JOHN WESLEY, (1703-1791)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

John Wesley, one of England's most famous preachers, was a man without a congregation. His active ministry covers a period of no less than 66 years. Of these, the first 13 were years of comparative failure. Then he became a traveling preacher, and during the 53 years that followed, he journeyed no less than 250,000 miles, visiting every part of the British Isles and preaching to congregations that often numbered from 25,000 to 30,000. During his public ministry he preached some 42,000 sermons.

Wesley lived and died a clergyman of the Church of England. He was born in the rectory of Epworth parish church in the dreary, flat fenlands of Lincolnshire. His great-grandfather, Bartholomew Wesley, was ejected in 1662 from his congregation in Dorset because of his religious and political principles. His grandfather, John, was imprisoned in 1661 for failing to use the Book of Common Prayer, and a year later he was deprived of his parish at Blandford. This Wesley was imprisoned four times for his religious views. The father of John Wesley was a fiery little High Churchman, loyal to the king and the bishops, but not always able to support his large family on an income of 30 to 50 pounds a year, and on one occasion he was sent to debtor's prison. He suffered much persecution at the hands of his own parishioners . . .

The mother of John Wesley was one of the most remarkable women of the eighteenth century. She was the twenty-fifth child of the Rev. Samuel Annesley, a Nonconformist clergyman. . . . In her girlhood days and later as the wife of the Rev. Samuel Wesley, everything was regulated by the clock. Certain hours were set apart for religious study, others for prayer, others for her household tasks. . . .

Susanna Wesley was the mother of 19 children, of whom nine reached maturity. Their mother maintained an extremely efficient parish school in the old timbered rectory. Each child, on his or her fifth birthday, was required to learn the alphabet in a single day. On the following day he was given the Bible to read. Mrs. Wesley was the only teacher of this school, and her children were taught many Scripture verses, entire Psalms, hymns and the Collects of the Prayer Book, in addition to their secular studies, which included Latin and Greek among other things.

The Wesley children were all bright and lively, and out of that little parish school of 19 children came John Wesley, one of the great preachers of the ages, Charles Wesley the hymn-writer and their gifted brother Samuel. The girls, with their exceptional educations, threw themselves away in almost every case upon rude, boorish, drunken husbands.

When John Wesley was six years old, Epworth rectory was destroyed by fire. John was sleeping on an upper floor, and was rescued by neighbors who climbed upon one another's shoulders and drew him through the window of the blazing old building. His mother had always maintained firmly that a special guardian angel watched over the Wesley family. The rescue of the little lad from the fire convinced her that the Lord had spared him for some great future, and she bestowed particular care upon him.

In 1714, when not yet 11 years of age, John Wesley was sent to London to Charterhouse School, where his unusual piety and his devotion to the external practices of his church, made him the object of coarse ridicule. The religious training received from his father and mother bears all the defects of the age in which he lived. In later years John Wesley summed up its legalistic character by declaring that he went out into the world believing that one "could only be saved by keeping all the commandments of God." There is no evidence that any of the instruction received either at Charterhouse or at Oxford corrected this error. "I still read the Scriptures," said Wesley, "and said my prayers morning and evening. What I now hoped to be saved by was, (1) Not being so bad as other people. (2) Having still a kindness for religion, and (3) Reading the Bible, going to church and saying my prayers." . . .

In 1720, at the age of 17, John Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford. He was surprised at conditions there. Not only was there coarseness and profanity among the students, and drinking and gambling, but there were teachers who drew salaries but delivered no lectures, and students who received credits for lectures that had never been given. Religious life was hopelessly empty and formal, and under-graduates, fellows and tutors subscribed to doctrines in public and ridiculed them in private. Wesley took his Bachelor's degree in 1724, was elected to a fellowship of Lincoln College in 1725, made lecturer in Greek and moderator of the classics in 1726 and awarded his Master's degree in 1727. . . .

John Wesley was ordained in 1725, and spent part of his time as his father's assistant at Epworth and the nearby church at Wroote. His university training had not clarified his religious confusion. It seems difficult to believe that for thirteen years the very man who was to shake all Britain, and to establish a world-wide church, preached sermons that were considered dismal failures. Poor Wesley was but a victim of the spiritually barren age into which he was born. "It was many years," he tells us, "after I was ordained deacon before I was convinced of the great truths above recited; during all that time I was utterly ignorant of the nature and condition of justification. Sometimes I confounded it with sanctification, (particularly when I was in Georgia). At other times I had some confused notion about the forgiveness of sins; but then I took it for granted the time of this must be either the hour of death of the day of judgment. I was equally ignorant of the nature of saving faith, apprehending it to mean no more than a 'firm assent to all the propositions contained in the Old and New Testaments'."

Thus did John Wesley begin his ministry. "I preached much," he said, "but saw no fruit of my labour. Indeed, it could not be that I should, for I neither laid the foundation of repentance nor of believing the Gospel, taking it for granted that all to whom I preached were believers, and that many of them needed no repentance." Realizing that his preaching neither impressed nor improved his hearers, Wesley accepted an invitation, in November, 1729, to return to Lincoln College, Oxford, where he presided over the daily disputations. There he remained until October, 1735.

