Material History of American Religion Project

Why A Sanctoral Cycle?

Or, Are We Ready for Methodist Hagiography?

In this article theologian Clifton F. Guthrie outlines the history of sainthood in the Methodist tradition. He argues that, while many Protestants dismiss the idea of sainthood as a "popish" relic, Protestants in general and Methodists in particular often mimic the Catholic tradition in their interest in saints, martyrs, and confessors. In this Methodist hagiography, his work reveals, material objects--relics and shrines--play an important role. This discussion makes his work particularly relevant to the Project. Guthrie welcomes comments on his paper; he can be contacted at cguthri@emory.edu.

Introduction

The followers of John Wesley, Jacob Albright, and William Otterbein have always been interested in sanctification, the way God makes human lives holy. This is simply another way of saying that United Methodism has at its very deepest roots a strong desire to understand the ways that God makes saints out of us. Laurence Stookey points out that the word 'sanctoral' simply signifies something relating to sanctity and sanctification.(1) When used in a general way like this 'sanctoral' is a good Methodist word that could be used to describe anything that has to do with the process of sanctification.

But in For All the Saints we propose a sanctoral cycle for United Methodists, a specific calendar of the commemoration of saints. This move from the general discussion of sanctification to the idea that certain persons can or should be named as being "saints" makes most Protestants nervous. "Almost at once," Stookey writes of this nervousness,

it will be objected that "Protestants do not have saints." Yet by opening my local phone directory I can readily find listings for St. Francis Episcopal Church, St. James Baptist Church, St. John's Lutheran Church, St. Paul's Moravian Church, John Knox Presbyterian Church, John Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury United Methodist Church, and Luther Rice Memorial Baptist. Congregations name their social halls and societies after Martin Luther, John Calvin, Susanna Wesley, Barbara Heck, Richard Allen, Frances Willard, Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day. Of course Protestants have saints, just as do the Orthodox and Roman Catholics. The contemporary hymn writer has it exactly right: "Rejoice in God's saints today and all days; a church without saints forgets how to pray." (2)

I want to press Stookey's observation further and claim that Protestants do not just occasionally use the names of biblical saints and other holy persons when they are looking for a name for their fellowship hall or bible class. Protestants, and specifically, those Protestants who have joined together to form The United Methodist Church, have intentionally and unintentionally tended to practice the remembering of saints in many of the same ways that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have always done. Despite its ingrained Protestant iconoclasm, a deep suspicion that to remember saints is a soft form of idolatry, when one actually takes a close look at the way Methodism and its sister traditions have represented in story and in art the persons they regard as being especially holy and exemplary, they have done so in ways strikingly similar to how Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians have remembered their saints.

I decided to use story and art (3) because I think the best way to enter into the world of the saints is not through our left brains but our right. We are going to engage in an exercise of lateral thinking or religious imagination, not one of proof and doctrine. This is an intentionally lighthearted exercise--some of the parallels mentioned are deeply revealing and others are simply interesting and fun. But by the end of it I hope that you will find yourself reframing the question you may be asking about the place of a calendar of saints in United Methodist spirituality. For I think that the question United Methodism faces is not whether remembering saints should be a part of its prayer tradition, but rather: What are we to do when we come to grips with the reality that remembering saints has been an important part of Methodist spirituality from the very beginning?

Even raising this question may come as a shock to those who know the stern language of the fourteenth Article of Religion: "The Romish doctrine concerning purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God." One might too easily conclude that this had forever removed the possibility of Methodists remembering saints. This statement, adopted in whole by Wesley from the twenty-second Article of Religion of the Church of England, probably shows more Reformation prejudice and misunderstanding of Roman practice than anything else. But it also leaves plenty of room for the remembering of saints so long as this does not include worshiping their images and praying to them for intercession. (4)

That it can be and has been interpreted so generously is evident not only from the wide and official Anglican and Episcopalian use of the sanctoral cycle, but by the growing affection of many contemporary United Methodists for the celebration of All Saints' Day. (5) As we shall see, there is also a substantial difference between the official policy outlined in Article XIV and what has actually been done by many ordinary Methodists and Methodist leaders. But what follows is not a defense of the commemoration of the saints among United Methodists —and certainly not an argument that we should run roughshod over the Articles of Religion. Nor is it a detailed discussion of what John Wesley thought of the practice of remembering saints. Such discussions can be found in the Introduction to the book and in articles by Geoffrey Wainwright and Laurence Stookey. (6) Rather, I will paint in some broad strokes some of the characteristics and practices of the remembering of saints in the ancient and medieval church and show some suggestive parallels with similar practices among Methodists. (7) We will look first at parallels in the way martyrs have been remembered in the early church and in Methodism, then at confessors, and finally, at the use of relics, shrines, and calendars.

I. Suffering and Dying Like Christ: Martyrs in Art and Story

By the end of the first century, the term saints was becoming less commonly a term used to describe the entire people of God (as it was primarily for Paul) and more specifically applied to those Christians who had died in the Roman persecutions. The first publicly recognized Christian saints were martyrs. In remaining faithful despite the violence being inflicted upon them, these persons were thought to have become in some way special indicators of God's continuing presence in a dark time. Martyrs not only died for Christ, but many, the Christians were noticing, were also dying like Christ, recapitulating the suffering and death of Christ for the whole world to witness again and again. Hence they were called witnesses, martyrs; for how they died revealed once again how Jesus died; and how Jesus died, Christians believed, had a lot to say about God's dealings with the world. Blandina, a new convert to Christianity and a slave, was (by one account) bound to a stake and killed by wild animals in the second century persecutions in Lyons. Eusebius relates the effect of her suffering upon other Christians

Since she seemed to be hanging in the form of a cross, and by her firmly intoned prayer, she inspired the combatants with great zeal, as they looked on during the contest and with their outward eyes saw through their sister Him who was crucified for them, that He might persuade those who believe in Him that everyone who suffers for the glory of Christ always has fellowship with the living God. (8)

Christianity was a young movement trying hard to differentiate itself from the prevailing and violent culture around them. This visible recapitulation of Christ encouraged them in the face of overwhelming persecution.

