The Reverend John Wesley,
I am most grateful for your kind missive and for the welcome opportunity to tell you how we on the frontier have always held you and your brother in high esteem. His songs have been our faithful companion from Georgia (where the two of you favored our unruly continent with your ministry), all the way out here to my dry homeland, where the West begins at the 98th meridian. In replying to your thoughtful words, I hope I can forestall certain of your reservations about me.
Yes, most revered Reverend, I do feel it is Paul who tells us about Jesus. This is a matter we can treat later in whatever detail you like. For now, let me just note that sometime around the middle of the first century, those letters of his constitute our first evidence of the church, of Jews and non-Jews worshipping together in the name of the Crucified. Those seem to be the earliest Christian documents. Soon other records are assembled, no doubt as a project within the young church. They may even draw on certain sayings which antedate Jesus, perhaps on ancient folk material, but surely include report from authentic witnesses to His life. In so far as our documentation is concerned, however, first comes Paul. Then, toward the end of his century, his church collects materials about the coming of the Christ.
You no doubt have numerous objections to my presentation of these matters. Each of us must live in his own reality. I was told recently that mine is the world of the schoolroom, redolent of chalk dust. I would prefer the odor of the bookbindery, even of mouldy pages, because for me the vouchsafe of reality is documentation. A biologist lives among his seeds and verdure, the chemist by the reactions in his test tubes, and the physicist with precise measurement and calculations. This is their world, however abstract. The humanist recognizes his reality through its documentation. His is admittedly a world of the past, and limited. The archaeologist tells us about the existence of cities which left no records at all. We call these prehistoric sites, because our history begins with the documents.
Just as biology, chemistry, physics, and archaeology have their tediously acquired methods for reading their materials aright and constructing a physical world accordingly, so we humanists have over many centuries developed our ways for selecting and elucidating the documents that happen to survive and come into our hands. I do not need to tell you that this science which I am calling humanistic takes its origin in biblical scholarship, so perhaps we should be more humbly guided by faith. Martin Luther, for example, poring over Moses' history, proceeds as follows. From the number of warriors fielded by Joshua, Luther is able to estimate the total population of the Jews in the Land of Goshen. He then calculates how long it would take such a great nation, assuming they march fifty abreast, to pass a given point. He arrives at an answer of some weeks. His conclusion: the true miracle in the escape from Egypt was not the parting of the Red Sea, at all, but accomplishing a month's journey in a matter of hours. Similarly, he observes that the story of Jonah in the belly of the whale is "a pretty tall tale. I'd not believe it were it not in Holy Scripture."
If Dr. Luther reads his Bible as God's own utterance, should not we also honor this venerable document with our most attentive reading? I remain
your faithful and respectful
J. W. Worthy
will laugh to hear that many people in my
century, especially those in institutes of higher learning, used
as meaning "secular."
Please return to Professor Worthy's Page, Home
or see the correspondence with John Wesley