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A Person of Faith in an Age of Need
On his 85th birthday, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, paused to reflect on his life and ministry. He wrote in his journal for June 28, 1788 (old calendar):
It is true I am not so agile as I was in times past. I do not run or walk so fast as I did; my sight is a little decayed; my left eye is grown dim, and hardly serves me to read; I have daily some pain in the ball of my right eye, as also in my right temple ... and in my right shoulder and arm, which I impute partly to a strain, and partly to the rheumatism. I find likewise some decay in my memory in regard to names and things lately passed, but not at all with regard to what I have read or heard twenty, forty, or sixty years ago; neither do I find any decay in my hearing, smell, taste, or appetite (though I want but a third ... of the food I did once); nor do I feel any such thing as weariness, either in traveling or preaching; and I am not conscious of any decay in writing sermons, which I do as readily, and, I believe, as correctly, as ever.
(Journal, June 28, 1788)
During the next week, the elderly Wesley kept the same energetic pace that had marked his ministry for more than fifty years. He preached sixteen times in twelve different towns. He attributed his extraordinary spiritual keenness and physical strength to God's power at work in his life, the vital prayers and support of his brothers and sisters in the faith, and his disciplined life.
Who was this man whose faith and ministry inspired thousands of people in his time, who decisively changed religion and society in the eighteenth century and after, and who is considered the spiritual parent of a worldwide community of churches with approximately thirty million members in 96 countries?
John Wesley was born June 17, 1703 (new calendar), in the small town of Epworth in Lincolnshire in northeastern England. His life encompassed almost the entire eighteenth century, an era in which major changes were occurring, especially in England and North America. It is difficult to give a brief description of eighteenth-century English life. Nevertheless, we must try to understand it in order to provide the historical context for the life and ministry of John Wesley. Eighteenth-century England was politically more stable than during the previous century, when there was a bloody civil war. Political strife continued between the two major parties, the conservative Tories and the reformist Whigs. England's military and economic strength were on the ascendant. The population of England in the early eighteenth century numbered about five million; by the end of the century it had increased to more than eight million. About 10 percent of the populace lived in London, a great many in severe poverty. No other English city came close to London in size; although by the century's end the number of towns and cities and their population were growing, especially industrial centers like Manchester, Birmingham, and Leeds.
Life in the cities and larger towns was precarious, especially for the numerous poor. Regular employment was uncertain. Housing was often inadequate and unaffordable. The poorer sections of the cities were usually overcrowded, ramshackle slums of filth and squalor. Sanitation was primitive. Merchants and families discarded their refuse in the streets and rivers, where it decayed with a horrible stench. Pure drinking water was scarce. Nourishing food was often costly and in short supply. Disease was rampant, especially in the homes of the poor. Life was insecure. Alcohol, violence, prostitution, and gambling were popular means to escape feelings of desperation and hopelessness.
Artisans, skilled laborers, and apprentices constituted a slowly growing middle class, whose situation was less grave. Still, fourteen-hour workdays were routine and wages low. A working man's income was sometimes supplemented by a small additional income from the employment of his wife and children. Children as young as four or five were employed as chimney sweeps or in mines and factories.
The wealthy were relatively few in number but extremely powerful. Some had inherited immense fortunes. Others had amassed money and property through exploitive business opportunities and shrewd dealing. The lives of landowners, aristocrats, and rich merchants were marked by extravagance, comfort, and ease, in stark contrast to the futile situation of the poor. During the eighteenth century the English population became more polarized along economic lines.
Most English people lived in rural areas and small towns. They farmed the land, raised cattle and sheep, fished the rivers and seas, worked the mines and quarries, and provided the services that every village and town needed to survive such as milling, baking, tailoring, shoeing horses, and repairing wagons. Life was not quite as precarious for many of these folks as for the poor in the cities, but the circumstances of the rural middle and working classes were not easy either. Proprietors of small businesses eked out their livings as best they could. Farm laborers were usually tenants who had to pay rent regardless of how poor the harvest might be. It was extremely difficult for the poor to break the bonds of their poverty or for anyone new to move into the ranks of the wealthy.