The idea of Christian martyrs as co-sufferers with Christ goes back at least to Luke's portrayal of Stephen, who like Jesus, prays at his moment of death that his spirit may be received and the sins of his persecutors forgiven (Acts 7:54-60, compare Luke 23:34, 46). The martyr does not resist physically, but prays, and it is this confidence that reveals the faithful nature of the martyr. Although done at a much later date, illustrations in the Menology of Basil II, a tenth-century Byzantine pictorial calendar of saints in the Vatican Library, echo this understanding. The scenes are of great pathos; the martyred saints are bent over or on their knees awaiting the blow of a club or a sword from the hand of their enemies. They don't fight back; their hands are slightly raised, perhaps in a position of prayer.

Early Methodist preachers in England also suffered persecution at the hands of mobs wielding clubs and these scenes were also represented in story and art. George Whitefield encountered a violent "popish mob" at Oxmanton Green in Dublin, Ireland. As Whitefeld himself relates the story,

volleys of hard stones came from all quarters, and every step I took a fresh stone struck, and made me reel backwards and forwards till I was almost breathless, and all over a gore of blood. I received many blows and wounds; one was particularly large and near my temple. They almost killed me. I thought of Stephen, and as I believed that I received more blows, I was in great hopes that like him I should be dispatched, and go off in this bloody triumph to the immediate presence of my Master.

The event and Whitefield's words are recounted in A. S. Billingsley's biography of Whitefield (1878) and accompanied by a telling illustration, titled "Whitefield Mobbed." (9) Whitefield is pictured in a passive posture, clinging to a friend at a doorway, his eyes raised confidently to heaven as one person threatens him with a club and others shower him with stones. As his journal entry makes clear, he accepts his suffering and the possibility of his martyrdom and raises the parallel with Stephen himself. Whitefield didn't die from this persecution, nor did John Wesley, who is often featured in many similar nineteenth-century drawings of mob scenes. (10) But a few of the itinerant British preachers did die in these early persecutions of the 1740's and 1750's. The Methodist preacher William Seward is considered the first Methodist martyr. He was killed by a mob in Hay, South Wales on October 22, 1740. "Before he died," one historian notes of the scene in a way sharply reminiscent of Christ and Stephen, "he prayed for his murderer and begged that no attempt should be made to punish him." (11)

For Christians of every age, suffering and martyrdom has not generally been taken as a sign of defeat, but as a sign that God was still working through the same mysterious process of redemption through blood. That is why it didn't seem strange to show the Apostles and other key saints holding the instruments of their torture and death. Bartholomew was said to have preached the Gospel in India and Armenia where he was flayed alive and then beheaded. He is often portrayed holding a flaying knife in one hand and his skin in the other, as he is in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" painting in the Sistine Chapel. Bartholomew became the patron saint of tanners, those who work with skins, an indication of the redemptive spirituality found in even the most bloody stories of martyrdom.

Martyrs tended to be so closely associated with the facts of their deaths that it was somewhat unusual to portray them except during or after the point of their martyrdoms. Sometimes they are portrayed during the act itself, in which case the painting was primarily intended to teach the story. Alternatively, they are depicted for devotional purposes as they might have looked sometime after their deaths, or perhaps as they might appear in heaven. It is not unusual, therefore, to see saints who had been beheaded pictured holding their heads in their arms (in which case the halo or nimbus is usually painted above the empty space where the head would normally have been!). In much the same way, Saint Sebastian was a favorite subject for devotional artists. Sebastian, a soldier shot with arrows by Emperor Diocletian for trying to help suffering Christians, became very popular during the time of the plagues for his immense faith in the midst of suffering, and was invoked by those who prayed to God for protection. In fact, Sebastian didn't die from his arrow wounds, but recovered, went to confront the Emperor again, and was subsequently beaten to death with clubs. Yet Sebastian is famously depicted as a human pin cushion, innumerable arrows pointing out from his head and body at impossible angles. The fact that many artists tended to overdo it with the arrows demonstrates the deeper importance placed upon the saint as a devotional image rather than as a moral exemplar.

In a vastly different time and place, Methodists living in the wild and threatening American frontier found safety and desperately needed social connection in the faithful ministry of the circuit riders. But the harsh conditions of itinerant ministry took their toll. One interesting drawing (12) shows a circuit rider frozen to death in the snow in the woods. His rigid body is kneeling, his hands are clasped in prayer and he is looking straight ahead, certain of the promise of the gospel he has served. A 1950's history book put the experience of the circuit rider this way:

Appalling dangers were braved daily by Methodism's 'men on horseback,' dangers from storms, swollen streams, wild beasts, Indians, desperadoes, hunger. They ate where and what they could; they slept in the woods when they could not find a cabin. How did they stand it? They didn't! They died! Of the first 650 preachers, 500 had to "locate." Of the first 737 who died, 203 were under thirty-five years old, and 121 were between thirty-five and forty-five. Nearly half died before they were thirty. Two thirds of those whose records are known died before they preached twelve years, and 199 died within the first five years. (13)

Methodist circuit riders, of course, did not meet their deaths at the hands of governmental authorities like most of the early martyrs did but they died just the same for their faith. For this, Methodists have always deeply revered and even found strength for themselves in remembering them. The circuit riders' renown is closely tied to the suffering they underwent in their ministries.

Before there were widespread pictorial images of martyrs there were the martyrdoms themselves, the oral and written stories of famous martyrs like Perpetua and Felicity, Polycarp, and Ignatius. The martyrdoms gradually began to take on regularized features that made them more effective as stories of encouragement: the martyr would generally approach death calmly, nobly, and full of faith, while the persecutors were unspeakably cruel and unfeeling. The persecutors attempted to sway the convictions of the condemned Christians with last-minute appeals, but they would respond with statements or sermons about their steadfast hope in God and go off to their deaths. In these stories, the way the martyrs were treated and the way they responded were so vastly different that it tended to prove God's faithful presence with them to the end.

