Stories extolling the professorial prowess of Rex Matthews abound at Candler. For one, Tom Elliott, assistant professor in the practice of practical theology and director of Teaching Parish, Con Ed II and ministry internships, recalls the time he came across a group of students talking about how much they enjoyed Matthews’ classes. Out of curiosity, Elliott asked them, “What makes Dr. Matthews such a great teacher?” They said, “We think the man knew John Wesley!”

Matthews, who retires this year from Candler as professor in the practice of historical theology and Wesleyan studies, introduced countless students to a deeper understanding of Wesley and their Methodist history. His research interests on the life and thought of John Wesley, particularly in his eighteenth-century theo­logical and philosophical context, and the historical and theological development of Methodism in both Britain and America have enlivened his students’ theological imaginations. His natural gift for teaching—marrying extensive knowl­edge, great communication skills, and a deep concern for his students—has made him among Candler’s most beloved professors.

Matthews first came to Candler in 1981 alongside his wife, Carol Newsom, who was joining the faculty. His significant talents and Harvard MDiv degree were immediately noted and applied here, as he taught classes and managed the on-campus Cokesbury book­store while finishing his Harvard ThD (1986) and doing part-time editorial work for Abingdon Press. In 1989, he moved full-time to the world of academic publishing, working with Scholars Press, the Society of Biblical Literature, and Abingdon, where he es­tablished and directed the Kingswood Books series for scholarly works in Wesleyan and Methodist studies.

Matthews with Candler students and alumni at a retirement gathering in April.Matthews returned to Candler’s faculty in 2004, and his work in the classroom has been richly rewarded. He received the On Eagle’s Wings Excellence in Teaching Award, selected by Candler’s senior class, in 2010 and 2016; the Exemplary Teaching Award from the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of The United Methodist Church in 2012; and the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, the most prestigious award for teaching given by Emory University, in 2011.

“As a teacher, Rex has the rare gift of framing complex theological thought in a way that is accessible and brings John Wesley to life for his students,” says Teresa Angle-Young 07T, director of Local Church Services at United Methodist Communications. “He gave me the language with which to interact with fellow scholars, but also to teach and preach Wesley in a congregation. As a mentor, he has encouraged me, sought out professional opportunities for me, and supported me in ways that have had significant impact on my life and career. His personal integrity, excellent scholarship, and generosity of spirit are unmatched.” 

Linda Stephan 18T says that being in Matthews’ classes “has been among the most theologically transformative experiences of my life.” She acknowledges that seminary is a place where students must wrestle with their core beliefs and spiritual understandings, but says that “instead of pain, Rex Matthews invites hope and excitement and a sense of rejuvenation. He goes deep into the facts of history, and invites us to ask questions of the past without telling students what, or how, to think. The result is honest self-discovery that brings us closer to the past and closer to ourselves and closer to God.”

Matthews’ scholarly pursuits have garnered recognition throughout his career as well. Russ Richey, former dean and William R. Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church History, says that Matthews has been “the greatest facilitator and promoter of Wesley studies and Methodistica for at least the last half-century” through his work in academic publishing and his role as managing editor of the Methodist Review: A Journal of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies, an online academic journal launched in 2009. Additionally, Matthews served as co-chair of the Wesleyan Studies Group of the American Academy of Religion from 2007 to 2013 and as general editor of the Kingswood Books series from 2008 to 2016. He was a Luce Exchange Fellow and visiting professor at the Methodist University of São Paulo, Brazil, in 2013 and a fellow of the Summer Wesley Seminar at Duke Divinity School in 2004 and 2014. He received the Florence A. Bell Scholar Award from Drew University Theological School Library in 2014.

Matthews’ book Timetables of History for Students of Methodism (Abingdon Press, 2007) received the 2007 Saddleb­ag Selection Award from the Historical Society of The United Methodist Church as “the best book published during the year on the history, biography, polity or theology of United Methodism.” More recently he was the editor of The Vocation of Theology: Inquiry, Dialogue, Adoration (GBHEM/Foundery Books, 2017), a collection of essays from the centennial celebration of Candler School of Theology, and the author of Ministerial Orders and Sacramental Authority in The United Methodist Church and Its Antecedents, 1785–2016 (GBHEM/Foundery Books, 2018).

Elliott notes that Matthews has been an incredible resource at Candler and beyond. “I once heard Rex Matthews say that it is important to find your role or niche in life, which for him was supporting theological education and the work of others in the field,” he says. “This he has done faithfully through his roles as teacher, advisor, editor, researcher, author, Wesleyan historian and theologian, and consult for UM Boards of Ordained Ministry (to name a few). Many have benefited and been blessed by his vocational clarity.” Richey concurs, calling him a “colleague, guide, critic, enabler, mentor, promoter, booster, facilitator, problem-solver, and friend.”

In retirement, Matthews is focusing on spending time with his mother, who is entering her 90s. He says he also hopes to “improve my photographic skills, learn how to tie flies, spend more time on the water using some of those flies, and teach myself how to read again for pleasure – something I’ve almost forgotten how to do.” He will have a continuing relationship with Candler as a research fellow, and hints that at some point, he may return to the classroom for a “limited engagement.” There is no doubt that future students will be grateful to spend time with the man who must know John Wesley.

Photos by Myron McGhee 95T