Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. * In the July 2004 issue, p. 427, Wesley’s birthdate was incorrectly given as 1723. The correct date is 1703.
John Wesley was born in the early part of the eighteenth century.* He was born and baptized in the Church of England or Anglican Church, in which his father was a rector in the parish of Epworth. His life was a struggle to attain holiness, but the quest of holiness led him into paths of mysticism. While many different influences turned him towards mysticism, it was especially his reading of the medieval mystics that shaped his life. He came to love the medieval mystics, although he repudiated some of their teachings later in his career. Much of his life prior to becoming a traveling evangelist was spent in Oxford University, where he, his brother Charles, and others organized and maintained the Oxford Holy Club. The efforts and struggles towards holiness that engaged the members brought them the mocking name “Methodists,” because of the methodical and sometimes plodding path of good works in which they attempted to walk. These struggles culminated in the Aldersgate St. experience, where Wesley thought he was at last converted.
Wesley’s Itinerant Ministry
Shortly after his conversion, Wesley began to preach more actively than he had before, even though it was sometime earlier that he had been ordained a deacon. That a deacon preached, while strange to us, was and is common practice in the Church of England, where deacons have a different role than in Reformed church polity.
Wesley’s preaching differed markedly from that of the bishops, curates, and rectors in the Church of England. We must remember that the Church of England was the established church and that all the citizens of the commonwealth were technically members of, or at least under the supervision of, the church. When Wesley began his preaching, the religious and spiritual state of the church was very low. Wesley’s father, Samuel, had learned that it was almost impossible to get any religion into the heads and hearts of the churlish, stubborn, unruly, violent, and uneducated members of his parish. That condition prevailed throughout most country parishes. While in the cities people tended to have more education (with the exception of the poor, whose life in the cities was still more cruel and debased than that of their fellow citizens in the country), those with education were worldly, cynically sophisticated, interested only in a religion that allowed them to be confirmed in the church, to be married in the church, to bring their children to the church to be baptized, and to be buried in a church graveyard.
The ministers were not much better. They received their livings from the holdings in the parishes, were more humanistic renaissance men than learned in the Scriptures, and were followers of Erasmus and other renaissance scholars rather than servants of Christ. A “good sermon” was usually considered to be a learned discourse on some aspect of ethics or philosophy with copious quotes from a wide variety of secular writings, preferably from ancient Greek and Roman authors.
Wesley was right that little holiness could be found anywhere in the church. Wesley was also right that holiness, above all, was pleasing to God. It was his theology of holiness that was far removed from the teaching of the sacred Scriptures. It was a holiness that came from man’s own efforts and not from the cross of Jesus Christ.
In sharp contrast with current preaching in the Church of England, Wesley began to pattern his preaching after the medieval mystics, especially those of the late fifteenth century who lived in the Rhine River valley. He stressed the necessity of the new birth and the endeavor to attain holiness. His preaching was not well received in the church, and an increasing number of churches were closed to him. One can well mark this closure of churches to Wesley as the beginning of the Methodist Movement.
At a loss as to what to do, he seized quickly on an invitation from George Whitefield to come to Bristol and work with him. Whitefield had developed into a preacher in his own right, but in the Western parts of England and in Wales. He had, however, never gone in the direction of mysticism and Arminianism, but had become a rather staunch Calvinist. He had adopted the method of preaching called “open-air preaching,” by which ministers would preach to crowds assembled almost anywhere — in fields, streets, graveyards, and forests. Although somewhat skeptical at first, Wesley soon saw the effectiveness of this method, especially when church doors were closed to him. Wesley soon became England’s most famous itinerant open-air evangelist.
It has been estimated that Wesley traveled nearly a quarter of a million miles (approximately ten times around the earth at the equator) and preached in excess of forty thousand times. His travel was usually on horseback, although sometimes afoot. It was travel over unimaginably rough roads, filled with holes and boulders, slippery and treacherous when wet and dusty when dry. He traveled in all kinds of weather, during every season of the year, and usually was reading a book as his horse plodded along. He preached almost every day and most of the time two or three times a day.
Wesley’s Relation to Women
Wesley’s relation with women was strange. He was a close friend of Lady Huntingdon, a wealthy lady who was a supporter of the work of Wesley and Whitefield. He nearly married another woman, even traveling with her across the Irish Sea to Ireland. She was his close confidant and personal friend, and Wesley seemed intent on making her his wife. Through a combination of strange circumstances and another man who pressed his suit, the marriage never took place. When Wesley finally did marry, the marriage was most unhappy. He was seldom home, traveling throughout the whole of Great Britain on behalf of the gospel. His wife, embittered, and rightly so, by his constant absences, and rather sour by nature, tended to be an example of Solomon’s proverb that a nagging woman is worse than a continual dripping of water.
Wesley’s Relation to the Church
Wesley’s relation to the Church of England was also a strange one. He remained all his life in the Church of England and always considered himself a faithful son of the church. When separation from the church was suggested, he refused to do so. The church was antagonistic to Wesley and closed its doors to his ministry, but never disciplined or censured him. It permitted him to conduct his ministry freely without official ecclesiastical censure.
