by Joy Stone

[Submitted for web publication 5/14/02]



English evangelist John Wesley (1703-1791) preached a sermon titled "Free Grace" at Bristol in May of 1740. Having received a letter from a parishioner charging that a good preacher should preach on election, Wesley instead delivered a sermon presenting the doctrine of free grace, a doctrine in direct opposition to the doctrine of predestination, or election (Whitefield). The doctrine of predestination claims that God, before time, ordained eternal salvation to certain ones of his creation, and ordained eternal damnation for the rest. Grace and salvation, then, benefited only the elect, and those not predestined for salvation had no hope. The opposite doctrine, espoused by John Wesley, proclaimed that God offers mercy and grace to all, that Christ died for all sinners, and that it is God’s great pleasure to save all people.

When Wesley published his sermon, the Rev. George Whitefield (1714-1770) responded to it in a letter dated December 24, 1740, sent from Bethesda, Georgia. Whitefield expressed his views supporting predestination, directly arguing against specific points in Wesley’s sermon. With the publication of Wesley’s sermon and Whitefield’s letter of response, their dialogue became public, and joined the controversy involving theologians on both sides of the issue and both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

These two Anglican priests, evangelists in the American colonies and in England, were not strangers to controversy. The debate between the proponents of predestination and those of free grace had enlivened reformed theological discussions since John Calvin first published his Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1535. Predestination, a reformed doctrine that is still debated today, presented for Wesley a challenge that denied free grace as a gift of God to all people. Whitefield on the other hand, argued that predestination, or election, was the "established doctrine of Scripture," charging that Wesley presented a mistaken idea that "caused many to be mislead" (Whitefield).

This controversy, which involved more than just these two priests, played an important part in the development of the Wesleyan theological heritage of the United Methodist Church. As Methodists explore unification with other Anglican traditions, knowledge of the development of Wesleyan thought communicated through metaphoric language bears increasing importance. Investigating the common thread of Christian metaphor will add to our knowledge of the use of metaphor in religious rhetoric.

In this paper, I will examine John Wesley’s sermon, "Free Grace" delivered May 1740, and the letter of response "George Whitefield to the Rev. Mr. John Wesley" dated December 24, 1740, at Bethesda in Georgia. Whitefield and Wesley both proclaimed their duty to tell the truth, to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures, yet held opposite opinions on predestination. This paper will explore their positions and how they argued against each other with emphasis on the metaphorical expression of their views. My research questions are: (1) How did they use metaphor to construct reality? (2) What types of metaphors did these men employ to orient their audience to agree with their respective doctrine? I will look at how they used metaphoric language in framing their arguments and the persuasive effects of metaphor on their audience.

First, I will define the method of metaphoric analysis and then apply that method to these two artifacts. Finally, I will evaluate the analysis and conclude by answering my research questions. In this way, I hope to expand our knowledge of the use of metaphor in religious rhetoric.


John Wesley

John Wesley, born on June 17, 1703, at the rectory of Epworth, Lincolnshire, grew up under the strong influence of his outspoken and controversial mother, Susanna. Samuel Wesley, John’s father, was a strict Anglican clergyman, so strict that he angered his own congregation. As the daughter of a dissenting Puritan cleric driven out of the pulpit for speaking against King Charles II, Susanna often presented her own diversity of opinion on theological matters (Bowden). Determined to instill in her nineteen children the "true religion and virtue", Susanna began teaching them Christian practices before they could talk (Bowden). Her Bible study and prayer sessions in the rectory during her husband’s frequent absences often included other families from the parish. Samuel Wesley openly voiced his objections to these actions, but to no avail. Analysis and debate of theological and philosophical texts refined Susanna’s philosophy, which she passed on to her son, John. Her only "published work, a response to George Whitefield’s criticism of her son, John’s sermon on free grace" demonstrated her comprehensive understanding of theology (Bowden). Susanna remained in close contact with her son John and continued to advise him until her death in 1742.

