John Wesley and the End of the World

SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS may not al­ways recognize the debt of gratitude we owe to our Methodist brethren. Yet we do owe it, and not altogether because Ellen Harmon's spiritual nature was first quickened and nour­ished within the Methodist Church.

Associate Professor of English and Literature Pacific Union College

SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS may not al­ways recognize the debt of gratitude we owe to our Methodist brethren. Yet we do owe it, and not altogether because Ellen Harmon's spiritual nature was first quickened and nour­ished within the Methodist Church. The Wes­ley brothers themselves played no mean part in preparing the world for the third angel's mes­sage. For just as John Huss contributed his ashes and Luther his Ninety-five Theses to the Reformation, so John and Charles Wesley, un­der the impulse of the Holy Spirit, restored to modern Christianity the primitive evangelistic zeal and heartfelt Christian experience that have been outstanding characteristics of the Seventh-day Adventist movement.

These are not the only bonds between us and Methodism, however, for dozens of Methodist hymns deal with the second advent of Christ. In fact, the feeling of joyful anticipation of the soon coming of Jesus is a theme that runs throughout the thirteen volumes of poetry com­posed by the Wesley brothers. The following familiar lines from our own hymnal are but a sample of the many, many verses that these gifted and dedicated men contributed to Ad­ventist hymnody.

Lo! He comes, with clouds descending,

Once for favored sinners slain;

Countless angels, Him attending,

Swell the triumph of His train:

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

Jesus comes, and comes to reign.

Other lines underscore the imminence of His appearance and call attention to the signs of the times.

Lift your heads, ye friends of Jesus,

Partners in His patience here;

Christ to all believers precious,

Lord of lords shall soon appear:

Mark the tokens

Of His heavenly kingdom near.

Hear all nature's groans proclaiming

Nature's swift-approaching doom!

War and pestilence and famine

Signify the wrath to come.1

The writer also points out how it is possible to expect the end soon without setting a date for it.

Thy judgment is reveal'd,

The time from man conceal'd;

Yet His saints the signs shall know

When their Lord will soon appear,

When the floods of sin o'er flow,

Then they find that Christ is near.2

Still other lines suggest an explanation for the mystery surrounding the time of the end. Why hath God conceal'd the day

When He will to judgment come? That we every moment may Stand prepared to meet our doom.3

In recent years it seems that many Methodist leaders, like those in some other Protestant churches, have concerned themselves less with the nearness of Christ's coming and more with movements for improving man's lot in this life —that is, with social and political amelioration and with such problems as the abolition of slav­ery. Doubtless these activities fall well within the spirit of brotherly love, which is at the heart of Christianity. But many feel that the tendency to emphasize welfare in this world, when ac­companied by a slackened interest in eschatol-ogy, indicates a falling away from Wesleyan theology. This is not the case, however; for in 1755, after the Wesleys had written and pub­lished njost of their hymns, John adopted a new theory of final events, which pushed the second coming of Christ off two thousand years from 1836.

This chronology was not original but was taken bodily from a famous contemporary Ger­man theologian, Johann Albrecht Bengel, who had described his own curious ideas about the end of the world in a book called Gnomon Novi Testamenti. At the beginning of Wesley's comments upon Revelation in 1755 he grace­fully acknowledged his indebtedness to this German scholar by declaring that never until he read the works of "the Great Bengelius" had he understood the last book of the Bible. "But these," he added, "revived my hopes of under­standing even the prophecies of this Book: at least many of them in some good degree. . . . The following notes are mostly those of that excellent man."

Bengel's eschatological ideas were certainly revolutionary as far as Wesley was concerned. The following, in brief, is his theory: By 1836 certain wicked powers in our world would be overthrown. Then a millennium of bliss would begin on earth. At the end of this period Satan would be unleashed on our globe for another thousand years, during which the saints of God would be in heaven. At the close of the second millennium Christ would descend from heaven to judge the wicked and destroy the world by fire.

This seems to have been the final view of John Wesley about the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

It is interesting to speculate upon the effect this change may have had on the subsequent course of Methodism. Several facts provide clues. In the first place, we know that Wesley did not hide his new ideas, for he published them in 1755. In the second place, it seems that he did not dogmatize upon them or press them upon his followers. There are two reasons for this conclusion. For one thing, he continued to publish hymns proclaiming the soon coming of Christ long after 1755. In fact, two of the verses quoted in this article were published under John Wesley's editorship in 1762. Then too, very few, if any, Methodist leaders appear to have adopted the Bengelian views; and subse­quent theologians like Adam Clarke set forth theories of their own in such a way as to suggest that there was no orthodox Methodist doctrine on the subject to be challenged.

What influence then did Wesley's change of mind have upon his denomination? No one can know exactly, of course, but in view of later developments in the Methodist Church—the decreasing use of eschatological hymns in Meth­odist services and hymnals, and the increasing emphasis upon the Christian's duty to make life better for his fellow man in this world—it seems more than likely that the great founder's own doubt about the ancient and deeply em­bedded Christian doctrine of a soon coming Saviour played a strong part in shaping subse­quent denominational attitudes toward the fi­nal events in human history. At any rate, it is clear that recent trends in the Methodist Church are more at home with John Wesley's later theories, whereas Seventh-day Adventists have more in common with his pre-Bengelian Methodism.

1 The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley, G. Osborn, ed., 1868-1872. 13 vols. "Thy Kingdom Come," found in Vol. VI (1758).

"2 Ibid., Vol. X, a paraphrase of Matt. 24:37 (1762).

3 Loc. cit.

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Associate Professor of English and Literature Pacific Union College

April 1960

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