Church Education Trust



John Wesley (1703 - 1791).

The eighteenth century has been variously described and interpreted by different writers: it was a century of great contrasts and important events, which had far-reaching consequences, especially in the religious field. It brought in an era of peace and considerable prosperity. This led on to an outbreak of materialism and moral decline.

Drunkenness and gambling were widespread, the sanctity of marriage was widely ignored and crime was rampant. In this atmosphere disregard of religion became characteristic of the age. A writer in 1738 (the year of Wesley's conversion) declared that morality and religion in Britain had collapsed "to a degree that has never been known in any Christian country".

As for the Church, the Church of England in the early part of the century was not strong enough to stem the tide of irreligion and sin. There was a tendency to "sit at ease in Zion", to avoid controversy, to try to steer a middle course between the High Church outlook and Puritanism. There was a lack of warmth and real spiritual life. Religion was becoming cold and reasoned.

It was greatly affected by the rise of Deism, the belief that Gods having created the universe and set it in motion, had left it to continue under immutable natural laws; the supernatural was no longer operative; such beliefs as the incarnation, miracles, prophecy and the divine inspiration of the Scriptures were no longer tenable.

Deism spread to Germany, where new ideas were developed in the criticism of the Bible which ultimately led to the modernistic interpretation characteristic of modern times. But the eighteenth century also witnessed wonderful movements of the Spirit of God. These were by no means confined to the Whitefield-Wesley revival, though this was the greatest of the movements.

The great awakening really began with the Pietist movement in Germany. The Pietists owed their evangelical outlook to the writings of John Bunyan and Richard Baxter. They began to exercise their influence in German universities from about 1670. In the eighteenth century the influence of the Pietists affected Count Zinzendorf, who allowed a group of Moravian Brethren to settle on his estate at Hernhut in Saxony in 1722.

This group experienced a real Pentecostal blessing and became the pioneers of modern missionary enterprise. In 1735 a team of Moravian missionaries left for Georgia, soon followed by another group. The missionaries travelled via England and the Moravian movement made its impact upon the Church of England.

Meanwhile, in Wales, an awakening movement was started by the preaching and educational work of Griffith Jones. He was the spiritual father of the three leaders in the revival movement in Wales, Daniel Rowland, Howell Harris and Howell Davies. This movement began in 1735. Across the Atlantic stirrings of the Spirit had been observed in various places from early in the eighteenth century and in 1734 revival broke out under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.

In England the great Revival began in 1735 with the conversion of George Whitefield. He began aggressive evangelistic work and continued for thirty four years, preaching all over England and Wales and making several visits to America, where he took up the work of Jonathan Edwards and spread it far and wide.

John Wesley was born in 1703, his brother Charles, four years later, in the Rectory at Epworth in Lincolnshire. Their father, Samuel Wesley, originally a Non-conformist, had been trained at Oxford and became Rector at Epworth in 1695. Their mother, Susannah, had already been conversant with Greek, Latin and French at the age of thirteen and decided to transfer from the Non-conformists to the Anglican Church.

So both parents were converts from Non-conformity. The mother undertook the early training and education of her children. In 1709 a fire broke out in the Rectory and John was snatched from an upper room at the last minute. Otherwise his years of childhood passed uneventfully, but he was convinced that he had been providentially preserved from death to fulfil a special mission in life.

John went up to Oxford in 1720 after leaving Charter-house School, and Charles passed from Westminster School to Oxford in 1726, John graduated in 1724 and his father urged him to take orders. This led to his first consciousness of spiritual need in the following year, and the beginning of his quest for spiritual life.

He began to read spiritual books. During the next four years he preached much, but was conscious of barrennesss in his ministry. Charles, at first a carefree undergraduate, began to think more seriously after two years and in 1729 he formed the Holy Club in Oxford. A few weeks later John joined it.

They began to search the Scriptures, to pray, to fast, to visit and help the poor and the sick. There were four members of the club when it began and fourteen six years later when Wesley left for Georgia.. They were sincere seekers, but George Whitefield, the last recruit, was the only one to enter into blessing while still a member of the group. It was to this group that the nickname of Methodist first applied.