Urged by his father to enter the priesthood, John began a very rigorous, disciplined life as he searched for the assurance of God’s grace in his own life. He entered Oxford University followed by his brother Charles, who founded the "holy club." This group of scholars meet regularly to study the Bible and other classics, and to hold each other accountable to the will of God (Nix). John believed that observing these ordinances of God (Bible study, worship, participation in the sacraments, prayer and fasting) would lead all people to full knowledge of the love of God, and perfection in love in this life.

The American colonies attracted many evangelists including John and Charles Wesley. They traveled to Savannah, Georgia, to preach the gospel and save souls. While there, John faced many hardships and opposition, and returned to England feeling that he had failed in his efforts. Doubts about his faith drove him to counsel with Peter Bohler, a German Moravian, who convinced Wesley that he had no faith at all. Bohler also assured Wesley that true faith was the free gift of God to all who "earnestly and perseveringly sought it" (Oldham). For Wesley, this gift of faith came on May 24, 1738.

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (Oldham).

Wesley gained respect and influence with his parishioners, by publishing collections of his sermons and instructions for lay preachers to use in the work of the Methodist Societies.  

George Whitefield

George Whitefield was born December 16, 1714, to a struggling innkeeper in Gloucester. Although not a good student and in poor health, he desired to be a preacher and spent many hours reading and studying the Bible. When he became financially able to attend Pembroke College at Oxford, he met the Wesley brothers and joined their Holy Club.

Whitefield’s "evangelical fervor" did not appeal to the Anglican churches, so he began preaching in open-air settings, attracting large crowds with his commanding voice (Norwood). He convinced John Wesley to join him in preaching outdoors, especially in the mining district near Bristol called Kingswood Hill, and Wesley quickly adopted that method for his own evangelical work (George).

Traveling to America in 1738, at the request of the Wesleys, Whitefield gained fame as a powerful evangelist. His stirring oratory sparked a religious revival in the colonies as part of the Great Awakening. He worked together with other outstanding Calvinists who preached the doctrine of predestination, such as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent encouraging "spiritual enrichment outside the walls of the parish church" (Coffman). These outdoor revivals brought thousands of people to conversion through a personal experience with God (Norwood). However, he was not without controversy as he related, "I was honored with having stones, dirt, rotten eggs and pieces of dead cats thrown at me" (George). The debate over predestination ended his relationship with the Wesleys, and Whitefield became known as the leader of Calvinistic Methodism (Norwood).

Whitefield used the services of Benjamin Franklin to publish his many sermons and letters, providing considerable work for Mr. Franklin (Lemay). Franklin attested to the power of Whitefield’s oratory in this anecdote from his own autobiography:

I happened soon after to attend one of his sermons, in the course of which I perceived he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me, I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me asham'd of that, and determin'd me to give the silver; and he finish'd so admirably, that I empty'd my pocket wholly into the collector's dish, gold and all (Franklin).

Franklin’s publication of Wesley’s sermon "Free Grace," and reprint of a Calvinist pamphlet from London entitled "Free Grace Indeed!" contributed to the ongoing discussion by making both arguments accessible to the public (Lemay).

Both Wesley and Whitefield gained prominence by their speaking ability and style. Wesley remained very much the refined, proper Anglican priest, while Whitefield, with his fiery oratory exhibited a much more flamboyant approach. Both preached in the American colonies and traded professional duties and methods. However, Wesley felt that he failed in his ministry there and returned to England. After his Aldersgate experience, Wesley steadfastly defended his stance on free grace, which alienated Whitefield and other Calvinist proponents of predestination. Still, the respect they held for each other remained, and Wesley spoke at Whitefield’s funeral.


I have chosen to examine the metaphors used in these two artifacts. Metaphorical Analysis consists of identifying and categorizing the metaphors used in the arguments and discerning how effectively the metaphors create the desired state of mind to persuade the audience. Aristotle defined metaphor as decorative language and considered it even deceptive. However, recent theorists have developed the idea that metaphor creates a way to symbolically assimilate our experience in the world. Commonly used in everyday language, metaphors shape personal identity and personal place within a context. Within a framework of related terms, metaphors create reality from a particular point of view, hiding some aspects and emphasizing others.

