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The forgotten John Wesley (1)

February 2015 | by Roger Fay

What sort of a person was John Wesley? He was about 5 feet 3 inches tall, slim, with piercing blue eyes, a fresh complexion and (when younger) auburn hair. He was careful about personal neatness and cleanliness.

According to contemporary John Hampson, he wore ‘narrow plaited stock, a coat with a small upright collar’, but no knee buckles, silk or velvet. When preaching, he often wore his clerical gown and bands (neck-ware).

Personality

His temperament was one of ‘cheerfulness mingled with gravity, a sprightliness which was the natural result of an unusual flow of spirits and was yet combined with … the most serene tranquillity’. In 1776, he wrote: ‘I feel and grieve, but, by the grace of God I fret at nothing’.

What fired him from day to day? Typical is this journal entry for Wednesday 28 June 1780: ‘I went to Sheffield. But the house [chapel] was not ready, so I preached in the square.

‘I can hardly think I am entered this day into the 78th year of my age. By the blessing of God I am just the same as when I entered the 28th. This hath God wrought, chiefly by my constant exercise, my rising early, and preaching morning and evening’.

What was Wesley like as a preacher? Though not as gifted an orator as George Whitefield (see ET, November 2014), and though not aiming at emotional effects, his preaching often had a strong emotional impact on his congregation.

John contrasted his preaching with that of his brother Charles, saying that his own preaching was characterised by reasoned argument and Charles’ by ‘strong pointed sentences’. John would preach ex tempore for about an hour, using plain language and reaching a controlled climax before making his concluding applications.

Whatever his human qualities, John Wesley became an immense force for good, under God. He was used in the salvation of many thousands and was central to the evangelical revival that spread across Britain and Ireland during the eighteenth century.

He also bequeathed a lasting social legacy for good. Indeed, there are compelling reasons to say that John Wesley ranks among the small handful of British Christians who have done most good for this nation.

Why forgotten?

So why is John Wesley a forgotten figure today? He has not yet been forgotten as a figure from eighteenth century church history, but his real significance is rapidly being forgotten, especially in the religious world. Perhaps, five things contribute to this amnesia.

First, while most Protestant denominations, including Methodism, still pledge some credal loyalty to the evangelical faith, their ministry is often permeated with a theological liberalism that would have appalled Wesley. There is a radical discontinuity between Wesley’s theological stance and that of much modern Protestantism.

Second, as with contemporary Jonathan Edwards, Wesley has received scholarly attention on both sides of the Atlantic, but this scholarship has often neglected the spiritual dimension. Contrast A. Skevington Wood’s book on John Wesley, The burning heart; and on the eighteenth century awakening, The inextinguishable blaze (a title based on a phrase from a Charles Wesley hymn). Any evaluation that doesn’t take account of the fire of God in the soul of John Wesley is bound to miss the mark!

Third, while Wesley lived long enough to face down his persecutors (1703–1791), he has long been regarded as a seditious threat to establishment religion, especially within Anglican circles. But, like his father Samuel, John was deeply committed to the Church of England. It has always been an unfair caricature.

Fourth, Arnold Dallimore’s excellent and influential two-volume biography of George Whitefield, published in 1970 and 1980 by the Banner of Truth, successfully rehabilitated the reputation of George Whitefield, but cast John Wesley, for all his faults, in such a negative light that it is now Wesley who needs rehabilitating among Reformed believers!

Blind spots

Then, fifth, blame attaches to Wesley himself. While voluminous in literary output — journal, pamphlets, sermons, letters and edited books of all kinds — there was a doctrinal confusion and opaqueness in not a few of his writings that have militated against his reputation.

Wesley’s instinct was fundamentally Calvinistic (though he would have abhorred the term as describing himself), in that he utterly depended upon the God of grace who has revealed himself in Christ, but some of his doctrinal formulations were antithetic to aspects of the Reformed faith.

So Wesley had some obvious blind spots: notably, a strong antipathy to predestinarianism; an assertion that entire sanctification is possible for believers in this life; and fluctuating confusion over aspects of the relationship between good works and justification by faith.

But, in spite of these errors, it has to be said that he never ceased to believe in the main point of justification: that it is a gift of God, received in a moment by faith and central to salvation.

In 1746 he wrote: ‘Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three: that of repentance, of faith and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next the door; the third, religion itself’.

Some of Wesley’s inconsistencies should be set against his incredible labours, persecutions and travels, and the bewildering array of practical and pastoral problems he had to face. But not all were due to stress and lack of time.

Perhaps much was down to the high Anglican influence of his father and strong-willed mother, and to his early entanglement with mystic Catholic authors, but we must not overlook the impact of a crisis that nearly derailed early Methodism.

This crisis arose from within Moravianism, the same movement that had brought Wesley to spiritual birth. In 1739, Philip Molther, a German Moravian newly arrived in London, began introducing ‘stillness’ practices to the Fetter Lane Society that the Methodists attended.

Molther required awakened seekers to simply ‘wait’ for the Spirit to give them faith, and to refrain from reading the Scriptures, praying and listening to sermons. Any use of these means of grace was, he said, a works-righteousness to be repented of.

This heterodoxy spread like wild-fire among the societies at London and Bristol and eventually led to Wesley quitting Fetter Lane and transferring bodily

, along with 20 others, to the Foundery.

All in all, the debacle involved John and Charles Wesley in an extensive ‘fire fight’ for about three years, to save Methodism. The whole experience reinforced his loathing of antinomianism.

Strengths

Turning now to more positive things, Wesley deserves to be remembered on at least four counts. The first is his conversion, which was virtually paradigmatic of what true conversion is.

Conversion is not just a change of religious opinion or of lifestyle; it is a radical change of relationship with God, coupled with the impartation of new spiritual life. It is a world away from merely turning over a moral new leaf or making a decision to ‘take up’ Christianity. It pervades the whole being, bringing hatred of sin, love of righteousness and an earnest desire to please Jesus Christ. It is the product of a new birth, by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:1-16).

Let’s see how it overtook Wesley. October 1735 found 26 German Moravian missionaries aboard the British ship The Simmonds, bound for the British settlement of Savannah in Georgia, North America. Also on board were Benjamin Ingham, Charles Delamotte, John Wesley, now 31 years old, and his brother Charles.

John and Charles were ordained Anglican ministers, commissioned by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel for work in Georgia. John was to minister in Savannah and Frederica, while Charles was to be secretary to Governor James Oglethorpe.

During the voyage John was impressed by the godly behaviour of the Moravians, a class of persons he had never met before. He was especially impressed by their conduct when a violent storm arose and the ship’s company faced shipwreck.

He wrote: ‘At seven, I went to the Germans … In the midst of the psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the mainsail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up.

‘A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards, “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no”.

‘I asked, “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly, “No, our women and children are not afraid to die”.’

Self-knowledge

But John Wesley was afraid to die, and knew it. Some months later he recorded in his journal: ‘I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and I believe myself, when no danger is near. But let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, “to die is gain”.

‘I have learned … that I who went to America to convert others was not converted myself’.

Continued in The forgotton John Wesley (2)

Roger Fay