Continued from The forgotten John Wesley (3)
The fourth reason we should not forget John Wesley is because of his unique impact on our nation.
What was the condition of Britain 270 years ago? Wesley says it all in a sermon he preached in 1745: ‘Is there a nation under the sun, which is so deeply fallen from the very first principles of all religion?’
He continued: ‘Where is the country in which is found so utter a disregard to even heathen morality, such a thorough contempt of justice and truth, and all that should be dear and honourable to rational creatures?…
‘Such a complication of villainies of every kind, considered with all their aggravations; such a scorn of whatever bears the face of virtue; such injustice, fraud and falsehood; above all, such perjury, and such a method of law, we may defy the whole world to produce’.
Both A. Skevington Wood (in, for example, The burning heart) and J. Wesley Bready (England before and after Wesley) have described graphically the spiritual destitution that characterised Britain during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.
The church had squandered the heritage of the Reformation and Puritan era. Sir John Barnard MP regretted that, ‘At present it really seems to be the fashion for a man to declare himself of no religion’.
Sermons in church had degenerated into lifeless moral exhortations inviting hearers to do good and be good, without showing them how. It was said that sermons fell into three categories: dull, duller and dullest!
The nation’s morals were appalling. Slavery was institutionalised. The aristocracy was ‘cultured, magnificent, and dissolute’; the poor downtrodden, ‘illiterate, sodden with gin, given over to vicious living and brutal past-times’. Those pastimes included bear-baiting, bull-baiting and cock-fighting. Prize fights attracted large crowds.
With 253 capital offences on the statute book, the law had fallen into disrepute and in many cases could not be put into effect. The euphemistic nickname ‘Sir Mob’ was a tacit acknowledgement of the strength of mob rule, especially in the cities.
Anarchy and violence prevailed. Footpads and pickpockets abounded; muggings were an everyday occurrence. Gambling had reached epidemic proportions and the licentiousness of the eighteenth-century stage was deplored by Joseph Addison, writing in The Spectator. John Wesley castigated the theatre as ‘that sink of all profaneness and debauchery’.
Much of this spiritual desolation and moral squalor was beginning to change for the better by 1790 — after 50 years of itinerant ministry from John Wesley and the early Methodist preachers, with many thousands of conversions resulting.
Throughout his ministry John preached at least 15 sermons a week, and frequently many times more. He once said that scarcely 15 minutes went by before he was speaking to someone about the things of God.
He averaged about 5000 miles travel a year — first on horseback, later in a chaise — preaching the gospel wherever he went. It is estimated that, in all his journeys in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, he travelled the equivalent of twelve times around the globe.
His sermons were delivered mainly out of doors, sometimes because he was in unchurched situations, as in Ireland, more often because churches and assembly halls were barred to him or because the assembled numbers were too many to crowd into a building.
It was only on 28 June 1789, when he was 86 years old, that Wesley conceded that, ‘I now find I grow old’. Not until the following year did he admit to failing sight and strength. In July 1790, he finally gave up keeping his own financial accounts, saying that ‘I save all I can and give all I can, that is all I have’.
In October 1790 he preached his last sermon in the open air and preached a final sermon at City Road Chapel on 23 February 1791. The same day he entered into his house in City Road, London, for the last time.
On 24 February, only a week before he died, he wrote his last letter. It was to William Wilberforce, urging him on in his fight against the slave trade.
Wesley’s letter read: ‘Dear Sir, Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as Athanasius contra mundum, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.
‘Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils … Reading this morning a tract wrote by a poor African, I was particularly struck by that circumstance that a man who has a black skin, being wronged or outraged by a white man, can have no redress…
‘What villainy is this? That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley’.
Among Wesley’s last recorded words were, ‘The best of all is God is with us’. Then, very near the end, he tried to sing Isaac Watts’ hymn, ‘I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath’. He kept saying, ‘I’ll praise, I’ll praise’, but could get no more words out of his mouth. His final word was ‘Farewell’.
What then can we say about the huge legacy of John Wesley? Perhaps the place to start is with the evaluation of the nineteenth-century historian, William Lecky — that it was the Methodist awakening that saved Britain from the atheism and horrors of the French Revolution and guillotine.
Bear in mind too Methodism’s powerful societal impact, exerted indirectly through Anglican Evangelicals and the Clapham Sect. John Wesley had long been a loather of the slave trade, and by 1800 there was a huge abolitionist Methodist groundswell.
Wesley bequeathed another radical legacy to the Christian church in the unconscious impulse he gave to the fathers of the Primitive Methodist movement. This movement saw a huge ingathering of souls, particularly among the poorer and labouring classes.
Primitive Methodism took as its inspiration a sermon at Chester that Wesley preached to his exhorters in the last year of his life: ‘Fellow labourers, wherever there is an open door, enter in and preach the gospel. If it be to two or three under a hedge or a tree, preach the gospel. Go out quickly into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in the poor, the maimed, the halt, and the blind. And after you have done this, you will have to say like the servant in the gospel: Lord, it is done as thou hast commanded, and yet there is room!’
‘Then’, says the narrator, ‘lifting up his slender hands, while the tears flowed down his venerable face, Wesley exclaimed: “and yet there is room!”’ He then added with emphasis: ‘And this was the way the primitive [first] Methodists did’.
William Lecky was not exaggerating when he said of John Wesley’s Aldersgate Street experience that, ‘What happened in that little room was of more importance to England than all the victories of Pitt by land or sea’.
Let us conclude by quoting a letter to Wesley from a young Anglican curate, Henry Venn, who later became Vicar of Huddersfield (his son John would become one of the Clapham Sect). Henry Venn was a Calvinist but, in spite of that difference, he begs fatherly counsel from Wesley.
His letter concludes: ‘It is the request of one, who, though he differs from you, and possibly ever may in some points, yet must ever acknowledge the benefit and light he has received from your works and preaching; and, therefore, is bound to thank the Lord of the harvest, for sending a labourer among us, so much endued with the spirit and power of Elias; and to pray for your long continuance among us, to encourage me and my brethren, by your example, while you edify us by your writings. I am, sir, your feeble brother in Christ, Henry Venn’.
We can only be the losers if we do not grasp what led Venn to so deeply appreciate John Wesley. And today, when we are fast returning as a nation to eighteenth-century mores, we should not forget Wesley’s God. The Lord is ‘the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8) and still ‘able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us’ (Ephesians 3:20).
The author is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press and Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.