Recognizing that John Wesley’s influence on “the people called Methodists” in both Britain and the new United States of America was significant and extensive, we ask, “How did Wesley engage in dialogue with the science of his day?”
While a definitive answer to this question may not be possible, we can make a few observations that help to put Wesley into a proper socio-historical context and suggest that, if Wesley were alive today, he would fully support the science-and-religion dialogue.
Starting with Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” at Aldersgate in 1738, we realize immediately that during the last 50 years of Wesley’s life, when he reached the pinnacle of his preaching and organizing success, Wesley was living through what we now identify as the “enlightenment” in England, which coincided with the advent of the industrial revolution. Wesley’s primary concern was always “the common man” and the newly displaced working-class who were migrating to the cities and struggling to eke out a living. That being said, Wesley was fluent in Latin and Greek, immersed himself in the study of the Eastern church Fathers, and paid keen attention to the writings being circulated from the members of Britain’s Royal Society. Not only did he continually re-issue his “folk medicine” handbook, the “Primitive Physic”, by 1755 Wesley was compiling essays and articles from the most eminent natural philosophers of his day. By 1763, he had enough material to publish a two-volume edition called “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation, or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy,” which he insisted that his preachers read with familiarity. By its third edition in 1977, “Survey” had grown to five volumes.
Wesley also had written and published (in 1760) an account of his own investigations in the workings of electricity, called “The Desideratum, or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful” (which appears to have come to the attention of Benjamin Franklin, among others). Beginning in 1781, when he began publishing his monthly magazine for the literate masses, “The Arminian”, he frequently serialized longer sections from his “Survey”, as well as “The Desideratum”, and often reprinted articles on scientific subjects from the Royal Society and others sources. This clearly seems to qualify Wesley as a precursor for engaging in a dialogue with science, noting several key points: (1) Wesley, first and foremost, was a preacher, who valued piety and works of charity as the pre-eminent “marks” of faith; (2) the “science” that we know in our day was hardly a mature field or a settled discipline in Wesley’s time – for example, Newton’s “laws” had yet to be definitively confirmed; (3) although Wesley championed “reason” as a legitimate route for understanding and describing the natural world, when the discussion turned to “cause”, the final arbiter for Wesley was always God; (4) although Wesley reprinted vast sections of material in his “Survey” and in “The Arminian Magazine”, he edited out the more strident sections of those scientists who were beginning to make ontological claims based on their reductionist experiments, and in his own commentaries, he exhibited what we can identify as a “modest theology” that recognizes the limits as to what we, as humans, can know for certain; and (5) in contrast to those (like Francis Bacon) who called for man to reclaim the mastery of a fallen creation, Wesley pleaded for resuming a loving stewardship with the natural world, appropriate to the realization that we have an integral connection to it all.
For more on John Wesley:
1) Donat, James G. (2001). The Rev. John Wesley’s Extraction from Dr. Tissot: A Methodist Imprimatur. In History of Science, Vol. 39 (2001), pp. 285-298.
2) Donat, James G. (2006). Empirical Medicine in the 18th Century: The Rev. John Wesley’s Search for Remedies that Work. In Methodist History, Vol. 44, pp. 216-226.
3) English, John Cammel. (1991). John Wesley’s Scientific Education. In Methodist History, Vol. 30, pp. 42-51.
4) English, John Cammel. (1991). John Wesley and Isaac Newton’s System of the World. In Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Vol. 48, pp. 69-86.
5) Felleman, Laura Bartels. (2004). The Evidence of Things Not Seen: John Wesley’s Use of Natural Philosophy. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Drew University, Madison, NJ.
6) Felleman, Laura Bartels. (2006). John Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation: A Methdological Inquiry. In Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 58, pp. 1-6.
7) Haas, Jr., John W. (1994). John Wesley’s Views on Science and Christianity: An Examination of the Charge of Antiscience. In Church History, Vol. 63, pp. 378-392.
8) Haas, Jr. John W. (1994). Eighteenth Century Evangelical Responses to Science: John Wesley’s Enduring Legacy. In Science and Christian Belief, Vol. 6, pp. 83-102.
9) Haas, Jr., John W. (1995). John Wesley’s Vision of Science in the Service of Christ. In Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, Vol. 47, pp. 234-243.
10) Maddox, Randy L. (2009). John Wesley’s Precedent for Theological Engagement with the Natural Sciences. In Wesleyan Theological Journal, Vol. 44, Number 1, Spring, pp. 23-54. [This paper was presented first to the Wesleyan Theological Society.]
11) Maddox, Randy L. (2007). Anticipating the New Creation: Wesleyan Foundations for Holistic Mission. In Asbury Journal, Vol. 62, pp. 49-66.
12) Maddox, Randy L. (2007). John Wesley on Holistic Health and Healing. In Methodist History, Vol 46, pp. 4-33.
13) Maddox, Randy L. (2008). Reclaiming the Eccentric Parent: Methodist Reception of John Wesley’s Interest in Medicine. In Deborah Madden (Ed.), Inward and Outward Health: John Wesley’s Holistic Concept of Medical Science, the Environment, and Holy Living (pp. 15-50). London: Epworth Press.
14) Meeks, M. Douglas. (2004). Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation. Nashville, TN: Abington Kingswood Books.
15) Oord, Thomas Jay. (2009). Divine Grace and Emerging Creation: Wesleyan Forays into Science and Theology of Creation. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Press.
16) Schofield, Robert E. (1953). John Wesley and Science in 18th Century England. In Isis, Vol. 44, pp. 331-340.