By David Duncan Wallace, PhD
Professor of History, Wofford College
I. WESLEY THE MAN
Study of the Lives of Great Men
Few pursuits are fraught with greater benefits to mind and character than the study of the lives of great and good men. They demonstrate to us beyond disputation what things our human nature is capable of. To become the friend and intimate of a great man, though his life may lie a thousand years away, makes every day of our lives better by an ennobling companionship. One of the greatest things that can happen in the world is the birth of a good and great man. All apparatus, all discoveries, all inventions, all riches, all victories, are slight compared to this. All these are merely the tools for men to use; and unless we have good men, we had better be without such mighty instruments, which they alone can foe safely trusted to use.
Wesley’s Greatness and Influence
John Wesley was one of those men of the centuries who lift the times out of their dim and fallen state and set anew the feet of men in paths that lead towards the highest. And yet how many know nothing, save in a dim, reflected way, of his personality and his work, or entertain preconceptions which misrepresent the man or glimpse but a little scrap of him. Wesley's life practically covered the eighteenth century. Born in 1703, he lived until 1791. Just before his birth England had entered upon her century-long struggle for colonial supremacy with France and when he was one year old, the great Marlborough broke at Blenheim the spell of France's military supremacy and warned the world that the island kingdom was to assume the leading part in the struggle of the next three generation by which was to be determined so largely the course of human history alike in the old world and the new. Wesley lived to see that warning made good in an India under British control, the world's commerce mainly in British hands, and the North American continent, stretching vast in its influence upon future history, as in its extent of territory, in the hands of Englishmen and assured to the control of a free Protestant civilization, and the young republic in its centre firmly started on its career. The marvelous expansion of the English race in India, Australia, South Africa and America, making, in the words of Admiral Dewey, her colonial empire the mightiest influence today for the world's civilization, did not make Wesley a greater man, but it did open the necessary avenue for the expansion and influence of his great reform. Wesley's influence has spread into every land, and as the men of South America and the uncounted millions of Asia are brought into the freedom of the gospel light, his will be one of the most beneficent human influences which will move upon their life; but the distinctive realm of his power has been the Anglo-Saxondom which has carried the speech of Shakespeare, the spirit of Wycliffe, and the race of Cromwell and Knox around the earth in a sisterhood of English speaking peoples whose shores are bathed by every sea and upon whose extent the sun never sets.
Condition of English Church and Society in the 18 th Century
Let it be understood that Wesley was not one of those leaders, so common in history, who are merely the product of their times, pressing into leadership because of the accidents of circumstance or manner. No age would be more unlikely to produce a Wesley as its exponent than the eighteenth century. At few periods in English history were morals and religion at a lower ebb. The two extremes of society, each in its own way, were almost beyond the influence of religion and the middle class was cold with materialism and skepticism. The great unchurched masses, crushed under cruel economic forces to a condition of grinding poverty, brutalized by a criminal code that punished over two hundred offences with death and sent the woman who stole a pound of bread for a starving child, the boy who cut down young trees or shot rabbits in the private game preserve, to the gallows along with the murderer, and a system of poor relief which put such premium upon idleness and immorality, says Miss Martineau, as almost to annihilate female virtue in the lower classes, were neglected by a cold and sometimes corrupt clergy, many of whom were hardly believers in Christianity and for years together never entered the parishes whose revenues they drew. Charles Wesley records that on one occasion he ministered to fifty-two criminals in one group who were awaiting execution, one of whom was a child of ten years; and again, as late as 1780, he tells of seeing a cart load of young girls being carried to Tyburn to be hanged. The Lincolnshire peasantry who composed the flock of Wesley's father, the rector of Epworth, not content with resisting passively efforts for their good, hamstrung his cattle, burned his crops, threatened his life and actually fired his parsonage, and accused him of being the incendiary. The Chancellor of the diocese of Bristol forbad Whitefield to preach within his jurisdiction on pain of excommunication, though he refused to call the clergy to account for card playing and frequenting taverns. It is unnecessary and might be unjust to dwell upon the doings of the worst of the clergy, the worldly political bishops and drunken, fox-hunting clergymen who sometimes led the mobs that beat and stoned Wesley and his preachers. Of more significance is the fact that Bishop Butler, the author of the Analogy, and the best of his order in England, though moving not a finger to relieve the Egyptian darkness in which thousands of coal miners lived within sound of his own cathedral bells, forbad Whitefield and Wesley to preach to them, though the effects of their work were already seen in hundreds of transformed lives. An expressive testimony to the general decline of the clergy was the attempt of the little handful of ministers who sympathized with Wesley to persuade him to withdraw his preachers from any parish where there, was a clergyman, to use their own words, "of a religious spirit."
