While there is an abundance of scholarly work on John Wesley and the early Methodists, Dr. Ryan Danker, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity and Methodist Studies at Wesley Theological Seminary, breaks new ground with the publication of his book, “Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism.”
“There were three things I set out to do” he said, referencing his latest publication. “The first was to look at the basic question of why John Wesley split from other evangelicals who hoped to remain affiliated with the Church of England.”
Most scholars look to theological differences as the core cause, but Danker noted that those differences existed for 40 years before Wesley’s split with the Anglican Church occurred. “What I found in my research,” he said, “was a much messier, more nuanced situation. It involves theology, yes, but also politics — politics in the church and politics of state.”
Danker’s second purpose was, in his words, to “bring Wesley and Methodist studies into conversation with Evangelical studies.” Along the same lines, he hoped to link historical theology with a study of social history. “We must take seriously that certain beliefs are there in history, that theology matters, but we must also take seriously the context within which theology takes place,” he said. “Historical theology can’t exist in a vacuum.”
Danker found a perfect example of the interdependence of social context and theology in the person of King George III.
“Americans don’t appreciate him like they should,” he pointed out. “For us, he’s the epitome of the bad guy, but he also changed the political dynamic of Britain.”
As Danker explained, the reign of George III was marked by a Parliamentary power shift from the Whigs to the Tories. “And the Tories were the Church party,” he said. “It creates this very interesting situation where the Church of England and the Tories are in lockstep. And the Tories represent the High Church Monarchist Movement, which fit very well with Anglican theology at the time.”
In this political atmosphere — and in an era that saw anti-monarchist revolutions in France and the United States — the Methodists became suspect.
“They’re creating a subculture that some see as a challenge to the Church of England,” Danker said. “It was the same as the Puritans upsetting Church and Crown in the 17th Century. Methodists are seen in a very suspicious light. Ironically, the Wesleys themselves were Tories!”
Professor Danker’s students know that he has a passion for the Wesley family, and for John Wesley in particular.
“What really grabbed my attention was [John Wesley’s] doctrine of holiness,” he said. “He takes seriously the whole person. God’s grace is powerful, yes, but that doesn’t mean this is going to be some pie-in-the-sky easy thing. Wesley takes seriously both the truth of the human condition and God’s grace.”
The dedication of Danker’s book includes a short list of mentors who have had a profound effect on his work. Among them is David Hempton, whose book “The Church in the Long Eighteenth Century” Danker assigns to his Church History students.
“Hempton’s one of the leading social historians today,” Danker said. “He taught me to see things in a much broader context, using his social-historical methods. As a result, I am able to introduce people into this narrative that I may have missed.”
Danker also credits Hempton with lifting up the essential role of women. “He reminds us that Methodism is a movement predominately made up of women,” he said. “We can’t overlook the reality that the average Methodist is a woman, having the same struggle, the same experiences as John or Charles Wesley, or anyone else during those years.”
He adds Richard Heitzenrater, also mentioned in the dedication, to his list of important influences.
“It was a culmination of my training under these two men that allowed me to write the book,” Danker said. “Richard is a classic historian, and one of the greatest Wesley scholars alive today.”
As author and professor, Danker sees the study of church history as key to successful ministry.
“I want to make history available to the people in ministry, essentially because there’s no reason to recreate the wheel,” he said. “We have a great cloud of witnesses to help us, but if no one tells you that they exist then the people in ministry might think they’re experiencing something entirely new each time they come up against a challenge — either personal or professional.”
“Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism” is available from Amazon and other outlets.
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