The story of the Holy Club is well known. John Wesley's younger brother Charles, a student at Christ Church, had gathered a few of the more serious students about him. Strict rules, that recall Epworth rectory, were drawn up and observed with legalistic zeal. The fifteen young men who made up the club fasted twice a week, they attended church service with rigid regularity, they received Holy Communion according to the calendar, they read their Bibles at fixed hours every day, and even determined the number of chapters and verses to be read. The other students recognized this zeal for external things and they nicknamed the group "the Methodists." The members of the Holy Club were not discouraged. They visited sick beds and prisons according to a given schedule, they gave alms to the poor, they refrained from profane language and foolish jesting and they spent much time in what they considered holy conversation. When John Wesley returned to Oxford he soon became an influential member of the club. About three years after Wesley's return to Oxford, a new youth begged to be admitted to the Holy Club. They hesitated at first, for the roughly clad young man was the son of a Gloucester tavern-keeper, and had been a bar-tender for a year and a half. He cursed and swore, he had been a drunkard and a thief, but the quiet influence of the persecuted "Methodists" had been one of the things that awakened within him a desire for better things. The Holy Club, hoping that his professed repentance was sincere, admitted him to their meetings. They instructed him in the Scriptures to the best of their ability, and they urged him to lead a decent life. The unpromising tavern-keeper's son was named George Whitefield, who was to become one of the most famous men in all the annals of Christian preaching.

John Wesley's father was old and ill, and he begged his son to come to Epworth and become pastor of the parish. In a letter of incredible length John declined, insisting that his own spiritual condition made it necessary for him to remain at Oxford. This was partially true, for Wesley was still struggling for spiritual light, attempting by means of the Law to find peace of mind and an assurance of the forgiveness of sins.

In 1735, when 32 years of age, John Wesley and his brother Charles responded to an appeal for pastors willing to go to America. "My chief motive," Wesley declared in a letter dated October 10, 1735, "is the hope of saving my own soul. I hope to learn the true sense of the Gospel of Christ by preaching it to the heathen. . . . I have been a grievous sinner from my youth up, and am yet laden with foolish and hurtful desires; but I am assured, if I be once converted myself, God will then employ me both to strengthen my brethren and to preach His Name to the Gentiles. . . . I cannot hope to attain the same degree of holiness here which I may there." [Ellipses original]

The voyage to America required over sixteen weeks, almost one-third of a year. The Wesleys and their fellow missionaries drew up a covenant, pledging themselves to help one another and to undertake nothing without first seeking the consent of the group. On the journey to America a great storm arose. The passengers and crew were terrified, but John Wesley became calm when he observed a group of Moravians singing their German hymns and paying no heed to the fury of wind and sea. He determined to discover the secret of their calm behavior, for he had been haunted by fear all his life.

Charles Wesley soon returned to England. John remained less than three years, but his missionary work was not successful. . . .

Wesley returned to London, only to discover that he was not wanted. The news of his failure in America was generally known, and it was rumored that he was a poor preacher, lacking in conviction. Surely this was a strange accusation, for in the year 1738 poor preaching was the rule in England, rather than the exception. Wesley, now 35 years of age, tramped the streets gloomily, finding himself without a call. Shortly after his return he met a young Moravian pastor, 25 years of age, who was to change his entire life. His name was Peter Boehler. He was a graduate of Jena, and was in London awaiting a ship which was to take him to Carolina. Remembering the calmness of the Moravians in the storm at sea, Wesley told the young German missionary his own troubles, and asked him whether the teachings of the Moravians might help him. Boehler spent an entire day explaining to Wesley the nature of saving faith, as he understood it. "But how can I preach to others, who have not faith myself?" asked Wesley. "Preach faith till you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach faith," replied Boehler. Wesley set out, with misgivings, and resolved to make the attempt. He heard of a criminal who had been sentenced to death. He visited the condemned man and began to preach faith to him, as Boehler had explained it to him. Gradually the criminal's hard face softened, and at last he confessed his sins and showed "a serene peace" even as he ascended the stairs of the gallows.

. . . Sunday, May 24, 1738, Wesley attended service at the little Moravian mission in Aldersgate. Some one read Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, "and across more than two centuries the great German spoke to the great Englishman." John Wesley was deeply moved. "I felt my heart strangely warmed," he declares in his journal, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. I began to pray with all my might for those who had in a more especial manner despitefully used me and persecuted me. I then testified openly to all there what I now first felt in my heart." It must have surprised the little handful of people in the German mission chapel in Aldersgate when an Englishman in clerical attire arose and professed conversion.