As the eighteenth century unfolded, England underwent major economic and social changes. New technologies in farming and manufacturing led to increased production. Basic industries such as textiles and iron smelting made significant improvements. The development of steam power proved important for industrial growth. Turnpikes and canals improved the transport of raw materials and manufactured goods. England was in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.
The great majority of the population claimed at least nominal adherence to the Church of England, the realm's Established or official state church. There were also smaller numbers of Roman Catholics and nonconforming or dissenting churches such as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers. The Established Church was intricately connected to the political world. Parish boundaries had been drawn up centuries before, so some newer towns and villages did not even have parish churches or clergy. Members of other faiths could not vote or sit in Parliament, partly in reaction to the previous century's strife against both Catholics and Puritans. The Established Church saw its mission as maintaining the status quo and urging people to accept their place in God's scheme of things. Spiritual and moral guidance was usually offered in that direction. Despite the good intentions and sincere efforts of many clergy and laity, the church did little to improve the lot of the poor. It was in this England that John Wesley was born and his ministry developed.
John Wesley was one of nineteen children born to Samuel Wesley and his wife, Susanna Annesley. Both parents were the children of dissenting or Puritan clergy and understood "church" as more than the Established Church. Samuel Wesley, himself the son and grandson of clergy, converted to the Church of England while at Oxford and became a priest who served the parish of Epworth in the watery flats of Lincolnshire for nearly forty years. He was a strict, conscientious parish priest who had a genuine love for scholarship and poetry. While not a great scholar or poet himself, he published a commentary on the Book of Job. Most of his work was lost in a household fire; one of his surviving hymns, "Behold the Savior of Mankind," is found in The United Methodist Hymnal (293).
At least two major problems plagued Samuel during his years at Epworth. First, he did not manage money well and on one occasion landed in debtors' prison in Lincoln. Second, some of the Epworth parishioners resented his strictness and showed their contempt by injuring his animals; destroying his crops; and, it was suspected, even setting fire to the rectory that burned to the ground in 1709. Fortunately, none of the family was hurt in the blaze. John, a lad of five, was the last child to be rescued from the burning home.
Susanna Annesley Wesley was an unusual person and is considered by many to be the stronger of the two parents. She was a committed Christian and parson's wife. She managed the household, bore and raised the children, and gave them their earliest education. She read widely, especially religious and theological literature, and conducted prayer meetings in the rectory in her husband's absence. Susanna and Samuel did not always agree on matters of religion and politics, which sometimes created serious tension in the rectory. The family's poverty and the continual births and deaths of children were other sources of stress.
Of the nineteen children, only ten survived into adulthood, including John. The oldest child, Samuel, Jr., became a priest in the Church of England. The seven sisters, Emilia, Susanna, Mary, Mehetabel, Anne, Martha, and Kezia, had very difficult lives. Their stories are told in Frederick E. Maser's book The Story of John Wesley's Sisters, or Seven Sisters in Search of Love. Several times John expressed his disappointment that his sisters were not more active in the Methodist movement, but they were coping with poverty and family problems. John's younger brother, Charles, became his closest friend and ally in his ministry. Like his father and both older brothers, Charles was ordained into the priesthood of the Church of England. He became committed to evangelical religion and used his considerable poetic talents to become the great hymn writer of Methodism. He wrote more than six thousand hymns, some of which are found in the hymnals of many different denominations. Among the best known are "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," and "Love Divine, All Loves Excelling."
Life in the Epworth rectory left a lasting impression on John Wesley. There he learned to love the Bible and the prayer book of the Church of England. Under the influence of his parents he acquired a respect for scholarship, the teachings of the church, the disciplines of the Christian life, and missions. He valued these for the rest of his life and fondly recalled many of his Epworth experiences to the end of his ministry.
John's formal education was the best available at the time. In 1714, he was sent to Charterhouse, an exclusive school that prepared him to enter Oxford University. He matriculated at Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1720. When he graduated in 1724, Wesley had read widely in classical and modern literature, had studied theology, history, and science, and had become proficient in reading the New Testament in the original Greek.
As his Oxford graduation approached, he showed more concern for religious matters with the encouragement of his parents. It was not surprising, therefore, that he followed his father and brother into the priesthood of the Church of England.
