14. John Wesley – A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1872)

Not all the books I read on this project are going to be books that Burroughs himself either likes or recommends. In some cases – this one in particular – I’m looking to learn something about the forces that Burroughs most loathed and detested.

I want to dig deeper into the theology of Burroughs.

His own occult and pseudoscientific activities can, on their surface, appear to be merely the banal late twentieth century phenomenon of vague spiritualism replacing organised religion. Yet, as many commentators and friends have noted, he believed in his grab-bag mix of esoteric ideas with an unusual level of intensity, seriousness and purpose.

He also seems attracted to Catholic iconography. He features numerous priests in his work, sometimes crooked but often good. There are confessionals, prayers, icons, and later in life he even styled himself as “the priest”.

His identification with Graham Greene’s characters might be important here. He also trades letters with Anthony Burgess about Catholicism, including one where he claims to have a priest as a close friend.

And yet, famously, he also despised Christianity.

“Never let a priest near you when you’re dying!”

“Never do business with a religious son-of-a-bitch. His word don’t mean shit – not when he has God telling him how to screw you on the deal!”

I think it’s through this last statement that I might clear a path through these apparent contradictions.

Reading up on Sara Teasdale (a poet Burroughs liked, who shared a Midwest background similar to his – more on her later in the blog), there was a neat description of the classed nature of religious divisions in the society in which Burroughs grew up.

Catholics were strange and foreign, and so also mysterious (and no doubt appealing to Burroughs). The upper crust, being a mix of German Lutherans and English Anglicans, considered religion to be a private matter (“minding your own business”; “M.O.B.”; as Burroughs might favourably label the phenomenon).

Lastly, were the average churchgoers. The working men and the housewives. The country folk. These were the fruits of Methodism; the endless variation of Baptist, Adventist, Primitive, Apostolic sects, each of whom promise God’s active intervention, cure from all sin, and to this day give that area of the United States the name “Bible Belt”.

These, to the Burroughs family, were the Christian crazies. The enthusiasts. Part of a line of dangerous low church people going back to the puritans and the Anabaptists of the seventeenth century.

From this sectarian perspective, we can better understand Burroughs’ statements on Christianity. When he says “Christianity”, he means Bible Belt Protestantism (95% of the time at least). The crazy Christians who give the Midwest a bad name. When he rants about these Christians his terminology is ineluctably classed: rednecks, honkies, brainless, dead-eyed, petty…

We might be back in Swift’s Tale of a Tub, where the dignity of quiet Anglican worship is given a bad name by the swelling, chanting, way-too-excitable, way-too-inflexible masses.

By comparison, Burroughs hardly talks of his own experiences with Christianity. His interest in Catholicism perhaps bears a residual trace of Anglo-Catholic sentiment; interest in the “bells and smells” that Protestantism militates against.

Which (after that over-long lead-up) is why I read John Wesley.

Wesley, the founder of Methodism, broke with the Anglican church over his doctrine of “Christian perfection”. Those who embrace Jesus, he says, are born again and made perfect. In that state of Christian perfection, they are then incapable of sinning.

His Plain Account is a fascinating document. He returned to it throughout his life, adding to it but never changing what came before. This admirable refusal to edit the past means that this document acts as both the thesis and the antithesis of Methodism all in one; telling that story through Wesley’s own life journey.

The earliest sections of the book are ecstatic sermons and essays, accompanied by hymns, explaining the doctrine of Christian perfection.

Then, having shocked his contemporaries, he proceeds to spend a long time in the middle section attempting to explain himself, watering his ideas down, justifying them through scripture, and then reigning in his own followers who, it is implied, have gone on a bit of a spiritual rampage after learning of their irrevocable state of perfection.

Finally, we are presented with an old man, head of his own church, listing with regret the many “misunderstandings” that followed his work. All of which, to the outside eye, appear not to be misunderstandings at all but the logical consequence of his early ideas.

Like Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, we are treated to a thinker working through, modifying and finally rejecting their own most famous idea.

Only, with a whole church resting on his shoulders, Wesley never gets as far as Wittgenstein. He never denies Christian Perfection. He tries to mitigate it out of existence instead, watering it down into harmless rhetoric.

He ends up, in other words, back where he started: an uncertain, still-faithful but rather apologetic Anglican clergyman. Only, by this point, Methodism – the church he founded – is irrevocably far out into the wilderness of Protestant enthusiasm; never to follow its leader back to moderation.

The spread of Methodism among the industrial working classes of England in the nineteenth century was immense. A pandemic of enthusiasm. This soon crossed over to America, where it lost its dour working class bitterness and adopted a spirit of boundless American hopefulness. Hope then embodied in the Baptist movement; a splinter-church of the Methodists.

For Burroughs, these were the simple folk with their Bibles, their guns and their racism typified by “nigger-killing lawmen counting their notches” and “kill a queer for Christ stickers”.

The one thing that stood out as unusual here, however, was the early Wesley’s love of self-help phraseology.

Christian perfection will make you fitter, stronger, happier, healthier, more attractive, more able to satisfy your wife, and also, eventually, lead to fortune and maybe even fame.

There’s nothing Christian perfection can’t do. And if you doubt, Wesley constantly assures you; “I’ve seen it myself”, “many people have attested to it”, “just ask any member of the church”, “even our foes admit this much”, “nobody has ever disproven it; I even invited them to do so, and they couldn’t!”

But this Christian perfection much be a hard thing to attain, you say? Not at all! Nothing could be simpler. Wesley even writes of “following the simple steps” and the “one easy act” (baptism) that will automatically free you of all seen.

Results are long-lasting. In fact, for the young Wesley, they last forever.

As David Wills shows, Burroughs loved this kind of language. Anything that promised massive improvements easily, that involved “easy, simple to follow steps”, and – just as important – was condemned as trash by authority figures; he was all over it.

This is perhaps why Burroughs hated “Christians” so much. He probably never read Wesley, but he would be more than familiar with his teachings. Having lived briefly in Texas myself, the entire theological landscape of the American South is saturated with Wesleyan verbiage.

You never detest someone who is different from you; only someone who is unbearably similar. The narcissism of small differences. Under slightly different circumstances (perhaps if his family had just been a few more rungs down the class ladder), Burroughs would no doubt have been a convinced Wesleyan. That, I now think, is why he hated it so much.