John Wesley: Father of Methodism

1703-1791

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John Wesley

Was ever a man born (1703), endowed, disciplined, trained, educated, saved from a fiery grace and prepared in a hundred ways to rescue souls by the thousand, to reform an entire nation and to set in motion a world-wide movement, like John Wesley? Within ninety years of his death (1791) it could be said that the sun never set on world Methodism which held its first ecumenical (world) conference in London in 1881 and the centennial (world) conference in Hawaii in August 1981.

Born and saved to serve
The mission of God is for the glory of God. Both Samuel Wesley, an Anglican priest and his son, John Wesley agreed that “the glory of God and the different degrees of promoting it are the sole consideration and direction in the choice of any course of life.” Wesley’s mother, Susanna, of non-Anglican background, had “the glory of God” as her motivation. The Rev Samuel Wesley and Susanna served for forty years in Epworth, not far from Hull, a town in Northern England. The parsonage, declared a Wesleyan shrine since 1954, had a full house, John Wesley being the fifteenth of nineteen children. Susanna had time to nurture her children and she made time to teach them and to hold a weekly tutorial to give them individual attention. John Wesley, known in the family as ‘Jackie’, looked forward to his meeting with his mother on Thursday evenings. He corresponded with her when away from home.

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Epworth Church

When Jackie was six, the parsonage was set on fire possibly by angry parishioners. This is assumed because other minor harmful actions had been done earlier aroused by Samuel Wesley’s strict moral exhortations. The family trooped out in orderly fashion and lined up for the roll call. They found Jackie missing. The raging flames prevented anyone from going in. They knelt to pray. Soon, Jackie appeared at a window upstairs. One of the friendly parishioners, climbing on another’s sho ulders, rescued him. The roof caved in soon after. Susanna interpreted the miraculous rescue of John as God’s will for him to be set apart for God’s work, towards which end she decided to give him greater care. He was indeed, a “brand plucked from the burning”. This brand was to begin an all-England revival which spread like wild-fire.

During Samuel Wesley’s trips to London, two significant incidents took place. Susanna held prayer meetings in the kitchen; attendances increased. She, a born non-conformist, was breaking church law by exercising a priestly function and state law by holding a forbidden meeting. She promised her husband to desist if he ordered it but he did not.

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Susanna Wesley

Mission education
The next incident was Susanna’s being thrilled as she began reading the heroic reports of the first two Protestant missionaries to South India, Ziegenbalg and Plutschau. She was deeply moved by the need to seek salvation of souls. Sh e shared these stories with her children. These stories added to the missionary tradition of the W esley family because the Wesley ancestors had fought in the Crusades and one had been martyred in the Holy Land in 1340. This eed the Wesleys to use the scallop shell in the quarterings of their family arms. The grandfather had wanted to go to Surinam and his father drew up a comprehensive scheme for missionary work in India, China and Abyssinia.

The Holy Club
John Wesley joined Charterhouse public school when he was eleven (1714) and Oxford University at seventeen (1720). In 1726, he was elected a fellow of Lincoln College for which both his parents praised God. At this time, Charles Wesley, his younger brother and companion, went up to Oxford and founded the Holy Club, a group of students who were given to strict spiritual discipline and to charitable works. This gained them ‘the harmless name of Methodists’, according to Charles Wesley. John, who became the leader, once defined a Methodist as ‘one who lives according to the method laid down in the Bible’.

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Oxford "Holy Club"

When an older colleague, Dr John Burton, suggested to John Wesley that he should go to America as a missionary for the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel of the Anglican Church, he expected the members of the Holy Club to go as a team, and some of them did. Although Susanna had been recently widowed, true to her faith and courage, she said, “Had I seventy sons I should rejoice that they were all so employed, though I should never see them more”.

John Wesley as missionary
In the next phase (1735-1738) Wesley is seen in Georgia, America serving as chaplain to the colonists but more especially trying to preach to and teach the American Indians. John Wesley expected a ready response from a simple people. He hoped to form a model New Testament fellowship counting on the innocence of the unspoilt people living close to nature. In this hope John Wesley was disillusioned because they were not as responsive as he expected them to be. This together with other incidents in America made him decide to return to England in February 1738. According to George Whitefield, a junior colleague in the Holy Club, who had during the years Wesley was in America proved to be a flaming evangelist and who came to America when Wesley had left, wrote appreciatively of Wesley’s influence:

The good John Wesley has done in America is inexpressible. His name is precious among the people, and he has laid a foundation that I hope neither men nor devils will ever be able to shake.