Birth and Training
But there still remained, as always, that quiet, humble group, the seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Of these was the household in which John Wesley was born. Samuel Wesley, the father, was rector of Epworth Church, a name so fittingly made a household word throughout our Methodism by the society a part of whose aim it is to cultivate a knowledge of Methodist history and turn the lightheartedness and enthusiasm of youth into channels of good.
England did not contain a more faithful minister than this man, himself the son and grandson of Episcopal ministers. On the other side, John Wesley's mother was the daughter of a noted dissenting minister. She was his twenty-fifth, and, to lay all uneasiness on that score at rest, we may add his last child, and in the first twenty-one years of her own married life became the mother of nineteen, of whom John was the fifteenth, truly a goodly increase of a godly stock—and all on a salary of about two hundred dollars a year, supplemented by about as much again from such outside earnings as the father scraped together.
Susannah Wesley stands as one of the most remarkable mothers on record. A character of unusual strength, poise and endurance and a mind much superior to her husband's both for scholarship and administration, had been cultivated by an education unusual for women of that day. In the words of Fitchett, "she might have talked philosophy with Hypatia or discussed Latin and Greek with Lady Jane Grey. At the tender age of thirteen this remarkable damsel took up the entire argument between the Church of England and the Dissenters and solemnly decided that her father and the dissenting beliefs in which she had been reared were wrong. In John Wesley the powerful forces of heredity supplemented each other mightily; from mother and father alike, and also from that potent reservoir of influence his "back parents," he inherited those qualities which were to mark his life: the passion for scholarship; courage; righteousness and independence.
Mrs. Susannah Wesley had need of all the resources, of her remarkable personality for the staggering task that fell to her lot. Four children in two years and a day (by virtue of the twin method), and nineteen in twenty-one years, and bread often so hard to get that, as she put it, it was unpleasant to eat, the husband once even in the debtor's prison, this woman under such burdens exhibited a calmness, courage and orderly administration that would be the admiration of a statesman. Truly, if the Methodist preacher may look back for consolation and inspiration to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, his sometimes even more sorely tried wife may look back to Susannah Wesley, the founder of John Wesley. As so commonly with the mothers of great men, there was in her a certain vein of sternness, though the sternness of great love. She tells us that she always made a child, after a certain age, "cry softly," and a law as inflexible as that of the Medes and Persians was that no child should have anything, however proper in itself, for which it cried. On the day that the child became five years old, it learned the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, and on the next, as its first reading lesson, mastered the first verse of the first chapter of Genesis. "Sukie," said her husband, "you have marvelous patience. That is the twentieth time you have explained that same thing to that child." "The twentieth time was necessary," she replied, "and crowned the whole. If I had stopped with the nineteenth all my labor would have been lost." As each child reached a proper age, she designated an hour during each week to be spent with it alone. What quiet but mighty shaping influences! Years after, John Wesley as an ordained minister longed for that Thursday afternoon hour and begged that his mother renew it so far as possible by letters. There in indeed much truth in the saying that Methodism was born in Susannah Wesley's nursery.
