The Nature of Enthusiasm (Fanaticism)
by John Wesley
said with a loud voice, Paul, thou art beside thyself. Acts
[Note: By enthusiasm John Wesley meant our modern word:
fanaticism. The reader will want to substitute the word
fanaticism in place of the old English word enthusiasm.
In this sermon I have inserted headings that highlight the authors
points. Editor-Tom Kiser]
1. And so say all the world, the
men who know not God, of all that are of Paul's religion: of every
one who is so a follower of him as he was of Christ. It is true, there
is a sort of religion, nay, and it is called Christianity too, which
may be practiced without any such Imputation, which is generally allowed
to be consistent with common sense, --that is, a religion of form,
a round of outward duties, performed in a decent, regular manner.
You may add orthodoxy thereto, a system of right opinions, yea, and
some quantity of heathen morality; and yet not many will pronounce,
that "much religion hath made you mad." But if you aim at the religion
of the heart, if you talk of "righteousness, and peace, and joy in
the Holy Ghost," then it will not be long before your sentence is
passed, "Thou art beside thyself."
2. And it is no compliment which
the men of the world pay you here. They, for once, mean what they
say. They not only affirm, but cordially believe, that every man
is beside himself who says, "the love of God is shed abroad in" his
"heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;" and that God has enabled
him to rejoice in Christ "with joy unspeakable and full of glory."
If a man is indeed alive to God, and dead to all things here below;
if he continually sees Him that is invisible, and accordingly walks
by faith, and not by sight; then they account it a clear case: beyond
all dispute, "much religion hath made him mad."
3. It is easy to observe, that
the determinate thing which the world account madness is, that
utter contempt of all temporal things, and steady pursuit of things
eternal; that divine conviction of things not seen; that
rejoicing in the favour of God that happy, holy love of God; and that
testimony of His Spirit with our spirit, that we are the children
of God, --that is, in truth, the whole spirit, and life, and power
of the religion of Jesus Christ.
4. They will, however, allow,
in other respects, the man acts and talks like one in his senses.
In other things, he is a reasonable man, it is in these instances
only his head is touched. It is therefore acknowledged, that the madness
under which he labours is of a particular kind; and accordingly they
are accustomed to distinguish it by a particular name, "enthusiasm."
5. A term this, which is exceeding
frequently used, which is scarce ever out of some men's mouths; and
yet it is exceeding rarely understood, even by those who use it most.
It may be, therefore, not unacceptable to serious men, to all who
desire to understand what they speak or hear, if I endeavour to
explain the meaning of this term -- to show what enthusiasm is.
It may be an encouragement to those who are unjustly charged therewith;
and may possibly be of use to some who are justly charged with
it; at least to others who might be so, were they not cautioned
6. As to the word itself, it is
generally allowed to be of Greek extraction. But whence the Greek
word, _enthousiasmos_, is derived, none has yet been able to show.
Some have endeavored to derive it from _en theOi_, -- in God;
because all enthusiasm has reference to Him. But this is quite forced;
there being small resemblance between the word derived, and those
they strive to derive it from. Others would derive it from _en thysiai_,
-- in sacrifice; because many of the enthusiasts of old were
affected in the most violent manner during the time of sacrifice.
Perhaps it is a fictitious word, invented from the noise which some
of those made who were so affected.
7. It is not improbable, that
one reason why this uncouth word has been retained in so many languages
was, because men were not better agreed concerning the meaning than
concerning the derivation of it. They therefore adopted the Greek
word, because they did not understand it: they did not translate it
into their own tongues, because they knew not how to translate it;
it having been always a word of a loose, uncertain sense, to which
no determinate meaning was affixed.
8. It is not, therefore, at all
surprising, that it is so variously taken at this day; different persons
understanding it in different senses, quite inconsistent with each
other. Some take it in a good sense, for a divine impulse or impression,
superior to all the natural faculties, and suspending, for the time,
either in whole or in part, both the reason and the outward senses.
