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John Wesley a great evangelist and stalwart Anglican

By Robert Wilson

Rev. John Wesley photo from http://en.wikipedia.org

The month of May, and the day of May 24th, are important on the Christian calendar for many things, but one remarkable item which needs to be noted and remembered is the outstanding contributions of the Rev. John Wesley, not only to the life of the Church of England and the Methodist movement, but to the whole of society – in the United Kingdom and the around world. May 24, 1738 was day of John Wesley’s conversion, while reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.
In 1738, John Wesley, a graduate with a Masters degree from Oxford University, was a priest in the Church of England, and a missionary to the English colony of Georgia, in America. Wesley was returning home to England, sad and totally defeated because his work had not been successful. On board Wesley’s ship was a group of German Moravian Christians. A terrific Atlantic storm battered the ship and Wesley was terrifed that it would flounder and sink. In the midst of his gripping fear he noted that the Moravians exhibited no fear or trepidation and in fact were calm; even their children!  Wesley was amazed! He began to reflect on his feelings of despair and to search his soul. His thinking may have been, “Why am I, a priest and scholar and missionary, overwhelmed with fear but these Christians fearless? What do they possess that I do not?
On returning home to London Wesley sadly observed, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but who, O who, will convert me?”
As he took up his duties in London Wesley was troubled, and could not find peace. He believed and could recite the creeds, and scripture, but they were words on a page and he found no satisfaction nor freedom from dismay. He was a troubled man.
Finally after much thought and reflection, he did the unthinkable for an Anglican priest; he contacted the London Moravian leader Peter Boehler. Boehler’s message to Wesley was that “true faith in Christ was attended by (1) dominion over sin; (2) inner peace arising from a consciousness of God’s forgiveness (3) true faith is not conjured up within us, but is the free gift of God.”
Wesley’s response to Boehler was that he was so low in his faith that he had thought of giving up preaching. Boehler wisely replied, “By no means. Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it, you will preach it.”
The climax for the Rev. John Wesley came on Wednesday, May 24, 1738 – His Journal entry reads:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society meeting in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken way my sins, even mine and saved me for the law of sin and death.”
Wesley engaged his work with a new enthusiasm and an awareness of God’s presence with him. What a dramatic change – despair to joy! Joy unspeakable!
Unknown to John at the time, eight months later, his life and the lives of multitudes of people would change forever.
“The next year in February 1739, John Wesley’s Oxford friend, George Whitfield was preaching in the fields at a little mining town called Kingswood, out side of Bristol. Socially these poor miners felt out of place in the ornate parish churches. Further, there were so many of them that few churches could hold their great numbers. Whitefield’s first service had 200 people – the second 3,000 – the third 5,000. Whitefield was overwhelmed and and called on Wesley for help. At first John struggled with the idea of preaching outside of the setting of the parish church. Then he read the Sermon on the Mount and came to the conclusion that if Jesus Himself could preach the greatest sermon ever in the outdoors – it was an excellent precedent !”
“On April 2, 1739 John Wesley preached outdoors for the first time. ” While he preached and shared the good news of Jesus Christ,”he saw white streaks made by tears running down those grimy coal miners faces. As his field preaching continued, the crowds ranged up to twenty and twenty-five thousand persons.”
Not everyone was pleased. The church hierarchy believed that Wesley was too radical in his approach. He was criticized for preaching outdoors and in many parts of the realm. Providentially, Wesley  was a Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, which membership and certification allowed him to travel and preach in any parish in England. According to one account, a Bishop summoned him to his office and forbade him from speaking in his diocese. Wesley’s reply was, “Suffer me to tell you my principle in this matter. I look upon the world as my parish…that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it my right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to do.”
