The 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley: theologian and social activist

GBy Paul L. Whalen Great Britain is one of the few European nations that has avoided a civil war in the past 200 years.

Some scholars’ credit this fact to the “Great Awakening” and the spiritual movement started by John Wesley – the father of “Methodism.” It was in Wesley’s Methodist movement that women shared in leadership and the acceptance of religious pluralism became common. June 17 marked the 300th anniversary of the birth of John Wesley.

Wesley’s Methodist theology, which emphasizes God’s free grace and the responsibility of the individual to embrace that grace, made a difference in 18th century British society. Wesley taught while grace or salvation is a gift from God, once a person embraces or accepts God’s grace, he or she must act on the gift. With this in mind, Wesley and his movement founded numerous churches, schools for the poor and homes for orphans. The movement also emphasized visitation with prisoners and evangelism. As a result, British Methodists supported prison reform and opposed slavery. This again was a spiritual and not a political movement.

Wesley’s movement attained its name and beginning while he was a student at Oxford. At the famed university, Wesley participated in the “Holy Club” with his brother Charles and George Whitefield. Charles went on to become a great hymn writer and George Whitefield became one of the greatest evangelists of the “Great Awakening,” a spiritual movement of the 1700s and 1800s. Because of the Holy Club’s methodical ways of looking at religion, the group became known as “Methodists.”

After leaving Oxford, Wesley became a Church of England minister who worked to reform the state-sponsored church. At the time, the Church of England was suffering from a lack of attendance and other problems. His first attempt at ministry, however, did not prove particularly successful: Wesley, on a missionary assignment to the American colony of Georgia, was run out by the colonists and returned to England.

Two events marked major turning points for Wesley and Methodism. The first was his “Aldersgate Experience” in 1738 – a conversion experienced prompted by the “strange warming of his heart.” Until 1738, Wesley, though a clergyman, had been seeking to know God. This conversion experience is one of the cornerstones of Methodism. According to its theology, a Methodist should know God as well as worship him. For Wesley and the followers of Methodism, it is through knowing God that Christians receive grace or salvation.

The second pivotal moment for Wesley and Methodism was the practice of preaching in open fields. Wesley was a “high” churchman and was very hesitant to preach in the open, outside the confines of a church. However, with encouragement from George Whitfield, he began to preach wherever and whenever two or more people were gathered. Often, this practice resulted in 1,000 or more hearing Wesley preach. In this way, Wesley reached many that never set foot in a church. He did this for over 53 years, during which he traveled over 250,000 miles throughout the British Isles.

In addition to the preaching, he helped establish schools and medical clinics for the poor throughout Britain. He also began the practice of encouraging and training unordained laypersons, both men and women, for work in the church. His preaching encouraged people to discuss and critique not only theology but also the social ills of the day and the best ways of curing them.

After the American Revolution, Wesley sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to the United States to help organize Methodists in North America. Methodism was part of the wave of popular religious movements that came upon the United States within a generation of its independence. During this wave of American religious fervor, American Christianity divorced religious leadership from social position. American Christianity declared the moral responsibility of everyone to act and think for him- or herself. Under the leadership of Asbury and Coke, the Methodist Circuit Riders, who preached throughout the American Frontier, were formed.

The Circuit Rider was often the first person a pioneer saw on the frontier. The Circuit Rider would distribute Bibles and books as well as periodicals published by Methodist printers. The materials distributed by the Circuit Riders were often the primary reading materials on the frontier.

In addition, Circuit Riders often assumed the role of teachers in the frontier. As the frontier got settled, Methodists established schools and colleges, including the various state Wesleyan Colleges, Duke and Emery.

Besides the United Methodist Church, Wesley’s movement resulted in the founding of over 20 other Christian denominations and groups. Some of these denominations and groups include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Wesleyan Churches, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army and the Good Will Industries.

John Wesley died on March 2, 1791, at the age of 87. He had preached his last open-air sermon under a tree on Oct. 7, 1790. He preached his last church-based sermon on Feb. 23, 1791. He died in London. Today Methodism is the third-largest Christian denomination in the United States and the world.

As you can see, whether one is a Methodist, another brand of Christian or of another faith or creed altogether, the legacy of the work and writings of John Wesley, born 300 years ago this summer, has impacted you or your community.

Paul L. Whalen lives in Ft. Thomas, Ky.

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