II. FROM SACRAMENTARIAN TO METHODIST
Wesley at Oxford
A trait of the Wesleys – a trait which many Methodist preachers never lose – was their invincible determination to get for themselves and give to their children the best possible education. Impractical in money matters as was the rector of Epworth, he walked to Oxford with 2 pounds and 5 shillings in his pocket and in due time took his degree with only 5 shillings help from any source whatever, truly a right heroic achievement, behind which there lie how many dreary money-getting tasks, how many threadbare coals, how many unfed, hungry days! His three sons and seven daughters who lived to maturity were thoroughly educated.
John Wesley's entrance into Oxford University marked an epoch in his history. Having chosen the ministry as his life work, he threw himself with zeal into preparation. These are the years of the "Holy Club," an organization of university students and fellows that supplies the basis for the statement that "Methodism was born in a university." Wesley did not originate the club, but as was almost invariably the case with the chief instruments of the movement which he was to lead, he adopted, expanded, strengthened and systematized an instrument which he found ready to his hand.
Morbid Religious Experience
Religious life at Oxford in the early thirties of the eighteenth century was indeed at a very low ebb. The experience of Wesley at this period is strikingly like that of Martin Luther during his first years in the monastery seeking salvation and peace through the scrupulous performance of every form and duty of religion. But with both, in the letter of the law there was found no peace. "If salvation could be found through monkery, I certainly would have found it," said Luther; "for no man ever sought it more faithfully by that road." And not until his elder brother in the order, Dr. Staupitz, pointed the young monk to simple faith and absolute reliance upon Christ alone did peace come to his soul. And so like Luther, Wesley groped long through the forms of ritual and sacerdotalism.
The Holy Club met several times a week, and sometimes daily, for discipline and study. The members observed all saints' days, took communion every Sunday, repeated a collect every day at 9, 12 and 3 and ordered their lives by the most systematic schedule.
Even in more vigorous and wholesome religious atmosphere than that of Oxford of that day nicknames would have been shied at young men of this style. To the campus wits they were "the Godly Club," "the Biblemoths"; "the Sacramentarians," "the Methodists," and though there is no organic connection between their organization and the little group destined to grow into a great church which Wesley organized in London ten years later, the last named stuck, and the term of ridicule is now the name of honor of twenty million Christians spreading beneath every sun. At Morgan's suggestion they visited the sick, the poor and prisoners—all most praiseworthy things to do; but these young zealots at this period of their religious experience did these things not from the highest motive, not for the love of the unfortunate, nor yet for .the love of Christ, but for the sake of making themselves more holy and making more sure the salvation of their own souls. As Wesley expressed it in declining to become his father's assistant in a portion of his parish sorely in need of every Christian ministration, he could not undertake the work, because he feared he could not withstand the temptation of the world to self-indulgence and irregularity. "I resolved" on entering the university, he tells us, "to have only such acquaintances as would help me on my road to heaven"; and accordingly this monk, this ascetic, this anchorite, who has not learned that one may save his life and yet lose it and that he who loses his life aright will save it, declines to help his old father to save the benighted souls of his fellowmen, because, in his own words, "I can be holier in Oxford than anywhere else."
If we recoil with a feeling closely akin to disgust from this self-seeking and sanctimonious formalist, it is largely because he himself later taught the world a different lesson and did so much to make it impossible that men should ever again repeat the dreary blunders under which he was laboring. And be it said that, like the erring son in the parable who answered to his father's call to work in the vineyard, "I will not," he later repented and went, though of any good which he may have accomplished with his cold, rigid sacerdotalism, he was able to see no trace.
One cannot refrain from a reflection upon this survival of mediaeval monkery, tragically nursing its own soul, indifferent to a dying world, save perhaps as a field for further exploiting its own virtues, and clinging more tightly to its own eternal bliss, what loss through the ages there has been from the boarding in monasteries, as Wesley would have done had he lived four hundred years earlier, such resources of good.
