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John Wesley – Genius on horseback

July 2003 | by Paul Cook

‘You seem a very temperate people here, and in comfortable circumstance’, observed Cardinal Newman to a miner, while on a walking holiday in Cornwall. ‘How do you account for it?’ The miner, slowly lifting his hat, respectfully answered, ‘There came a man among us once. His name was John Wesley’.

In that simple answer lay the explanation for the moral and social changes in Cornwall in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Henry Newman had journeyed from a nominal Evangelicalism to Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Rome – with no assurance of sins forgiven.

The journey taken by John Wesley had been in the opposite direction, from the High Churchmanship of his parents to the Moravian meeting house in Aldersgate Street, London, where he found assurance of sins forgiven in the evangelical message of the Bible.

The end of the law

The message that ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes’ (Romans 10:4) now became the great emphasis of his preaching.

Before the University of Oxford on 18 June 1738, he boldly declared that ‘none can trust in the merits of Christ, till he has utterly renounced his own’. And he added, ‘the tenor of our commission runs, “Go and preach the gospel to every creature”.’

He first preached in Cornwall in 1743, and thereafter during almost every year of his life. He preached ‘with power and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance’.

This is what transformed Cornwall and peppered it with Methodist chapels during the Evangelical Revival and in the first half of the 19th century. They were opened in faith, and many have been closed again through unbelief.

Horseback desk

To trace Wesley’s marathon labours in one article in this 300th anniversary year of his birth is an impossible task.

His evangelistic journeys were mainly on horseback, which served as a sort of desk where he corrected printers’ proofs, abridged Puritan books for his lay preachers, wrote letters and prepared sermons.

His preaching tours generally followed a triangular pattern – Bristol to London to Newcastle and back, though not always in that order. He made frequent diversions to towns and villages along the way, but the three cities became the great centres of Methodist influence.

Reviewing his early work, he commented: ‘Not a few whose sins were of the most flagrant kind, drunkards, swearers, thieves, whoremongers, adulterers, have been brought from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God’.

Spiritual growth

Although Wesley often preached in virgin territory, most of his work consisted of visiting religious societies which had already been established, mainly as the result of the pioneering labours of others.

The preaching of men such as William Darney; John Bennet in Cheshire and South-east Lancashire; David Taylor in the Midlands; John Nelson (converted under John Wesley in London) and Benjamin Ingham in Yorkshire – not forgetting the herculean labours of William Grimshaw in his ‘Haworth Round’ and beyond – had given rise to many groups of believers in need of pastoral care and oversight.

With his organisational genius, John Wesley linked these groups together and gave them a measure of unity in the gospel. He brought order and method to the societies, and established regular class meetings for the converts.

Far from introducing a dead denominationalism, all his innovations were of a highly spiritual character, and gave rise to spiritual growth and development within the societies.

Leadership

Wesley has often been criticised for his autocratic behaviour, but in the providence of God his strong leadership was used to hold together the diverse elements of the revival. Without his leadership, and the development of the ‘Methodist Connexion’, those brought to Christ in the revival would have fragmented through countless divisions.

Let no one think that revival is the solution to all the problems of church life. On the contrary, revival multiplies problems. It brings about an explosion of spiritual life, and where there is life there are problems! Peace and orthodox orderliness prevail in a morgue.

Wesley, and other leaders in the Evangelical Revival such as Whitefield, Grimshaw, Rowland and, we might add, the Countess of Huntingdon, were all big-minded. In the main they were able to distinguish between matters of primary importance and secondary issues.

More so than his brother Charles, John Wesley kept the overall spiritual interests of the people in view, compromising where necessary for the sake of the gospel.

Anglican legalists were not happy with him – nor were those doctrinal perfectionists who always become uneasy when the Spirit of God threatens to take over in the life of the church.

Angry mobs

In common with the early Methodist preachers in general, John Wesley frequently suffered at the hands of angry mobs, often incited by local clergymen opposed to a man who sought the spiritual good of the people they neglected.

He came close to losing his life on a number of occasions. At Wednesbury, in October 1743, he and the Methodists were physically assaulted and much abused.

Wesley records that ‘though one man struck me on the breast with all his might, and another on the mouth with such force that the blood gushed out immediately, I felt no more pain from either of the blows than if they had touched me with a straw’.

But the mood of the mob was ugly. Most of the believers fled for their lives. William Sitch, who attempted to protect Wesley, was dragged away and knocked down. Afterwards, when Wesley asked him what he had expected from the mob, he replied: ‘To die for him who had died for us’.

Apart from Cornwall, Wesley’s greatest pioneering work was in the Newcastle area, where the miners of the North-east received him gladly. When Wesley died in 1791 over 50% of Methodist members, chapels and preachers were located in the north of England.

Wesley’s annual conferences gave order and imposed necessary discipline upon the members and preachers; but it should be remembered that all this was within the context of the Church of England, to which they were connected in his lifetime.

Quirks of doctrine

Some readers might think it poor taste to introduce a jarring note into this anniversary celebration; but in our eagerness to commemorate Wesley, we must not forget the quirks of doctrine he introduced.

His contribution to the religious and evangelical life of our nation has not been entirely beneficial. He propagated ideas and emphases which departed from the biblical tradition established by the Reformers and Puritans. These heterodox opinions have, in some respects, dogged Evangelicalism ever since.

Despite his clear preaching on justification by faith alone, his fear of the Antinomians (who abused the doctrine to excuse sin) made him suggest at times that a believer’s works were essential to his justification.

In the printed Minutes of the 1770 Conference he denied that ‘a man is to do nothing in order to justification’. Anticipating objections he asked, ‘Is not this salvation by works?’ and answered, ‘Not by the merit of works, but by works as a condition’.

This astounded many of his preachers and friends, including the Countess of Huntingdon, and became the occasion of serious division.

Influences

In controversy, his equivocal statements often gave the impression that the early High Church influence of William Law and the mystics still affected his thinking. William Law seems to have influenced him more than did Martin Luther.

The Reformed and biblical teaching on election and perseverance in the Christian life had prevailed in Evangelicalism from the time of the English Reformation until Wesley.

But though Wesley accepted these doctrines in a qualified manner, he actually perpetuated a Laudian Arminianism instead of the healthy biblical Calvinism of men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

He taught that a man’s salvation finally depends on an act of the human will, and this emphasis was to percolate down through English Evangelicalism.

Though Wesley’s position is far removed from the modern believism of the past century, he nevertheless introduced a strong Arminian tradition, which has tended to undermine the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation. The teaching of Charles G. Finney illustrates this.

Perfectionism

Another doctrine which Wesley increasingly stressed – despite the opposition of men like William Grimshaw, Alexander Mather and others – was that sinless perfection is possible in the Christian life and that holiness can be received as a ‘second experience’ by faith.

This has had a permanent and detrimental effect upon British and American Evangelicalism, and has undergirded a whole range of unbiblical holiness and perfectionist teachings ever since Wesley’s day.

Despite these reservations, we would argue that John Wesley should have been found among ‘The Top Ten Britons’. Where would America and Britain be today without the gospel influence of Jonathan Edwards (this year is also the 300th anniversary of his birth), George Whitefield and John Wesley?

There was a special quality about the men and women in the eighteenth century revival which is almost entirely lacking among us today. We need to admit it, and call upon God for spiritual awakening.