There were two movements, more or less within the Methodist Societies, during the lifetime of the Wesleys, that threatened to wreck their work. The first emanated from Molther and the Moravians, the second from Whitefield and his followers.
A perverted Quietism, introduced by Molther, caused the breach with the Moravians, and gave the Wesleys a great deal of trouble for some years afterwards, especially in 1739 and 1740. Those who came under the spell made much of the text -- the locus classicus of Quietism -- Be still, and know that I am God.' Stillness' meant to cease from the means of grace, and even from the reading of the Scriptures and prayer, because of the peril of trusting in them. Those who were still' would call themselves nothing but poor sinners' or happy sinners' -- greatly to the disgust of honest John Nelson, whose robust common sense held the poor sinnership' in hearty contempt. Two passages from Charles Wesley's Journal for April, 1740, will sufficiently illustrate the situation and the peril. April 8: I got home, weary, wounded, bruised, and faint, through the contradiction of sinner; poor sinners, as they call themselves, these heady, violent, fierce contenders for stillness. I could not bear the thought of meeting them again.' April 25: Many here (in London) insist that a part of their Christian calling is liberty from obeying, not liberty to obey. The unjustified, say they, are to be still: that is, not to search the Scriptures, not to pray, not to communicate, not to do good, not to endeavor, not to desire for it is impossible to use means without trusting in them. Their practice is agreeable to their principles. Lazy and proud themselves, bitter and censorious toward others, they trample upon the ordinances and despise the commands of Christ.'
There are many allusions to stillness' in the hymns. One is headed The True Stillness':
Still for Thy loving kindness, Lord,
I in Thy Temple wait:
I look to find Thee in Thy word,
Or at Thy table meet.
Here in Thine own appointed ways
I wait to learn Thy will;
Silent I stand belore Thy face,
And hear Thee say, Be still!'
Be still, and know that I am God!'
'Tis all I live to know!
To feel the virtue of Thy blood,
And spread its praise below!
Another hymn has the lines,
Place no longer let us give
To the old Tempter's will;
Never more our deity leave,
While Satan cries, Be still!'
Stand we in the ancient way,
And here with God ourselves acquaint;
Pray we, every moment pray,
And never, never faint.
Another hymn is a lament over those who had lapsed into stillness':
Whom still we love with grief and pain,
And weep for their return in vain.
In vain, till Thou the power bestow,
The double power of quickening grace!
And make the happy sinners know
Their Tempter, with his angel face;
Who leads Them captive at his will,
Captive -- but happy sinners still!
Another is entitled A Poor Sinner':
I would be truly still,
Nor set a time to Thee,
But act according to Thy will
And speak, and think, and be.
I would with Thee be one;
And till the grace is given,
Incessant pray, Thy will be done,
In earth as 'tis in heaven.
The other movement was the Calvinistic propaganda. Many of the hymns of Methodism reflect the life-long controversy of the Wesleys with the Calvinists.
It was undoubtedly these great hymns that were largely accountable for the diffusion of Arminian doctrine throughout evangelical Christendom. In this respect they mark a theological epoch. For the work of the Wesleys was the death of Calvinism, or at least of its baser nature.
The Calvinism that survives in the world today is a thing refined, rarefied. The baser sort of Calvinism is so utterly extinct in our days -- thanks to Methodism -- that it is difficult for us to realize that it ever existed. The sublimated spirit of Calvinism that lives in the modern representatives of the Reformed Churches we can admire greatly. The deep sense of the sinfulness of sin, the profound apprehension of grace as utterly and unutterably undeserved, the humility and the reverence which attend upon these thoughts -- all these are spiritual characteristics for which we cannot be too thankful. And we could willingly detect more of all these notes in modern religion.
There, indeed, lies at once the source and the strength of all that is best in Calvinism. The doctrine of Calvin is the doctrine of Augustine, extended to its relentless issue, and it is in the religious experience of Augustine that we must seek the germ of his doctrine. It was Augustine's deep conviction of sin and his sense of absolute helplessness apart from the overmastering and overwhelming grace of God -- it was this, passing into his writings, and, after many centuries, developed with pitiless logic, by a mind much more formal and much less subtle than his, which became Calvinism. At this time of day we can afford to recognize that the noble source of the doctrinal perversion was nothing less than that deep instinct of the Christian soul which is expressed in the language of Toplady:
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling!
This is the better side: there was a worse. There is plentiful evidence of that in the early literature of Methodism. Charles Wesley once quoted from Calvin's Institutes (l. iii. c.24) a frightful passage concerning the reprobate, God speaketh to them that they may be the deafer: He gives light to them that they may be the blinder; He offers instruction to them that they may be the more ignorant; and uses the remedy that they may not be healed.' And elsewhere the poet of Methodism records that during his exposition of a controverted passage of Scripture at Bristol one of his hearers even called for damnation upon his own soul if Christ died for all, and if God was willing THAT ALL MEN SHOULD BE SAVED.' This was the faith, and this the temper of eighteenth-century Calvinism. And this was where the early Methodists joined issue with the doctrines of grace.' What the Wesleys contended for was a universal gospel; what they denied vehemently was that doctrine of election which, as John Wesley said, amounted to this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can.'
It is characteristic that the reasons for which the Wesleys opposed Calvinism were all practical reasons. It disturbed the peace of the Societies, and they were forced to fight it for the sake of peace. It appeared amongst the early Methodists as an alien propaganda, and it had to be encountered. Then it led undoubtedly to serious laxity of conduct: the Antinomian peril was very real in the early days of Methodism, and it was largely the result of Predestinarian doctrine. Antinomianism was not then the mere ghost of dead heresy or the bold paradox of exalted pietism, but a hideous danger, which the Wesleys met everywhere. And then the doctrinal grounds of opposition were also practical. Neither of the Wesleys had much interest in speculative theology. But they preached an illimitable salvation; they denied that there was any limit whatever to the gospel except such as was set by the unwillingness of men to accept salvation. They taught that the forgiving love of God was boundless.
The literature of the controversy between Methodism and Calvinism is today largely forgotten. It is as well so. The pamphlets and sermons of 1740 and 1770, the publications of Wesley, Fletcher, and Olivers on the one side, and of Whitefield, Toplady, and Sir Richard Hill on the other, have only an antiquarian interest. All that really survives today from that remote contest is a batch of hymns -- Toplady's Rock of Ages! cleft for me.' -- and many of the stirring stanzas that Charles Wesley wrote at the time. Several of these familiar hymns, indeed, can scarcely be understood as they ought unless we remember the implicit protest against a limited gospel which they contain.
The world He suffered to redeem:
For all He hath the atonement made;
For those that will not come to Him
The ransom of His life was paid!
O for a trumpet voice
On all the world to call!
To bid their hearts rejoice
In Him who died for all!
For all my Lord was crucified,
For all, for all my Savior died!
O let Thy love my heart constrain,
Thy love for every sinner free,
That every fallen soul of man
May taste the grace that found out me;
That all mankind with me may prove
Thy sovereign, everlasting love.
But if it be asked where in these hymns of controversy Charles Wesley's most effective protest against the doctrine of Calvin is to be found, there can be little doubt, we think, that it is in precisely those lines which express the deepest depth of humility, the lines in which he writes of the grace of God:
Throughout the world its breadth is known,
Wide as infinity!
So wide, it never passed by one,
Or it had passed by me.