This was the Wesley and this his spirit who in 1735 at the request of General Oglethorpe and a foreign missionary society sailed away to care for the souls of the colonists just settling Georgia and to convert the Indians. Four days before he sailed from England, he wrote, "My chief motive is the hope of saving my own soul.... I cannot hope to attain the same degree of holiness here which I may there." Surely never did sinner more earnestly flee from the wrath to come, so earnestly indeed that he had no hand for helping others, "save only such acquaintances as would help me on my way to heaven."
What more pathetic sight than this earnest, consecrated soul leading this joyless existence. The high church sacerdotalist soon succeeded in estranging a large portion of the colonists. His devotion was exemplary, but his tactless conduct, his harsh enforcement of every jot and tittle of ritual and rubric and his own ecclesiastical authority gave such offence that when, at the end of two years of consecrated blundering, he left Savannah, it was almost as a fugitive alike from the forms of legal suit and lawless violence. He landed in England, 1738, feeling himself a beaten, discouraged, conscious failure. But in his extreme depression he did himself injustice. True he failed of the large results which at a later time would have crowned his labors; but the report of Whitefield, who went to Georgia a few months after Wesley left it, is probably more accurate. "Mr. Wesley's name is very precious among the people here," he wrote. "He has laid a foundation which neither men nor angels will ever be able to shake."
But the Wesley of Georgia, like the young monk Luther, had not yet learned the joy and power of a faith which puts its entire trust in Christ and the consciousness of God's forgiveness. "I went to America to convert the Indians; but 0 who shall convert me?" "I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted." "Child of wrath" and "heir of hell" he calls himself in his despair. "The faith I want is ‘a sure trust and confidence in God, that through the merits of Christ my sins are forgiven and I am reconciled to the favor of God.’ I want that faith which none can have without knowing that he hath it."
Theologians may define and dispute as to whether John Wesley in Oxford and Georgia was a Christian. Plain men will generally hold that he was, though a misguided and joyless one, looking with such a squint of formalism and such a reliance on rituals and formalism as to obscure the plain truth which most he sought. It was natural, then, that his help should come from some humble guide utterly untrammeled by the trappings which made his soul to drag.
On the voyage to Georgia Wesley had been impressed with the peaceful assurance, in times of greatest peril, of a company of Moravians. On reaching Savannah he sought the Moravian pastor. "My brother," said the pastor, "have you the witness within yourself? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God?" Wesley could not readily find an answer. "Do you know Jesus Christ?" continued the Moravian. "I know He is the Saviour of the world," replied Wesley. "Friend," replied the Moravian, "do you know that he has saved you?" "I hope He died to save me." "But do you know yourself?" still, persisted the pastor. Forced by logic rather than conviction, Wesley answered, "I do;" but he says, "I fear they were vain words."
Soon after returning to London Wesley was thrown with a young Moravian pastor named Peter Bohler, to whom he always ascribed the happy change in his religious life which he was soon to experience. Border's counsel was summed up in the advice, "Preach faith until you have it, and then because you have it you will preach faith." The following weeks, even before their culminating experience, saw a great change in Wesley's condition. For the first time he forgot to be constantly adding one more credit to the account of his soul's salvation; for the first time he discarded the ritual; for the first time he felt a joy in the mere service of his fellow men; for the first time there was a strange something in his sermons that "enlarged" his heart "to declare the love of God to all" men, and that led the ministers-of one church after another to say, "Sir, you must preach here no more." With its first stirring the new wine was already bursting the old bottles.
The crowning crisis came on the evening of May the 24th, 1738; but let those who insist that such a work can only be an instantaneous gift remember the experience of the preceding weeks. Miracle it certainly was, as miracle it continues to be, when the divine soul touches the human soul and gives the • assurance of peace. "In the evening," says Wesley, "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 my 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."