As Wesley preached, thousands were swept into the kingdom of God, but the established Church of England could not contain the great numbers. Wesley, the gifted administrator, organized the converts into local societies. These originally were societies known by the term Methodist within the Anglican Church, but as numbers swelled some parish churches were not always keen on extending a welcome to these new Christians, and so more and more societies became stand alone entities led by gifted lay leaders trained and appointed by Wesley himself.”
This was the beginning of the Methodist revival. It began in London and Wesley soon developed other centres in Bristol and Newcastle. The renewal spread to Scotland and Ireland and Wales; and soon to North America.By now there were thousands of Methodists, and tens of thousands of adherents.
John Wesley’s ministry purpose was to “spread scriptural holiness throughout these lands; “stating that there is no holiness but social holiness” and that meant the stewardship of money. All resources regardless of their nature were , to John Wesley, a temporary trust from God. He lived by this philosophy, “Gain all you can. Save all you can. Give all you can.”  Every year John Wesley gave away about 98  % of his earnings and gifts.
Social holiness meant getting involved with the social issues of the day, and in 1774 Wesley issued a tract  “Thoughts upon Slavery”  “Can human law turn darkness into light or evil into good… Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right, and wrong is wrong, still… I absolutely deny all slave holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice.”
Close by in the House of Commons the Member of Parliament  for Yorkshire,William Wilberforce, was listening. Hearing John Wesley’s message on salvation and a new life in Christ he became a believer and entered into a relationship with Jesus. “Wilberforce was instrumental in Legislation stopping the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Later in 1834 came the emancipation of all slaves in the Empire.”
From his university days John Wesley was a friend of prisoners. He often encountered despair while visiting prisons – “men, women and children huddled together in horrible surroundings.There was disease, prostitution and drunkeness. Another convert of Wesley was Mr. John Howard, Sheriff of Bedfordshire. John Howard had a loving heart and “he began to investigate prisons. For 17 years John Howard studied prison life in England and then travelled extensively in Europe. He travelled 50,000 miles and used 30,000 English pounds of his own money. Because of his influence, the environment of British and European prisons and the rights of prisoners were enhanced. Today in Canada we have active branches of the John Howard society.”
“Social Holiness involves Women’s rights .John Howard, in turn, influenced Elizabeth Fry his cousin. She began special care for women prisoners in the Newgate prison in London. Elizabeth Fry founded the “The Ladies’ Association for Visiting Jails.” These groups taught women and children to read and write while in prison. Later this ministry spread  throughout the cities, to illiterate women and children.Florence Nightingale was Elizabeth Fry’s cousin. She began the “Nursing Sisters” from one of these “Ladies Associations”  Today there is The Elizabeth Fry Society and the Victorian Order of Nurses.”
“The Wesleyan Movement within the Church of England was an identification with common people who socially and economically were in the midst of rapid change” as the industrial revolution was impacting the nation and especially the cities.
Several authors and authorities “give witness to the fact that England was spared the violence and chaos of the French revolution because of the the widespread  efforts initiated by Wesley and Whitfield in 1739.
“The work of Christ’s church today is as dynamic and daunting as it was in John Wesley’s days. In fact there are great parallels. Change is everywhere. Rootlessness…abounds. our civilization is overshadowed by a new paganism, and secularism, as well as destructive terrorism.” The whole church is desperately in need of renewal and reviving.
At the evening service at  St. Mary Magdalene Church, Picton, on Trinity Sunday, June 15, 2003 marking the 300th Anniversary of the birth of John Wesley,  the guest preacher, from whose sermon most of these quotes are taken, concluded with this observation “Yes the whole world is our parish. In modelling for us, theological innovation, creative ministry to people – clarity in addressing the great social issues, John Wesley stands tall!
“God ruleth on high,
Almighty to save;
And still he is nigh –
His presence we have.
The great congregation
His triumph shall sing,
Ascribing salvation
To Jesus, our King.”
Charles Wesley  (1707 – 1788)

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  1. Al Reimers says:

    A brief but good summary of what can happen through one person who is willing to think and act “outside the box” of institutional tradition.

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