John continued to live in Oxford, being honored with election to a fellowship at Lincoln College in March 1726. Unless requested to do so, fellows were not obliged to reside or perform duties at the college. Therefore, Wesley was free to spend considerable time away from Oxford helping his father with parish duties, which he did full time from 1727 through late 1729. Although John was ordained to the priesthood at Oxford in July 1728, apparently he had become convinced that the life of a parish priest was not for him.
In September 1729, Wesley was requested by the Lincoln College administration to perform teaching duties. In the meantime, his brother Charles had become a student at Christ Church and was a member of a small group of Oxford students who met regularly for the purpose of spiritual growth. John was invited to join them and soon became their unofficial leader. Under his direction they practiced the disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, receiving Holy Communion, and engaging in social work, especially visiting the Oxford prisons and caring for the poor. Other students scornfully referred to this little society as "the Sacramentarians," "Bible moths," "the Holy Club," and "the Methodists."* Eventually, the latter name became the accepted title for Wesley's followers.
During these years Wesley was impressed with the pattern of life he believed existed among the earliest Christians and became convinced that he should imitate it. Some of his closest friends dubbed him "Primitive Christianity" even before he took up his role as leader of the Oxford "Methodists." Although the disciplined life of the small circle of Oxford students closely followed the example of the early Christians, Wesley became persuaded that God demanded more of him. After his father's death in 1735, he and Charles enlisted as missionaries of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the missionary agency of the Church of England. This, he believed, imitated the early Christians' commitment to self-denial and complete surrender to God.
In the fall of 1735, both Wesley brothers set sail for the new colony of Georgia, in America. After a harrowing two-month voyage, they landed on February 6, 1736. John Wesley had at least three goals in mind: to minister to the English-speaking colonists in Georgia, to convert Native Americans to Christianity, and to gain an assurance of his own that God loved him.
The mission to Georgia lasted less than two years and was hardly a success. Although Wesley labored faithfully and energetically, he found many of his parishioners either indifferent or resistant to his ministry. Contacts with Native Americans were infrequent and unproductive. Furthermore, he had a disastrous romance with one of his parishioners, Sophy Hopkey, which led to his fleeing the colony under indictment by its Grand Jury. In December 1737, John Wesley boarded a ship and headed back to England; Charles had returned earlier.
Yet the American experience was not without a positive note. On his way to Georgia, during his stay in the colony and on his return to England, Wesley had become acquainted with Moravians, German pietists who were under the spiritual leadership of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. The Moravians taught a simple personal faith within an intimate disciplined fellowship. Wesley found them comforting Christian companions, even though he envied their confident trust and experience of God's presence.
The circumstances of the Georgia mission and his contact with the Moravians made Christianity a more personal question for Wesley. Confidence in his determination and ability to live a holy life pleasing to God was seriously shaken. The way was prepared for another stage in his understanding, experience, and practice of the Christian faith. Wesley remained spiritually distressed for several months after his return to England. He was searching for a faith that completely trusted God. He pondered returning to Oxford but was uncertain that it was the right course. He contemplated not preaching any longer, but conversations with his Moravian friend Peter Bohler convinced him that he should preach the kind of faith for which he was searching until he possessed it himself.
On the evening of May 24, 1738, while attending a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, something occurred that changed Wesley and the future course of his ministry. He described it in his journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.
(Journal, May 24, 1738)
Charles Wesley had had a similar experience just three days before. Aldersgate was an important step in John's religious experience and transformed his understanding and practice of the gospel. It did not insulate him from the problems with which all Christians must cope, such as temptation, doubt, and despair. Later he occasionally complained that he did not experience the peace, joy, and love that he believed ought to characterize the life of a believer. However, Aldersgate did convince him that the holiness he sought does not begin with human striving but by trusting the pardoning and empowering grace of God in Christ.
Excerpted from John Wesley by Charles Yrigoyen Jr.. Copyright © 1996 Charles Yrigoyen, Jr.. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Posted November 17, 2012
Yrigoyen does a great job recording not only a biograph but also distills the foundations and ruling tenets of Methodism as set forth by its founder. An interesting and illuminating read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.