Max Black’s interaction theory names two distinct terms used in metaphor – the tenor and the vehicle (Foss 360). To use the example, "Life is a patchwork quilt," life is the tenor, or principle focus, and the patchwork quilt is the vehicle, or framework. Metaphor then "emerges from the interaction of the associated characteristics of the tenor and vehicle" (Foss 361). Within the similarities and differences of the tenor and vehicle, some characteristics stand out and others stay in the background. The metaphor then becomes the argument. For example, if an audience accepts the idea that life has characteristics in common with a patchwork quilt, then the audience has accepted the argument that life is a patchwork quilt.

Analysis of an artifact using metaphorical analysis consists of becoming familiar with the artifact as a whole, identifying and classifying the metaphors used, and suggesting possible effects the metaphors had on the perceptions of the audience. To analyze the use of metaphor in an artifact, the critic first becomes familiar with the text and the context of the artifact. Lakoff and Johnson, in Metaphor’s of the Mind, described metaphor and the qualitative analysis of metaphorical concepts as looking at common metaphors such as "good is up" and "bad is down" used in an artifact to obtain the overall tenor (Lakoff). Knowledge of the historical context, setting, exegesis, audience and speaker also contributes to an understanding of the metaphors used. Secondly, the critic identifies individual metaphors and classifies them into groups of similar tenor or vehicle. This provides a framework in which to conduct the analysis. In the third step, the critic examines how the use of metaphor influenced the audience to accept or reject an idea. Metaphors can suggest a particular worldview of the speaker, or focus and define an otherwise complex and abstract idea (Foss 364).

The artifacts I have chosen to analyze with this method use metaphor to define and explain the abstract ideas of Free Grace (Wesley) and Predestination (Whitefield) in more concrete terms. They cast the opposing view in terms of darkness, error, falsity, "God weeping crocodile tears" and death, while portraying their own positions with metaphors of light, goodness, victory, flowing streams and life (Wesley). Therefore, the audience that heard Wesley preach that day, and subsequent readers of his published sermon learn that predestination is darkness, and Free Grace is light. On the other hand, those who read Whitefield’s letter of response will find that Free Grace is illogical sophistry resulting in "horrible darkness," whereas belief in predestination brings the continual light of God’s countenance (Whitefield).


Competing Tenors

The use of metaphor is an ideal way to communicate spiritual concepts. The metaphors in these artifacts assume an acceptance that God exists and that human beings interact with God, and God with humans in some fashion. Wesley’s sermon presented the Doctrine of Free Grace, grace bestowed freely to all who choose to journey into a deepening relationship with God that results in good works and happiness. In other words, Wesley presented this doctrine through the tenor of movement within an ever-changing relationship with God. Through the vehicles of flow and gate, Wesley carried his audience through the problems of predestination that destroy the interchange between God and mankind. Whitefield’s letter, on the other hand, defended the Doctrine of Predestination. The tenor of his metaphor focuses on the permanence of God’s decree that provides stability and assurance resulting in good works and happiness. Whitefield claimed that the relationship between God and Man is "unalterably fixed." Through the vehicles of building and sour fruit, he portrayed predestination as the solid foundation of truth while portraying free grace as Wesley’s error, accepted by infidels and "the highest reproach upon the dignity of the Son of God."

I will look at four key vehicles used in these artifacts: Gate, Flow, Building, and Sour Fruit. These metaphors, familiar to the immediate audience, helped to define the worldview held by each respective doctrine.