Although Methodism in America is said to have begun with the activity of laymen in 1766, or with sending of missionaries in 1769, some historians trace it to Wesley’s service in Georgia in the earlier period. His early work was of value taking into consideration Whitefield’s testimony.

Wesley's Pentecost
When Wesley returned to England, he spent some months with the Moravians, a group prominent for their missionary work. They stressed inner assurance of being children of God. John Wesley had admired them on his way to America; he associated with them in America and now in England he was in close fellowship with one of their preachers, Peter Bohler. As a result of their conversations he resolved: (1) to give up the idea that righteousness will bring salvation and (2) that a justifying faith in Christ was needed for his ‘sole justification, sanctification and redemption’.

In this spirit on 24th May, 1738, he went to St Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon and heard the anthem, ‘Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord.” In the evening he went to one of the religious societies connected with the Anglican Church in Aldersgate Street. Someone read Luther’s ‘Preface to the Epistle to the Romans’. The words in the preface struck home:

Faith is the energy of the heart …
Faith is a constant trust in the mercy of God …
This firm trust is so animating as to cheer and elevate the heart …

This high and heroic feeling, the noble enlargement of the spirit, is effected in the heart by the Spirit of God, who is imparted to believers by faith.

The train of events culminated at this point. He wrote: ‘About quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed …” It was his pentecost. He was filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit. He had an accession of power, indefatigable energy and a burning desire to reclaim souls. He also had the wisdom to use every means to reform the church and nation and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. And the world was to be his parish.

A New Emphasis
The congregations which heard him as at Oxford University for example, acknowledged that they had heard ‘a new message’, a new emphasis, a new manifesto of revival and a new voice.’ Most Anglican churches were closed to his preaching. In 1739, George Whitefield, who had returned from successful missionary work in America, invited John Wesley to take over from him the work at Bristol. Whitefield showed how successful preaching in the open air could be. Wesley had to overcome his church-bound scruples to preach out-of-doors to the miners and other neglected groups the gospel of salvation. He offered them Jesus Christ in the open air which Jesus loved.

The need arose for joining the born-again Christians into a fellowship for mutual encouragement, mutual help and mutual admonition to lead godly and upright lives. Hence Methodist societies were formed for worship, study and edification. Class leaders were appointed. Members however had to attend Anglican Sunday services and communion. In Bristol, the first Methodist centre known as ‘the New Room’ was built in 1739. It included a chapel, a term used to preserve the difference from the church. In London the same year, the ‘Old Foundery’ became the London headquarters for forty years. Cannon had been cast there but the works were removed after an explosion. Appropriately Methodism was to radiate from a building connected with munition – fodder for the ‘Holy War’ against sin and the devil.

The Old Foundery was what came to be known later as the institutional church, housing many facilities: a preaching hall for 1,500, a band room (for small groups of men-only or women-only meetings), a school, the ‘Book Room’, Wesley’s quarters, a meeting place for the first Conference in 1744, a dispensary added in 1746, the office of the Lending Society in 1747 and a ‘poorhouse’ for widows and orphans in 1747. More schools were opened and it was said that Methodism built a school before it built a church (a characteristic of the Methodist Missions in some areas in the pioneering stages). John Wesley interpreted scriptural holiness as both individual holiness and social righteousness. Wesley and other preachers ‘dieted’ in the poorhouse whenever they were in London. Such identification came naturally to a man who knew poverty and privation.

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Wesley preaching in the market place

The World Parish
Soon after his preaching in Bristol, he came up against the prohibition to preach in parishes other than his own without permission. He justified his trespassing Anglican rules and wrote:

“I look upon all the world as my parish, thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear me the glad tidings of salvation.”