In this meaning of the word, both the Prophets of old, and the Apostles,
were proper enthusiasts; being, at divers times, so filled with the
Spirit, and so influenced by Him who dwelt in their hearts, that the
exercise of their own reason, their senses, and all their natural
faculties, being suspended, they were wholly actuated by the power
of God, and "spake" only "as they were moved by the Holy Ghost."
9. Others take the word in an
indifferent sense, such as is neither morally good nor evil: thus
they speak of the enthusiasm of the poets; of Homer and Virgil in
particular. And this a late eminent writer extends so far as to assert,
there is no man excellent in his profession, whatsoever it be, who
has not in his temper a strong tincture of enthusiasm. By enthusiasm
these appear to understand, all uncommon vigour of thought, a peculiar
fervour of spirit, a vivacity and strength not to be found in common
men; elevating the soul to greater and higher things than cool reason
could have attained.
10. But neither of these is the
sense wherein the word "enthusiasm" is most usually understood. The
generality of men, if no farther agreed, at least agree thus far concerning
it, that it is something evil: and this is plainly the sentiment of
all those who call the religion of the heart "enthusiasm." Accordingly,
I shall take it in the following pages, as an evil; a misfortune,
if not a fault.
11. As to the nature of enthusiasm,
it is ,undoubtedly
A disorder of the mind; and such
a disorder as greatly hinders the exercise of reason.
Nay, sometimes it wholly sets
it aside: it not only dims but shuts the eyes of the understanding.
It may, therefore, well be accounted a species of madness; of madness
rather than of folly: seeing a fool is properly one who draws wrong
conclusions from right premises; whereas a madman draws right conclusions,
but from wrong premises. And so does an enthusiast suppose his
premises true, and his conclusions would necessarily follow. But here
lies his mistake: his premises are false. He imagines himself to be
what he is not: and therefore, setting out wrong, the farther he goes,
the more he wanders out of the way.
12. Every enthusiast, then, is
properly a madman. Yet his is not an ordinary, but a religious,
madness. By "religious," I do not mean, that it is any part of
religion: quite the reverse. Religion is the spirit of a sound mind;
and, consequently, stands in direct opposition to madness of every
kind. But I mean, it has religion for its object; it is conversant
about religion. And so the enthusiast is generally talking of
religion, of God, or of the things of God, but talking in such a manner
that every reasonable Christian may discern the disorder of his mind.
Enthusiasm in general may then be described in some such manner as
a religious madness arising
from some falsely imagined influence or inspiration of God; at least,
from imputing something to God which ought not to be imputed to Him,
or expecting something from God which ought not to be expected from
13. There are innumerable sorts
of enthusiasm. Those which are most common, and for that reason most
dangerous, I shall endeavor to reduce under a few general heads, that
they may be more easily understood and avoided.
The Most Common
Types of Fanaticism
1) Imagining they have grace which they have not
The first sort of enthusiasm which
I shall mention, is that of those who imagine they have the grace
which they have not. Thus
some imagine, when it is not so, that they have redemption through
Christ, "even the forgiveness of sins." These are usually such
as "have no root in themselves;" no deep repentance, or thorough conviction.
"Therefore they receive the word with joy." And "because they have
no deepness of earth," no deep work in their heart, therefore the
seed "immediately springs up." There is immediately a superficial
change, which, together with that light joy, striking in with the
pride of their unbroken heart, and with their inordinate self-love,
easily persuades them they have already "tasted the good word of God,
and the powers of the world to come."
14. This is properly an instance
of the first sort of enthusiasm: it is a kind of madness, arising
from the imagination that they have that grace which, in truth, they
have not: so that they only deceive their own souls. Madness
it may be justly termed: for the reasonings of these poor men are
right, were their premises good; but as those are a mere creature
of their own imagination, so all that is built on them falls to the
ground. The foundation of all their reveries is this: they imagine
themselves to have faith in Christ. If they had this, they would be
"kings and priests to God;" possessed of a "kingdom which cannot be
moved": but they have it not; consequently, all their following
behaviour is as wide of truth and soberness as that of the ordinary
madman who, fancying himself an earthly king, speaks and acts in that
15. There are many other enthusiasts
of this sort. Such, for instance, is the fiery zealot for religion;
or, more properly, for the opinions and modes of worship which he
dignifies with that name. This man, also, strongly imagines
himself to be a believer in Jesus; yea, that he is a champion for
the faith which was once delivered to the saints. Accordingly,
all his conduct is formed upon that vain imagination. And allowing
his supposition to be just, he would have some tolerable plea for
his behaviour; whereas now it is evidently the effect of a distempered
brain, as well as of a distempered heart.
