Albert Outler: From Wofford to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral
The following piece is reprinted from the “From the Archives” blog. Written by Wofford archivist, Phillip Stone, the article tells the story of the distinguished Wofford alumnus, Albert C. Outler, whose understanding of his own liberal arts education is as relevant today as it was in the early 20th century.
Born in Thomasville, Georgia, Dr. Outler was the son of a Methodist minister and district superintendent in the South Georgia Conference. He came to Wofford in 1925 and was a stellar student, earning distinctions in Bible, English, history and sociology as a sophomore and in Bible, Greek, geology, religious education, English, and chemistry as a junior. He earned enough credits to graduate a year ahead of his class, taking his AB degree in 1928. After graduation, he became a clergy member of the South Georgia Annual Conference of the Methodist Church and earned his BD degree from Emory University. He studied for his PhD in religion at Yale University, taking that degree in 1938. He became an instructor, and later professor at Duke University in 1938, remaining there until 1945, when he answered Yale’s call to their faculty. While at Yale, he became the Dwight Professor of Theology. In 1951, he moved to Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, where he spent the rest of his career.
That’s the official list of appointments, but it completely fails to do justice to Albert Outler’s contribution to Methodist theology. Outler’s 1961 article “Toward a Re-appraisal of John Wesley as a Theologian” helped revive John Wesley’s reputation as an original theologian rather than a “cult hero and theological featherweight,” in the words of an Emory alumni magazine article about Outler. He is regarded as the most original Methodist theologian in the history of the church and was one of the foremost experts in the life and works of John Wesley. He was the author of numerous books and articles and a much sought-after speaker and lecturer. He was the editor of The Works of John Wesley and was the principal annotator of Wesley’s sermons. He created the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” to describe the basis of John Wesley’s theology – the reliance on scripture, reason, church tradition, and personal experience in reaching theological conclusions.
He was a representative at the World Methodist Council and at the World Council of Churches, and from 1962-65, was an official observer at the Second Vatican Council.
Wofford honored Albert Outler in a number of ways. He was elected an alumnus member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1948, was awarded an honorary degree in 1952, gave the Commencement address in 1968, and received the alumni distinguished service award in 1987. The Albert C. Outler Chair in Religion was endowed in his honor as well. In 1985, only a few years before he died, and over fifty years after he graduated from Wofford, Albert Outler presented the inaugural Lecture in Religion, Ethics, and Society at the college. In that lecture, he paid tribute to the liberal arts education he received at Wofford.
In a letter he wrote to Lewis Jones in 1980, responding to a request for his thoughts on the liberal education he received at Wofford, Outler explained, “my vague recollection is that my college major was English, but it has been the discoveries of what could be done with the English language that have stayed with me after the details of the courses have long since blurred.” He noted that he never learned enough in any discipline to be considered an “expert,” and in that sense, his education was “useless” in terms of the current mania for a career and vocational education. But, it was useful in that it freed him from some of the biases that came with each discipline, and that with enough lead time, he could “master the rudiments of any new field, and what I would know then would be more up-to-date. “This is why I shall be eternally grateful that I wasn’t confined by a more specialized or vocational curriculum. Instead, we got a synoptic view of the world at large, and an organic sense of the life of learning.”