Such formalized martyr stories belong to the early age of the Church and are rare, of course, in Methodist literature (or for that matter, in any post-Enlightenment Christian literature). But there is one story that particularly caught my eye. Boldly titled, "The Martyrdom of Bewley," it appeared in the Methodist Review of the Methodist Episcopal Church North, in October, 1863. Anthony Bewley, a northern preacher and abolitionist working in Missouri and Texas (land clearly under the jurisdiction of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South), was condemned as a terroristic abolitionist by a rigged court, captured by a mob of bounty-hunters, and strung up on a tree.

Written during the height of the Civil War, Bewley is pictured in this twenty-page account in the Northern magazine as an heroic Christian martyr, always surprising his vicious captors by his gentle spirit and firm character. Bewley writes a tear-jerking farewell letter to his destitute family (one daughter of which was blind) in which he affirms his deep faith in God and encourages them to be likewise faithful. Then he is hung.

But [as the account continues] the scene of Bewley's murder does not end with his unlawful arrest, or his treatment on the long journey from Missouri to Fort Worth .... His burial corresponded to his cruel death. Not even a decent grave was opened for his reception. A very shallow opening was made in the ground. The rope with which he was hung was cut, and his lifeless remains were dishonored by a crashing fall. Without shroud or coffin, the body of the martyred man was then deposited with scarcely a covering of mother earth. It is said, too, that when the interment was finished his bare knees protruded above the scanty soil that half covered them, while the shallow grave was too short to permit his lifeless remains to be placed in a decent horizontal position.... Thus closed the earthly career of the sainted minister of Christ, away from his wife and children. He was murdered by the hands of his merciless persecutors, and now the place of his last repose is almost unknown. (14)

Bewley's story shows many rhetorical parallels to the earliest martyrdoms. The gentle and faithful Bewley is contrasted at every turn by the cruel and faithless persecutors. This is, of course, political as well as religious rhetoric—the writer was aiming at a general portrayal of the South during the war as well as at the Southern branch of Methodism. We know from some newspaper accounts of the time that the Southern rendition of the Bewley story painted him in shockingly unflattering terms. It does go to show, however, that given the right incentives, Methodists know instinctively how to make the story of a murdered Christian serve political and religious purposes in many of the same ways martyrdoms did for the early Church.

The early association of sanctity with suffering and martyrdom set the enduring pattern by which Christians recognized saints. The moment of death and how one approached it was the key by which the worthiness of the entire life was judged. Hence, some notable saints are remembered almost like martyrs for persevering in their faith while on their deathbed. I think here of Macrina the Younger, sister of Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. Macrina fell ill in 379 and Gregory rushed to her side. Although very weak, her reflections on the impending afterlife inspired Gregory to write the important treatise, On the Soul and the Resurrection. "Her last audible words before death were a prayer to God to "forgive me so that I may be refreshed and may be found before You once I have put off my body, having no fault in the form of my soul, but blameless and spotless may my soul be taken into Your hands as an offering before Your face." (15)

The death of John Wesley in 1791 was similarly dramatic, particularly as painted by Marshall Claxton and Henry Perle Parker. The bedroom in which he died was actually quite small, but in these paintings he is surrounded by an impossibly large group of important early Methodist figures. A glowing light surrounds his saintly head and mysteriously illuminates the room. Wesley is said to have gathered up his last strength and astonished his visitors by singing Isaac Watt's hymn, "I'll praise my Maker while I've breath." And the day before he died he said, "The best of all is, God is with us." (16)

Accounts of artful and poignant Christian deaths were often published in Wesley's Arminian Magazine; a good third of each issue contains the stories of the lives and deaths of persons Wesley wanted Methodists to remember and imitate. Barnabas Brough wrote a typical article: "Some Account of the Life and Death of Mrs. Sarah Brough" (his wife), which appeared in the magazine in 1780. "For the comfort and encouragement of those who are struggling heavenward, through the help of my loving God," wrote Brough, "I would write down his gracious dealings with my dear deceased wife: especially when she was to face Death, who is the King of Terrors to such as are strangers to the precious name of Jesus." (17) The Armenian Magazine also frequently published poetry which praised the life of important persons after their death. (18)

The of Whitefie1d, Wesley, and the circuitriders, the martyrdoms of Seward and Bewley, and the deathbed scenes of Wesley and other early Methodists are all marked by story and art as being religiously important to subsequent generations of Methodists. That they are related at all shows a strong continuity with traditional Christian understandings that God's work is often particularly made manifest where faithful persons undergo persecution and suffering. How they are related also stands in strong continuity with long-established hagiographica1 and devotional patterns. Whitefield and Seward suffer like Stephen. John Wesley has a halo. Bewley is a martyr. These are religious interpretations of historical events, statements of faith about God's hidden work at the intersection of life and death, time and eternity. Like portrayals of saints across the ages, these interpretations give subsequent Methodists aural and visual clues to the holiness of the figures whose stories are being related.

II. The Cloud of Confessors: Martyrs in White

Some early Christians suffered intense persecution for confessing their faith to the authorities but did not die. The early church soon realized that these survivors too had demonstrated a remarkable holiness in their perseverance. They were viewed as leaders in the Christian community and some were granted the authority of ordination. After Constantine and the decline of martyrdoms, desert monks provided a new model of sanctity in their lives of ascetic prayer. Such monks were thought of as "white martyrs," for although they did not shed their blood, they put their flesh to death for Christ every day. Gradually, every saint became classified as either a martyr or a confessor. (19)

With the very few exceptions already discussed above, United Methodism is a tradition of confessors rather than martyrs. A martyr's sanctity is proved by the kind of death he or she undergoes, but a confessor's sanctity must be proven by a life of holiness. Despite popular misconceptions about the Roman process of naming saints, it is their holiness, sanctity, or "heroic virtue" that must be proved for sainthood. Miracles and healings associated with saints are only secondary evidence to their virtues. The most famous and beloved holy saint, of course, is St. Francis. He was the first to receive the "stigmata," the miraculously appearing wounds of Christ and there is no end to the legends told about his way with animals. But it is his embrace of poverty and the poor, and his life of humility and prayer— in short, his holiness—which continues to affect us so deeply.