16. But the most common of
all the enthusiasts of this kind are those who imagine themselves
Christians, and are not. These abound, not only in all parts of
our land, but in most parts of the habitable earth.
That they are
not Christians, is clear and undeniable, if we believe the oracles
For Christians are holy;
these are unholy: Christians love God; these love the
world: Christians are humble; these are proud: Christians
are gentle; these are passionate; Christians have the mind
which was in Christ; these are at the utmost distance from it.
Consequently, they are no more Christians, than they are archangels.
Yet they imagine themselves so
to be; and they can give several reasons for it: for they have been
called so ever since they can remember; they were christened
many years ago; they embrace the Christian opinions, vulgarly
termed the Christian or catholic faith; they use the Christian
modes of worship, as their fathers did before them; they live what
is called a good Christian life, as the rest of their neighbors
do. And who shall presume to think or say that these men are not Christians?
-- though without one grain of true faith in Christ, or of
real, inward holiness; without ever having tasted the love
of God, or been "made partakers of the Holy Ghost!"
17. Ah poor self-deceivers! Christians
ye are not. But you are enthusiasts in a high degree. Physicians,
heal yourselves! But first know your disease: your whole life is enthusiasm;
as being all suitable to the imagination, that you have received that
grace of God which you have not. In consequence of this grand mistake,
you blunder on, day by day, speaking and acting under a character
which does in no wise belong to you. Hence arises that palpable, glaring
inconsistency that runs through your whole behaviour; which is an
awkward mixture of real Heathenism and imaginary Christianity.
Yet still, as you have so vast a majority on your side, you will always
carry it by mere dint of numbers, "that you are the only men in your
senses, and all are lunatics who are not as you are." But this alters
not the nature of things. In the sight of God, and His holy angels,
yea, and all the children of God upon earth, you are mere madmen,
mere enthusiasts all! Are you not? Are you not "walking in a vain
shadow, a shadow of religion, a shadow of happiness? Are you not still
"disquieting yourselves in vain" with misfortunes as imaginary as
your happiness or religion? Do you not fancy yourselves great or good
-- very knowing and very wise? How long? Perhaps till death brings
you back to your senses, to bewail your folly for ever and ever!
2. Imagining they have such gifts as they have not
18. A second sort of enthusiasm
is that of those who imagine they have such gifts from God as they
have not. Thus some have imagined themselves to be endued with
a power of working miracles, of healing the sick by
a word or a touch, of restoring sight to the blind: yea, even of raising
the dead -- a notorious instance of which is still fresh in our
own history. Others have undertaken to prophesy, to foretell
things to come, and that with the utmost certainty and exactness.
But a little time usually convinces these enthusiasts. When plain
facts run counter to their predictions, experience performs what reason
could not, and sinks them down into their senses.
a) Imagining they are influenced by the Spirit of God
when they are not
19. To the same class belong those
who, in preaching or prayer, imagine themselves to be so influenced
by the Spirit of God, as, in fact, they are not. I am sensible,
indeed, that without Him we can do nothing, more especially in our
public ministry; that all our preaching is utterly vain, unless it
be attended with His power; and all our prayer, unless His Spirit
therein help our infirmities. I know, if we do not both preach and
pray by the Spirit, it is all but lost labor; seeing the help that
is done upon earth He doeth it Himself, who worketh all in all. But
this does not affect the case before us. Though there is a real
influence of the Spirit of God, there is also an imaginary one: and
many there are who mistake the one for the other. Many suppose
themselves to be under that influence, when they are not, when it
is far from them. And many others suppose they are more under that
influence than they really are. Of this number, I fear, are all
they who imagine that God dictates the very words they speak; and
that, consequently, it is impossible they should speak anything amiss,
either as to the matter or manner of it. It is well known how
many enthusiasts of this sort also have appeared during the present
century; some of whom speak in a far more authoritative manner
than either St. Paul or any of the Apostles.
