The doctrine of hell was once taken very seriously within Methodism. As already explained (March ET), ‘Eternal rewards and punishments’ appears in the Primitive Methodist minuted list of connexional doctrines.
The traditional teaching of hell was strongly upheld by John and Charles Wesley during the eighteenth century. And later, in 1845, John Buckland was removed from the Reading circuit plan as a preacher ‘as he does not believe in eternal punishment’.
Today the online Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland states that, ‘Hell was, in classical Christian theology, the eternal state after death of the finally impenitent and unbelieving…
‘In the 1870s the doctrine, though never discarded, gradually dropped out of normal Methodist preaching … In modern Methodism the subject is not often raised’.
We need to take note of the Dictionary’s point that hell ‘was’ the ‘classical’ Christian teaching. Even early Methodism’s Anglican opponents acknowledged its truth.
For example, the Book of Common Prayer’s Morning Prayer service (used on Christmas Day, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension, Whitsun, Trinity Sunday, and days dedicated to Saints John the Baptist, Matthias, James, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon, Jude and Andrew) begins with the Quicunque vult, a statement which requires faith in the Athanasian Creed.
That Creed declares: ‘Whosoever will be saved: before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholick Faith. Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled: without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
‘Christ … sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty: from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works.
‘And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire. This is the Catholick Faith: which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved’.
Likewise, Article VIII of the 39 Articles requires, ‘The Three Creeds, Nicene Creed, Athanasius’ Creed, and that which is commonly called the Apostles’ Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of holy Scripture’.
Frances Knight, associate professor of theology at the University of Nottingham, also demonstrates the traditionally held Anglican view in an essay in the Oxford handbook of the British sermon 1689-1901 (OUP, 2012) entitled ‘Parish preaching in the Victorian era: the village sermon’.
From his study of 150 volumes of Anglican village and country sermons in the period 1804-1906, Knight explains, ‘Those [given to moral exhortation]… spend much of their sermons issuing warnings about the eternal fate of the lost, and urging their hearers and readers to repentance, faith, and good behaviour’.
Two examples follow. First, there is Edward Berens (c.1777-1859), Archdeacon of Berkshire from 1832-1855. A graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, Berens had earlier been vicar of Shrivenham (incidentally, a village missioned from the Shefford Primitive Methodist Circuit).
Berens produced six volumes of sermons during 1820-1852. Knight says of Berens’ Twenty-six village sermons (1836), ‘His sermons warned repeatedly of the danger of hell and of being only interested in religion when ill or facing death’.
Berens’ approach is clear: ‘This change — or conversion — …is absolutely necessary in order to our being received into heaven; and consequently, since there is no middle state, it is absolutely necessary in order to our escaping the punishment of hell’.
Knight’s second example is William Gresley, graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, who was ordained in 1825. Gresley, in his Treatise on the art of preaching (1835), writes: ‘The chain of topics is briefly this — we are by nature under God’s wrath; how can we escape? Only through the atonement made by our Redeemer.
‘How shall we attain an interest in this atonement? By faith. How be sure we have faith? By holiness. How obtain holiness? By the aid of the Spirit. How obtain the aid of the Spirit? By watchfulness and prayer. These are the grand staple topics of the preacher’.
Early English Christianity
It is clear that the Methodists were by no means alone in enforcing the doctrine of hell upon their audiences. Nor was it a novelty. The subject features strongly as far back as English preaching can be traced.
Here is Ælfric, later to become first abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Eynsham, in a sermon (translated from old English) preached on Shrove Tuesday, c.AD 990: ‘Christ said in some place that the way is very wide and smooth that leads to the punishment of hell, because evil desires bring the man to destruction, to everlasting torments, unless before his end he ceases from evil and works good’.
Henry Soames, Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, said of Ælfric: ‘While England bled at every pore, an admirable genius laboured indefatigably to lighten her distress, by furnishing a rich supply of sound instruction … a stream of healing knowledge, to mend and comfort evil times’.
In 1014, in the century after Ælfric’s Shrove Tuesday sermon, a famous sermon was preached by the Archbishop of York, Wulfstan. It was to be called (with a pun on Wulfstan’s name), Sermo lupi ad Anglos.
The sermon ends in this vein: ‘And let us diligently understand the great judgement to which we all must go and guard ourselves against that seething conflagration of the torment of hell’.
This article has not been able to explore the copious collection of mediæval sermons published by the Early English Text Society. However, a look at Chaucer will suffice.
Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), one of the major figures of English literature, second only to Shakespeare, was given every encouragement as court poet by King Richard II and achieved fame in his own lifetime as an author. His work contains much adverse criticism of the church of his day.
But in his Canterbury Tales he offers his readers the ‘Parson’s tale’, in effect a long sermon on the theme of penitence. The parson is an exception to Chaucer’s generally disapproving view of mediaeval church officials:
‘A good man was ther of religioun….
He was also a lerned man, a clerk,
That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;
His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche,
Benygne he was, and wonder diligent’
(Canterbury Tales, lines 477-484)
What did this benign priest teach with such diligence to his parishioners? He preached about, ‘The causes that oghte moeve a man to contricioun’. The third one of these is, ‘Drede of the day of doom and of the horrible peynes of helle’.
Here is what Chaucer says about ‘the horrible peynes of helle’, in the lines that follow: ‘The horrible pit of helle open’; ‘for certes, al the sorwe that a man myghte make fro the bigynnyng of the world nys but a litel thyng at regard of the sorwe of helle’; ‘the fyr that evere shal brenne’;
‘For they shulle be naked in body as of clothing, save the fyr in which they brenne’; ‘for it peyneth hem evere, as though they sholde dye anon; but certes, they shal nat dye… and they shul desiren to dye, and deeth shal flee fro hem’; ‘ther shal horrour and grisly drede dwellen withouten ende’.
Surely no Methodist preaching was more starkly vivid than this — ‘Naked except for the fire in which they burn … horror and grisly dread without end’!
Modern English writers of fiction and non-fiction, who, with such distaste, fix the doctrine of hell on the Methodists and other Nonconformists are, in reality, looking for a scapegoat for their own repugnance of thoroughly orthodox biblical teaching, upheld by the whole Christian church for most of the last two millennia.
These writers, like so many of their readers, don’t wish to be told that they are on the road to hell, and will do all they can to silence such a warning. But in ascribing this doctrine only to Methodists and other evangelicals, they are in error.
Hell was neither the morbid preoccupation of ‘hell-obsessed Ranters’, nor a novel and alien dogma, but a strong theme in English preaching from as far back as can be traced. And it will always remain so, as long as preachers remain true to the God-given Scriptures.