The Tables Are Turned: John Wesley on the Retirement of Randy MaddoxA Legacy of Faith and Scholarship
by Mark Gorman
At the end of this school year, Randy Maddox, the William Kellon Quick Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, retires, bringing to a close the Duke Divinity career of a scholar, teacher, and mentor. Duke Divinity has a great legacy of significant Wesley scholars, including Frank Baker, Thomas Langford, Russell Richey, and Richard Heitzenrater. Maddox’s place in the pantheon of Wesley scholars, from Duke or anywhere else, is secure.
Consider a sampling of his accomplishments: director of Duke’s Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition; general editor of the Wesley Works project; editor or co-editor of many books on Wesleyan and Methodist studies; and author of Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (1994), perhaps the single most important volume on Wesley’s theology; not to mention dozens of essays and articles.
Maddox did not begin his career as a Wesley scholar. His dissertation was on theological method. He turned to Wesley studies when what started as a sabbatical project became Responsible Grace. As well as his keen abilities as a theologian and historian, it was the commitment of institutional support to Wesley studies from Seattle Pacific University (where Maddox was the Paul T. Walls Professor of Wesleyan Theology prior to coming to Duke) and Duke Divinity, especially, that allowed Maddox to build on Responsible Grace and make lasting contributions to the field of Wesley and Methodist studies.
But what would John Wesley himself, the object of so much of Maddox’s scholarship, think of this retirement business? After all, Maddox’s work encourages Methodists to return to the sources, not only of John Wesley but also his brother Charles, his mother Susanna, and his circle of family, friends, and adversaries.
Randy Maddox, in conversation with Laceye Warner, discusses John Wesley’s understanding of connection and the importance of his quote that “to be human is to be an individual who can be wrong.”
“Not that we can in any wise condemn the intermixing solitude or retirement with society. This is not only allowable but expedient. … Nor indeed can a man of experience condemn even longer seasons of religious retirement.”
— John Wesley
In preparing to write this article, I looked at the following passage from Sermon 78 (“Spiritual Idolatry”):
Take an instance that occurs almost every day: a person who has been long involved in the world, surrounded and fatigued with abundance of business, having at length acquired an easy fortune, disengages himself from all business and retires into the country—to be happy. Happy in what? Why, in taking his ease. … But meantime where does God come in? Nowhere at all. … Therefore this whole scheme of happiness in retirement is idolatry from beginning to end.
This made me wonder how often Wesley talks about retirement? So I did just as my mentor Professor Maddox taught me. I opened up my trusty Toshiba Satellite laptop (c. 2002), which still runs Windows 98, so that I could load the Abingdon electronic version of the Wesley Works project and run a search using an engine that clearly precedes even early Google by several generations of technological evolution. The results were most satisfying.
Lest I provoke the ire of Wesley scholars whose eyes may scan this article, let me hasten to add two caveats: Wesley uses the word retirement to mean several things, including rest or religious retreat, as well as what Maddox is doing—and I will be flagrantly ignoring these different meanings for my present purposes. In addition, while my search on the ancient laptop returned hits from the Jackson edition of Wesley’s writings, out of deference to Maddox’s ongoing work as general editor of the more modern Wesley Works project I will not allow references from an outdated edition to mar this tribute.
Maddox speaks about the role of sanctification in communities.
Maddox discusses John and Charles Wesley’s understanding of grace.
First, Wesley allowed some room for retirement in life, in balance with other activities. In his sermon (Sermon 53) after George Whitefield’s death, he spoke approvingly of how Whitefield, when serving a curate in Hampshire, “divided the day into three parts, allotting eight hours for sleep and meals, eight for study and retirement, and eight for reading prayers, catechizing, and visiting the people.” Is it too much to extrapolate from this that a similarly proportioned lifetime may also be commendable? In another sermon (Sermon 24), Wesley adds, reassuringly, “Not that we can in any wise condemn the intermixing solitude or retirement with society. This is not only allowable but expedient. … Nor indeed can a man of experience condemn even longer seasons of religious retirement.” It seems that Wesley would not condemn Maddox, who invested so much of himself in his students so that we could be better scholars and better servants of Christ’s church.
Second, despite his strong words about retirement to the countryside, Wesley was not above longing for such respite himself. “How gladly could I spend the remainder of a busy life in solitude and retirement,” he writes when he is still only in his forties (Aug. 21, 1750 journal entry). Apparently the sentiment stuck with Wesley, because he repeated it almost word-for-word nearly 25 years later, when he wrote, “How willingly I could spend the residue of a busy life in this delightful retirement!” (June 23, 1775 journal entry). In fact, there is evidence Wesley harbored this sentiment from a young age.
Third, Wesley knew of whence he spoke. In a letter to his father (Dec. 10, 1734), who wanted Wesley to leave Oxford and accept a curate, Wesley, who was 31, offers the following objection to his father’s designs (emphasis added):
Another blessing which I enjoy here in a greater degree than I could expect elsewhere is retirement. I have not only as much but as little company as I please. Trifling visitants I have none. No one takes it into his head to come within my doors unless I desire him, or he has business with me. And even then, as soon as his business is done, he immediately goes away.
I have my doubts about the positive effect of this objection from Wesley on his father. Nevertheless, for Maddox it represents a well-deserved idyll. Having been on the dissertation committees of at least nine doctoral students at Duke (including those of current faculty members Edgardo Colón-Emeric and Jeff Conklin-Miller) plus several elsewhere; supervised several D.Min. theses; directed the Th.D. program; chaired a dean’s search committee; and served as associate dean for faculty development, Maddox is, I think, owed some time when fewer shadows cross his threshold. We who benefited from his so-often open door cannot begrudge him the opportunity to have “as little company as I please.”
Fourth, then, I hope you will join me in wishing Randy Maddox what Wesley himself desired in that same early period, which he later recounted in his “Short History of People Called Methodists”: “Having now obtained what I had long desired … I set up my rest, being fully determined to live and die in this sweet retirement.” My first memory of Professor Maddox is not from the classroom or from reading his work. It is of standing in line in a Westbrook hallway, during the Methodist House end-of-semester dinner. I was in my first year, and my son, Nathaniel, then about six months old, was with me. Maddox saw us, stepped out of line, and blessed my son. I’m sure we talked, also, but that act of blessing is seared in my mind. It was a gesture of kindness from him that I saw repeated in my own life and also in the lives of many other students—the gesture of one who surely deserves all the blessings a good retirement can bring.
The legacy of Randy Maddox endures in the lives of his many students at Duke and around the world. May he receive the full blessings of a sweet retirement that capstones an academic life that meets even Wesley’s high standard of true happiness and, more importantly, brings glory to the Triune Lord whom he serves so faithfully.
Mark Gorman (M.Div.’11, Th.D.’15) is the lead pastor of the West Harford Cooperative Parish in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. He is a core faculty member of St. Mary’s Ecumenical Institute in Baltimore, where he teaches courses in theology and worship studies, and he also teaches United Methodist polity for Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.