Continued from The forgotten John Wesley (2)
The third reason we should remember John Wesley is for his remarkable example of zeal and boldness in the cause of the gospel.
Only 18 days after Wesley’s Aldersgate Street conversion experience, it happened to be his appointed turn, as a Fellow of Lincoln College, to preach at St Mary’s Church before the University of Oxford. What would the young don now say to the university’s assembled dignitaries?
He took as his text Ephesians 2:8: ‘By grace are ye saved through faith’, and the sermon uncompromisingly went for the jugular, as he charged his hearers with failing to preach the one message needful for the people.
Nothing but free grace and saving faith, he declared, could check the immorality then flooding the land. Trying to hold it back by piecemeal reforms was futile and like trying to empty an ‘ocean of wickedness’ drop by drop. Only proclaiming the ‘righteousness which is of God by faith’ would stem the tide of permissiveness.
‘He that “goeth about to stablish his own righteousness” cannot receive the righteousness of God. The righteousness which is of faith cannot be given him while he trusteth in that which is of the law.
‘But this, it is said, is an uncomfortable doctrine. The devil spoke like himself, that is, without either truth or shame, when he dared to suggest to men that it is an uncomfortable doctrine’.
But, ‘it is the only comfortable one; it is “very full of comfort”, to all self-destroyed, self-condemned sinners. That “whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed that the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him”: here is comfort, high as heaven, stronger than death!
‘What! Mercy for all? For Zacchaeus, a public robber? For Mary Magdalene, a common harlot?’
Now this was indeed exceedingly ‘uncomfortable’ and deeply challenging to Wesley’s congregation, all of whom were Church of England clergymen. No wonder such boldness was to bring nearly a lifetime of persecution — persecution that was only to be intensified by the ‘scandal’ of field preaching to the ‘rabble’. But Wesley, throughout his earthly course, feared no man.
Take one particular visit to Bath. It was June 1739, and a visit to be made memorable by Wesley’s encounter with the renowned Beau Nash.
Bath was at that time the most fashionable ‘watering place’ in England. And Beau Nash was, according to one of Wesley’s biographers (John Telford), ‘king of the revels. He was an adventurer and a gamester, but all Bath acknowledged his rule and carefully observed the regulations, which he posted in the pump-room. Ball-dresses and dances were all fixed by the Beau. His equipage was sumptuous…
‘Wesley had a much larger audience than usual. The rich and great came with the crowd to witness the expected discomfiture of the Methodist preacher … Wesley showed that the Scripture had concluded all under sin, when Nash appeared, and … asked by what authority he did these things’.
‘Wesley replied that he preached by the authority of Jesus Christ, “conveyed to me by the (now) Archbishop of Canterbury, when he laid hands upon me, and said, Take thou authority to preach the gospel”…’
Nash then ‘turned to a more promising accusation. “I say it is. And, besides, your preaching frightens people out of their wits.”
‘“Sir”, said Wesley, “did you ever hear me preach?” “No”, was the answer.
‘“How then can you judge of what you never heard?”
“Sir, by common report”, said Nash.
‘“Common report is not enough. Give me leave, sir, to ask: Is your name Nash?”
‘The Beau answered, “My name is Nash.” Wesley replied, “Sir, I dare not judge of you by common report: I think it is not enough to judge by”.’
Nash’s attempt at ridicule was nothing compared to the harsh treatment Methodists endured from the mob, often stirred up by magistrates or clergymen — or ‘gentlemen (so called)’, as Wesley ironically described them.
Here, as a typical sample, is the journal entry for Thursday 20 October 1743: ‘After preaching to a small, attentive congregation (at Birmingham), I rode to Wednesbury. At twelve I preached in a ground near the middle of the town, to a far larger congregation than was expected, on “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever”.
‘I believe everyone present felt the power of God: and no creature offered to molest us, either going or coming; but the Lord fought for us, and we held our peace.
‘I was writing at Francis Ward’s in the afternoon, when the cry arose that the mob had beset the house … Before five the mob surrounded the house again in greater numbers than ever. The cry of one and all was “Bring out the minister; we will have the minister”…
‘About fifty of them undertook to convoy me. But we had not gone a hundred yards when the mob of Walsall came, pouring in like a flood, and bore down all before them…
‘To attempt speaking was vain; for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea, so they dragged me along till we came to the town; where seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other.
‘I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness. At the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made toward it and would have gone in; but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground.’
Presence of mind
‘However, I stood at the door, and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No, no! Knock his brains out; down with him; kill him at once.” Others said, “Nay, but we will hear him first.”
‘I began asking, “What evil have I done? Which of you all have I wronged in word or deed?” And continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed. Then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! Bring him away!”…
‘But on the bridge the mob rallied again. We therefore went on one side, over the mill dam, and thence through the meadows; till, a little before ten, God brought me safe to Wednesbury; I having lost only one flap of my waistcoat and a little skin from one of my hands.
‘I never saw such a chain of providences before, so many convincing proofs that the hand of God is on every person and thing and overruling all as it seemeth him good…
‘From the beginning to the end I found the same presence of mind as if I had been sitting in my own study. But I took no thought for one moment before another; only once it came into my mind that, if they should throw me into the river, it would spoil the papers that were in my pocket. For myself, I did not doubt but I should swim across, having but a thin coat and a light pair of boots’.
Sometimes God delivered his servant out of the mouth of the lion in amazing ways. Wesley took his stand at the town cross of Bolton in Lancashire, in August 1748. The mob tried to push him off the platform, but he stepped up again and continued. Stones began to fly. One man was bawling in Wesley’s ear, when a stone struck the bawler on the cheek.
Another forced his way up to push the preacher off, when a missile struck the pusher on the forehead. And a third man had got close enough to Wesley to stretch out his hand to grab him, when a sharp stone hit the attacker on his finger joints. Wesley had been delivered from all three!
By the time Wesley was in his 60s, the coarser, more physical persecutions had largely died away; and, by the time he was in his 70s and 80s, he was received in many sections of society with great civility and respect.
On 9 December 1780, at the age of 73, he could write: ‘Persecution is more and more out of fashion since King George came to the throne ’. But Wesley never courted approval and even felt uneasy with it. He wrote, in June 1785: ‘I am become, I know not how, an honourable man’.
The question remains for us today: are we in the comfortable United Kingdom once more prepared to suffer fierce persecution, of all kinds, for Christ’s sake? If the Lord revives his work, as we often ask him to, true evangelicals will surely be persecuted — and in no uncertain manner!
Are we as ready to face that as John Wesley; and would be as calm, as trusting and as resigned to the good will of God as he evidently was?
Continued in The forgotten John Wesley (4)
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.