Metaphor of Gate

In these artifacts, metaphors with a tenor of movement depict the journey of humans toward God and the flow of grace toward human beings. Obstacles (gate, barrier, bar, destroy, block, cuts off) in that journey are detrimental to movement through the "ways of pleasantness" and Wesley charged that predestination "shut the very gate of holiness in general" (11). By alluding to the claim of Christ, "I am the sheep gate" (John 10: 7 NIV), Wesley asserted that predestination in fact stopped the work of Christ. The vehicle of the gate presented an impenetrable barrier, "an effectual bar," to a growing relationship with God. Rather than inspiring Christ-like "meekness and love," predestination cast "doubts and fears" concerning one’s salvation (12). Wesley charged that according to predestination, God could open the gate, but God will not, because of an unchanging decree before creation (22). This metaphor supported Wesley’s view that God gives people the choice between life and death, and that those who choose to live in Christ are "‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God.’" They receive the rewards of "a well-spring of joy, of happiness also, to our great and endless comfort" (28).

For Whitefield, God’s condemnation of mankind after the fall of Adam gave God the opportunity to "magnify his justice, by inflicting the punishment which their iniquities have deserved." God, as righteous judge, upholds the law and elects from the condemned a certain number for salvation through the obedience and death of Jesus Christ. As a result of this election, people strive "to be holy for the sake of being holy, and work for Christ out of love and gratitude."

Metaphor of Flow

Metaphors drawn from nature and the natural world find expression in these artifacts. Complementing the tenor of movement, Wesley compares God to the "fountain" of goodness and the good works of mankind as the "streams" that flow from the fountain. The flow also presents two ways, a flowing in and a flowing out, a flow of grace from God to the Christian producing peace and happiness, and the flow of grace from the Christian out to others in the form of good works. Wesley speaks of "this great work of the Holy Ghost whence flows the chief comfort of religion, the happiness of Christianity" (18). Yet, he charged, the doctrine of election blocks that flow because it "cuts off one of the strongest motives to do all acts of bodily mercy, such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and the like" (17). If easing the plight of the suffering does not change an unchangeable decree, nor "offer the hope of saving their souls from death," then, there is no purpose for doing good works (17). The flow stops. Predestination offered no flow, only an immutable decree of election or condemnation that no amount of good works could change.

Metaphor of Building

In response to Wesley’s remarks, Whitefield used the metaphor of building that affirmed a completed act of God rather than a journey in progress. The tenor of this metaphor depends on the permanence of God and the security human beings find in God’s immutability. Whitefield suggested that those who hold free grace have built upon a "sandy foundation," a "building up of righteousness founded on their own free will." This metaphor alluded to the Biblical story (Matthew 7:24 NIV) of the fool who built his house on sand (free will), while the wise man built his house on a sure foundation (election). Therefore, those who follow the Doctrine of Free Grace are fools, while those who follow predestination wisely "build upon God’s never-failing promise and unchangeable love"(Whitefield).

In addition to derision, Whitefield used this metaphor to suggest stasis. He acknowledged that "God hath appointed salvation for a certain number" and the rest of mankind remain condemned by the original sin of Adam. The vehicle of building suggests that the permanence, stability and security that abide in the Doctrine of Election provide a good foundation for building a sure and steady faith. This metaphor also alludes to references of Christ as the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20 NIV), building his argument for the dependability of God’s election as an "anchor of hope," unchanging and immutable.

For Wesley, the gift of free grace to all is "as unchangeable and eternal as is the being of God that gave it" (28). Human beings, through their own free will, accept this gift, that in "hope of future reward and fear of punishment" they "suffer Christ to make them alive" (28). Wesley’s permanence and stability flows from the free grace God offers to all people at all times.

 Metaphor of Sour Fruit

Another picture Wesley used portrays God as the "root" and good works as the "fruits of free grace." In this way, Wesley contended that no good came from man alone, but through the free grace of God. He described a symbiotic relationship with God wherein God provides the source, nourishment and purpose for mankind, and mankind can do nothing outside this relationship. Thus, the idea of a plant rooted in the soil relates to the relationship of a man or woman rooted in God. A plant receives nurture from the soil through the roots and cannot grow without being rooted in the soil. In the same way, people cannot produce the fruit of righteousness without being rooted in God.

