Impact of Wesleyan brothers continues to reverberate

Concluding our three-part series on ‘Pilgrimages to our spiritual and historical roots’

“OUR WESLEYAN HERITAGE” PILGRIMAGE in March 2012 concluded the seven pilgrimages led by Bishop Dr Robert Solomon over the last seven years from 2005. In this article we take you off the beaten track to share our reflections and some of the less conspicuous parts of our Methodist heritage.

OUR FIRST MORNING IN LONDON began with a Sunday Service and Holy Communion in Hinde Street Methodist Church. To set the theme for the rest of the day, Bishop Dr Robert Solomon’s sermon was “The Heart Strangely Warmed”. We then set off for Aldersgate Street to view the tablet commemorating the “evangelical conversion” of John and Charles Wesley.

The site of John’s conversion was stated as: “Probably 28 Aldersgate Street”. The location of Charles’ conversion is recorded more precisely as “No. 12 Little Britain”, a side street off Aldersgate Street. John Wesley experienced his conversion on May 24, 1738. Charles experienced his conversion three days before John.

We held a brief “street” devotion in front of No. 12 Little Britain. Bishop Dr Solomon read us the passage from Galatians 2:20 and Luther’s commentary that had “fired” up the Wesley brothers’ evangelical conversion. In their lifetime, John preached 40,000 sermons and Charles wrote more than 6,000 hymns.

Our group’s photographer, Mr Moses Goh, reflected on this thoughtfully: “Our Wesleyan Heritage Journey offers us an invaluable opportunity to see, hear and sing the works of the Wesley brothers. Indeed, the brothers were blessed with talents extraordinaire to serve God in extraordinary ways. And their impact continues to reverberate to this day.”

Gwennap Pit in Cornwall, 380 km southwest of London, was our next destination. The “Pit” is an open-air amphitheatre fashioned originally from a hollow created by mining activities. It has remarkable acoustic properties. John Wesley first visited the Gwennap area in 1743. His field preaching in the early days was often met with heckling and hostility. Standing at the rim of Gwennap Pit, Bishop Dr Solomon read us a passage from Wesley’s journal. It describes how he was forewarned that “a great company of tinners [miners] … were coming to do terrible things”. Wesley preached at Gwennap Pit 18 times.

“Digory Isbell’s Cottage” (or Wesley Cottage), lies in the tiny hamlet of Trewint in Cornwall. This little stone cottage has an important place in the history of Methodism. In 1743, two of John Wesley’s preachers came upon the cottage to seek food and shelter. Elizabeth Isbell, wife of the local stonemason Digory, gave them food and also hay for their one horse (they had taken turns to ride). On leaving, the two preachers prayed for her. When her husband Digory returned home, Elizabeth told him the startling news: “They prayed without a book!”

The Isbells were familiar with the prayers of the Prayer Book. But these two strangers prayed without a book. They had prayed from the heart in a way that was common among the early Methodists.

We held our evening devotion in the cottage, and our host said the Lord’s Prayer for us – in Cornish.

Bristol is second in importance only to London in the story of Methodism.
John Wesley first came to Bristol in 1739. He was at first reluctant and most uncomfortable with “field” preaching, but soon submitted himself to it and attracted thousands. Those who responded were gathered into religious societies. Within weeks the numbers had grown so large that he bought a small patch of land and built what he called “Our New Room”. It is the oldest purpose-built Methodist building in the world and the first-
ever Methodist Chapel. Wesley’s last Conference was held in Bristol in 1790, the year before he died.

Englesea Brook Chapel & Museum is in the lovely village of Englesea Brook near Crewe, County Cheshire. It is an attractive red brick building with the words “Primitive Methodist Chapel 1826”, set in stone. The sanctuary is profusely decorated with colourful banners depicting Sunday School themes such as “Train a child up in the way he should go” and temperance messages declaring “We will drink no wine or strong drink”.

Our hosts were all volunteers and briefed us with great zeal and conviction. The congregation in these rural churches numbered as few as between 20 and 30, which our hosts could still speak of with a tinge of pride. There are no longer weekly services, but Englesea Brook Chapel actively encourages school and group visits.