Wesley's use of the term "saint" reflects this central understanding. In his writings, the term "saint" most often appears as an adjective that he used to describe persons that he personally knew and thought of as particularly holy. If Methodists have a saint famous primarily for holiness, it would have to be John Fletcher or "the saintly" John Fletcher, as Wesley often called him. Fletcher was an Anglican priest and such a trusted supporter of the Methodist revival that Wesley asked him to become the leader of the movement when he died. Fletcher declined the offer, and, in fact, died before Wesley. Wesley preached his memorial sermon on the psalm text, "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright; for the end of that man is peace." In the concluding paragraph of his essay on the life and death of Fletcher, he writes, "So unblamable a man, in every respect, I have not found either in Europe or America. Nor do I expect to find another such on this side of eternity." (20)

Some saints are known for their extraordinary charity, their work among the poor. Again, St. Francis comes to mind. So does St. Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar. St. Frances of Rome, who lived in the fifteenth century, was known as a particularly gentle woman. She spent her life feeding the poor of Rome and founded a women's order to carry on the work. John Wesley marked the extraordinary charity he found in the example of Sarah Peters, who visited condemned prisoners in the Newgate prison, even accompanying the prisoners in the cart on their way to their executions. During one of her visits, she caught a fever in the prison and died. Wesley wrote an account of her life and death in his journal and published it in the Arminian Magazine as an example for other Methodists. He said of her that, "I never saw her, upon the most trying occasions, in any degree ruffled or discomposed, but . . . always loving, always happy." (21)

Some women, like Frances of Rome and Sarah Peters, were revered as saints precisely because they transgressed the gender codes of their day, and by doing so, affected the lives of many. I think also of Clare of Assisi; and of Joan of Arc, who gained the trust of the French armies, and led them to repeated victories against the English wearing men's clothing and white armor. It is impossible to speak of Susanna Wesley without remembering the many ways that she transgressed gender boundaries. She taught and-preached in the Epworth rectory; she advised John to allow lay preachers to continue their important work, and by her example of teaching the female children in the family, she provided a model for John to encourage female leadership in the Methodist societies and classes. Susanna Wesley's willingness to stretch the boundaries lay behind some of chief innovations and successes of the Methodist movement, and it is for these contributions that her memory is so dear. There are many like her. Mary Bosanquet Fletcher's preaching ministry in Madeley continued long after the death of her husband John and earned Wesley's approval. In America, Catherine Garrettson not only provided a ministry of hospitality for traveling preachers in her well-loved home, she also preached, taught, and led worship there. (22)

Unlike many martyrs, some confessors have not been thought to have been passive in their resistance to evil and danger, but have been particularly celebrated for their willingness to claim the power of God to confront and subdue it. The most famous of these stories may be that of St. George and the dragon, first told in the Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine. George attacks and subdues a dragon for evangelistic purposes: he tells the people that if they believe in Jesus Christ they will be saved from the beast, whereupon he kills the dragon and then baptizes 15,000 souls.

Something on a less grand scale, but of the same ilk are the almost "tall-tale" stories that surround Peter Cartwright and the brute physical strength that he sometimes used as an evangelistic tool in the wild northwest territory. One story is told in which Cartwright forcibly baptized a strapping ferryman who had challenged him, pushing him under water until he finally consented to pray the Lord's prayer. To everyone's amazement he soon became a dedicated Christian. Another Cartwright story tells of a fistfight that erupts when a local tavern keeper who fears for his business tries to keep Cartwright from entering his territory. Cartwright started singing "AII Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" and finished off the burly tavern keeper by the time he came to the end of the first verse. But Cartwright is a facetious example. Methodist history is rich in its stories of saintly people who fought hard resisting the dragons of liquor, slavery, and the oppression of women: Mary McLeod Bethune, Thomas Coke, Richard Allen, Maggie Newton Van Colt, Harriet Tubman, and Frances Willard. These people, good Methodists all, are remembered precisely because they met the force of evil with the force of the gospel.

There are a number of saints who cannot be remembered without bringing to mind their extraordinary personal experiences of God. Some of these are conversion experiences, as with the Conversion of Saint Paul and Augustine's conversion in the Milanese garden where he hears the children's voices to take up and read the scriptures. So significant is Paul's Damascus Road experience, that it is remembered separately by the Church on January 25. In a 1601 painting, Caravaggio breaks new ground in representing the event. Usually depicted with a vision of Christ gloriously bursting through the clouds, in this painting Paul's overwhelming experience is painted as an interior one—the servant sees nothing but his master bathed in a heavenly light, lying blind and helpless in the road.

Albert Outler has written that, "in the Methodist tradition the Aldersgate experience stands as the equivalent of Paul's experience on the Damascus road and Augustine's conversion in the Milanese garden." (23) So significant to American Methodists is Wesley's interior heartwarming, that no matter how much scholars continue to debate its actual significance for Wesley, the United Methodists have decided to provide worship resources for the annual celebration of Aldersgate in The United Methodist Book of Worship. You may well remember the excitement and celebration that accompanied the 250th anniversary of Aldersgate in 1988.

