The world has seldom witnessed such a tribute as is in evidence today in more than two score countries around the world. In a sense there is a desire to honour the memory of one of the greatest men England ever produced, but it is much more than the desire to do honour. There is apparently an urge to recapture something of the spirit which not only changed but transformed the life of John Wesley.
In 1703 a son, John, was born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley in the Anglican Parsonage home at Epworth, England. The father was for nearly four decades the Vicar of the church in this country community. The brilliant God-fearing mother had a remarkable influence upon all of her children and sent them out from a modest home but one in which a high degree of culture and of character was given to each as an invaluable heritage. John Wesley became a charity boy in Charterhouse School. A recent head-master of the school said proudly, “We count John Wesley as the greatest of many Carthusians”. On the school roster are the names of the poet Addison, the novelist Thackeray and Baden-Powel, Scoutmaster of the World!
Next came a scholarship in Oxford University where John Wesley was soon known as an earnest and intelligent student. Following his graduation he became a Fellow of Lincoln College, was ordained in 1725 as Deacon in the Anglican Church and in 1728, at the age of 25, as presbyter or priest. During his student days he and his brother were members of a small group of serious-minded students who associated themselves together in what was known as “The Holy Club”. They endured jeers from fellow students who considered them a group of impractical dreamers. Undeterred, this group of students sought, in the midst of a period of religious indifference, for a deepening of their Christian faith.
At the age of 32, he and his brother accepted appointment to the new colony in Georgia. Charles’ appointment was as secretary to the founder. Colonel Oglethorpe organised this colony to provide opportunity for English debtors to rebuild their lives in the new world. John went as a missionary to the American Indians, whom he found so unapproachable that it was necessary for him to divert his attention to a ministry among the English colonists. After two years he returned to England in complete despair. His service in Georgia is unquestionably a record of defeat caused primarily because of an inclination to compel people to be religious. The return journey, however, provided a contact with a group of God-fearing people known as the Moravians, who had learned something of the assurance that can be found in the Christian faith. He was deeply impressed by the courage of even the women and children of this group when a terrible winter storm threatened to swamp the tiny sailing vessel. From them he learned that one could experience a relationship with God which could give a satisfying and courageous religious note in many of the churches but his message was not one of attractive power but more the message of a John the Baptist warning the people of their godlessness and of the wrath to come.
William Blackstone, the great jurist, wrote of this period in English life. He made a round of the leading London churches and gave his conclusion as follows: “That he did not hear in any sermon more of Christianity than could be heard in the writings of Cicero; nor could he make out from the content of the preaching whether the preacher was a disciple of Confucius, Mohammed, or Christ!”
The earnestness of purpose on the part of John Wesley could not long go unrewarded. His fine background added to his remarkable university experience both as a student and as fellow of Lincoln College, and his earnest attempts to be of service to the people as a clergyman in the Established Church, were insufficient to make him a vital spiritual influence. Not long since in a pocket in an outlying region of the Levant a traveller found a group of some five thousand people who were followers of John the Baptist but who had not yet, after 19 centuries, heard of the Message of forgiveness of sins and of salvation through Jesus Christ.
On May 24, 1738 John Wesley in the afternoon attended a service in St. Paul’s Cathedral. There the anthem stirred him as the choir chanted the words from the 130th Psalm. “Out of the depths have I called unto Thee”. That same evening, as he records in his diary, he went very unwillingly to a meeting of a small religious society, in Aldersgate Street, London. “I think it was about five this morning that I opened my Testament upon these words: “There are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises, even that ye should be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Just as I went out I opened it again on these words, ‘Thou art not far from the kingdom of God’.
In the afternoon I was asked to go to St. Paul’s. The anthem was ‘Out of the deep have I called unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice. O let Thine ears consider well the voice of my complaint. If Thou, Lord, wilt be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it? For there is mercy with Thee; therefore Thou shalt be feared. O Israel, trust in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He shall redeem Israel from all his sins’. 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.”
A recent biographer describes the evening thus: “With a troop of exultant friends, Mr. Wesley left the little room in Aldersgate Street, and sought out his happy brother in the home of the brazier in little Britain, just around the corner. His two words ‘I believe’, told the good news. The company voiced its rapture by singing the hymn which Charles Wesley had just written, ‘How shall my wondering soul begin’. Prayers of thanksgiving were offered, and then the rejoicing company separated to seek their several homes. Surely, not one of them at that moment realized what this night was to mean to millions of souls, through centuries to come, all round the world”.
