In a sermon broadcast via Radio Eireann on Conference Sunday (16th June 1985) Rev. Hamilton Skillen, President of our Church in Ireland, said: "Church history has been dotted with moments which came alive because someone discovered something that the Church had lost. The Church is infamous for losing its priceless doctrines. It is when we rediscover what has been lost that we enter into new periods of reformation. . . ."
Such a moment of reawakening occurred in England in the late 1730s when a mighty outpouring of God's Holy Spirit came down and commenced to influence thousands of souls. At that time the religious climate in these islands was extremely bleak. The nation may have had a high reputation for its military prowess, its philosophy, poetry, and literature, but irreligion, vice and depravity were prevalent throughout the community. Moreover, the vast majority of clergy did not preach justification by faith or believe that religion should be a vital, living experience of receiving Christ and knowing that He dwelt within. It was in these conditions that God raised up three young ordained clergymen of the Church of England to proclaim His message to all who would listen. Their names were John and Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield.
The Wesleys' father, Rev. Samuel Wesley, was rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire. Their paternal grandfather had been a Dissenting minister, as also had their maternal grandfather, Dr. Samuel Annesley. Their mother was a resolute lady of strong, moral convictions, who certainly believed the proverb 'Spare the rod and spoil the child'. Although both parents were convinced Anglicans there was a strong puritanical influence in the home environment at Epworth, and the children were taught to seek holiness and a wholehearted devotion to God.
George Whitefield's father kept a hostelry in Gloucester, The Bell Inn, but he died when George, the youngest of several children, was only two years old. Their mother retained the Inn, and as George grew up it became evident that he possessed a beautiful, strong speaking voice, and for a while his passion was for the stage. The Church was in his blood too, however, as several of his ancestors had been clergymen, and George eventually went up to Oxford with a view to ordination. He entered the University as a servitor, whereby he received his education as payment for waiting on the wealthier undergraduates.
It was at Oxford in 1733 that the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield first met. At this juncture John was Fellow of Lincoln College, and Charles was Junior Tutor to Christ Church; George had just completed his first year at Pembroke College. A few years earlier, in 1729, Charles had started a religious society which was nicknamed the 'Holy Club'. He had been concerned about the state of religion at Oxford as, apart from general apathy, false doctrines and infidelity were creeping in. The Vice-Chancellor had issued a circular urging tutors to inform their pupils of their Christian duty, and to recommend frequent and careful reading of the scriptures. Charles thereupon decided to follow the directives to the letter and commenced attending the weekly sacrament, encouraging students to accompany him. They also met each evening to study the Greek New Testament. John joined the group and soon emerged as leader, serving as tutor to his brother and little circle of friends. Their activities extended to visiting the sick and dying, preaching in the prisons, and helping financially with the education of the prisoners' children. By 1733 they were known not only as the Holy Club but other names such as "Enthusiasts" and "Methodists". George Whitefield was aware of the existence of this society and he longed to join but was too shy to approach. He know they sought to save their souls by being good and doing good, and he also desired to be on the heavenward way. When he first met with Charles Wesley on that October day in 1733 Charles gave him a warm invitation to the next meeting of the group. So began a friendship and fellowship with the Wesleys that was to have far-reaching effects.
In spite of all these worthy pursuits, however, they were
still strangers to the joys of pardon. George was the first to experience
the 'new birth'. In the spring of 1735 after much fasting and self-denial he
became ill, and it was whilst reading a devotional book on the New Testament
that the 'open secret' flashed upon his mind. He realized that Christ had
already borne the burden of his sins: all he had to do was to cease
struggling and cast himself without reserve into God's almighty hands. He
was immediately filled with an unspeakable joy. He states: "I was delivered
from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me. The spirit of mourning was
taken from me, and I knew what it was truly to rejoice in God my Saviour."