A few important clergy saints are not celebrated on the date of their deaths, as is usual, but on the dates of their investitures or ordinations. Ambrose, for example, has been remembered since the eleventh century on December 7, the day of his consecration by sudden and popular acclamation. Perhaps keeping his memory on this date does poetic justice to the irony that Ambrose was very reluctant to be made a bishop but was, in fact, an outstanding one. Dr. Thomas Coke came to America carrying orders from John Wesley to ordain Francis Asbury and make him a general superintendent for America. Asbury surprised Dr. Coke at Barrett's Chapel by saying that he would not serve as a general superintendent in America unless he were chosen by the other preachers. As the famous painting by Thomas Coke Ruckle indicates, the consecration of the reluctant Asbury in the Lovely Lane Chapel on December 27 was the centerpiece of the Christmas Conference of 1784 and many regarded it as the founding moment of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

And finally, some saintly theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila were called "Doctors of the Church," for their saintliness resided chiefly in their ministries of teaching (in person and through writing). In much the same way, Methodists have revered the memories of their important theologians like John Fletcher, Georgia Harkness, and Richard Watson.

Parallels between Methodist and pre-Reformation confessors should not surprise us. Countless others could be drawn. To lay them out in this way is just another way of saying that faithful Methodists have served Christ like faithful Christians have always done. Wesley certainly understood his movement to be in continuity with the deep tradition of the church. And yet it is still interesting to note how many of the ways we remember our Methodist forebears fit the old patterns. The categories we use and the signs of holiness for which we look are an inheritance from a time long before Methodism's beginnings and inevitably shape the way we see. Christians, whether Roman or Methodist, tend to keep an eye out for God's work in the world. Is it any wonder that they notice the same scarlet thread of holiness in God's continued weaving of the world?

Now we move on to see how these same Christians who notice the thread then choose to hold it up to the light. From parallels between the saints themselves, we now look at the relics, memorials, and calendars that Christian communities have sought and constructed to aid the process of their memory.

III. Relics, Memorials, and Calendars

Early in the process of making saints, people thought that the bones and relics of the saints continued to be powerful symbols and carriers of God's continuing presence. The Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how the early Christians treated his remains after he was burned at the stake:

Thus we at last took up his bones, more precious than precious stones, and timer than gold, and put them where it was meet. There the Lord will permit us to come together according to our power in gladness and joy, and celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already contested, and for the practice and training of those whose fate it shall be. (24)

Some important saints are remembered, not on the date of their death, but the date of the translation of their relics to a church altar, which was thought to be the proper place for them to be kept. Elaborate reliquaries, golden containers with little glass windows containing the finger bone of an apostle, a thorn from the crown of Christ, or a piece of the "True Cross" are familiar sights in Europe and the East, particularly in the museums attached to important cathedrals. Churches and monasteries also frequently have their own collections of relics --minute pieces of skin or bone displayed in tiny bejeweled ornaments. (25) During the height of the veneration of saints in the Middle Ages, important relics of a patron saint might be processed among the streets for the people to see and touch in an annual celebration. These relics, seemingly gory when compared to our culture's tendency to conceal the facts of death, were perhaps the most important and visceral connections that ordinary believers made with their faith. Relics were tangible objects which conveyed spiritual power and assured them of a deeply incarnational God. The appeal of such an immediate and physical connection with one's past community of faith and its saintly figures seems deeply human to me. Perhaps that is why I was not surprised to see many of the same practices emerge occasionally among Methodists.

Take, for example, the story of Asbury's body. Francis Asbury died at the home of George Arnold in Spottsylvania County on March 31, 1816 after refusing to rest from his traveling and preaching when he became ill (In his last delirium he tried to take up a collection for missions!). He was initially buried in the Arnold family cemetery, but as the following account makes clear, his body did not long rest there:

". . . a few weeks later, at the request of the society in Baltimore and of the General Conference, then in session, it [his body] was conveyed to that city and re-interred with solemn rites. The procession started from the Light-street Conference room on the tenth of May, the double coffin being borne by twelve pall-bearers. All who attended were on foot, as was customary in those days of simple manners. At the head came Bishop McKendree and the Rev. William Black, who was general superintendent of the Canada work of the British Wesleyan Conference and represented the brethren of British nationality. The governor of the state, the Protestant Episcopal bishop, and many representatives from the other churches were present, as well as all the leading citizens of Baltimore; and the whole concourse must have numbered twenty thousand people. The distance to the Eutaw Street Church, where a crypt had been prepared under the pulpit for the reception of the remains, was over a mile. Here Bishop McKendree, before the coffin was lowered, gave a short address, dwelling on the chief points in the character and career of the dead man." (26)

The General Conference met again in 1820 at the Eutaw Street Methodist Church. And when two-thirds of the delegates voted that presiding elders should not be appointed by bishops but elected by annual conferences, they probably heard Asbury rolling in his grave. It is interesting, and probably in keeping with Protestant liturgical sensibilities, that Asbury was buried underneath the pulpit rather than the altar (the relics of Richard Whatcoat, however, were buried under an altar at Wesley Chapel in Dover, Delaware, above which Asbury preached his funeral sermon).

Forty years later, Asbury's relics were "translated" once again, this time to the Mount Olivet Cemetery, where many other important Methodist relics are kept. An official souvenir book of the Sesqui-Centennial commemorations (held October 10-14, 1934 in Baltimore) writes in loving detail the history of the Mount Olivet Cemetery, particularly of the "Preachers' Lot" and the Bishops' Monuments (marking where Asbury, Enoch George, John Emory, and Beverly Waugh are buried). It also briefly recounts the cemetery as a pilgrimage site:

Here on Memorial Day for many years Epworthians gather to place flowers on graves in the Preachers' Lot, and elsewhere. Here the Board of Bishops of the Methodist Episcopal Church, at an annual meeting, assembled for song and prayer. Here the Jason Lee Covered Wagon made its journey in May, 1934, and a special service was held in the lot close to the bodies of Asbury and Jesse Lee. To a large company of pilgrims Bishop Titus Lowe, Dr. E. D. Koldstedt, and others, spoke words of encouragement and challenge. (27)

When one recalls that early Christian practice of the saints was centered around the cemeteries and catacombs of martyrs, the services and pilgrimages described above suddenly come into focus.

