(This is the third post in a series. The previous post is here).
In the year 1729 a very strange society began to meet in the rooms of John Wesley, a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. It became known as the Holy Club, and its members included John’s brother Charles, George Whitefield, and a number of other young men, all of whom were ordained clergy of the Church of England (ordination was required in those days for Fellows at Oxford and Cambridge). These young men began to meet regularly to study the Greek New Testament and the works of the Church Fathers, to pray and to encourage each other. They made strict rules of life for themselves, celebrated Holy Communion together regularly, and did work among the needy and destitute.
This disciplined way of life attracted much ridicule from other members of the university, and their methodical lifestyle gave the group the name which would stick to them in the future: ‘Methodists’. It would be a mistake, however, to see them at this period in their history as being a type of proto-evangelical; they had not yet come to understand either the Gospel of grace or the nature of Christian conversion. It is said of John Wesley at this time that, on being asked to go to speak to a man who was about to be hanged, he refused. His reason was that the man would not have adequate time for the amendment of life which was necessary for anyone wishing to become a Christian. Looking back on this period later in his life, Wesley described it as ‘the faith of servants, but not of sons’.
Eventually John and Charles Wesley, along with George Whitefield, volunteered to go to the American colonies as chaplains. While he was in Georgia, John attempted to enforce a church discipline which was far beyond anything the colonists had ever experienced before, a discipline based on his reading of the early Church Fathers. This aroused great resentment among the colonists, and there was also a badly managed love affair which did great damage to his ministry. After only a few years, John returned from Georgia in despair; he is said to have remarked “I went to convert the Indians, but who will convert me?”
On the journey home across the Atlantic, John encountered some Moravian Christians, and was deeply impressed by their sense of peace and serenity. When he arrived back in London he continued his conversations with the Moravians. His spiritual search came to a head on May 24th 1738. Let’s listen to his description of that evening:
‘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 to 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 that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death’.
Wesley soon began to preach this message, but it aroused great opposition in the Established Church, and very quickly he found church doors closed to him. Then George Whitefield, who had experienced a similar conversion, invited Wesley to join him in Bristol where he was preaching to huge crowds of miners in the open air. Reluctantly at first, but soon with growing enthusiasm, Wesley joined him, and so began his life’s work.
It is estimated that John Wesley rode over 250,000 miles during his lifetime, preaching many times a day in fields, marketplaces, and village squares. Crowds of people were hungry for this message of personal faith in Christ, and thousands were converted up and down the length and breath of England. He organised these new believers into small groups known as ‘class meetings’, where they would experience fellowship, teaching, and accountability. Members of these meetings had to agree to strict standards of personal prayer, Bible reading and Christian service. From these class meetings came the lay preachers who soon joined John in the work of travelling evangelism. John’s brother Charles was a talented poet who wrote thousands of hymns for the new movement. Hymn singing, by the way, was a radical idea in those days, at least as controversial as was bringing rock music into church in my youth!
The movement encountered a great deal of opposition, some of it, sadly, from the Established Church. There are stories of local clergy hiring drunken mobs to attack Wesley and break up his meetings. The Church didn’t know what to do with the movement; there is a famous quote from a meeting between Wesley and Bishop Joseph Butler in which the good bishop remarked ‘Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing – a very horrid thing’. There is not time in this post to go into all the sad circumstances which led to the break with the Church of England; suffice it to say that eventually the Church lost the Methodist movement, which became a new branch of nonconformity in England.
However, not all of those who believed as Wesley believed left the Established Church. Many stayed, preaching and living the message within the structures of the Church of England. At first, they took for themselves the description of ‘Gospel’ people, but later they became almost universally known as ‘evangelicals’. To their story we must turn in the next post in this series.