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The Limitless Dr Kelly Diehl Yates

Blog — 1st December 2021

We were delighted to welcome Dr Kelly Diehl Yates back to our campus in Didsbury recently. We sat down to discuss her new book, The Limits of a Catholic Spirit: John Wesley, Methodism, and Catholicism (Pickwick Publications, 2021) and where life has taken her since graduating from NTC in 2018.

In the words of her publishers, “The Limits of a Catholic Spirit fills the gap that is John Wesley and Catholicism. No other book has provided such an in-depth study of the perils Wesley faced when he encountered Catholicism. With the use of rare primary sources that tell of anti-Methodist riots in Ireland to Wesley’s preachers getting kidnapped and forced to serve in the army, this study will provide you with historical information you’ve never encountered. It will explore questions that have held Wesley scholars captive for decades. Was John Wesley responsible for sparking the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 in London? Kelly Diehl Yates searched eighteenth-century documents in the National Archives of the United Kingdom to find out. Was John Wesley aligned with the Jesuits? Was John Wesley a Jacobite, an enemy of the British Crown? Did John Wesley require Irish Catholics to denounce Catholicism to join Methodist societies? By the end of The Limits of a Catholic Spirit, you’ll find answers to all these questions and more.”

We began by discussing the origins of Dr Yates’ research, and how it took a direction she described as “unexpected” when she first began the project as part of her doctoral research a decade ago:

“When I first started writing my thesis, I wanted to write about John Wesley and ecumenism, and it ended up that Wesley wasn’t as ecumenical as I thought he was with regard to Catholics! When I started working I kept finding this issue that he wasn’t as tolerant with Catholics as I wanted him to be, so I decided to go down that path and research that.” 

For those readers familiar with the popular perception of Wesley, she acknowledges that there may be some surprises in this work:

“One of the things that I’ve tried to show with my research is that there were some people who had taken two of his writings, ‘The Catholic Spirit’, one of his sermons, and one of his letters, ‘Letter to a Roman Catholic’, and they had tried to prove that he was very ecumenical to Catholics from those two documents. And I’m actually proving the other way, that he wasn’t! With ‘Letter to a Roman Catholic’, he did write it, and it sounds very wonderful that he’s trying to work with Catholics, but what I found out was that he was writing it right after some riots against Methodists in Ireland and he was trying to get them to stop rioting so he could preach evangelical conversion to them. That was the purpose of that writing, it wasn’t ecumenical. And with ‘The Catholic Spirit’, even some of the phrasing that he uses was a little bit anti-Catholic, so he wasn’t trying to work with Catholics with that sermon either.”

However, Dr Yates is quick to point out that she is not setting out to criticise Wesley or challenge modern ecumenism between Methodists and Catholics:

“I think we just have to accept that Wesley was a person with faults, that he wasn’t perfect in every way and that it’s wrong to put him on a pedestal. We just have to accept that. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have so much to learn from him because we do, there’s so much that he can teach us! But when it comes to his ecumenism with Catholics, it just didn’t exist! The Methodists and the Catholics have come so far in their working together and their unity and I am totally for that and I want that to continue. I don’t want the book to speak against that. It’s just, doing the historical research, I didn’t find that he was willing to work with Catholics.”

In The Limits of a Catholic Spirit, Dr Yates makes the case that this lack of ecumenism had political rather than spiritual foundations for Wesley:

“He had theological differences but the main difference was political. That had to do with the English Reformation. He was still holding on to old prejudices that lots of English Protestants had against Catholics. There was a fear that if they were given any type of political power that they would take over, and they would remove any kind of religious freedom from people. So it was leftovers from there that he was apparently hanging on to.”

However, Wesley’s commitment to ecumenism more broadly remained strong:

“He was working with other Protestants and the only requirement for getting into the societies was to be seeking the Lord. And Catholics participated in the societies – he didn’t exclude them and they came and participated. Anybody could! There was no requirement to, say, become a member of the Church of England before you could become a Methodist.”

Although this project has reached its conclusion, Dr Yates is continuing her historical theological research with a new project.

“I am starting research on early Methodism and marriage, looking at John and Mary Fletcher who were contemporaries of Wesley, looking at their marriage, then moving on from there to look at other Methodists.”

She credits her time at NTC and at the Manchester Manchester Wesley Research Centre with laying the foundations for this project too.

“I spent many long hours in the Wesley Research Centre! Using all kinds of materials in there from journals to books to papers – everything! The centre was very influential in my research.”

Since graduating from NTC, Dr Yates and her husband have returned to the United States. As well as teaching, researching and writing, she is also the founder and director of the Walt Crow Center for Pastors in Oklahoma.

“I live in Oklahoma City. That’s home! I teach online for three schools – Southern Nazarene University, Indiana Wesleyan University. But a year ago, through my church, Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene, where I am on staff, I started a retreat centre for pastors. We have one pastor come a month and they stay from Friday to Monday, and they have free accommodation, they get money for food, money for recreation, they get free therapy, a free session with a spiritual director and a free session with a pastor mentor. We raise all of our money on our own and so far things are going well! Pastors need time off. I have been a Senior Pastor and an Associate Pastor so I know what that takes.

“People will come from all over the country. It’s open to everybody, but we can’t provide transportation, so it’s prohibitive for those outside the country. The last person we had came from Maine, which is well over 1000 miles away! We’re based in the city. We use a house owned by Southern Nazarene University but we’re hoping one day to have our own house someday in the future. We’ll have to raise a lot of money!”

The Limits of a Catholic Spirit is in fact one of two books Dr Yates has published this year! Her first novel,  Rush to the Heartlands, was also released this summer.

When we pointed out how impressive this was, Dr Yates simply replied, “Well, I love writing so I spend a lot of time doing it!”

We were so glad to spend this time with Dr Yates, and to learn more about the impressive ways she is serving God in her life, ministry and writing. We look forward to celebrating more of her successes in the future!

You can read more about Walt Crow Center for Pastors at waltcrowcenter.com and more about Dr Yates’s books at kellydiehlyates.com.