I have had the blessing of meeting so many interesting people, and just because some of those people are long dead and I met them through their writing doesn’t mean that their stories shouldn’t be told. I started my research journey asking questions, but things started to take shape when I started to meet people and hear their stories rather than look for proof to support my assumptions about ideas. I was disarmed by the honesty and passion that I felt from the writing of these people. I felt like I had found kindred spirits at times, and at other times I have been challenged by how differently they see the world and encounter God. This kinship and challenge is why I am so happy to share their stories with others through Witnesses of Perfect Love, my forthcoming book about early Methodist spirituality.
The stories of early Methodist spirituality come from a time of spiritual revival in England during the eighteenth century. It was a time of significant social change, one example of which is the increase in literacy and access to writing materials. The boom in letter writing and journal writing are the means through which we can access the personal reflections of not only important people, but everyday people. The eighteenth century in Britain was also a time of spiritual revival. While the overwhelming majority of the British population of that time period would have self-identified at Christian, there was a wave of spiritual renewal that swept across Britain (and revival was similarly was bubbling up in North America) in response to bold and unconventional preaching, and in response to the stories about what was already happening.
While the big sweep of what was happening is very exciting, the small stories are also compelling. I find it easy to keep the stories of revival at arms length when I look around and fail to see the same revival passion and fervour around me today. But the small stories, the everyday stories of encountering God, those I can relate to. The surprising encounter with God in the midst of prayer marked by overwhelming love. The tears of joy in response to feeling forgiven deep down in that place where the hurt and fear resides. The hope for more encounters and deeper communion with God yet to come.
My particular focus in looking for stories is sanctification narratives, that is the witnesses of the experienced described as “perfect love.” The Methodist revival is known for conversion narratives, particularly the account of John Wesley’s own narrative of having his heart strangely warmed. Narratives of conversion can be described as the story of how an individual has an experience where they feel that they personally are loved and forgiven by God. Transformation that inevitably comes from such an intense encounter with God. Yet the reality of the Christian life is that struggles continue after a conversion experience. The struggles may not look the same, the outward change in life makes possible a deeper understanding of our own human brokenness. The narratives of perfect love are a similar to conversion narratives, a similarly personal and intense encounter with God, but they happen later in the spiritual life marking new freedom from the struggles that emerge after conversion.
So, this is my project: inquire of the early Methodist people, “what was your experience of God as you look for transformation and long for perfect love?” They told me so much about the Christian journey, and I hope you will journey with me through some of their stories.
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