More interesting still is the case of George Whitefield's relics. Whitefield died in 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts where a burial vault was immediately prepared for him at the Old South Presbyterian Meetinghouse in the crypt underneath the pulpit and altar. At least three communities (Boston, Portsmouth, and Savannah, Georgia— where he had founded an orphanage), attempted to secure Whitefield's remains, but the Reverend Parsons at Newburyport held firm. Soon the church became an important shrine and pilgrimage site for Protestants, including the many Methodists who considered Whitefield one of their own. The coffin was opened in 1775 by a group of American Revolutionary soldiers and clergy who removed the clerical collar and wristbands, divided them into pieces for themselves and carried them into battle. Over the next one hundred and fifty years, thousands of visitors would descend into the vault to examine, touch, and sometimes take away pieces of the remains. Jesse Lee commented on the slow decay of the body (a traditional sign of sanctity in Roman Catholicism), took a piece of Whitefield's gown, and knelt to pray. Able Stevens took the skull and held it in his hands. In 1829, the entire right armbone was removed to England only to be returned to the vault twenty years later with a solemn procession of two thousand persons. Despite some protests about the unseemliness of the display of Whitefield's remains the vault stayed uncovered until 1933. (28)

But even this was not the end of the display of Whitefield's relics: a small piece of Whitefie1d's thumb is currently kept in the Methodist Archives at Drew University. There it rests in a case (a reliquary?) alongside Francis Asbury's glasses and thread case, a piece of a stone upon which Asbury sat, a peg from the First Methodist Church in Rahway, New Jersey on which he once hung his coat, and a silver knee buckle and thread case that once belonged to the Methodist theologian Adam Clarke. The archives also contain Wesley's death mask, upholstery from a chair upon which he sat, and a chair upon which he stood to preach in 1765. (29)

The impulse to collect relics and visit shrines continues to reside deeply in Methodism. In the 1850's, the Reverend Andrew Manship was so keen to have a relic of the "Old Elm" at the Boston Common under which Jesse Lee had preached that he stood on his suitcase, jumped upward to grab a branch, and fell flat on the ground. (30) A small rural church connected to a campground in Georgia keeps and reveres an old oak pulpit behind which Asbury once preached. Richard Allen's pulpit, altar, and communion jug are displayed at Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia, the most important shrine of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A marker on St. Simon's Island in Georgia shows the spot where John and Charles first landed in the New World in 1736 and nearby a new United Methodist Church has been built (although it is a quite isolated spot). A major denominational retreat center has been built on the same island where faithful United Methodists can gather to reflect on their Christian lives on the soil where the Wesleys stood. A plaque at the Old North Church in Boston (of Paul Revere fame) marks Charles's having preached there before his return to England. A room in Lincoln College, Oxford was restored by zealous American Methodists in 1928, and named "The Wesley Room," despite the fact that scholars say Wesley didn't actually live in these rooms while he was at Oxford. The other major sites of early Methodist history—including the New Room and Charles Wesley's home in Bristol, Gwennap Pit where Whitefie1d and Wesley preached to thousands, Epworth Rectory, and Wesley's Chapel —are all carefully preserved and visited.

There is no evidence that Methodists have ever thought of these relics and shrines as a source of healing or of them having ever prayed to these persons for intercession. But the very desire to preserve and visit these sites among indicates more than casual historical interest. It shows, I think, a profoundly human spiritual connection that many feel in being in physical and symbolic proximity to their saints. When Wesley's Chapel in London was being renovated for the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Aldersgate, bricks from the original foundation were available for sale in the gift shop. The clerk remarked that they were being sold rather quickly, especially to Americans who more than anyone else seemed to desire to take "a piece of Wesley" home with them.

While they are not relics, strictly speaking, statues and symbolic figures are commonly used by Roman Catholics to stir up the presence and memory of particular saints. Again, these are not uncommon to Methodism. Enoch Wood made a ceramic bust of Wesley around 1780. As Colleen McDannell notes, "within a few years as many as fifty different busts were produced in England by Staffordshire potters. Between 1825 and the 1880's, potters also made statues of Wesley either holding a Bible or preaching from a pulpit." (31) The United Methodist Publishing House continues to produce occasional statues of Wesley. A recent one shows him riding a horse, the scriptures laid open before him on the saddle. Wedgwood produced teapots and plates in 1775, 1838, 1909, and in the 1960's to commemorate Wesley and Aldersgate.

Cups, saucers, mugs, teapots, coin banks, pitchers, and plates also featured Wesley's face and Methodist symbols. A British minister who formed the Wesley Historical Reproduction Association in 1909 advertised "Relics of Wesley Reproduced. Don't Miss a Great Opportunity"; his stated intention was "to introduce to every Methodist home Worthy Memorials of John Wesley." He used the powerful term "relic" as a sales pitch, but what he was really selling were mass-produced medallions, plaques, teapots, and busts that communicated community affiliation.... What the teapots did was to convey the message that their owners were good Methodists. (32)

Bangles, beads, trinkets, and baubles—at the popular, even pretheological level, good Methodists have shown the same enthusiasm for religious goods whose use by their Roman Catholic friends they have tended to suspect as a mild form of idolatry. While there is no evidence that Methodists worshipped relics or invoked saints in prayer and so actually contravened the letter of Article XIV, one can argue that in their use of such religious goods they have had little practical difficulty with much pre-Reformation practice surrounding saints, their relics, and their images.

Churches, of course, have always liked to take on the name of saints, even, as Stookey has pointed out, Protestant Churches. Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, Italy, was suitably honored by the building of an astonishing basilica there. Likewise, there are any number of important United Methodist churches of the same name in cities throughout North America. It is hard to tell sometimes how seriously the local churches themselves take these saintly names, but Stookey tells the story of "St. Mary's United Methodist Church" in southern West Virginia.

