Some 18th Century Traditions as a Guide to Detecting our Own

In my recent reading, I have been spending a reasonable amount of time looking into the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the things that I have noticed has been how certain traditions, that to us today seem quite strange, had taken hold and greatly impacted what was considered to be appropriate Christian practice. These types of traditions have been most apparent in the two most recent books I have read, Revival and Revivalism by Ian. H. Murray and a biography on John Wesley written by John Pollock. What struck me about these traditional practices is how people could be so disturbed when those practices were flouted. It seems to me that a look at some related anecdotes, mostly drawn from Wesley’s biography, may perhaps be helpful in helping us in our own day to try to detect where our own cultural traditions have risen to greater import than should be accorded to them. 

Weekly Communion

Back in Oxford, Wesley took a step which was unusual and frowned upon. He began to attend Holy Communion in the cathedral every Sunday. Students and Commoners were required to communicate once a quarter, but to go more frequently was considered indecent, possibly Popish.[1]

The relative frequency of taking communion, especially if that frequency is higher, hardly seems to be a matter to be frowned upon today. During those days, it seems the practice was avoided for the sake of not being like the Roman Catholic Church, not so much for valid theological reasons. 

Not Wearing a Clerical Wig

Churchwardens were irritated that [Wesley] preached without notes with “so very much action” and vehement emphasis. They disliked his remarkable appearance, wearing his own hair long instead of a respectable clerical wig. At St. John’s, Millbank, and elsewhere, he was told he would not be invited again.[2]

Not knowing the exact content of Wesley’s preaching, especially since this was during his earlier years before he understood the full gospel, the irritation regarding his preaching without notes may be well founded if it meant disordered preaching. If it was merely due to the methodology, perhaps not as much so. 

I personally find the statement that he had a “remarkable appearance” for not wearing a wig to be somewhat amusing. There was a standard of appearance expected and John Wesley apparently flouted it. We must ask whether Wesley was unnecessarily provocative to his culture or whether such a triviality was truly a matter for disapproval.

Extemporaneous Prayer

Wesley was so moved that after reciting collects, he broke with Anglican custom and prayed extempore, though he knew that his brother Samuel, if he ever heard of it, would be dismayed.[3]

In Evangelical circles today, praying extemporaneously is the norm and is probably often considered to be the only appropriate method of prayer. It seems entirely likely that someone reading or reciting a prayer (as was the Anglican custom of the day) could be met with a similar reaction today. 

Open Air Preaching

After preaching to a large crowd in a church, during which there were many also outside, George Whitefield found that his voice could not travel through the walls so that those outside could hear. He had at the time had an urge to preach outside from a tombstone, but had restrained himself since such a practice was not done. After this occasion, Whitefield suggested to Charles and John Wesley that perhaps they should try preaching in the open air. In response,  “John Wesley rejected the idea ‘as a mad notion.’ It would be conduct unbecoming to a clergyman of the established church.”[4]

Whitefield would indeed adopt this practice for himself so that he could preach to more listeners at once. Later on, after seeing Whitefield preach to a large crowd in the open air, John Wesley wrote on March 29, 1738:

I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching the in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.[5]

While open air preaching is not the norm of today, I hardly expect it would raise many eyebrows. Though methodology obviously is not inherently neutral, it is still worth examining whether our opposition to certain methodologies is theological or traditional.

Private Prayer and Singing

In Virginia in 1787, at Hampden-Sydney College, a revival began to occur. During the revival, a man by the name of William Hill, who later became a missionary-preacher, was at the college and had taken to meeting with several others for prayer in the woods on Saturday afternoons. One of these Saturdays, they met in a room at the college due to anticipation of rain that day. Hill provides the following account of that day: 

We locked our door and commenced. Although we sung and prayed with suppressed voices, not wishing it should be known what we were aout, we were overheard by some of the students, when it was noised about through every room in College, and a noisy mob was raised, which collected in the passage before our door, and began to thump at the door, and whoop, and swear, and threaten vengeance, if we did not forbear and cease all such exercises in College for the future. We had to cease, and bear the ridicule and abuse of this noisy riot, which could not be quieted until two of the Professors interfered and ordered them all to their rooms. Information of this riot was given to Mr Smith. In the evening the College was rung to prayers. When the prayers ended, Mr Smith demanded the cause of the riot, and who were leaders in it. Some of the most prominent leaders stepped forward and said, there were some students, who had shut themselves up in one of the rooms in College, and began singing and praying and carrying on like the Methodists, and they were determined to break it up. We had nothing to say; we were not absolutely certain that we were justifiable in introducing such exercises in college without first obtaining permission to do so.[6]

As a follow on to the story, Mr Smith was quite happy to hear evidence of spiritual concern in his students, and he rebuked those who had stirred up the trouble. After this, more general spiritual concern spread through the college.

It is noteworthy that here, in this ostensibly Christian college where prayer times existed, the students should seek to essentially attack those having a private time of prayer and singing. Apparently such “enthusiasm” was not becoming of a Christian, though it also does betray the spiritual state of those who were perturbed. The cultural state of affairs had come to look on overly “enthusiastic” displays of Christian piety as something to be suspicious of.

Some Thoughts

I find looking at these practices and reactions to them to be helpful for looking at practices in our own day. Some of them just seem like relics from another time, that those older “unenlightened” people could not see how unimportant they actually were, but such thoughts are merely chronological snobbery. Why did people find the lack of a wig, the open air preaching, or practice of weekly communion distasteful? Was it based upon Scripture and theological principle? Or was it more rooted in some other tradition? We are surely not exempt from such things; what do we do today that is more rooted in our own traditions?? 

This is not to say that anything we do merely out of tradition is wrong or bad; traditions may be great helps in the Christian walk, so long as they are openly recognized as traditions. The problem arises when we are no longer able to recognize that we are holding to traditions, and not to Scriptural practice, and elevate them above their proper place.

I also want to be clear that methodologies, practices, and traditions are not inherently neutral; they say something about our worldview and theological convictions in some form or another. We do want to carefully consider how or why we do things, but we also want to ensure that our opposition against or favor towards certain practices is not merely due to tradition.

In examining ourselves in our own day, do we have practices or traditions that we hold to because that’s the way it has always been done? Perhaps because we do not want to look “too Catholic” or some other such stream of Christianity? Is it just not fashionable? Just as some examples of practices most Protestants have that they hardly ever question, consider these: Why do we bow our heads, close our eyes, and fold our hands when we pray? Why do we pray before meals? Why do we pass an offering plate? Why do preachers make altar calls? These are rather innocuous questions, but I think they are illustrative of practices that are common more out of tradition than any real theological conviction. What other ways do we do this? Are there unhelpful traditions that we need to recognize as such and cast off? Or are there helpful practices that we refuse to adopt due to our traditional hesitations? It’s something worth thinking about. 

[1] John Pollock, John Wesley (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 38. 

[2] Ibid. 89.

[3] Ibid. 92.

[4] Ibid. 110.

[5] Percy Livingstone Parker, ed., The Journal of John Wesley (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1951), 67-68.

[6] Quoted in Iain. H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of America Evangelicalism 1750–1858 (Banner of Truth, 1994), 96-97.

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