This moved Ms Kon Mei Leen to reflect: “It was sad to see some Methodist churches no longer used for regular weekly worship, but it was heartening to meet church leaders who still have a great zeal for the Gospel. An attempt is being made to reach children by offering to teach Religious Education and Social Studies in schools … ”

Newbiggin Chapel is located in a County Durham village in the Upper Teesdale valley. It was first opened in 1760. On display in the chapel are exhibits relating to Wesleyan Methodism and Primitive Methodism in the Teesdale area and elsewhere. The sanctuary itself is also decorated with a large number of colourful banners with Sunday School themes such as “Children, obey your parents”. Bishop Dr Solomon read to us from John Wesley’s journal, reporting on his preaching in Teesdale on June 1, 1768.

Weardale Museum and High House Chapel is in Ireshopeburn, County Durham. The museum has a “John Wesley Room” with a collection of Methodist memorabilia from chapels and homes in the area. It tells the story of Wesley’s “plain and simple folk” who were his pioneer evangelists in the North Pennines and the intensity of the Primitive Methodist revivals of 1822-25. Most interesting of all is a large schedule for October-November “1830 Primitive Methodist Preachers’ Plan for The Lord’s Day and Week Day Plan”. A footnote on the plan warns: “Each preacher must either attend his own Appointments or get them properly supplied otherwise he shall be reduced one figure for every neglected appointment.”

Primitive Methodism is not a term Methodists normally hear today. The movement grew out of the followers of two charismatic evangelistic Methodist preachers, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes, in the early 19th century. They had a preference for preaching at all-day outdoor “Camp Meetings” bordering on the boisterous. The Wesleyan Church had by then become mainstream and respectable. The Primitives’ preaching and mass conversion had become all too much. Bourne and Clowes were expelled in 1808 and 1810. The movement was eventually reunited with Wesleyan Methodism in Britain in 1932.

Methodist New Connexion is an equally obscure term today. In 1784, shortly before his death, John Wesley made provision for the governance of Methodism after him. He instituted the “Yearly Conference of the People called Methodists”. He nominated 100 people and declared them its members and set out the method by which their successors were to be appointed.

After his death, his successors instituted the Plan of Pacification in 1795. It entrenched Wesley’s policy of keeping all the pastoral functions in the preachers’ hands, thereby allowing less role and power for the laity. This brought about a new schism. A group led by Alexander Kilham left in 1797 to form the Methodist New Connexion, six years after Wesley’s death. The movement too was reunited with Wesleyan Methodism in 1932 to form the “Methodist Church of Great Britain”. We owe much to the Methodist New Connexion for the significant role of lay people in the life and governance of the Methodist Church today.

Epworth is a well-known landmark in Methodism. John Wesley was born in Epworth in 1703. His father, Samuel Wesley, served as the parish priest in St Andrew’s Church which we visited. Samuel Wesley was buried in the church yard in 1735. John Wesley is said to have stood on his father’s tomb to preach, after he was denied the pulpit for his preaching. Oxford was where Methodism all began with The Holy Club when the Wesley brothers were there, Charles as a student and John as a Fellow of Lincoln College. During our visit to Lincoln College we peered into the “Wesley Room”, which is still kept as a memorial to John Wesley and the “Holy Club”.

Ms Magdalene Kooi said the “Seven Pilgrimages of Praise with Bishop Dr Solomon have been a great privilege for us … through his painstaking research seen in his sharing and teachings, he helped us to focus on the essence of these trips. There were many special moments where God met us individually as we found out through our reflections.

“These trips have allowed me to build upon my own faith journey. I want to personally thank Bishop Dr Solomon for making every trip a praise worship to God with his profound messages shared simply. May all honour and glory belong to God.”

Added Professor Kon Oi Lian: “It was a special joy to be in the company and solidarity of fellow Christians on the pilgrimages. I have warm memories of how we helped one another during the (inevitable) vicissitudes of travel. The discipline of daily morning and evening worship planned by Bishop Dr Solomon was a feast for head and heart for which I continue to be thankful.”


Story by Peter Chen , Pictures by the Pilgrims

Peter Chen is a member of Aldersgate Methodist Church.