At the time of the reunion of the three Methodist denominations in 1939, this town found itself with two congregations that after merger into The Methodist Church would have had the same name. They drew straws, and the congregation that was to become St. Mary's had the task of finding a new designation for itself. In the ensuing discussion, the men of the church confessed: "During the depression we were ready to close this place down and join one of the other Methodist congregations in town. It was the women who insisted otherwise; and they kept us alive by bake sales, quilting bees, bazaars, and church suppers. Perhaps we should name our church after a woman." More discussion followed, in the course of which the pastor (quite a radical, apparently) said, "Well, how about the foremost woman in the New Testament, the mother of Jesus?" And so in 1939 a congregation in rural West Virginia, despite much prevailing anti-catholic sentiment, willingly renamed itself "Saint Mary's Methodist Church. " Honest to God! (33)

Certainly it is common practice to name a church after an important local founder or pastor. Churches with names like "Jones Memorial United Methodist Church," are not at all rare. Pews, stained-glass windows, rooms, and whole wings of churches are named after local "saints." (34) They are stamped with golden plates - signifying the one who gave them or the name of someone the donor c hose to memorialize. Christmas poinsettias, Easter lilies, and weekly altar floral arrangements are frequent sanctuary decorations for many United Methodist congregations chiefly because their donors are able to place names of their dead loved ones in bulletin inserts as a remembrance. When we recall that the practice of commemorating the saints originated at just this local level in the early church, these practices of naming the local saints also seem to show a striking continuity of pre-Reformation rituals among Protestants.

In the later generations of the early Church, when it became more difficult to remember the death dates of so many martyrs, calendars of commemorations were developed to remind future generations of the importance of these exemplary lives. This marks the beginning of the sanctorale proper. Although some saints were widely venerated, it was not until the sixteenth century that there was a centralized calendar decided upon by Rome. Before then, every diocese and monastery had its own list of worthies and patrons important to its own particular locale or tradition.

The first official calendar of saints published by a tradition with roots in Methodism is the calendar of the Uniting Church in Australia. Formed out of the Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian Churches in 1977, their service book, Uniting In Worship (1988) contains a "Calendar of Commemorations." Ninety five commemorations are listed, including John and Charles Wesley who, strangely, do not appear on the days of their death but on May 24, Aldersgate Day. They are listed on the Lutheran and Episcopal Calendars together on March 2 and March 3, respectively (March 2, John's death day, was already taken for the Episcopalians by Chad, the Bishop of Litchfield). More curious is the Methodist Almanac (published 1847-49) which printed a calendar of the births and deaths of persons blessed to the memory of Methodists. Here names like Asbury, Fletcher, Coke, Bishop Emory, and the Wesleys were noted on the days of their births and deaths along with Shakespeare, Washington, Oliver Cromwell, Benjamin Franklin, and Copernicus. While far from a sanctoral calendar, it is an interesting juxtaposition of famous figures with the keeping of time in a particularly Methodistic way. We have already seen how Wesley's journals and the Arminian Magazine were filled with the edifying tales of the lives and deaths of important persons. These regularly appeared immediately after or on the anniversaries of their deaths. The long-published Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review inherited this practice and for many years printed the pictures and stories of important Methodist persons for the public's edification.

Conclusion

In a style appropriate to their age and religious inclinations, Methodists still take up the familiar themes of holiness associated with the lives and symbols of the saints, put them in art, remember them through stories and calendars, and set aside shrines to which they can make pilgrimages. How many thousands of church choirs have gone on English heritage tours led by eager Methodist ministers, perhaps only understanding subconsciously, but surely understanding very well, that they were making a pilgrimage to the shrines and relics of the saints of their faith?

At times the remembering of saintly figures by Methodists closely resembles that of the Church of early and late antiquity. At others there are sharp differences: Methodists were always shy about the close association of the miraculous with the relics and remembrances of their saints, they did not invoke them in prayer for protection or special blessings. There has not been, until now, an intentionally designed and formal calendar of commemorations of the same shape as the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox ones. While Methodists have regarded their important founders and figures in many ways reminiscent of the ancient veneration of saints, their practices have been carried out informally and relatively sporadically.

Even so, some common threads between traditional Roman practice and informal Methodist practice are now apparent. The ways Protestants have recorded the stories of their own saints is not all that different from the ways the ancient and medieval church recorded their stories. Perhaps it is really not so strange a thing at all for United Methodists to take for themselves a calendar of saints. Unofficially, the practice of remembering saints has been right at the heart of United Methodist identity, an identity that some say is today less and less clear precisely because United Methodists have recently been forgetting how to tell their own stories. The calendar in For All the Saints, or one like it, may be one gentle way of recovering some of those stories.

At its root, for a Protestant church to take on a calendar of saints is to make an intentional act of rejoining the Church in one of its most ancient traditions. It is an act of celebrating our deep heritage as Christians, of recognizing the indebtedness we have to the some one hundred generations of Christians who have gone before us and without whose faithfulness and example we would have never inherited the faith from our families and friends. Remembering the saints is precisely that, re-membering them—us joining them as members alike of the one and undivided Church of Jesus Christ.

As Charles Wesley would have us sing:

Come, let us join our friends above, who have obtained the prize,

and on the eagle wings of love to joys celestial rise.

Let saints on earth unite to sing with those to glory gone,

For all the servants of our King in earth and heaven, are one. (35)

Endnotes

1. Laurence Hull Stookey, Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 141.

2. Ibid.

3. The original presentation of this material included forty one illustrations demonstrating artistic parallels in the renditions of the stories of saintly individuals. The present version has been substantially revised.

4. Concerning prayers of intercession to the saints, Wesley was clear and adamant. In his sermon, "The Rich Man and Lazarus," for example, Wesley wrote with his characteristic wit of the rich man's prayer to Abraham for mercy and the rebuke he received: "I do not remember, in all the Bible, any prayer made to a saint, but this. And if we observe who made it, -- a man in hell, -- and with what success, we shall hardly wish to follow the precedent." Works, ed. Thomas Jackson (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), VII: 252.