Anglican pulpits were gradually closed to him and he used walls as pulpits and the vault of heaven as his cathedral dome. When kept out of the Epworth church, he preached from the tombstone of his father. He met pre-dawn crowds who sang Charles Wesley’s hymns to popular tunes and heard Wesley preach ‘salvation by faith, preceded by faith and followed by holiness’. He had crowds up to 30,000. He preached 42,400 sermons and travelled 225,000 miles on rough roads of those days. He experienced a fair share of mob violence including the letting loose of enraged bulls in his direction. It is said that a robber riding alongside him deprived him of all his money, but riding alongside further, the robber was converted and immediate restitution was made!

John Wesley organised his societies after his preaching campaigns, appointed class leaders who could pray, read the Bible and organise but not preach. However in 1741, early in Methodist history, his convert, Thomas Maxfield, preached at the Foundery with Susanna’s knowledge. Wesley would have done something drastic but for Susanna’s saying: “Examine what have been the fruit of his preaching and hear him yourself”. He did both and so began under Susanna’s influence Methodism’s acknowledgement of God’s gift of the lay preacher.

As Head of the Connexion
From 1744, John Wesley summoned an annual conference of preachers in which doctrinal and organisational matters were discussed. At every meeting the question and answer method was used to elaborate and define doctrinal matters. These have been brought together recently in a book. However, Wesley himself published a compendium on Christian Perfection which for some years all Methodist preachers had to read. Answers generally were given by Wesley himself, and some referred to him as ‘Pope John’. However in the classes and later in the conferences, individual experience and collective opinion preserved a balance. The circuits were based on geographical divisions so that each circuit could have a few preachers who in turn came to conferences and made reports. Wesley organised societies, circuits and conferences and referred to this network as a connexion related to him. This organisation was indeed a stroke of genius. Following Wesley’s death the British Conference meeting annually, and in the United States the General Conference meeting quadrennially, preserved Methodism. For American Methodism, to which Methodists in Singapore and Malaysia is linked, Wesley provided a comprehensive connexional pattern.

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Francis Asbury

The American Connexion
Wesley and later the British Conference sent missionaries to America from 1769 the chief of whom was Francis Asbury. All except Asbury returned to England during the American War of Independence. Recognizing the needs of members of the American societies there, Wesley appealed to the Bishop of London to ordain Methodist preachers to serve them. When the bishop refused to do this, Wesley fell back most reluctantly on the precedent of the early Alexandrian church whereby presbyters (whom we call elders) ordained a bishop. He ordained two preachers as elders and additionally consecrated Thomas Coke as superintendent, using the Anglican ordinal for bishops with slight variation. He conferred on Coke the authority to ordain ministers and to consecrate Francis Asbury as superintendent in 1784.

This bold step although applicable for ministers to serve in America upset many of his followers including his brother Charles Wesley. Others had drawn up schemes to form a separate denomination in England itself. But Wesley remained an Anglican to the end. At the Christian Conference of 1784 held At Baltimore Asbury asked for a vote from the conference for Coke and himself to be superintendents so that they might have oversight by virtue of the democratic process as well as by Wesley’s authority. Gradually the term ‘bishop’ replaced ‘superintendent’ although American Methodists call their bishops ‘general superintendents’ as well because they have collective leadership (collegiate) of the Methodist Church. That Conference also named the connexion, the ‘Methodist Episcopal Church’. Coke commuted between America and England, established missions, especially in the West Indies and came to be known as the ‘father of Methodist Missions.’ The British Methodist Wesleyan Church came into being four years after Wesley’s death by the Plan of Pacification in 1795 – a plan agreed to by most parties. The connexion became a church or denomination completely separated from the Church of England.

Wesley's Theology
It was Wesley’s policy to keep to the essentials of an evangelical faith and he propounded doctrines supported by scripture, experience, reason and tradition. There were two teachings which he regarded as contrary to his tests. He is said to have even held the olive branch to the Roman Catholics in a famous letter, describing a great deal of common ground with them. However two issues were in conflict with his ideas of salvation and moral responsibility. Firstly, he found it impossible to accept any position which predetermined who should be saved and who should not., because salvation is for all who accept Christ in faith and repent of their sins. This cause the uneasy relationship with Whitefield who headed the Calvinist Methodist Church in Wales (Predestination was held by the followers of John Calvin, the Protestant reformer). The second idea he opposed is the extreme interpretation that justification (forgiveness) is by faith alone and that ‘Christ abolished the moral law’. This ‘antinomian’ teaching Wesley regarded as a menace to the Christian life, no better than a spider’s web. Wesley asserted, ‘Without holiness, no man shall see the Lord.’