To those whose religion goes no father than a shallow moralism it must seem incredible that a 35-year old clergyman, hitherto a complete failure, and unable to get a call, should become suddenly one of the two greatest preachers of Britain. Wesley began to preach, as opportunity offered, in the pulpits of his own denomination, but it was not long until these were refused him. Justification by grace, through faith, was a forgotten doctrine in 1738. It was proclaimed once more, in ringing tones, by the young clergyman without a call. It offended the bishops and the clergy, for it meant that all their outward keeping of the Law gave them no advantage in Heaven over the vile criminal whom John Wesley had accompanied to the scaffold. It offended the seasoned church-goer, whose theology agreed entirely with that of Epworth rectory, for such people looked upon the Established Church as the veritable ark of salvation, and diligent observance of the Sundays and festivals of the Christian Year a means of grace. To such people salvation was gained by going to church regularly, listening to the sermon, responding heartily to the liturgy, receiving Holy Communion at least two or three times a year, respecting the bishops and the clergy, praying for the king and the royal family and in short, observing all the outward demands of the religion established by the laws of the land. For a pastor of their own denomination to arise and declare that all these things are as dross, unless there is a firm belief that only by the grace of God and merit of Jesus Christ can our sins be forgiven, was to place the repentant drunkard and wastrel on the same level as the man who had not been absent from a Church service, man and boy, for fifty years. John Wesley's preaching aroused antagonism. Invitations to supply vacant pulpits became few, and when he asked to be allowed the use of a church, this was denied him. . . .

To give an account of the next 52 years of John Wesley's life would require volumes. When George Whitefield took his stand in the open air on February 17, 1739, the first note of the great Evangelical Awakening was sounded. John Wesley followed his example six weeks later, and his brother Charles joined them in June of the same year. . . . [John] visited every part of England again and again, with frequent trips to Scotland, Wales and Ireland. He travelled more than 250,000 miles, often on horseback, sometimes in his own coach. He preached more than fifteen times a week, rising every morning before dawn and preaching to people wherever he could find them: in a cottage, in a chapel, in the village square, in market-places, in the open fields or in the city streets. . . .

In his earlier years of outdoor preaching, Wesley met with much persecution. He was often attacked by mobs, pelted with sticks and stones, driven from place to place, brought before magistrates, and threats were often made against his life. He was entirely fearless when faced by a mob, and his steady gaze and his perfect calm often caused his opponents to drop their clubs and stones and allow him to continue his preaching. . . .

It was John Wesley's simple, evangelical preaching that stirred Britain from end to end: his declaration of the fact that man is a lost sinner, deserving only eternal damnation in hell; that man can in no wise remedy his hopeless condition; that salvation through the demands of the Law is impossible for any human being; that Jesus Christ, Who kept all the requirements of the Law perfectly, has provided a righteousness that avails for us; that by His death on the Cross, He has suffered in our stead and paid in full the penalty of all our sins; that the repentant sinner is justified not by his works, but by a God-given faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. . . .

Wesley was an organizer almost without an equal. The very thought of a new religious denomination was distasteful to him, for he desired to reform the English Church from within. To assist in this task, he organized his followers into a multitude of local societies. These were to be small groups within the Established Church, and their chapels existed only because the pulpits of the parish churches were closed to them. Class-leaders were appointed, who were required to report regularly in regard to the spiritual progress of each member of the class. Class meetings were held frequently for the mutual improvement of the class members. When the movement grew so rapidly that ordained preachers were lacking, Wesley appointed "local" or lay preachers and he supervised their training. These men were not ordained, and usually they followed a secular calling in order to support themselves, but on Sunday they preached in places where ordained clergymen were not available. A number of these men came to be noted for their deep piety, their zeal and their power in the pulpit, and the rapid spread of Wesleyanism owes much to them. Men such as John Nelson, and William Bray of a later generation, have become world famous. Wesley's genius for organization is realized when one recalls the fact that he assumed personal charge over the vast group of 80,000 followers, which was their number by the year 1790.

It was not until his 85th year that Wesley became a national hero. Opposition to his methods and teachings had ceased, and in his old age he was hailed with enthusiasm wherever he went. At his coming every shop was closed and every school dismissed, and people crowded the streets to catch a glimpse of the famous preacher. He was short of stature, his weight never exceeded 120 pounds, his hair was snow white in his old age and his face smooth and ruddy. He was immaculate in his dress, and whenever he preached, whether indoors or in the fields, he wore his robe and white bands. His voice was so clear and penetrating that he could be heard by outdoor congregations of 30,000 people. He refrained from shouting, he was not dramatic, and he seldom made use of illustrations. No matter how turbulent his hearers might be, Wesley was always calm. . . .

Of all the sermons that John Wesley preached, but 150 have existed to the present day. Most of these appeared in the Arminian Magazine, and later in book form. They are written carefully and simply, with no attempt whatever at oratory or at "fine writing." Wesley disliked such things. He preached the same sermon again and again, rewriting it frequently, scrutinizing each statement, striving for a simple, direct manner of expression. Sometimes he called in his domestic servant and asked her to listen to a sermon. Any statement that she could not understand was rewritten. His sermons are direct, and with no attempt at humor, or pathos, or smart epigrams, all of which things he looked upon as serious blemishes. He avoided a popular style. Exposition and instruction predominate, and when Wesley preached doctrine, it was not doctrine for its own sake. Rather did he expound doctrines because of their practical value to his hearers. Between his Aldersgate experience and his death, Wesley preached on an average of 16 times a week, very often delivering his first sermon at five in the morning, before people went to work. His last sermon was preached a week before he died.


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