Apr 28, 2015

Wesley the Evolutionist?

by Matthew McEwen

John Wesley is best known for his sermons, but in addition to journals, letters, and Biblical commentary, he also wrote material in other fields such as medicine and the natural world.  One publication could even be considered an environmental textbook entitled, “A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation.”  Given that John Wesley (1703-1791) was a life-long student and read of scientific discoveries, it is an interesting question to consider is whether he would have been an evolutionist had he been a contemporary of Charles Darwin (1809-1882)?  

A recent example of someone describing Wesley as an evolutionist is found in the book God of Nature and Of Grace. Author Michael Lodhal acknowledges that John Wesley claimed the earth was 6 000 years old, yet he raises the question of whether Wesley would still make the same claim today.  Lodhal’s suggests: “He would have no good reason to do so.  Astronomical evidence clearly teaches us that our universe is many billions of years old; geology’s evidence is that our planet is at least several billions years old; biology and genetics offer abundant evidence that living things have evolved in amazingly complex and painstaking routes over many millions of years.”   Since Wesley’s understanding of anatomy included the four basic elements, “It is quite obvious that Wesley did not glean this concept from the Bible; rather, it was part and parcel of his experience of the world, culturally mediated, as the ‘popular science’ of his day.”  This Lodhal uses to say that Wesley’s experience informs theology and reading of Scripture.  As such, were Wesley to have the knowledge of today’s science, he would be led to conclude that the earth is billions of years old. 

Michael Lodhal is not the first, however, to describe John Wesley as an evolutionist.  Laura Bartels Felleman’s article “John Wesley’s Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation: A Methodological Inquiry ” lists the various historical suggestions of Wesley as an evolutionist.  The first such claim began with William H Mill’s “John Wesley an Evolutionist” in 1893.  A similar claim occurred in 1924 by Frank Collier, in a pamphlet entitled “Back to Wesley” A third claim happened a year later with the title John Wesley the Evolutionist and suggested this theory was cordially accepted.  In an article in the 1927 Methodist Review by William C.S. Pelloew there is reasoning to explain why Wesley would have studied the claims for evolution based on his interest in science and the natural world.  But this work does not claim Wesley would have agreed, only that he would give the theory a thorough and serious consideration.   Felleman points out that, “In this letter to the editor of the London Magazine, Wesley is criticized for rejecting the latest theories in astronomy.  Wesley’s response was that he did not find these theories convincing and could not subscribe to them with full confidence.  This correspondence shows that Wesley was not as receptive to every scientific theory proposed during his lifetime….”    

As far as the Bible is concerned, Wesley never questions the Biblical account of creation, the condition of pre-fall humanity, or the flood narrative.  One would be right to suggest Wesley would give a fair and thorough consideration of the scientific discoveries of the later 1800s, or what is known today, but his conclusion on the matter of creation versus evolution must remain mere speculation.  It would be inappropriate for either side of the debate to claim John Wesley as their champion.

Many Christians today are concerned with the ongoing debate about the origin of species, but what also requires special attention today is the extinction of species.  Of course there is not much sense in caring for penguins or polar bears if one’s end-time theology is such that humanity is going to be raptured into heavenly bliss while this old earth is destined to burn to a crisp.  While Wesley the evolutionist might be unresolved, John Wesley’s eschatology is very clear.  Turning to one of his sermons (“The New Creation”) we hear him say that there is hope for this earth because of a glorious expectation that one day, “all the earth shall then be a more beautiful paradise than Adam ever saw.”   It would be hard, if not impossible to make the case for Wesley the evolutionist, but reading his sermons such as “The New Creation” or “The General Deliverance” or reading his “Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation,” those who do want to claim John Wesley as their champion are those who would call him Wesley the environmentalist.         


* Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation is available here: http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/a-compendium-of-natural-philosophy

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