JOHN WESLEY was undoubtedly one of the outstanding Anglicans of the 18th century, and yet he was driven out of the Church and, against his wishes, became the founder of a new sect. For the Church that rejected him, this was
a disaster. It was not entirely the fault of the clergy who closed their doors to him, however. Wesley himself must carry much of the blame.
He preached, he said, “the plain old religion of the Church of England, which is now almost everywhere spoken against under the new name of Methodism”. The difference was that he took the duties of prayer and Bible-reading, as well as the sacrament of holy communion, more seriously than many of his contemporary clergy.
His personal piety was grounded in Anglican tradition. He studied the early Fathers, and was influenced by the writings of, among others, St Thomas à Kempis, Thomas Ken, George Herbert, Jeremy Taylor, and William Law. He followed a rule of life anchored in daily prayer, Bible study, and charitable works.
He wrote: “I set apart an hour or two a day for religious retirement. I communicated every week. . . I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed. I began to aim at and pray for inward holiness.”
In the organisation of his followers, he adopted many of the practices of the Moravians, a German Protestant sect whom he had encountered during his time as chaplain in the new colony of Georgia in America. A prominent feature was the division of each local Methodist congregation into small “bands” of members who met weekly for mutual edification. From these, he recruited a local leadership. He established a national network of “circuits” of local societies, governed by a quarterly meeting of leaders. These, in turn, were governed by the annual Conference.
Wesley revealed himself increasingly as a disciplinarian. In 1741, he recorded: “At the bands’ meeting at Bristol, I read over the names of the United Society, being determined that no disorderly person should remain therein. . . About forty were by this means separated from us; I trust for a season.”
What singled him out from the other clergy of the day, and drew down on him in many instances their anger and derision, was his manner of preaching. He preached with a burning conviction. “Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.” This was the advice he had received from a Moravian preacher, Peter Böhler.
His style of preaching has been described as “controlled and lucid
. . . practical and personal . . . carefully phrased and rationally argued” (V. H. H. Green, John Wesley). It was quite different from the histrionic rhetoric of one of his contemporaries, George Whitefield.
Although he did not invite it, his preaching, whether in crowded and emotionally charged meeting-rooms, or in the open air, evoked extraordinary emotional scenes. He recorded how, during one meeting, the groans and cries of the congregation were so audible that he could hardly be heard; at another, there were even more alarming reactions when “Immediately one, and another, and another sank to the earth; they dropped on every side as thunderstruck.”
The reaction of parish clergy was not universally hostile. At first, there were many who welcomed him to their pulpits. In his turn, he always encouraged his followers to attend their parish church, especially to receive the sacrament. He also arranged, where possible, meetings at time that did not clash with services at the parish church. But there were many clergy who excluded him. Even at Epworth, where his father had been Rector, the curate banned him, instructing the clerk: “Pray tell Mr Wesley I shall not give him the sacrament, for he is not fit.”
And so, in defiance, Wesley preached to Mr Romilly’s congregation in the churchyard, standing on his father’s tomb.
The effectiveness of his evangelism was astonishing. The response to his preaching, and to the pastoral organisation that he created, was undeniable evidence of a spiritual hunger that the Church of England, in the 18th century, was failing to feed.
The Bishops were uncertain how to meet the challenge of Methodism. Archbishop John Potter, who had been sympathetic to the Wesley brothers when he had been Bishop of Oxford, showed them “great affection”, and cautioned them to keep to the doctrines of the Church. When Wesley asked Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, whether his religious societies were illegal conventicles, the reply was vague: “I think not, but I determine nothing. Read the acts and laws on the subject for yourselves.”
People remembered Bishop Butler’s remark to Wesley about Whitefield: “Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Ghost is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing,” but they forgot the occasions, or they never knew, when he intervened in his own diocesan court to mitigate the penalties that the followers of Methodism had incurred, and when he had allowed those of his clergy who sympathised with the new movement to offer Whitefield their pulpits.
“The bishops have let us alone”, Charles Wesley wrote to his brother, “and left us to act just as we pleased for these fifty years.”
Sadly, this relaxed attitude was not reciprocated. When Bishop Butler pointed out that Wesley had not applied to him for a licence to preach in his diocese, Wesley replied provocatively (and incorrectly) that he needed no licence, as his fellowship at the university was sufficient.
It was not doctrine that eventually forced a schism; for on that score Wesley’s Methodism could have been easily contained within the Church of England. It was Wesley’s disregard for church order which, in the end, drove the Methodists out.
“What is the end of ecclesiastical order?” he had asked. “Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God? And to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable, as it answers to these ends.”
And, as the Methodists at Bristol discovered, in Wesley’s eyes it was he himself, not the bishops or the Church, who made the decisions.
When, in 1784, Bishop Lowth, of London, rejected Wesley’s request that he ordain priests to serve in the American former colonies, Wesley ordained them himself. He argued that, since independence, the Bishop of London’s jurisdiction in the United States had lapsed.
He also said that, in the Primitive Church, the orders of bishop and priest were one, and so by virtue of his priesthood he had the power to ordain. For many, including his brother Charles, this was a step too far.
After 53 years of indefatigable labour, after travelling 250,000 miles up and down the country, and after preaching 40,000 sermons, John
had built a distinct, autonomous, and vigorous ecclesial body — but one that, by his actions, no longer had a place within the Established Church.
JOHN WESLEY (1703-91), priest and evangelist
John was the 15th child of Samuel Wesley, the Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, and his wife, Susannah. He was educated at Charterhouse, and Christ Church, Oxford. Ordained to a fellowship of Lincoln College, he joined his younger brother, Charles, in the “Holy Club”: a society of undergraduates based at Christ Church, which was the start of what became the Methodist Movement. He travelled to America, where for two years he was chaplain to the British settlers in the new colony of Georgia. After returning to England and undergoing a conversion experience in 1738, he devoted himself to the life of an itinerant preacher. To him must be credited the birth of the Methodist Church, although he claimed that separation from the Church of England was never his intention. He died on 2 March 1791. The Church commemorates him and his brother Charles on 24 May.