Wesley claimed that the doctrine of predestination destroys "several particular branches of holiness." For Wesley, holiness meant observing the ordinances of God, which included public worship and studying the Word, as well as participating in the means of grace, the sacraments (General). Preaching then provided a way to holiness, but with the gate to holiness shut, the possibility of obtaining holiness disappeared, destroying any motivation for seeking God’s grace. According to Wesley, the doctrine of election decreed a person’s salvation or condemnation before time began, and therefore he claimed, "then is all preaching vain." Preachers do not need to preach nor hearers waste time listening if the immutable decree of God is permanently fixed (10).

In Wesley’s view, branches of holiness are destroyed, especially "meekness and love" when blocked from receiving a flow of nutrients from the "root," and no good fruit is produced, only a "sour and sharpened spirit." In addition, it fosters a "sharpness of temper" against those suspected "to have been hated of God from eternity" (12). His reference to "sour" and "sharpness" reminded his audience of the sharp or sour taste of bad fruit, emphasizing the prejudice and narrow-spirited attitudes that filled the people who followed predestination. To this Wesley added the plight of those who have "tasted of that good life," but then find themselves lost again, full of "doubts and fears, and darkness." Thus, predestination not only turns people into sour, unloving people but also keeps them from the assurance of "future preservation" (14). Wesley’s use of this metaphor left a bad taste of predestination in the mouths of the audience.

In response to this, Whitefield threw the metaphor of sour fruit back on Wesley, countering that those same sour attitudes appear among Wesley’s followers, and they, too, fell into doubts and fears and darkness. Therefore, he concluded that by Wesley’s reasoning, the doctrine of universal redemption also "destroys several branches of holiness." Whitefield prayed, "May the Lord remove the scales of prejudice from off the eyes of your mind and give you a zeal according to true Christian knowledge." He claimed that those who believe Universal Redemption do not produce fruit because they are rooted in their "own free will." In contrast, those who partake of the Doctrine of Predestination have "tasted and daily feed upon God’s electing, everlasting love." They experience the "precious promises of the gospel, being children’s bread" and "have experientially felt this doctrine in their hearts," resulting in "kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, et cetera." In other words, Whitefield proposed that the fruit of predestination tasted much better than the sour fruit of free grace.

As to preaching, Whitefield believed that God designed preaching to enlighten the elect of their chosen status, and for the non-elect for "restraining them from much wickedness and sin." Rather than destroying holiness, he claimed that holiness was the mark of election, which further strengthening his argument for an accomplished act of God. He believed that he remained among the elect and that God would "allow no one to pluck me out of his almighty hand."


The metaphors used in these artifacts serve three functions: (1) they interpret the relationship between God and human beings; (2) they serve as vehicles by which to negate the rhetorical force of countervailing metaphors; and (3) they serve as rhetorical bridges linking a particular theological commitment with specific behaviors that rationally follow.

The Interpretive Function

The idea of a gate presents two worldviews, namely, going in or going out versus being in or being out. Those who follow Universal Redemption would accept the going in and going out in respect to God’s grace, while those adhering to Predestination would claim being in (the elect) or being out (the condemned) according to God’s decree. In order to describe the relationship between God and mankind, Wesley used metaphors that described movement and flow. He saw the relationship as free grace flowing from God to man like a stream of water from a fountain and nutrients moving from roots to branches. The Doctrine of Free Grace provides for the free will of men and women to choose the way to life or the way to death. For those who choose life, the flowing fountain never ceases. This portrays the relationship as ever changing, growing and productive.

Whitefield, on the other hand, described the relationship between God and humans in metaphors of building. This metaphor presented the permanence of God as the firmly established judge of mankind and the relationship between God and man as set, unchanging and assured. He also called on the religious referent to connect with his audience who wisely built on firm foundations.

The Negation Function

Each artifact attempted to negate the philosophy of the opposing camp with images of sour fruit, broken branches, sandy foundations and closed gates. Wesley claimed that predestination cut off God’s flowing fountain, while Whitefield suggested that followers of free grace produced sour fruit.