The historian Lecky, evaluates that event as follows: “It is scarcely an exaggeration to say, that the scene which took place at that humble meeting in Aldersgate Street forms an epoch in English history. The conviction which they flashed upon one of the most powerful and most active intellects in England, is the true source of English Methodism”.
If Mr. Lecky were writing today he might voice the language of a biographer that this Aldersgate experience was the starting point of a nation-wide and world-wide revival of evangelical Christianity which after two centuries has not yet spent its force.
The significance of this Aldersgate experience, which represented a definite religious conversion for Wesley, is that whereas John Wesley, with all his talents and finished technique, had preached for thirteen years with neglible results, after his experience at the meeting in Aldersgate he preached up and down the land with extraordinary power. Another observer has expressed his experience as follows: He finally and permanently shifted the centre of gravity of his own life from himself to God.”
From that day onward John Wesley began what history records as one of the most remarkable religious expressions. In the course of his labours he travelled, mostly on horseback, 250,000 miles. In this day one could travel in most parts of the world with the same physical effort, two and a half million miles. Between 1738 and the year of his death in 1791, a period of 63 years, this good man preached forty-two thousand sermons, practically all of them out-of-doors or in ordinary halls and living rooms in homes. In the midst of this activity he produced a large amount of literature, much of it original and much of it an editing of the works of others, which he put into the language of the common man. He had these books printed so that the average book would fit into the pocket of the labouring men and at a cost within the reach of his purse.
Perhaps quite naturally the established church failed to appreciate his emphasis, for it was not geared to this kind of Christian interpretation and experience. No understanding Methodist fails to appreciate the close kinship between the Wesleyan evangelical revival and the Anglican Church. Two hundred years ago, it would have been well-nigh impossible for any established church to incorporate the Wesleyan movement as a part of its programme. What has become the Methodist Church throughout the world, owes much to the mother church and is unfailing in its gratitude. The dignity of its ritual and the breadth of its Christian doctrine are carried on in revised form but with clear evidence of the source of their origin. Despite the fact that he was a regularly ordained minister he was even denied the privilege of preaching in his father’s pulpit. The entire community, however, met him in the church-yard, where John Wesley, standing on his father’s grave, gave them his new message and evidenced its unusual power. His denunciation of sin and wickedness naturally brought out much ill-will and frequently mobs threatened him and now and again actually did him serious bodily injury. Despite all opposition, people by the thousand listened to this changed voice which represented a miracle of spiritual power.
In the “New Room” in Bristol which was the first building the Methodist groups acquired, one can still see the exit where a preacher could make a hurried departure from the pulpit before the members of a disagreeing congregation would be able to lay hold upon him. One’s imagination is fired when he is privileged to visit the Cathedral in Bristol where Bishop Butler sleeps, and then goes from that stately building to the modest New Room which has become a shrine for interested Methodists. One cannot stand and gaze upon the lovely bronze statue there, of John Wesley on horseback, without recalling what the travels of this man on his horse meant to England. To a Methodist preacher who is permitted to ascend the steps of the pulpit in the City Road Chapel London and to attempt to preach to the assembled congregation, there is much stirring of emotion as he remembers the voice that formerly spoke from that same sacred desk.
John Buchan (Lord Tweedsmuir) has ren- dered a service of a high order in giving to us his recent biography of Oliver Cromwell. This great man’s death occured less than half a century before the birth of John Wesley. The picture of the British Isles in those days reveals the several peoples as floundering in their attempt to establish a secure basis for a social, religious and political order.
Wesley visited Scotland twenty times—a long and wearisome journey from the Foundery or the New Room. He admired the Scottish people, though they were slow in responding to his appeals. I am sure that our Scotch friends will understand the kindly spirit with which the following paragraph is added. This is Wesley’s comment following those visits. “Among all the sins they have imported from England, the Scots have not yet learned—at least the common people—to scoff at sacred things.” “Yet”, he remarked, “there is seldom fear of wanting a congregation in Scotland. But the misfortune is, that they know everything, so they learn nothing”.
By Bishop Edwin F. Lee
The Malaysia Message
Vol. 48 No. 6
To be continued in the next issue