Experience Every Christian Should Have
Whether Wesley was at that moment first truly converted, or whether he then received a distinct "second blessing," I shall not attempt to say; but at all events an experience then became his which it is the privilege of every Christian to enter upon and which every Christian should by right possess. Different churches emphasize different phases of doctrine and experience, and it is neither my desire nor right to question their sincerity or efficacy; but I can maintain without fear of falling into sectarianism or intolerance that the more effectively any church succeeds in leading men into a peace and power and joy like that into which Wesley now entered, the more fully does it deserve in the full sense to be called Christian. This is the right of the universal church, and any branch which does not claim it foregoes a part of its inheritance. In the profound words of Professor Adams, systems of theology are the expressions of man's logical instinct as applied to religion; systems of church government of his political instinct; but both are entirely distinct from the essence of Christianity, which is the communion of the soul with God and is observed in equal perfection in St. Francis of Assisi the Catholic, John Wesley the Methodist, or John Woolman the Quaker.
Wesley Not the Product of His Times
The thing which happened to John Wesley in that quiet little meeting stands as one of the most potent events in the history of his century. From that point began a revival farther reaching and more beneficent than any which the world had seen since the mighty upheaval of the 16th century. Here steps forward a man, not the product of his times, but, we may say without irreverence, one sent from God to turn about and remake his times.
III. ORGANIZING AND MAKING PERMANENT A GREAT MOVEMENT
The Six Great Years
Now followed what might be called the six great years of Methodism, during which were shaped its policy and future. The power of a rediscovered dynamic Christianity might have remained the experience of a few souls, to await after their time again to be freed from ceremonialism and held up for the healing of the nations had not Wesley been gifted with a genius for organization which made the movement permanent. Here lay the most essential difference between his genius and that of Whitefield. Whitefield possessed an eloquence probably never equaled in the history of the English pulpit, if indeed in the history of the Christian Church. Assemblies of tens of thousands collected beneath the only covering that could contain them, the blue heaven, were overpowered by his eloquence. It is said such was the spell of his voice that he would melt an audience to tears simply by pronouncing the word Mesopotamia. The brutalized Kingswood miner, the blase nobleman, the philosophical and self-contained Franklin, were all subject to his charm. But he organized no societies, he built no chapels, he provided no shelter for the souls he had led into the light, and hence his work was a mighty, passing flood, not a strong unfailing stream whose constant waters still kept up the beneficent work they had begun. Whitefield's evangelical ardor jarred rudely against the cold formality and platitudes of the clergy of his day, and ere long he was forbidden the pulpits of the established church, of which he was an ordained priest.
Already he had felt, as he had beheld the throngs outside the crowded churches, pressing vainly to come within sound of his voice, the impulse to resort to the only auditorium that could serve them; and now his exclusion from the pulpits left him no alternative. In this day, when street preaching has become a commonplace, when a great Episcopal Church has erected a special open air pulpit overlooking the thronged highway beside which it stands, and a recent Archbishop of Canterbury, good soldier of the cross that he was, made it a feature of his visit to New York to preach daily at noon to the multitudes pressing at that hour in the heart of the great city, it is hard to realize even dimly what Whitefield's departure meant when, on a Saturday afternoon, February 17, 1739, he stood upon a little hillock outside Bristol, in defiance of threats of excommunication, and preached to some one or two hundred astonished, staring rabble. The fifth time he preached to 10,000; and ere long he was listened to with bated breath by a concourse reaching, according to careful estimates, sixty or eighty thousand persons.
Whitefield recognized Wesley's gift for organization and begged him to come down to Bristol to help in the work he had inaugurated. Here we may note one of Wesley's strongest traits, namely, his deeply ingrained prejudices in favor of the religious forms under which he had been reared – a sort of prejudice which, if amenable to reason, as it always was in Wesley's case, is a very valuable safeguard against unstable changeableness. In Wesley this conservative prejudice was strong, and time and again during the coming years he was to be called upon to manifest his greatness by rising superior to it. He heard Whitefield preach beneath the open sky, without ritual or forms, and felt at the sight all a ritualist's horror, "having been all my life," he tells us, "so tenacious on every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of a soul almost a sin, if it had not been done in a church."