In 1735, the Wesleys, with two others of the Holy Club, sailed for Georgia, John as a missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and Charles as Secretary to the Governor. Their work in Georgia was unsuccessful and they returned in February 1738, disappointed. John wrote in his journal that he, who went to convert the Indians of Georgia, had learnt that he had never been converted himself.

But the Georgian venture had brought him into touch with the Moravian missionaries, whose influence was to prove decisive. He now knew what he was seeking. After his return conversations with another Moravian named Bohler influenced him greatly. On May 21st 1738, John received news that his brother Charles "had found rest to his soul". On May 24th John went "very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street; about a quarter before nine....I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation".

Both the brothers were greatly influenced by Martin Luther's writings in their conversions. From this day John Wesley dates the commencement of revival power in his ministry, "the fire which I trust shall never be extinguished". From this time Wesley's ministry was attended by multiplied conversions; it also met with great opposition.

On May 1st, 1738 John Wesley had joined with Peter Bohler in founding the Fetter Lane Society, which was to become the centre of Moravian activities in Britain. This was really the cradle of the Methodist Society, although the Methodists later left them. After his conversion Wesley responded to the call to preach the Gospel to every creature; he set out "to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural Holiness over the land".

He soon regarded the world as his parish. In April 1739 he took to field preaching. The first site of this new venture was a little eminence near Bristol. Field preaching made Wesley an itinerant minister, bringing his message to the common people who heard him gladly. He was free to go wherever the Spirit led him. In 1742 he embarked upon his first evangelistic tour and from this time on continued as an itinerant preacher till his declining days.

Having already established his work in London and Bristol, he made a third centre at Newcastle in the north and so formed a triangle of centres between which he moved, leaving in places all over the country a nucleus of converts which became a society which he would subsequently revisit and encourage on later tours.

In 1747 he crossed to Ireland, and in 1751 paid the first of twenty two visits to Scotland. In 1760 he began work in America. In 1767 25,000 Methodists were in membership in England, in 1790 71,000. Wesley regarded his first task as evangelism; it was not his immediate aim to form a denomination. But he found it imperative to do so, in order to keep his converts spiritually alert and keen.

The fundamental need was fellowship; so he formed the Methodist society as the basic unit of his organisation. Groups met weekly to share Christian experience. These led on later to the class meetings, under class leaders, the under-shepherds of the flock. In 1743 Wesley co-ordinated all his societies throughout the country by drawing up a comprehensive set of regulations.

They comprised only three obligations, expressed in the simplest possible terms;-

(i) Do no harm.

(ii) Do good,

(iii) Attend the ordinances of God.

His definition of a Methodist was one who "loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind and with all his strength". Within a few years all the main features of Methodism emerged, the Love Feast, the Watchnight and Covenant service, lay preaching and the Methodist Conference.

The country was divided into circuits, supervised by superintendents, the more experienced of Wesley's preachers. Wesley strongly believed in the need for regular change of preachers. Such an organisation inevitably meant ultimate withdrawal from the Anglican fold and the setting up of a separate denomination. The final break came in 1784.

As well as severance in organisation, there was also some difference in doctrine among the various leaders of the revival movements. The main difference arose between Whitefield and Wesley. Whitefield represented the Calvinistic outlook deriving from the Geneva reformer. Wesley and the Methodists were Arminian in doctrine.

Arminius (1560 - 1609) was a professor at Leyden in Holland and the originator of the doctrine known as Arminianism. The main points of Arminian doctrine are the following:- conditional election on the ground of faith which is foreknown of God, in contrast to the absolute predestination and election of the Calvinists; the Atonement was made for all men though only believers received the "fruits of it"; regeneration by the Holy Spirit is necessary, but the individual can resist His work and reject Him; those who are saved may relapse from grace and be lost.

The controversy arose quite early and quite sharply between Wesley and Whitefield, and in 1741 the two evangelists met to discuss their differences. They agreed to go their separate ways and after a while no feelings were allowed to mar their relationship. They established their separate congregations and meeting-places, and both continued to see abundant fruit for their labours.

The results of the revival movement were far-reaching. It is said that Wesley saved England from revolution. He also created a revolution in the spiritual sphere. The Church in England was revolutionised and thousands were brought into the Kingdom during the course of the eighteenth century.

At the close of the century there began the great missionary movement which has continued to the present day, and the establishment of numerous agencies for the promotion of Christian work.

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