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Torchbearers of the Truth: John Wesley (1703-1791)

J Brown, Peterhead

In the year following the accession of Queen Anne a son was born to the Rev. Samuel Wesley, rector of Epworth, a market town in the northern part of Lincolnshire, and his wife Susanna. He was named John, and was fifteenth in a large family of nineteen children of which only seven lived. His origins were humble and relatively obscure, yet God was to raise him up and use him in a mighty way as He had done of old with Gideon. Susanna was a pious and intelligent woman who strictly disciplined her children and furnished them with the basis of a good education. In 1714, aged 11 years, John was sent to Charterhouse School in London from whence he went up to Christ Church, Oxford to study with a view to ordination in the Church of England. He later became a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. Although not yet saved by the grace of God, John and his younger brother Charles applied themselves seriously to devout living in the university. Such behaviour was much contrary to the common trend, and the strictness and regularity of their habits soon brought ridicule and scorn. They and their associates became known as "The Holy Club", or "Methodists".

In 1735 John and Charles Wesley accepted an invitation to sail to the colony of Georgia established by charter from King George II (after whom the colony was named) in 1732. One object in founding the colony was to provide a haven for persecuted continental Protestants which explains the presence of Moravian settlers on board ship on the outward voyage. Wesley was deeply impressed by the spiritual demeanour and calm of these Moravians, particularly in the midst of a tempest encountered on the voyage. He recognised they possessed an inner strength which he lacked. On arrival at Savannah, capital of the new colony, on 8th February, 1736 Wesley took up his post as parish minister and missionary in the region. The mission was unsuccessful and John, beset with problems and disappointments, returned to England with Charles in February, 1738.

In London he continued his association with the Moravians and it was at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street on 24th May, 1738 that John Wesley at last had a true conversion experience. He heard a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans and, in his own oft quoted words, "I felt my heart strangely warmed…an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine". It was the key to the rest of his life. A few weeks later he preached a sermon on the doctrine of personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another on God’s grace "free in all, and free for all". In October he wrote to Charles: "With regard to my own character and my doctrine likewise, I shall answer you very plainly. By a Christian I mean one who so believes in Christ as that sin has no more dominion over him; and in this obvious sense I was not a Christian till May, the 24th last. For till then sin had dominion over me, although I fought with it continually, but surely then, from that time to this it hath not, such is the free grace of God in Christ".

Around this time George Whitefield, finding church buildings closed to him, had begun preaching in fields to large crowds and he encouraged Wesley to do likewise. Initially Wesley was reluctant, but soon recognised that open air services were successful in reaching people who even then would not enter any of the churches. On 2nd April, 1739 he went forth as an open air preacher and commenced a ministry of 52 years in which he declared, "I look upon all the world as my parish". He took the opportunity to preach wherever congregations gathered, and more than once used his father’s tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit.

Wesley possessed many gifts, including that of organisation and leadership, but his greatest work was as an evangelist. His preaching, and that of Whitefield, led to a great evangelical revival in Britain and the American colonies. Wesley frequently declared that he preached the fundamental principles of Christianity, and when pressed to define these he answered, "The doctrine of justification by faith and that of the new birth". He also declared the doctrine of the assurance of salvation, teaching that with the forgiveness of sins there should also be experienced the inward assurance of the fact. He held high the torch of gospel truth and testimony when sorely needed in that age of vice and debauchery so shockingly depicted in the famous engravings of William Hogarth. Open air meetings at that time were often interrupted by mobs that sometimes violently disturbed the preaching, but Wesley was fearless and indefatigable in his labours, travelling miles on horseback and preaching twice and sometimes three or four times every day at a time when, even with some improvement to the major turnpike roads, journeys remained arduous and dangerous. Wesley preached the gospel in "plain words to plain folks" and had a deep compassion for poor working people, unchurched and uneducated.

Seeing the enormous scale of the task throughout the country, he quickly recognised the need to encourage others to preach the gospel. His appointments of men as lay preachers, not ordained or licensed by the Anglican Church, alarmed the Establishment and some of the clergy did not hesitate to make scurrilous and unfounded accusations against Wesley and his associates. Although the activities of these laymen were strictly controlled and organised into local circuits, it may be fair to recognise a trend away from the restrictiveness and formality of clericalism towards a freer ministry by gifted persons of suitable moral and spiritual calibre.

Divergence did emerge between Wesley who held Arminian views prevalent at that time in the Church of England, and Whitefield who was a staunch Calvinist. None the less, a warm and mutual regard prevailed between those two great men and Wesley preached Whitefield’s funeral sermon in 1770. In the course of the 1770s, theological dispute broke out anew amid the issue of pamphlets by persons ranged on both sides of the controversy. Prominent on the Calvinist side were Augustus Toplady, Rowland Hill, and Lady Huntingdon. Wesley’s Arminian position was not extreme, and his concern seems to have been to defend the Biblical doctrine of an unlimited atonement. He stated, "All people can be saved. All people can know that they are saved. All people can be saved to the uttermost". From the perspective provided by distance in time we can salute the work and witness of all of those great figures and appreciate the way in which they were used by God in the fresh blaze of evangelism in the eighteenth century.

As the Abolitionist movement developed in Britain, Wesley spoke out and wrote against the slave trade. He was not afraid to denounce slavery publicly in the major slave port of Bristol. In one of his pamphlets on the subject he wrote: "Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature".

Wesley enjoyed robust health through a long life being able to engage in a preaching tour from Aberdeen to Bristol in May to July, 1790 when 87 years old. Throughout his busy life of travelling and preaching he kept a journal of almost daily entries for close to 60 years. He was a man of outstanding presence though small of stature, being less than 5 ft 5ins. A contemporary described him thus: "He possessed a clear smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, eyes the brightest and most piercing imaginable, and a fresh complexion expressive of perfect health. His whole aspect crowned with a head as white as snow and clothed with an air of neatness and cleanliness, gave an idea of something primitive and apostolic". He died in London on 2nd March, 1791 and among his final words to those at his bedside he said, "The best of all, God is with us".

John Wesley’s life spanned almost the whole of the 18th century and there is no doubt that he ranks as one of the great men of his era. His impact upon the public life of the nation was, of course, of a moral and spiritual character. Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury opined, "He was one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. It is not too much to say that Wesley changed the outlook, even the character of the English nation" (The Times, 2nd November, 1928).

To be continued.

Helpful information for this article was obtained from a booklet Great Churchmen (No7) by W Leathem, issued by the Church Society Trust.

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