Wesley Overcomes His Aversion to Field Preaching
Wesley was not ready immediately to follow Whitefield's example, and con-confined his first work in Bristol to the rooms of the societies. It was of one of these meetings that he writes in his Journal, "I began expounding our Lord's Sermon on the Mount, to a little society which was accustomed to meet once or twice a week." The next day, April 2, 1739, he says, "I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining the city, to about two or three thousand people." With a strange significance his text on this occasion which marked such an epoch in his career was, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord."
Thus far we might call our study the history of the emancipation of a soul. At last the grave clothes of sacerdotalism are loosed and like Lazarus, and by the same power, he steps forth into a new life.
Beginning of the Methodist Organization
Field preaching was, however, the second step in promoting and organizing the revival. About the same time a little group had requested Wesley to "meet them regularly for prayer and counsel," after a custom then not uncommon. He fixed Thursday evening for their meetings and almost immediately secured an abandoned gun foundry not only for this purpose, but as the center of the work so soon to take on national dimensions.
"The first evening," says Wesley, "about twelve persons came; the next week 30 or 40. When they were increased to about a hundred I took down their names and places of abode, intending, as often as was convenient, to call upon them at their houses. Thus, without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England—a company of people associated together to help each other to work out their own salvation."
How quiet, how unassuming, is the origin of this little congregation, and Wesley's assuming the duties of its pastor, unseen, unheralded, unknown in the great metropolis. How mighty, and how different a thing from what it had been, was the society for religious culture when adopted and organized by this "ecclesiastical statesman" with "a genius for godliness."
The societies multiplied and built meeting houses for themselves. The third step in the organization of a great church soon followed in such a spontaneous fashion that we may most accurately describe it by saying it "broke out"—lay preaching. Wesley had already adopted the plan of designating some suitable member of a society as a sort of leader and exhorter, who in the absence of himself, his brother Charles or Whitefield, might conduct an informal service, but not undertake the sacred office of preacher. It was early in 1740 that word came to Wesley in Bristol that a lay helper in the society in London, Thomas Maxfield, was preaching before the society. To his high church prejudices this seemed an unholy presumption. Instantly he hurried to London to stop the innovation; but his wise old mother, who herself had scandalized her strictly ritualistic husband years before by conducting services in her home while he was absent at Convocation, with the same sense of practical religion now warned her son against meddling with a man who, she assured him, was as truly called to preach the Gospel as was he, an ordained priest. Hearing Maxfield was proof. "It is the Lord's doing," exclaimed Wesley. In a year he had sanctioned — pitiful fear of words; rather at that time than to say "ordained" he would have severed his hand from his body — he had sanctioned or approved twenty lay preachers, who might proclaim the word, but not perform any ceremony or sacrament, such as baptism or the Lord's Supper belonging distinctively to the ordained ministry. Thus the third and necessary step in organizing the great revival was taken, and like John Wycliffe sending out his "poor preachers" in his effort, to reform the cold, corrupted church of four centuries before, he sent out these humble, Godly men, the earliest Methodist ministry, whose zeal, fidelity and piety are still a model to their successors. The lay preachers made possible Wesley's expanding his work from a few societies in London and Bristol to the bounds of the British Isles, in truth to the very bounds of the earth itself; for to no-less extent did the work soon begin to spread. From now on Wesley became the "chief pastor" and in everything but name the bishop of the Methodists. His itinerancy was begun, and from end to end of the kingdom he rode on horseback, penetrating districts that are yet unreached by the network of railroads that enmeshes this little land so thickly packed with people. In the next 50 years, says Augustine Birrell, he paid more toll gate fees than any man than ever bestrode beast. Thus again in the case of the lay preaching, Wesley adopted, with the practical genius of a statesman, what others had originated and gave it a use and power which without his organizing hand it would never have had.
