Iain Murray’s new book, Wesley and Men who Followed, marked the tercentenary of the birth of John Wesley and is published by Banner of Truth. This article is an abridgement of the final chapter.
Methodism at the height of its influence in the mid-nineteenth century was a startling phenomenon.
In 1861 membership in Britain was 343,333, with ‘every individual under effective pastoral oversight’. About one million regularly heard Methodist preaching.
In America, the Methodist Episcopal Church had long passed these figures. In 1825 its membership stood at 348,195, reaching 749,216 by 1839, gaining on average 28,644 per year.
Over 400 men went as missionaries from British Methodism. The West Indies had 30-40,000 church members, West Africa 8,600. Advance was slower in India and China but some of the finest men went there.
J. Hudson Taylor (from Yorkshire Methodism) went independently but carried with him the spirit of his background. Taylor’s key to the locked doors of China was, ‘Love first, then suffering, then a deeper love — thus only can God’s work be done’.
By 1855 Australia had its own conference, closely connected with the success of the gospel in the South Sea islands. New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga were included in the conference.
The region had 110 ministers (plus 40 on probation), many local preachers, the oversight of 33,964 members, and a further 7,657 ‘on trial’.
Tonga, like the other Friendly Islands, initially resisted the gospel when Methodist missionaries first arrived there in the 1820s. The chief, ‘King George’, would only listen to the preaching if his throne was placed conspicuously opposite the pulpit. Then ‘a most extraordinary outpouring of the Spirit’ occurred.
‘King George and Queen Charlotte were amongst the first to tremble before the new power that was upon the people, and to rejoice in the pardoning love of God . . . They released their slaves; they devoted themselves to study, and to the uplifting of their people. The king qualified, by passing the proper examinations, for the Local Preacher’s Plan.’
A number of the foremost pioneer missionaries to these islands also served in Australia. They had seen giants fall, and were not disheartened by conditions in the penal colonies that had driven others to despair.
What is the true explanation for this success? John Wesley’s leadership was not the secret. Methodism spread further and faster after his death. Nor can the growth be explained by the effectiveness of the organisation, though that certainly contributed to it.
The true explanation may be clearer if we go forward a hundred years to Methodism in sharp decline in the mid-twentieth century, and ask what was missing at the later date that had been prominent before.
Whatever words are used to describe the inner principle of the older Methodism — ‘piety’, ‘holiness’, or ‘fellowship with God’ — the problem in the twentieth century was that this had largely gone.
The first characteristic of that former piety was faith: faith in the Word of God, in the redeeming love of God, in a divine Saviour and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith was the energising, empowering principle, both for personal living and for witness to others.
What was said of local preacher William Carvosso could have been said of thousands: ‘Present, free and full salvation, by simple faith in the atonement, formed the theme on which he dwelt with delight, and almost without intermission’.
Faith is the master principle that has ever been recognised when Christianity has overcome the world: ‘The exercise of faith’, wrote John Owen, ‘is that whereon the flourishing of all other graces doth depend’.
But piety is not made up of faith alone, and this was where Methodism showed its scriptural balance. Real faith will have with it obedience, work and self-denial. It will entail habits of prayer, praise and a disciplined life lived for God.
Neither did the old Methodist preachers look upon the possibility of an outpouring of the Spirit as an alternative to present toil and labour. They prayed for the Spirit, but their belief in revival in no way lessened evangelistic passion in times and places where there was no evidence of the extraordinary.
When faith and discipline are seen as the essential ingredients of Methodist piety, there is no mystery about the twentieth century collapse. If faith cannot rest on the Word of God it has nothing to rest on, and now, in the name of ‘scholarship’, this was taken away.
Wesley was ready to be called a ‘Bible bigot’, but by the twentieth century the Methodist colleges honoured such teachers as A. S. Peake whose Commentary on the Bible (1919) undermined the authority of Scripture.
Within fifty years, presidents of the Methodist Conference in Britain spoke in open opposition to Scripture.
One, Donald Soper, proposed that there should be a ban on Bible reading for the year 1965; Leslie Weatherhead, a well-known Methodist author, argued that ‘William Temple was just as inspired as Paul, and T. S. Eliot more inspired than the author of the Song of Solomon’.
Weatherhead’s biographer smiled at the simplicity of an old-fashioned Methodist who asked: ‘Was John Wesley deceived? Have our hymn-writers been deceived in their immortal songs? Was Saul of Tarsus deceived? Have we all been deceived?’
Men now leading Methodism would not have been received as probationers a hundred years earlier.
Among questions formerly put to candidates for the ministry were: ‘In what light do you regard the death of Christ?’ ‘How do you define the nature of that atonement or propitiation which Jesus Christ made?’
A 1965 amendment at the Methodist Conference to restore such questions — recalling the Church to her own articles of faith and to faith in the atonement in particular — was defeated by a vote of 601 to 14!
No wonder that an article in the Methodist Recorder, ‘The Old Methodism Gone Forever’, argued that the doctrines of justification, saving faith, assurance, and holiness, ‘belong to an intellectual and theological world which is no longer ours. They describe experiences which are no longer normative for Methodist people’.
Was Methodism just a colourful episode in history? Were men’s beliefs only their own, or were these men taught by the Spirit of God? Was it his work or theirs that accounts for what happened?
Scripture makes a sharp distinction between speaking ‘words of man’s wisdom’ and preaching ‘in demonstration of the Spirit and of power’. The latter is essential so that ‘faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God’ (1 Corinthians2:4-5).
Wesley and Whitefield faced ‘slander, ridicule and persecution from nine-tenths of professing Christians in our land’. They persisted because their faith was in inspired words, ‘the sword of the Spirit is the word of God’ (Ephesians 6:17).
The power in the old Methodist preaching is no fairy story; it was bound up with the conviction that honouring Scripture and honouring the Holy Spirit cannot be separated. The preachers carried a message that was not their own and it put an awe upon them.
What was said of one might have been said of them all: ‘He never took liberties with eternal realities. He trembled at the word of God’. The results of such preaching belonged to the one by whose anointing they spoke.
The great effect of the Evangelical Revival upon national life was that the Bible came to stand supreme over mind and conscience. No Methodist doubted that ‘the Bible and the strength and godliness of England have gone hand in hand’.
‘The Methodist people are taught to make the Bible, and the Bible alone, the ground of their faith’, wrote George Smith. ‘It has been acknowledged from the throne … and is the deep inwrought conviction of the wisest and best among all classes . . . that Great Britain holds her present position among the nations of the earth, mainly through the influence of the Bible on the people’.
Denying the divine inspiration of Scripture, twentieth-century Methodism denied its own history. The denomination’s leaders adopted the very kind of thinking that had marked the chief opponents of the eighteenth-century awakening. Spiritual power and piety could not survive in such a situation.
But apostasy does not end the story. Once-honoured names and organisations may change, churches may lose their candlesticks, but the great lesson of Wesley and the Evangelical Revival is that sin and unbelief do not control history.
Millions now in heaven attest that truth. ‘God is sovereign’, said Wesley. He would remind us that God’s love for the world remains the same.
Jesus is the Saviour ‘high over all’ who lives to give repentance and forgiveness. Not on the basis of what the church deserves, but on account of what Christ has done, the Spirit is sent to convict of sin, righteousness and judgement.
And whenever that work of grace is found, men and women will cry, ‘O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God’.
‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth for ever’ (1 Peter 1:24-25).