Three years later John and Charles were to undergo similar experiences. At the end of 1735 they sailed for America to the newly-founded colony of Georgia to minister to the English settlers and Red Indians, but John returned in two years (Charles some time earlier), both feeling dejected, with a sense of having failed in their mission. John had been impressed by the conduct of some Moravians on the journey to Georgia. They had tried to help him to an understanding of the way of grace through faith, but he said later: "I understood it not at first. I was too learned and too wise so that it seemed foolishness unto me."2 Shortly after his return to England he made the acquaintance of a young Moravian minister, Peter Böhler, recently arrived from Germany and shortly to leave for Georgia, and they spent much time in discussion about spiritual matters. This was a providential encounter. Perhaps no one was better suited to help John in his dilemma. For years he had been striving after holiness of life, trying to establish his own righteousness, but Peter Böhler showed him that faith in Christ had to come first, and holiness must follow.
During the early months of 1738 Charles was seriously ill with pleurisy and Böhler held several serious conversations with him also. At the beginning of May their new friend had to leave for America, and on Whit Sunday, 21st May, Charles experienced peace and joy through believing.
We can imagine that John would be feeling despondent that he had not yet received this gift. On the morning of 24th May he awoke early and, according to his usual custom, began reading in the Greek New Testament. The words were from II Peter, 1: "Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature." Before going out he opened his Testament again and this time read: "Thou art not far from the kingdom of God" (Mark 12, 34). He attended evensong at St. Paul's, London, and heard the choir sing Psalm 130: "Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, 0 Lord", which echoed the yearnings of his own soul. Later he went to a meeting of a religious society in Aldersgate Street where someone described the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ. He recorded: "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." In the late evening he went to visit Charles who was still convalescing, to tell him what had happened. Charles wrote: "Towards ten, my brother was brought in triumph by a troop of our friends, and declared 'I believe.' We sang the hymn with great joy and departed with prayer."3 The hymn which he refers to had just been written in honour of his own experience, and is now known as the Wesleys' Conversion Hymn. That memorable day was a watershed in the life of John Wesley.
In December 1738 they had a joyful reunion in London with George Whitefield who had just come back from America. In January of that year, as John was returning unexpectedly to England from Georgia, George was leaving to go and minister in that colony. Now he was back to be ordained; he also hoped to raise some money to build an orphanage in Savannah and to return there where he was to be rector. It was three and a half years since John and George had met, and although they had corresponded there was plenty of scope for conversation. During the Christmas season they had much fellowship together, and on the evening of New Year's Day (or rather the early morning of 2nd January) they had a wonderful visitation of the Holy Spirit: it seemed like another Pentecost. It happened at a meeting of a religious society in Fetter Lane, off Fleet Street, attended by the Wesleys and Whitefield, together with four other members of the original Oxford club and about sixty members of the society. John recorded: "About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty we broke out with one voice, `We praise Thee, 0 God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord'.4 Soon afterwards a conference was held at Islington church by the seven former members of the Oxford society (all ordained men) and George wrote afterwards that "everything was carried on with great love, meekness and devotion. We parted with a full conviction that God was going to do great things among us."
There had been signs of revival in Bristol under George Whitefield's
preaching before his departure to America. In February 1739 he returned to
his native west country, preaching en route. He called with Mrs. Susanna
Wesley (mother of John and Charles) who was staying at Salisbury; her
husband, Rev. Samuel Wesley, had died in 1735. Writing later to her son
Samuel she stated: "Mr. Whitefield has been making a progress through these
parts to make a collection for a house in Georgia for orphans . . . He came
hither to see me, and we talked about your brothers. I told him I did not
like their way of living, wished them in some place of their own, wherein
they might regularly preach, etc. He replied I could not conceive the good
they did in London; that the greatest part of our clergy were asleep, and
that there never was a greater need for itinerant preachers than now."5
On arrival at Bristol George was refused permission to preach in the large church there where so many had crowded to hear him previously. The Wesleys were encountering similar opposition in London, due to their forthright preaching. At Kingswood, a few miles outside Bristol, there were coal mines. The colliers were rough, illiterate, and notoriously wicked men; they lived in shacks near the mines and were disregarded by the clergy. George determined to bring God's Word to these men, and it had to be done in the open air. He commenced as they left the pits and the colliers must have been astonished to see this young clergyman preaching, standing on a hill. He received a good hearing and later they sent a messenger with a request that he would return and preach at an arranged time. Very soon many were converted, and plans were being made to have a school erected for their children.6
George Whitefield was a most eloquent preacher with the ability to dramatize his theme, and he could hold the attention of multitudes. When it became known that he was preaching out-of-doors great crowds flocked from Bristol and the surrounding district to hear him. One Sunday afternoon towards the end of March the congregation was estimated at around 23,000. He later described the scene: "The open firmament above me, the prospect of the adjacent fields with the sight of thousands and thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback and some in the trees, and at times all affected and drenched in tears together, to which was added the solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much and quite overcame me." Since he was due to return to Georgia soon and feeling the burden of responsibility for the many converts, he wrote to John Wesley in London, entreating him to come to Bristol without delay. He knew John would ensure that those young in the faith would be gathered together for instruction and fellowship.