b) Imagining they will be directed or influenced by
the Spirit in an extraordinary manner aside from scripture and the
proper exercise of reason
20. The same sort of enthusiasm,
though in a lower degree, is frequently found in men of a private
character. They may likewise imagine themselves to be influenced or
directed by the Spirit when they are not. I allow, "if any man have
not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His;" and that if ever we
either think, speak, or act aright, it is through the assistance of
that blessed Spirit. But how many impute things to Him, or expect
things from Him, without any rational or scriptural ground! Such
are they who imagine, they either do or shall receive particular
directions from God, not only in points of importance, but in
things of no moment; in the most trifling circumstances of life.
Whereas in these cases God has given us our own reason for a guide;
though never excluding the secret assistance of His Spirit.
21. To this kind of enthusiasm
they are peculiarly exposed, who expect to be directed of God, either
in spiritual things or in common life, in what is justly called an
extraordinary manner: I mean, by visions or dreams, by
strong impressions or sudden impulses on the mind. I do not
deny, that God has, of old times, manifested His will in this manner;
or, that He can do so now: nay, I believe He does, in some very rare
instances. But how frequently do men mistake herein! How are they
misled by pride, and a warm imagination, to ascribe such impulses
or impressions, dreams or visions, to God, as are utterly unworthy
of Him! Now this is all pure enthusiasm; all as wide
of religion, as it is of truth and soberness.
How is a sober
Christian to make this inquiry, to know what is the will of God? By
Consulting the Word of God.
22. Perhaps some may ask, "Ought
we not then to inquire what is the will of God in all things? And
ought not His will to be the rule of our practice?" Unquestionably
it ought. But how is a sober Christian to make this inquiry? to know
what is the will of God?
Not by waiting for supernatural
dreams; not by expecting God to reveal it in visions; not by looking
for any particular impressions or sudden impulses on his mind:
no; but by consulting the oracles of God. "To
the law and to the testimony!" This is the general method of knowing
what is "the holy and acceptable will of God."
23. "But how shall I know what
is the will of God, in such and such a particular case? The thing
proposed is, in itself, of an indifferent nature, and so left undetermined
I answer, the Scripture
itself gives you a general rule, applicable to all particular cases:
The will of God is our sanctification.
It is His will that we should be inwardly and outwardly holy; that
we should be good, and do good, in every kind and in the highest degree
whereof we are capable. Thus far we tread upon firm ground. This
is as clear as the shining of the sun. In order, therefore, to
know what is the will of God in a particular case, we have only to
apply this general rule.
24. Suppose, for instance, it
were proposed to a reasonable man to marry, or to enter into a new
business: in order to know whether this is the will of God, being
assured, "It is the will of God concerning me, that I should be as
holy and do as much good as I can," he has only to inquire, "In which
of these states can I be most holy, and do the most good?" And this
is to be determined, partly by reason, and partly by experience. Experience
tells him what advantages he has in his present state, either for
being or doing good; and reason is to show, what he certainly or probably
will have in the state proposed. By comparing these, he is to judge
which of the two may most conduce to his being and doing good; and
as far as he knows this, so far he is certain what is the will of
25. Meantime, the assistance
of His Spirit is supposed, during the whole process of the inquiry.
Indeed it is not easy to say, in how many ways that assistance is
conveyed. He may bring many circumstances to our remembrance; may
place others in a stronger and clearer light; may insensibly open
our mind to receive conviction, and fix that conviction upon our heart.