This relationship becomes yet more strange when we consider that Wesley’s movement, though it remained in the church during Wesley’s lifetime, was a separate movement. It had its own chapels and its own organization. Wesley ordained ministers to serve in the organized churches. In fact, contrary to the law of the Church of England, Wesley ordained women. No Methodist chapel would endure the presence of a Church of England prelate on its pulpit, and no Church of England parish would even consider having a Methodist minister on its pulpit. But both were part of the same denomination.
No one would deny that Wesley was busy. He never took vacation and considered any idle moment as a sin. He may have been the
busiest man in England. He traveled almost constantly, generally on horseback, preaching twice or thrice a day. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered discipline, raised funds for schools, chapels, and charities, prescribed for the sick, superintended schools and orphanages, prepared commentaries and a vast amount of other religious literature, replied to attacks on Methodism, conducted controversies, and carried on a prodigious correspondence.
Wesley was no stranger to opposition and persecution. He and his preachers often had to face mobs and unruly crowds incited to violence by local prelates of the church and magistrates. Not only were the mobs noisy in efforts to disrupt the meetings, but sometimes things got so badly out of hand that injuries resulted from mob action. Wesley’s ministry was particularly among the poor, the working class — miners, diggers, industrial workers — and the uneducated. These people were frequently stirred up to hatred by the authorities and considered violence against preachers a worthwhile diversion from the daily grind of their lives. But as the Methodist movement spread and grew, and as these itinerant preachers became more common, opposition decreased and finally died altogether.
Wesley’s Relation to Others
Although Wesley had many helpers, fellow ministers, and close friends throughout England, four men especially are important to understand his work.
The first is John’s brother Charles. Charles was, with John, a member of the Oxford Club. He continued to be close to his brother, one who preached himself, an assistant to John, and a traveling companion. He never attained the popularity of John, but is better known as the hymn writer of the Methodist movement. Some of his hymns, familiar to this day, gave vigor and spark to the movement, but also directed the thinking of the people in Arminian paths. There is no easier way to introduce heresy into the minds of people than through singing. Even of the Arminians of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in the Netherlands it was said that they sang their way into the church.
The second man of note is Howell Harris, well known in Welsh Protestantism. He was an associate and close friend of Wesley, but a consistent Calvinist. Wesley’s Arminianism was the direct opposite of the theology of Harris, and the two parted ways. Howell Harris is known as the father of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church.
The third man of note is George Whitefield. His own life would be worth recounting. He was a man of unusual oratorical abilities, to which field preaching was ideally suited. Whitefield traveled frequently to America; sparked, along with Jonathan Edwards, the New England revivals in the early eighteenth century, before this country fought its war for independence; and was acquainted with, if not a friend of, Benjamin Franklin. He, along with Howell Harris, is considered the father of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church. Whitefield too was a Calvinist, and his Calvinism was the occasion for a temporary split with Wesley. The story is worth telling.
While Whitefield was in America, he embraced New England Calvinism. Wesley preached a sermon on Free Grace, in which he repudiated predestination as a blasphemous doctrine that made God worse than Satan. Whitefield urged him not to publish the sermon or repeat it, but Wesley did both. This led to separation between them. Wesley charged that not only did the Calvinists hold to predestination, both election and reprobation, but also to particular atonement instead of universal redemption. This to Wesley was anathema.
But it was not long before the two were friends again. Whitefield, however, was the compromiser. While never forsaking his Calvinism, already before his split with Wesley he had said, “Let us offer salvation freely to all,” and be silent on election. Silence is also a denial of God’s truth, whatever a man may hold in his mind. And so, both were soon on friendly terms and they remained such throughout their lives, although they traveled different paths. Wesley was a teacher of false doctrine, but Whitefield was the grand compromiser, willing to sell his convictions for the price of peace with a heretic.
The fourth man was Augustus Toplady, the author of the hymn Rock of Ages. He and Wesley were sworn enemies. The issue here too was Calvinism and especially the truth of election and reprobation. Lady Huntingdon already came to our notice (earlier in the article). Her sympathies tended to be with the Calvinists more than the Arminians. When six students sympathetic to Lady Huntingdon were expelled from the Methodist movement, Toplady entered the fray with a strong defense of God’s sovereign and double predestination.
This so infuriated Wesley that he wrote a slanderous and blasphemous caricature of predestination and published it over Toplady’s name. Part of it read:
The sum of all is this: One in twenty (suppose) of mankind are elected; nineteen in twenty are reprobated. The elect shall be saved, do what they will; the reprobate shall be damned, do what they can. Reader, believe this, or be damned. Witness my hand. Augustus Toplady.
The debate was furious and the pamphlets many in number. But one thing the controversy brought out: Wesley was thoroughly Arminian and wanted nothing of the doctrines of grace.
We will examine his doctrine a bit more in the next article.