John Wesley rode into Bristol on Saturday, 31st March, just two days before his friend departed. The following day he accompanied George as he preached farewell sermons to vast crowds. John wrote in his diary: "1 could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he (Whitefield) set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that 1 should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church."7 On the day of Whitefield's departure he wrote: "At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile . . . proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation." Like Whitefield, he realized that the then obsolete practice in England of open-air preaching was the only means of reaching the unchurched masses.
Although Wesley's style of preaching was very different from that of Whitefield's — it has been said that at first he used to read his sermons — yet multitudes came and the revival intensified. The converts and enquirers were gathered into societies for spiritual help. They met in private houses, and at these meetings there were unusual, even startling happenings, and Wesley described them in his diary. People would sometimes call out loudly 'with the utmost vehemence' and continue to do so; others would be 'seized with a violent trembling all over' and fall to the ground seemingly unconscious. At first it was said it was the heat of the rooms that caused this, but in a few weeks these extraordinary scenes were being witnessed in the open air as well. In all instances Wesley and others would continue in prayer for those afflicted until they were released from their fears. Wesley, writing to his brother Samuel, said that he did not judge his work by the strange phenomena that occurred in these early days of the revival, but by the change in people's lives. "I will show you him that was a lion till then, now a lamb; him that was a drunkard, and is now exemplarily sober; the whoremonger that was who now abhors the very garment spotted by the flesh. These are my living arguments for what I assert." 8 (These phenomena occurred during the Ulster revival of 1859, and the revival in the Maze area in 1851, as will be seen later.) Soon the numbers in the societies were so large that a building needed to be erected, and before Wesley left Bristol in June a foundation stone had been laid for the first Methodist Society Room (or preaching-house), and also a foundation stone for the school at Kingswood for the miners' children.
This was the beginning of the Revival which for years was to
spread and grow — a mighty outpouring of God's Holy Spirit upon the
people of the United Kingdom and far beyond its shores, even to
America. For the first three years Wesley worked from two bases,
London and Bristol, and then extended his travels to
Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Later this triangular journey was developed
further and a pattern was established: winter in London; early
spring in Bristol; a trip north during late spring and summer
months. In 1747 he made his first visit to Ireland and in 1751 he
went to Scotland. From then on Ireland and Scotland were visited in
alternate years in the summer, and in late summer he would go to
Cornwall and other western counties before returning to London.
Though not congenial to him he continued the practice of open-air
preaching throughout his life, not only to the miners at Kingswood
but to those at Newcastle and Cornwall, and to thousands in towns
and villages throughout the land. His maxim was: "Go not to those
who need you, but to those who need you most." He once wrote to a
member of a Methodist society: "I want you to converse more,
abundantly more, with the poorest of the people who, if they have
not taste, have souls, which you may forward in their way to heaven.
. . . Do not confine your conversation to genteel and elegant
people. I should like this as well as you do: but I cannot discover
a precedent for it in the life of our Lord, or any of His apostles.
My dear friend, let you and I walk as He walked."9
The after-care of those spiritually awakened was an important element in John's work, and the Methodist societies formed for this purpose were the backbone of his itinerant journeys. The only condition of membership was to have "the desire to flee from the wrath to come." The members had a close fellowship, and the hymns sung were of a personal nature, many containing the first personal pronoun, singular and plural, which had been written by Charles. In a few years the benefit of also meeting in smaller groups was recognised, and the membership was divided into classes consisting of eleven persons under a lay leader; these often were from the same locality, and the class meeting would usually be held in someone's home. Women's classes were separate from men's and were in the care of a female leader. At the class meeting an opportunity would be afforded for giving personal testimony to the power of God, or for confessing sins to one another, and offering prayer. The sick and elderly were visited by the leader and others. These classes proved to be a good training ground for future leaders and closely resembled the Christian Endeavour meetings some of us are familiar with today.