5. The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) includes officially sanctioned resources for All Saints' Day (pp. 74, 236, 413). It also includes resources for the commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. (435) and Aldersgate (439) plus the important Marian feasts of the Annunciation and the Visitation (256, 257), although these are taken out of their traditional placement in the calendar and mentioned instead in the context of Advent. These are all ways that United Methodist Church already encourages its local churches and members to put the remembrance of saints in their worship and prayer lives.

6. Geoffrey Wainwright, "Wesley and the Communion of Saints," One in Christ, 27 (1991), 332-45. Laurence Hull Stookey," The Wesleys and the Saints," Liturgy 5.2 (Fall 1985), 77-81.

7. Most of the examples that follow come from early British Methodism, the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. This does not reflect a bias against United Methodism's other formative traditions (Evangelicalism and the United Brethren) nor against other Methodist traditions in America and abroad, but rather my knowledge of the most interesting cases I have yet discovered and to some degree the amount of historical materials available. A case could be made that all the branches of Methodism and the Evangelical United Brethren have revered at least their founding figures as saintly persons in many of the same ways these groups of Methodists have done.

8. Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, V. 1, trans. Roy J. Deferrari, The Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc. 1953), 282.

9. A. S. Billingsley, The Life of the Great Preacher, Reverend George Whitefield, "Prince of Pulpit Orators," with The Secret of His Success, and Specimens Of His Sermons (Philadelphia and Chicago: P. W. Ziegler & Co., 1878), 298-99.

10. See Elmer T. Clark, An Album of Methodist History (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), 62-66. During the time of the severe persecutions against Methodists in the early years of the movement, Wesley was always amazed by the fact that the murderous mobs rarely were able to harm him. A number of early drawings show Wesley standing calmly and unharmed in the middle of a mob wielding clubs and stones. In his journal accounts, he was very quick to attribute this inability of the mob to harm him to divine intervention on his behalf. Charles, on the other hand, was always quick to suggest that the reason why the swinging clubs kept missing John was because he was so short.

11. Clark, 66.

12. "A Methodist Missionary Frozen to Death in the Wilderness," in Emory Stevens Bucke, The History of American Methodism, Vol. 1 (New York and Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), illustration #23.

13. Clark, 198.

14. Charles Elliot, "Martyrdom of Bewley," The Methodist Review, 45 (October, 1863), 642-43.

15. Gregory of Nyssa, "The Life of Saint Macrina," in Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan, The Fathers of the Church, No. 58 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1967), 181.

16. Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 308.

17. Barnabas Brough, "Some Account of the Life and Death of Mrs. Sarah Brough," Arminian Magazine, III (1780), 592.

18. See, for example, "On the Death of a Young Gentleman," Arminian Magazine, IV (1781), 676.

20. Interestingly, the Roman Catholic typology of confessors has remained relatively fixed through the ages. Even today, if not a martyr, a saint is classified either as a pastor, doctor (theologian), virgin, or saint. This list has been felt to be an increasingly inadequate characterization of confessors for its bias toward clergy and monastics and its tendency to overlook saintly living among those in secular vocations. Every recent Protestant sanctoral calendar has attempted to expand this typology to be more inclusive: the Episcopal Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1991) added the category of "Missionary" to its common prayers for saints, the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978) and the Uniting Church in Australia's Uniting in Worship (1988) added more abstract categories of confessors like, "Renewers of the Church, "Renewers of Society," (Lutheran and Uniting Church), "People of Prayer" (Uniting Church), and the interesting "Artists and Scientists" (Lutheran). These abstract categories were helpful, but less than fully satisfying. To characterize the many ministries of the Church, what better place to go than the New Testament passages about spiritual gifts? The categories of confessors, then, in For All the Saints, represent a rough reconciliation of Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:8, 28-30, Ephesians 4:11, and 1 Peter 4:10f into the following list: Pastors and Bishops, Evangelists, Teachers, Healers, Leaders, Preachers, Prophets (Reformers), and Saints. To this I added the category of "Musician" to make room on the calendar for the strong heritage of hymnody in United Methodism.

20. John Wesley, "A Short Account of the Life and Death of the Rev John Fletcher," Works X1: 365.

21. John Wesley, "Some Account of Sarah Peters," Arminian Magazine, V (1782), 128-36.

22. Many of the remarkable and gender transgressing ministries of Methodist women are told in the remarkable compilation, Spirituality and Social Responsibility, ed. Rosemary Skinner Keller (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

23. Albert Outler, ed., John Wesley (New York: Oxford University, 1964, 51.

24. The Apostolic Fathers II (Loeb Classical Library), trans. Kirsopp Lake, 337.

25. Those Order of Saint Luke members who attended the 1995 annual retreat will remember the relic collection in the crypt of St. Paul of the Cross retreat center in Pittsburgh.

26. James Wideman Lee et al, The Illustrated History of Methodism (St. Louis, New York: The Methodist Magazine Publishing Company, 1900), 447-49.

27. Methodist Sesqui-Centennial: An Official Souvenir Book (Baltimore: The American Methodist Historical Society, 1934), 45.

28. The fascinating story of Whitefield's remains is told by Robert E. Cray, Jr. in "Memorialization and Enshrinement: George Whitefield and Popular Religious Culture, 1770-1850," Journal of the Early Republic, 10 (Fall 1990), 339-61.

29. Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 42

30. Robert E. Cray, Jr., 356. Andrew Manship, Thirteen Years Experience In the Itineracy with Observations on the Old Country (Philadelphia, 1857), 45-46.

31. McDannell, 43.

32. Ibid.

33. Stookey, Calendar, 147.

34. And it is not at all uncommon to find Methodist saints appearing in stained glass. For instance, the lives of the Wesleys are fixed in a series of windows in the chapel adjoining the headquarters of the North Georgia Annual Conference.

35. The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), no. 709. Emphasis added.


Clifton F. Guthrie received his doctorate in theology from Emory University, and has taught at Emory's Candler School of Theology. This article is reprinted from Doxology: Journal of the Order of Saint Luke 13 (1996), with permission of the author. All rights reserved.


Return to the electronic journal page

Return to the project home page





loading...