Next in our series on "The Twenty Most Important Theologians in the Methodist Tradition since the Wesleys" is William R. Cannon (1916-1997). This is the first theologian in the series with whom I had any personal contact. I heard him speak at Emory a couple of times when I was an undergraduate student there. My father also had some classes with him when he was a professor and dean of Candler School of Theology.
William Cannon was known as a scholar, theologian, historian, educator, dean, and bishop. Born in Tennessee and raised in Georgia, Bishop Cannon attended college at the University of Georgia and went to seminary at Yale Divinity School. He also received his Ph.D. at Yale in 1942. His main interests academically were in the study of Wesleyan theology, ecumenism, history, and Scripture. He joined the faculty of Candler in 1943 and became dean in 1953. He served as dean of Candler until 1968 when he was elected a bishop.
Perhaps his most important book was The Theology of John Wesley with special reference to the doctrine of Justification (1946). The year 1946 also saw the publication of Swedish scholar Harold Lindstrom's Wesley and Sanctification. 1946 was a good year for Methodist theological studies, as these two books became the definitive works on these two doctrines, which Wesley identified as the two key doctrines of the Methodism. Although they are not as widely read in seminaries today as they were in the 50's, 60's, and 70's, they remain to this day the major reference works for these two important doctrines.
Bishop Cannon became good friends with another famous resident of Atlanta: Jimmy Carter. President Carter asked Bishop Cannon to give the prayer at his inauguration in 1977. The prayer carried a somber tone, almost penitential in its call for a return to honor and decency (the Nixon-Watergate scandal was still fresh on everyone's mind). Before a national audience he prayed, "We ask Thy forgiveness for those sins that marred our national character and impaired the effectiveness of our government in recent times. Help us as a people to confess our sins, not to blame our politicians alone for them. In their evil and wrongdoing, Thou dost hold before our face a mirror in which we see our own misdeed writ large." Several journalists commented on the sternness of his prayer. He also served as an unofficial envoy for President Carter on many occasions, traveling to the Middle East as an unofficial representative of the President to help resolve Arab-Israeli differences. As president of the World Methodist Council, Cannon presented Jimmy Carter with the World Methodist Peace Award in 1985.
Cannon was regularly elected to general conference beginning in 1948. He met every Pope from Pius XII to John Paul II, and was a Protestant Observer to Vatican II. Later, as a Bishop, he also observed the Extraordinary Synod of the Roman Catholic Church in 1985. He became friends with Pope John Paul II, who sent a statement to be read at Cannon's funeral in 1997.
As the dean of Candler, he guided the school through integration and through the "God is Dead" controversy. He defended the academic freedom of Thomas Altizer, although he also wrote a strong refutation of his ideas. As a bishop, he delivered the episcopal address in the 1984 General Conference, in which he welcomed the first female Methodist bishop, Marjorie Matthews, to the college of bishops:
The election of Marjorie Matthews is a watershed in ecclesiastical history. There is no other instance in the whole of Christendom where a major world communion has opened its episcopal ranks to a woman. By divine providence The United Methodist Church in this way has given validity to the New Testament claim: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). The revelation of God is not static. Divine disclosure does not end with the last verse in the New Testament. What happened in the first century needs the achievements of subsequent ages, including the 20th century, to provide a full account of the mighty acts of God in history. "And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise; God having provided some better thing for us, that they without as should not be made perfect" (Hebrews 11:39-40).Late in life, Cannon became one of the leaders in the Confessing Movement within the denomination. He always emphasized the importance of evangelism in the life of the church. He challenged what he perceived to be liberal tendencies at work in the denomination in the 1982 Congress on Evangelism:
Evangelism is essential to Christianity. Christianity is sterile and incapable of reproducing itself apart from evangelism. Indeed, without effective evangelism, Christianity would die with the present generation of Christians. The enemies of Christianity in the contemporary world have seen this more clearly than its adherents. Whereas the latter have been complacent, indeed reticent to press the claims of the gospel on others, the former have been diligent in their efforts to circumscribe Christianity and to confine the faith to those who now profess it.
Unfortunately, what the avowed enemies of Christianity see so clearly, many so-called Christians do not see at all. There are those too numerous, even among the clergy, who disavow evangelism and stigmatize it as an affront to the adherents of other religions and as an insult to free thinking, self-determining human beings. Of course, all of us recognize the pluralistic nature of our society, and the necessity for voluntarism in relationship to all religious practices. But for a Christian minister to be so zealous to protect the uncommitted from the gospel (s)he is supposed to be committed to proclaim, one cannot help but wonder whose side they are really on. Given the bland complacency and cold indifference of too many of our clergy, I might welcome just a little fanaticism. It is easier to restrain a fanatic than it is to revive a corpse.
In many places, the gospel must come as an uninvited guest, even in Western Democratic Society. Truly, this is an inhospitable age, but so was the first century in which the gospel was originally proclaimed.
I will close with this excerpt from Bishop Cannon's address to the 1984 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. In it, Cannon seems to be expressing his pacifist views:
Unless we can abolish war, the chances are there will not be any world left for us to reform. An all-out nuclear war would eradicate civilization and in all probability destroy human life itself. Proposals and plans to curtail nuclear developments, to impose a nuclear freeze, to guarantee nuclear parity between the Soviet Union and United States are no more than palliatives. They do not cure the disease. All nuclear weapons possessed by any and every nation must simultaneously be destroyed, and neutral nations that do not possess such weapons must be the agents engaged to destroy them and to guarantee that their destruction is complete.
War is malignant. And, given the disposition of governments to exercise military force unconscionably for purposes of expansion, ideological uniformity, the coercion of populations, and nationalistic prestige and power, conventional weapons are also intolerable.
Christian conscience demands total disarmament by disbanding armies, navies, and air forces over the face of the earth. The early church with one voice condemned war. The Augustinian and medieval doctrine of the Just War was a later concession by the church to secularistic society and imperial government which at the time were at least nominally Christian. When its provisions were strictly adhered to, all it did was to enable Christians to kill other Christians on a restricted scale and a bit more humanely than otherwise, but they got killed just the same. Under contemporary circumstances the doctrine of the Just War is a ridiculous anachronism. Jesus came that all might have life and have it more abundantly. We are the disciples of the
Prince of Peace. He died on the cross rather than call down legions of angels to destroy his enemies. The church's message to the world is that any nation that selfishly tries to preserve its national existence by military means alone is bound to lose it, while those nations that give themselves unselfishly to the saving of their people and humanity will by divine grace achieve an exemplary place in history and become an earthly model of the kingdom of God.
Just as important as the abolition of war are the universal respect for human rights, the freedom of persons in every nation and society, the safeguards of life, liberty, and the means of happiness to all people who inhabit the earth. The danger of enslavement is as terrifying as the threat of nuclear disaster. The inability freely to express one's thoughts, to disseminate new ideas, and to pursue the dictates of conscience are as oppressive as death itself. The domination of any portion of humanity by an oppressive, totalitarian regime is an evil which the church must resist with the same vigor and determination that it resists war.
Blackmail of one nation by another through superior military force and the suppression of the citizens of a country by its own government are comparable to a holocaust. Jesus announced his mission and therefore the mission of his church: "to preach deliverance to the captives" and "to set at liberty them that are oppressed" (Luke 4:18). "Give liberty to whom liberty is due," proclaims John Wesley, "that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature. Let none serve you but by his own voluntary choice. Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion."