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No time wasting in John Wesley’s journeys

LONDON — The understanding of life as a journey has always played an important part in Christian imagery, but for John Wesley and the early Methodist pioneers, journeying was also of enormous practical significance — not the least because of its importance in holding together and strengthening the spreading network of Methodism.

During his lifetime, Wesley travelled an estimated 384,000 km (240,000 miles) by horseback and carriage (and, occasionally, even on foot) to personally encourage Methodist societies in all corners of Britain and Ireland in their witness for the Gospel and the building-up of a connectional structure.

John Wesley: On horseback or on foot, journeys had always been an important part of his ministry.

It is clear that in all his journeys Wesley never wasted a moment. If he was not reading erudite books, tracts and newspapers on horseback or in a carriage, he would be in conversation with his travelling companions or with people whom he simply chanced to meet on his long travels.

In all seasons and undeterred by sometimes ferocious weather, he kept to the basic “triangle” of travelling between London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Bristol, routinely using the route as a base for visiting societies in every part of Britain.

Wesley met his fair share of riding mishaps — once, when his horse bolted, he narrowly missed falling to his death over a cliff — but he seemed to come through all these incidents relatively unscathed and in a calm frame of mind.

Once news had been carried ahead that he was arriving in a particular place, he could never be sure of the kind of reception he would receive. Sometimes, in the early years, it was a rough one. Such an occasion occurred on a day in October 1749, when he rode into Rochdale, Lancashire, at the request of prominent local Methodist John Bennet.

“As soon as ever we entered the town, we found the streets lined on both sides with multitudes of people, shouting, cursing, blaspheming and gnashing upon us with their teeth,” he wrote in his journal.

“Perceiving it would not be practicable to preach abroad, I went into a large room, open to the street, and called aloud, ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts.’ The word of God prevailed over the fierceness of man. None opposed or interrupted; and there was a very remarkable change in the behaviour of the people, as we afterwards went through the town.”

As well as speaking to the crowds, Wesley was more often than not taking a careful audit of how the local Methodist society was progressing. He was likely to make very detailed observations and notes, as he did at Kingswood, Bristol, in 1743, when he observed that the number of those who had left the society since the previous December was 76.

Among them were a number of people had been expelled from the society for various offences, including cursing and swearing, “habitual Sabbath-breaking”, drunkenness, wife-beating, “railing and evil-speaking”, and idleness and laziness.

The new Methodist movement was nothing if not methodical. — United Methodist News Service.

John Singleton is Assistant Editor of the weekly Methodist Recorder newspaper in London.

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