John Wesley (1703-1791) and George Whitefield (1714-1770) were the most well-known Christian leaders in the English-speaking world of the 18th century. They struggled with each other regarding some significant points of Christian doctrine, and through their dialogue they introduced the notion of “agreeing to disagree” into Christian discourse.
Sometimes “agreeing to disagree” with fellow believers can be difficult. I know. I have been there. But first, let me give you some historical background…
In 18th century England and America, two of the most celebrated figures were George Whitefield and John Wesley. Whitefield and Wesley would travel up and down the American Eastern seaboard and across the British Isles preaching in the open air. The first “Great Awakening” can largely be attributed to how God used these two men to lead many thousands into a relationship with Jesus Christ, perhaps one of the greatest spiritual revivals in the history of the church.
But Whitefield and Wesley had some rough spots in their relationship with one another. In one important matter, they differed in terms of some significant Christian doctrine. George Whitefield, a Calvinist theologically, believed that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, He died only for the elect who would come to know Christ. If you were not among the predestined elect, Whitefield concluded that the Bible taught that Jesus had not died for you. John Wesley, an Arminian theologically, vehemently rejected this teaching. For Wesley, Jesus Christ died for all of humanity, whether someone received Christ or not. Though these men clearly differed on the extent of Christ’s atoning work on the cross and how that related to predestination, they were united in many more things in terms of doctrine than over that which they were divided.
The prolonged controversy between Whitefield and Wesley was at times very tense. Though I do not recall the reference, my understanding is that John Wesley was the more quarrelsome of the two men. But it is to John Wesley’s credit that eventually when he was asked to deliver a memorial sermon when George Whitefield died, he was extremely charitable to his evangelistic counterpart. In that sermon, Wesley uttered a most memorable phrase:
“There are many doctrines of a less essential nature … In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials…”
Since that remarkable sermon, Christians over the years have recalled Wesley’s words that he at times exchanged with his colleague Whitefield about “agreeing to disagree.” Though these men still had their points of conflict, in the end, they were able to consider each other not as enemies but rather as friends, as brothers in Christ, despite their disputes over some points of doctrine.
It is a lesson that the evangelical church today still needs to hear.