And to a concurrence of many circumstances of this kind, in favor
of what is acceptable in His sight, He may superadd such an unutterable
peace of mind, and so uncommon a measure of His love, as will leave
us no possibility of doubting, that this, even this, is His will concerning
26. This is the plain, scriptural,
rational way to know what is the will of God in a particular case.
But considering how seldom this way is taken, and what a flood
of enthusiasm must needs break in on those who endeavor to know the
will of God by unscriptural, irrational ways; it were to be
wished that the expression itself were far more sparingly used. The
using it, as some do, on the most trivial occasions, is a plain breach
of the third commandment. It is a gross way of taking the name of
God in vain, and betrays great irreverence toward Him. Would it not
be far better, then, to use other expressions, which are not liable
to such objections? For example: instead of saying, on any particular
occasion, "I want to know what is the will of God;" would it not be
better to say, "I want to know what will be most for my improvement;
and what will make me most useful?" this way of speaking is clear
and unexceptionable: it is putting the matter on a plain, scriptural
issue, and that without any danger of enthusiasm.
3. Imagining to attain spiritual results without
using proper spiritual means
27. A Third very common sort of
enthusiasm (if it does not coincide with the former) is that of those
who think to attain the end without using the means, by the immediate
power of God. If, indeed, those means were providentially withheld,
they would not fall under this charge. God can, and sometimes does,
in cases of this nature, exert His own immediate power. But they who
expect this when they have those means, and will not use them, are
proper enthusiasts. Such are they who expect to understand the
holy Scriptures, without reading them, and meditating thereon; yea,
without using all such helps as are in their power, and may probably
conduce to that end. Such are they who designedly speak in
the public assembly without any premeditation. I say "designedly;"
because there may be such circumstances as, at some times, make it
unavoidable. But whoever despises that great means of speaking profitably
is so far an enthusiast.
28. It may be expected that I
should mention what some have accounted a Fourth sort of enthusiasm,
namely, the imagining those things to be owing to the providence of
God which are not owing thereto. But I doubt: I know not what things
they are which are not owing to the providence of God; in ordering,
or at least in governing, of which, this is not either directly or
remotely concerned. I except nothing but sin; and even in the sins
of others, I see the providence of God to me. I do not say His general
providence; for this I take to be a sounding word, which means just
nothing. And if there be a particular providence, it must extend
to all persons and all things. So our Lord understood it, or He could
never have said, "Even the hairs of your head are all numbered;" and,
"Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without" the will of "your Father"
which is in heaven. But if it be so, if God preside _universis tanquam
singulis, et singulis tanquam universis_; "over the whole universe
as over every single person, and over every single person as over
the whole universe;" what is it (except only our own sins) which we
are not to ascribe to the providence of God? So that I cannot apprehend
there is any room here for the charge of enthusiasm.
29. If it be said, the charge
lies here: "When you impute this to Providence, you imagine yourself
the peculiar favorite of heaven": I answer, you have forgot some of
the last words I spoke: _Praesidet universis tanquam singulis_: "His
providence is over all men in the universe, as much as over any single
person." Do you not see that he who, believing this, imputes anything
which befalls him to Providence, does not therein make himself any
more the favorite of heaven, than he supposes every man under heaven
to be? Therefore you have no pretense, upon this ground, to charge
him with enthusiasm.
The Dreadful Effects Fanaticism Often Produces
30. Against every sort of this
it behooves us to guard with the utmost diligence; considering the
dreadful effects it has so often produced, and which, indeed, naturally
result from it.
Its immediate offspring is pride;
it continually increases this source from whence it flows; and hereby
it alienates us more and more from the favor and from the life of
God. It dries up the very springs of faith and love, of righteousness
and true holiness; seeing all these flow from grace: but "God resisteth
the proud, and giveth grace" only "to the humble."
2 An Inadvisable
and Unconvincible Spirit
31. Together with pride there
will naturally arise an inadvisable and unconvincible spirit. So that
into whatever error or fault the enthusiast falls, there is small
hope of his recovery. For reason will have little weight with
him (as has been frequently and justly observed) who imagines
he is led by a higher guide, -- by the immediate wisdom of God.