Class Meetings and Class Leaders
The fourth step in organization, again the adoption and enlargement of a suggestion from others, was the class meeting. This ancient and honorable implement of early Methodist warfare will never, probably, be revived, and perhaps should not be. We have no "class meeting"; but neither, did Wesley have, for instance, the modern Sunday school. The society in Bristol in 1742 was planning how to pay the debt upon their meeting house. One suggested that he would see eleven others during the week and collect a penny from each for the debt. The plan was adopted, and so the society found itself organized into groups of twelve. Soon it was arranged that the group should come to the leader at a stated hour instead of his making his circuit of them. "It struck me immediately," says Wesley, "this is the very thing we have been wanting so long." He assumed the appointment of the class leaders and changed them into spiritual tutors, who were to report to him once a quarter. To counsel and supervise the class leaders and lay preachers Wesley spent the rest of his life on horseback. Was there ever such a union of the talents of a supervising and preaching bishop found in the same person?
Let us hope that the disappearance of the class meeting has been due to its place being taken by other agencies more suited to present conditions; but there can be no question that at the time it was of inestimable value in nurturing converts and supplying that union of religious and social life which is of such service in fortifying the weak and in drawing men into the normal Christian life.
How profoundly interesting: and how true to the laws of development is tine expansion of this great work in obedience to the life principle within it. Being alive it must grow, and being as yet unshaped to its environment, it must evolve new and suitable organs. The fifth and last step in completing the Methodist economy was Wesley's own invention, forced upon him by the necessities of the great body of "United Societies" which he had created. In 1744 he met with nine others for conference — with a small c – as to how best to conduct the great work of evangelization. From year to year they met for plans, reports, instructions, and soon the lay preachers and the few clergymen who affiliated with them were wrought into that effectual engine of spiritual campaign which we call the "Annual Conference,'' with a big C.
Wesley's Itinerant Life – The Ten Years of Opposition
Those were the achievements of the six years from 1739, when field preaching began and the first Methodist Society was organized, to 1744, when the first Methodist conference met. The forces organized, the general proceeded to his fifty years' campaign with a zeal that never flagged. For the first ten years it was against the frequent brutal violence of mobs, sometimes at the risk of life itself, violence often inspired directly by the magistrates and clergy themselves. Wesley's courage, as calm and firm as the finest soldier's, a courage which his poor preachers likewise illustrated, stood him in good stead. It is my rule, he said, always to face a mob; and many a time the English admiration for pluck won him such friends among brutal rioters that the same crowd that had come to seek his blood bade him goodbye with blessings. As the fruits of his labors became evident city slums where highway robbery had been common in broad daylight were transformed to abodes of peace and decency. As Winchester so strikingly puts it, the material out of which the earlier mobs were composed had to a considerable extent been transformed into Methodists.
We little realize what any great institution of social usefulness, any great movement for the betterment of men, has cost in human labor and sacrifice. For the last fifty years of his life Wesley, by bald, statistical count of sermons, preached an average of fifteen times every week. He rose every morning at four; preached first at five, if among a population who were abroad at that hour. As an example of Wesley's methods we may take the beginning of his work in Newcastle. One May day in 1742 might have been seen a little man riding to the northwards, reading Xenophon's Memorabilia, as his horse jogged along with free rein. Entering Newcastle, Wesley was shocked at the drunkenness and cursing, even among little children, beyond anything he had ever witnessed. Sunday morning he walked to the meanest quarter of the town, and taking his stand, began to sing the hundredth Psalm. Soon a crowd of three or four hundred gathered at the strange spectacle. For the poor to have the gospel preached to them, nay, to have it brought even to them in their abandoned state, was almost as marvelous as to find an angel on the street corner. Before the sermon was over the preacher was surrounded by twelve or fifteen hundred gaping, staring people. Wesley was always marked by his neatness of dress and was by birth and training an English gentleman, in the pure and noble sense which ought to foe the only one in which the word is ever used — circumstances which helped to contribute to the respect he commanded. "If you desire to know who I am," he said at the conclusion of his sermon, "my name is John Wesley. At five in the evening, with God's help, I design to preach here again." The crowd which met him at that hour was numbered by thousands, so that even his strong voice could not reach half of them. After his habit of choosing texts on the love and mercy of God, he preached on, "I will heal their backslidings, I will love them freely." At the conclusion, he was "almost trodden under foot out of pure love and kindness." Societies and class leaders followed. The sight of a fifteen year old girl with only a piece of old blanket for clothing, and scores of others "just not naked" moved his pity. "His religion," says Winchester, "was always blossoming into wise plans for practical benevolence," and in a few weeks he began the great Newcastle Orphanage.