On the positive side, John Wesley handed to American Methodism the basis for a full evangelical Trinitarian faith. The Bible is our sole scripture and the historic creeds our creeds. He sent through Thomas Coke the ‘Twenty Four Article Abridgement of the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles’. The doctrines as contained in Minutes of the Conferences, the General Rules for Methodist Societies, his book of Sermons and his Notes on the New Testament. The creeds are in our liturgy, the Articles and the General Rules are in our Discipline (The Discipline of the Methodist Church in Singapore). Because of the primacy of scripture, a wide spectrum of emphases is found in Methodist writings: however, there is a sufficient body of faith and practice to distinguish the people called Methodists. It may be said that (1) Conversion, (2) Justification, (3) Sanctification and (4) Perfection are four corner-stones of Methodist belief and these have been treated in an earlier pamphlet.

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Wesley drafting a letter Wilberforce

The Social Religion of Wesley
In the field of social justice and moral betterment, John Wesley’s contribution was conspicuous for his times. He opposed the use of grain for producing liquor instead of food; he attacked slavery as a heinous offence to human brotherhood, he rediscovered the ministry to the poor; his class leaders later became union leaders; he encouraged John Howard in the task of prison reform; he reacted strongly against the press-gang system of forcing anyone to join the navy because it was an infringement of the Magna Carta and he wrote a week before his death encouraging William Wilberforce to oppose slavery, that ‘execrable villany’.

It was the opinion of some historians that John Wesley’s spiritual revival saved England from the holocaust like the French Revolution. Certainly the programme of missionary and social work must have gone to the root of any dissatisfaction like poverty, injustice and inequality. Wesley did more than just ask individuals and societies to be charitable and philanthrophic. He aligned himself with all the social forces on the side of betterment: Methodism was no opiate by any means, although it may not have been dynamite.

World Parish Realised
As for world-wide Methodism, Wesley did not make any oceanic leaps. He wrote that the mustard seed planted fifty years earlier had spread through ‘Great Britain, Ireland, the Isle of Wight, the Isle of Man, America, the Leeward Islands, through the whole continent into Canada and Newfoundland’. Many of his helpers remain anonymous but the name of Thomas Coke must head the list of men who took seriously Wesley’s advice to go and preach the gospel in all the world. He spanned the West Indies and Ceylon dying at sea before he could land with his party of British missionaries in Ceylon in 1814. American Methodism has had Francis Asbury who pushed from the Eastern Coast to the Midwest. Jason Lee opened up the Pacific Coast. Judson Collins and Moses White were sent to China and William Butler t o India. William Taylor, a prince amongst evangelists preached with power in California, Australia, India, South America and Africa. It was he who challenged James M Thoburn to get out of mid-India to go to Calcutta, from where he had calls to Rangoon and Singapore, and from Singapore, Thoburn made the leap to the Philippines when America colonised those islands at the turn of the century. Converted at the Taylor crusades in India and inspired by Thoburn, the young William F Oldham brought Methodism to our shores. These and others of varying degrees of worldly fame have their names in the book of life – men and women who offered Christ constrained by His love.

Unfinished Mission
Towards the end of his life John Wesley wrote about the turn of the tide. In places he had been ill-treated, after decades he received honour. In 1881, in the solemn aisles of the Anglican Westminster Abbey, there was erected the cenotaph of John and Charles Wesley, with memorable words inscribed upon it:

“I look upon the whole world as my parish”,
“God buries His workman but carries on His work”, and
“The best of all is, God is with us!”

The last quotation records the last words of this servant of God whose constant Guide, Deliverer and Companion was his Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. In reading about Methodist achievements one often hears the exclamation:

“See what God has wrought!”.

God carries on His work through His Church, indeed, through all churches. Wesley’s task has been accomplished but Methodism has an unfinished task in the world. The presence of Christ is assured to those who commit themselves to God’s unfinished business in the world which He still loves and for whose salvation He still sends His Son our Lord Jesus Christ:

“The best of all is, God is with us”.

Source: Pamphlet written by
Bishop Emeritus T. R. Doraisamy