Dark Nights and Wonders Part V: Wesley

Dark Nights and Wonders

‘Wesley was persuaded by George Whitefield—that field preaching (open air) was the best way to reach people, especially the working classes, who had almost nothing to do with the church. Consequently, the next day, a thirty-six year old Wesley stood by his father’s grave and preached his first ever open air sermon. What is now knows as The Great Awakening was born … ‘ but for the Wesleys and their friends it was going to be a baptism of fire.

‘For the next three decades, magistrates, squires and clergy turned a blind eye to the drunken and brutal attacks by mobs and gangs on Wesley and his supporters … Time after time, the Wesleys and Whitefield narrowly escaped death and several of their fellow preachers were attacked and their houses set on fire.’

‘Thousands of times Wesley suffered both verbal and physical attack but never once did he lose his temper. If he was hit by a missile he would wipe the blood away and respectfully continue preaching. He was known for loving his enemies and try as they might they were unable to make him discourteous or angry.

‘Hundreds of anti-revival publications appeared, as did regular, inaccurate and scurrilous newspaper reports and articles. But the most virulent attacks, not surprisingly, came from the priests, who referred to Wesley as “That Methodist,” “that enthusiast,” “that mystery of iniquity,” “a diabolical seducer, and an impostor and fanatic.”

‘After a few years, wanting to set out his wares in plain, rational, and scriptural terms, Wesley wrote a pamphlet in which he declared, “It is the plain old Christianity that I teach.” His paramount purpose was to make men and women conscious of God.’ And he was convinced that the library of sixty six book full of stories we call the bible was a major instrument in that process because it’s main purpose was to show sinners that they could find their way back to God via the sacrifice and resurrection of Easter.

In his book The Book That Made Your World, Mangalwadi says ‘Wesley understood that individual redemption leads to social regeneration.’ Soon what Wesley called ‘Societies’ were formed but he did not see these as a substitute for the church. He remained an Anglican clergyman for most of his life until he began to ordain ministers of the Methodist Church.’

‘It is no exaggeration to say that Wesley (along with his brother Charles and friend George Whitefield) instilled into the British people a new concept of heroism. His tranquil dignity, the absence of malice and anger, and above all, the evidence of God’s spirit working in his life, eventually disarmed his enemies and won them for Christ.
Soldiers, sailors, miners, fishermen, smugglers, industrial workers, thieves,’ and all kinds of men, women and children in their thousands would listen attentively, take off their hats and—overcome with emotion—surrender their lives to Jesus as Messiah. For more than fifty years Wesley fed the bible … to drink-sodden, brutalised and neglected multitudes.’11

‘Wesley travelled a quarter of a million miles on horseback, in all weather, night and day, up and down and across England … During these travels he composed his commentary on the bible verse by verse, wrote hundreds of letters, kept a daily journal from 1735 to the year before his death in 1791, and wrote some of the 330 books that were published in his lifetime.’

‘He composed English, French, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew grammars. He edited many books for the general education of his preachers and congregations, which became the fifty volumes of his famous Christian library: republished by the Wesley Centre online.’

‘This cultured man, keen theologian, and esteemed intellectual warned his preachers that one could “never be a deep preacher without extensive reading, any more than a thorough Christian.” Every preacher was made a distributor and seller of books and was expected to have mastered the contents. The Encyclopaedia Britannica says of Wesley in this regard that “no man in the eighteenth century did so much to create a taste for good reading and to supply it with books, at the lowest prices.”
Wesley’s book Rules for a Helper gives a sampling of the cultural influences he diffused in Britain …

‘ “Never be unemployed for a moment; believe evil of no one; speak evil of no one; a preacher of the gospel is a servant of all; be ashamed of nothing but sin; be punctual; you will need all the (common) sense you have to have your wits about you.”
‘Thirteen years before the Abolition Committee was formed to end the slave trade, he published his thoughts upon slavery: a graphic, vehement, and penetrating treatise denouncing this “horrid trade” as a national disgrace. He kept up his attack upon slavery until the end of his life. The last letter he wrote being to William Wilberforce, an evangelical member of parliament who led a lifelong campaign to abolish the slave trade.’

‘By the same token, Wesley deplored the stupidity of war, especially Britain’s war with the American colonies. He frequently wrote about the use and abuse of money and privilege. He wore inexpensive clothes and dined on the plainest fare, not spending more than thirty pounds a year on his personal needs. But his clothes were always spotless, his shoes were always shined, and he never wore a wig.’
‘Wesley supported fair prices, a living wage, and honest and healthy employment for all. There is no question but that he was more familiar with the life of the poor than any other public figure of his age … “Give none that asks relief an ill word or an ill look. Do not hurt them,” he would say.

‘He strongly campaigned against bribery and corruption at election time … fearlessly criticised aspects of the penal system and prisons. Thereby paving the way for reformers John Howard and Elizabeth Fry. He depicted prisons as “nurseries of all manner of wickedness.” He campaigned against the near-medieval methods of medicine and agitated for funeral reform.

‘He worked for vocational training for the unemployed, raise money to clothe and feed prisoners, to buy food, medicine, fuel and tools for the helpless and aged; founded a Benevolent Loan Fund and Stranger’s Friend Society.’

With the help of his brother Charles he “caused England to sing”. Charles wrote between eight and nine thousand poems, of which eight thousand became hymns, which were set to popular tunes of the day. ‘And hundreds of thousands of those who sang his hymn, “My chains fell off, my heart was free,” were singing not only about their salvation but also about the chains of alcohol, abuse, hunger and poverty.’

‘The Great Awakening gave to the entire English speaking world its richest ever heritage of poetical and sacred songs and an understanding of hymns as literature, as history, as theology. Other fine poets also emerged during this period and during the nineteenth century, including William Cowper, Isaac watts and John Newton … ‘

‘The bible, which during the early eighteenth century had been a closed book … became the Book of Books. Britain was saved from lapsing into infidelity.’ ‘John Wesley died as he had lived … no coach or hearse was needed for his funeral for he had given instructions that six poor men—in need of employment—might be given a pound each to carry his body to the grave.

‘In the first decades of his service, his arrival and that of his followers in any town or village was the signal for a violent uprising. But for the last ten of his eighty eight years, it is no exaggeration to say that Wesley was the most respected and beloved figure in Britain.’12

11 Managalwadi V. The Book That Made Your World p:266 – Thomas Nelson 2011

12 Ibid pp: 270

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