IV. EFFECTS OF WESLEY’S WORK
Transforms Middle and Lower Classes
One hesitates to estimate the power and extent of Wesley's influence, lest it should appear the vain boasting of a follower and partisan. That he saved England from an upheaval similar to the French Revolution, though not necessarily so extreme, can hardly be doubted, a verdict in which Lecky, a great authority on England in the eighteenth century, joins. The bald statistics of the church that he founded, counting 20 millions of members and second only among Protestant bodies to the Episcopal Church from which it sprang and which has been planted as a state church along with the British flag wherever the British empire has extended, is no complete measure of Wesley's influence. That great body of millions of Episcopalians have received since the Reformation no such uplift as that which they experienced in the half century after Wesley's death as the afterwash of the great wave he set in motion; and the High Church movement of Pusey and Newman itself, known as the Oxford movement, could have been wrought but in a field already made mellow by the evangelicalism of the preceding generation.
Leslie Stephen the Episcopalian calls Wesley the greatest captain of men of his century — a century which produced Marlborough and Prince Eugene, Frederick the Great, Bonaparte, the Earl of Chatham and the younger Pitt, Clive and Washington. Wesley, says Macaulay, the Church of England man and one peculiarly free from the touch of religious enthusiasm, had "a genius for government not inferior to that of Richelieu." Augustine Birrell holds that "No other man did such, a life's work for England"; and Lecky, rationalistic philosopher as he was and the most calm and judicious of historians, declares that Wesley's preaching is "of greater historic importance than all the splendid victories on land and sea won under Pitt," the victories, let it be remembered, that won for England the maritime and commercial supremacy of the world; and further, that "It is no exaggeration to say that Wesley had a wider constructive influence in the sphere of practical religion than any other man who has appeared since the sixteenth century"; and that "not only the germs of almost all the existing religious zeal in England on behalf of Christian truth and life are due to Methodism, but the activity stirred up in other portions of Protestant Europe we must trace, indirectly at least, to Wesley." And to conclude these quotations from non-Methodist sources, which might be much longer extended, it was a follower of Cardinal Newman himself who declared that "the bold, aggressive movement, of which Wesley was the symbol, once more made Christianity the teacher of the world."
Basis, or Explanation, of Wesley's Influence
What is the explanation of these statements of Wesley's influence — statements apparently so extravagant that not one of them would be accepted by outsiders from any Methodist authority? The explanation lies in this: That a man of splendid endowments, of exhaustless energy, of undivided purpose and limitless devotion, worked with gifts peculiarly suited to his task, worked for a long lifetime in that field where lie the great issues of life and history, the wellsprings of action and destiny in individuals and nations, the realm of the spiritual. That Wesley was great in many ways cannot be denied; but in all respects but one his century contained many men his equals and in many aspects of greatness his superiors. But they worked in materials which have to do with the externals of life and conduct and pass away with the struggles of the day. History, says Droysen, is the actualization of moral forces; or, says Mace, it is institutional growth. Combined these two ideas give a noble conception of human progress: the actualization of moral forces preserved in institutional form. Judged by this test, we may safely accept the verdict that John Wesley stands as one of the most potent and lasting influences in the history of his times.