. I talked to Connell O’Donovan about getting some help with it and he was interested but I sort of let it drop because I’ve got to sprint to the finish line on this Ph.D. thing. So in a couple of years!

    Comment by Steve Fleming — October 7, 2010 @ 12:52 pm


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