As I type, the Building Bridges Conference sponsored by the Southeastern Seminary and the Founders Ministries is coming to a close. You can find the audio here, here, or here. Central to this conference are questions over Calvinism and Arminianism. This debate has raged white-hot among Southern Baptists as some deny the validity of the Calvinistic position for Southern Baptists while others vehemently defend it. One of the results of this debate is misunderstanding and division. Hopefully, this conference will be one step towards reconcialiation, peace and cooperation–only time will tell. Nonetheless, this issue has divided brothers for years. What can we learn from some of our forefathers on this issue?
Robert Philip gives an excellent account of the division between Whitefield and Wesley in his Life and Times of George Whitefield.
George Whitefield’s Arrogance
In March, 1741, George Whitefield set sail to return to London after his first two year stint in Colonial America. In response to his dear friend, John Wesley, who “some way or other, had been prevailed on to preach and print in favour of perfection and universal redemption; and against election,” Whitefield responded with a strong defense of “absolute reprobation.” Robert Philip claims that neither Wesley nor Whitefield had read a word of Calvin before their conflict, but “when they began to preach, the one for and the other against it.” They both published on the subject, and in one fit of arrogance, Whitefield embarrassed his dear friend in print, by publishing an otherwise private conversation. Whitefield would repent of this offense his whole life. However, Wesley’s public humiliation was unbearable, and separated the two, even to Whitefield’s death. When Wesly recieved the published Letter from Whitefield, he tore it to pieces:
I will do just what I believe Mr. Whitefield would, where he here himself.
See one account of John Wesley’s struggle with Calvinism in Iain H. Murray’s Wesley and the Men Who Followed. Buy it on Amazon.
John Wesley’s Unforgiving Spirit
In his biography of Wesley, Iain H. Murray claimed that “Calvinism, as Wesley misunderstood it, meant no proclamation of the love of God for all men.” Thus, Wesley was theologically predisposed against Calvinism. He could not budge, neither could Whitefield. Furthermore, Murray reports that Wesley was pained as his closest followers turned to Calvinism: “But during this time, well nigh all the religious world hath set themselves in array against me, and among the rest of many of my own children, following the example of one my eldest sons, Mr Whitefield.” Even after Whitefield’s death, Wesley defended himself against his former friend. His paranoia controlled him. However, Whitefield, in numerous letters, sought reconciliation with Wesley. Whitefield, though, was unwilling to give up his Calvinism, though he loved Wesley from the bottom of his heart. It appears that Whitefield’s theology sparked fear in Wesley.
Hear Whitefield cry:
Ten thousand times would I rather have died than part with my old friends. It would have melted any heart, to have heard Mr. Charles Wesley and me weeping, after prayer, that if possible, the breach might be prevented.
But the damage had been done, and the rest of their lives, they were in competition.
How often does this conversation end just as it did with these great lights of God’s kingdom?
Are you quick to humiliate the brother who disagrees with you?
Are you slow to forgive the brother who misrepresents your position?
Let us listen to how these two still respected each other:
Mr. Wesley I think is wrong in some things, and Mr. Law wrong also; yet I believe that both Mr. Law and Mr. Wesley, and others, with whom we do not agree in all things, will shine bright in glory. It is best therefore for a gospel minister, simply and powerfully to preach those truths he has been taught of God, and to meddle as little as possible with those who are children of God, though they should differ in many things.
Wesley: (Note: Wesley Preached the Whitefield’s Funeral in England)
His [Whitefield’s] fundamental point was, Give God all the glory of whatever is good in man: set Christ as high, and man as low as possible, in the business of salvation. All merit is in the blood of Christ, and all power in and from the Spirit of Christ.
What can we learn from Whitefield and Wesley’s mistakes?
What can we learn from the mutual love for one another besides?