And as he grows in pride, so he must grow in unadvisableness and in
stubbornness also. He must be less and less capable of being convinced,
less susceptible of persuasion; more and more attached to his own
judgment and his own will, till he is altogether fixed and immovable.
32. Being thus fortified both
against the grace of God, and against all advice and help from man,
he is wholly left to the guidance of his own heart, and of the king
of the children of pride. No marvel, then, that he is daily more
rooted and grounded in contempt of all mankind, in furious anger,
in every unkind disposition, in every earthly and devilish temper.
Neither can we wonder at the terrible outward effects which have flowed
from such dispositions in all ages; even all manner of wickedness,
all the works of darkness, committed by those who call themselves
Christians, while they wrought with greediness such things as were
hardly named even among the Heathens.
Such is the nature, such the dreadful
effects, of that manyheaded monster, Enthusiasm! From the consideration
of which we may now draw some plain inferences, with regard to our
33. And, first, if enthusiasm
be a term, though so frequently used, yet so rarely understood, take
you care not to talk of you know not what; not to use the word till
you understand it. As in all other points, so likewise in this, learn
to think before you speak. First know the meaning of this hard word;
and then use it, if need require.
34. But if so few, even among
men of education and learning, much more among the common sort of
men, understand this dark, ambiguous word, or have any fixed notion
of what it means; then, secondly, beware of judging or calling any
man an enthusiast, upon common report. This is by no means a sufficient
ground for giving any name of reproach to any man; least of all is
it a sufficient ground for so black a term of reproach as this. The
more evil it contains, the more cautious you should be how you apply
it to any one; to bring so heavy an accusation, without full proof,
being neither consistent with justice nor mercy.
Beware You are not entangled in Fanaticism
35. But if enthusiasm be so great
an evil, beware you are not entangled therewith yourself. Watch and
pray, that you fall not into the temptation. It easily besets those
who fear or love God. O beware you do not think of yourself
more highly than you ought to think. Do not imagine you have attained
that grace of God which you have not attained. You may have much
joy; you may have a measure of love; and yet not have living faith.
Cry unto God, that He would not suffer you, blind as you are, to go
out of the way; that you may never fancy yourself a believer in
Christ, till Christ is revealed in you, and till His Spirit witnesses
with your spirit that you are a child of God.
36. Beware you are not a fiery,
persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you
(just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy
men's lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into
the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint
in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of
the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth,
37. Beware you do not run with
the common herd of enthusiasts, fancying you are a Christian when
you are not. Presume not to assume that venerable name, unless you
have a clear, scriptural title thereto; unless you have the mind which
was in Christ, and walk as He also walked.
38. Beware you do not fall
into the second sort of enthusiasm -- fancying you have those gifts
from God which you have not. Trust not in visions or dreams;
in sudden impressions, or strong impulses of any kind. Remember,
it is not by these you are to know what is the will of God on any
particular occasion, but by applying the plain Scripture rule, with
the help of experience and reason, and the ordinary assistance of
the Spirit of God. Do not lightly take the name of God in your
mouth; do not talk of the will of God on every trifling occasion:
but let your words, as well as your actions, be all tempered with
reverence and godly fear.
39. Beware, lastly, of imagining
you shall obtain the end without using the means conducive to it.
God can give the end without any means at all; but you have no reason
to think He will. Therefore constantly and carefully use all those
means which He has appointed to be the ordinary channels of His grace.
Use every means which either reason or Scripture recommends, as
conducive (through the free love of God in Christ) either to
the obtaining or increasing any of the gifts of God. Thus expect
a daily growth in that pure and holy religion which the world always
did, and always will, call "enthusiasm;" but which, to all who are
saved from real enthusiasm, from merely nominal Christianity, is "the
wisdom of God, and the power of God;" the glorious image of the Most
High; "righteousness and peace;" a "fountain of living water, springing
up into everlasting life!"
[Edited anonymously at the Memorial
University of Newfoundland with corrections by George Lyons of Northwest
Nazarene College (Nampa, Idaho) for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.]