It has already been noted that for a long time before his own conversion John was earnestly trying to lead a holy life. Now, after experiencing forgiveness and peace with God, he was no less fervent in his pursuit of personal holiness and he urged upon all followers of Jesus Christ the necessity to seek entire sanctification or perfect love, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit, whereby they would be enabled to love God with their whole being and their neighbour as themselves. His constant aim was "to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land."
In his preaching work John had the help of a large band of lay workers. Although the majority did not have the advantage of college training they were well-grounded in the scriptures and preached the truths they believed and felt. He placed them on probation for a year (later extended to four years) and they had to undergo a course of extensive reading. Some of these men were found to be extremely gifted. A few clergymen of the Established Church who were sympathetic towards Methodism gave practical support.
John Wesley had brilliant administrative ability. In the early days of the Revival the societies were grouped into circuits, and an Assistant (one who had oversight) was appointed to each circuit. One such was the vicar of Haworth, who tended the Haworth Methodist circuit. The first Methodist Conference of Helpers (preachers) and those clerics who rendered support was held in 1744, and became an annual event.
George Whitefield and Charles Wesley were also abundant in evangelical labours.
George traversed England, Scotland, Ireland, and part of America for about thirty-three years; much of his ministry was in this latter country and he crossed the Atlantic thirteen times. The Wesleys and he differed on a point of doctrine. George believed in predestination, that is, that some are elected by God to salvation, and some to damnation. The Wesley brothers utterly rejected this. They were convinced that Christ had died for all men, and this message comes through in many of Charles's hymns. Whilst they believed that God provides the initiative in salvation — "No man can come to Christ except the Father draw him" (John 6, v. 44), and that faith itself is a gift of God — this did not lead them to conclude that man had no choice between salvation and damnation, for God "will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2, v. 4). Thus in the early days of Methodism there were two camps —those holding Whitefield's view, and those holding the Wesleys' — but Methodist doctrine as we now know it is Wesleyan. Despite their difference of opinion the three men endeavoured to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; there existed between them a strong bond of affection, and they held one another in the highest esteem. George died in America in 1770, aged fifty-five, and as was his wish, John preached his funeral sermon at the Tabernacle at Moorfields, London. John Wesley never encouraged criticism of George. "Do you think we shall see Mr. Whitefield in heaven?" a man once asked him. "No, sir," John replied, "I fear not. Mr. Whitefield will be so near the Throne and we at such a distance we shall hardly get a sight of him."
Charles made a no less vital contribution to the
work. For some years he travelled as a preacher before settling in
Bristol to become pastor to the Methodist people there. Later he
moved to London. His outstanding talent as a hymnwriter has endowed
the Christian Church with wonderful hymns for perhaps all occasions
of the Church's year. They embody evangelical doctrines and glad
certainty, and quite a few have found their way into the hymnbooks
of other denominations.
Throughout their lives the Wesleys were intensely loyal to the Church of England and hoped that the Methodist societies would be accepted as part of that Church. Members of the societies were expected to attend the local parish church each Sunday and receive the sacraments there. Obviously the services at the Methodist preaching-houses were to be held at different times from those at the parish churches. John scrupulously endeavoured to avoid trespassing on Church prerogatives. He adopted secular names for his officers, hence his preachers were helpers, not ministers; other labourers were termed leaders and stewards, not elders and deacons; his buildings were Society Rooms, preaching-houses, or chapels; and his associated people were societies, not churches. In the early days of the Revival he was reproved by the Bishop of Bristol who told him: "You have no business here; you are not commissioned to preach in this diocese: therefore I advise you to go hence." John replied, "My business on earth is to do what good I can; wherever, therefore, I think I can do most good, there must I stay so long as I think so; at present I think I can do most good here, therefore here I stay." Later he wrote to a friend: "I look upon all the world as my parish."
The Christian Church today has much cause to praise God for the Revival of the eighteenth century.