Wesley painted predestination as sour fruit from destroyed branches of holiness, blocking the free flow of grace from God to people. He pointed to the sour attitude of those who embraced election as evidence that predestination did not produce happiness, and the lack of good works as evidence against that unchangeable decree (Wesley 13). Wesley expected faith to create happiness in the Christian and a keen desire to do good works. Something that prevented acts of kindness could not be from God. Thus, the lack of productive work and happiness in those who embraced election supported Wesley’s claim of the fallacy of predestination. His audience understood the need for Christians to do good works, and Wesley believed that the desire to work for God came as a free gift from God.

Whitefield pointed to the sour attitude of some of Wesley’s followers and therefore concluded that Free Grace must destroy branches of holiness, too. He called Wesley’s followers "fools" for establishing their faith on such changeableness (Whitefield). Using a metaphor of building, Whitefield defended the Doctrine of Predestination with followers who "triumph in hope of the glory of God, and build upon God’s never-failing promise and unchangeable love" (Whitefield). He claimed that Free Grace established itself on unreliable grounds, the free will of mankind, while the "sure and everlasting election of God" provided a sure foundation for faith (Whitefield). Thus, he cast a negative shadow upon Wesley’s flow of grace, claiming instead that happiness and good works result from a faith in the irrevocable decree of God.

The Linking Function

These metaphors also served to link theory with proper action. Each rhetor outlined a kind of justification for behavioral action that followed from his theological commitment through the bridge of metaphor. The metaphors chosen helped to focus audience attention on the cost and reward that resulted from adherence to these spiritual concepts. Wesley’s vehicle of flow presented the idea that the Christian life moved toward happiness and the desire to do good works, and a Christian who was rooted in God grew in grace. His choice of metaphor focused attention on the rewards of free grace and the cost of election. Wesley contended that predestination cut off the flow of grace, at the cost of happiness and the possibility of salvation.

In contrast, Whitefield’s vehicle of building focused on the permanence of God’s election as a sound, durable foundation for faith, and pointed out the error of free grace by calling it a "sandy foundation." Those who followed this doctrine, according to Whitefield, would find happiness in the assurance that God had elected them to be among the number of saved souls; and in addition, they do good works to ensure their greater reward. Rather than building on a secure foundation, Wesley’s doctrine "falls entirely to the ground," and "the children of God are in danger of falling into error" (Whitefield). In this way, each rhetor attempted to heighten audience acceptance of his view while totally rejecting the viability of the opposing view.


This paper explores the strategic role that metaphor played in an important case study of two prominent religious figures in cultivating an attitude of acceptance (and rejection) toward specific theological commitments. Both Wesley and Whitefield, although attempting to speak plainly, used metaphor to meet the strategic challenge of two apparently opposed religious doctrines. The four metaphors I have examined helped to explain and illustrate the concepts of predestination and universal redemption, and induced a particular attitude in the audience by presenting contrasting worldviews of the relationship between God and human beings.

These metaphors function in three ways. First, they interpret the abstract ideas of predestination and free grace by accenting the dichotomy between permanence and conversion. Secondly, these metaphors validate the negative interpretation of the other’s doctrine and repudiate disparagement toward their own. Finally, the metaphor functions to link a particular doctrine with certain expected behaviors that logically follow. This case study shows the importance of metaphor in sustaining a particular religious rhetoric in the face of competing alternatives.

Today, the debate continues between those who profess predestination and those who profess free grace. However, taken further, the vehicles of plants and buildings support both permanence and flow. In the process of building, materials flow, craftsmen work in an organized manner and through cooperation, satisfactory rewards result. In the same way, plants provide a way to explain both stability and movement. Securely rooted in the soil, a plant establishes a permanent place while growing and changing. This suggests possibilities for cultivating mutual co-participation between these two camps.

Future inquiry into religious rhetoric might expand the ideas presented here, and examine further the extent to which these two doctrines differ and concur. Research into the use of these metaphors in other religious artifacts will add to our understanding of the benefits of metaphor in defense of any particular doctrine. Investigation into the necessity of metaphor to cultivate attitudes about particular religious doctrines could expand our knowledge of the use of metaphor as a unifying element.

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Copyright 2001-2009. Michael E. Eidenmuller
The University of Texas at Tyler.
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