This article gives a short biography of John Wesley and the impact he had through the gospel in England.

Source: Australian Presbyterian, 2003. 3 pages.

Horseback Hero How a man for all seasons helped transform a nation

The bare-breasted mother slumps, stupefied, on the steps, skirts drawn up to reveal suppurating sores on her legs. Her baby is falling over the rail into the open sewer below, while at her feet a dog tends a corpse.

An old woman being pushed in a wheelbarrow swills gin, a man in an upper window has hanged himself, and the only buildings not collapsing as part of the gen­eral decay are S. Gripe pawnbroker, Kilman Distillery, and the undertaker.

This scene, in William Hogarth’s etch­ing Gin Lane, cruelly captures an 18th-century addiction that easily outstrips the horror of today’s heroin plague.

In parts of London, every second household distilled and purveyed the poison also known as mother’s ruin or cruckrold’s comfort. It was also available from peddlers, barbers, grocers and market stalls. Signs read “Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for two”. Crime and other social costs were horrendous.

Into this society 300 years last month was born John Wesley, the man credited with helping save England from gin-soaked ruin and revolution. The founder of Methodism is one of the gigantic figures of history: preacher, publisher, prolific author, educator, scientist and reformer. By the time he died in 1791, the great evangelical revival he began had transformed the nation.

Wesley preached and wrote against gin, not only because it destroyed individuals and families but because it was a misuse of grain, a staple food.

But it was his biblical balance between personal piety and social concern, his belief that people could and should improve their lot, that had the most pro­found impact at the time, and which still carries the strongest message today.

One thing common to pre-Wesleyan England and modern Australia, according to renowned Methodist scholar Professor Norman Young, is that Christian teaching has little impact on most people’s lives.

Most people in England didn’t feel at home in the church, and didn’t feel the Christian message was for them,” Professor Young says. “Wesley said, ‘OK, I’ll go where they are’, and so he did. He spent 50 years on horseback going to where people were and speaking to them a language they could understand. This willingness is profoundly important now.

Wesley’s influence was also credited with saving England from the revo­lution unleashed on France in 1789, but Wesley scholar Professor Robert Gribben says this claim is overstated.

“England had its revolution in the 17th century under Cromwell, and the mem­ory of that did as much to divert England from further revolutions,” says Professor Gribben, from the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Even so, Wesley’s emphasis on social justice made him an unwitting social revolutionary. For example, Methodism was vital in developing working class move­ments, such as trade unions.

That led land owners to try to silence Wesley, sending agents provocateurs to his meetings and having him attacked,” Young says. “They were concerned that working class people could start to think Jack’s as good as his master, and that did happen.

Once, according to Young, Wesley was saved at an outdoor meeting by a butcher’s wife, who stood in front of him and told the mob they would have to get past her if they wanted to harm him.

It’s no coincidence that the first Methodist chapel in Bristol has a pulpit two stories high, with a direct exit down the stairs to a back door.

Wesley was born to the pulpit. His father was an Anglican priest, as were both grandfathers — though both, as puri­tans, were casualties of the restoration of the monarchy in 1661 when all clergy were forced to conform to the entire package of church, episcopacy, liturgy and Book of Common Prayer. Both lost their livings.

When John was six, the rectory burnt down but he was dramatically rescued, “a brand plucked from the burning”. Neither he nor his mother, the beautiful and formidable Susannah — along with Augustine’s mother Monica, perhaps the most famous mother in church history — doubted that he was saved for a purpose.

At Oxford, with his brother Charles, the famous hymn writer, and a few friends, Wesley founded the Holy Club in 1729 to pray and study the Bible but also to distribute food and clothing to the poor. They were called Methodists as a term of derision, and the name stuck.

The changing point in Wesley’s life was his return from a bitterly unsuccessful stint as a missionary in the new colony of Georgia. He met some Moravians, a pietistic group, and was impressed by their inner peace.

On May 24, 1738, he went to a meet­ing where Luther’s Preface to the Epistle on Romans was being read.

Wesley wrote in his journal: “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 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.”

This gave him spiritual and emotional assurance. Henceforth, head and heart were aligned.

Wesley fell out of favour with the Anglican establishment, which scorned him as an enthusiast. Forbidden the pulpit inside the church, he realised he would have to preach outside it. Over the next 50 years he travelled about 400,000 kilome­tres across Britain, mostly on horseback, reading as he went. He preached 45,000 sermons, often to thousands of people at a time.

This arduous program didn’t prevent him keeping the publishing company he established — Epworth Press, now England’s third-oldest — more than busy.

He wrote 50 books of theology for his lay preachers – what Professor Gribben calls “a Reader’s Digest of divinity” — plus carefully researched pamphlets on social issues, Latin and Hebrew grammars, hun­dreds of letters, his journal, and Primitive Physick: A Natural and Easy Method of Curing Most Diseases, which went through more than 20 editions in his life­time.

Though some cures — such as rubbing a raw onion on the pate to cure baldness — might seem implausible, Wesley did try to test his prescriptions. A child of 18th cen­tury rationality, much influenced by con­temporary philosopher John Locke, Wesley saw the need for empirical testing. He experimented with static electricity, using a primitive shock treatment on peo­ple with nervous disorders.

An important contribution to the church was introducing hymns, which transformed worship — previously only psalms were sung. Professor Gribben says: “Isaac Watts (a congregationalist) and Charles Wesley showed it is possible to put doctrine into good poetry and put them into good music. A sung faith is a remembered faith. The illiterates, like Durham miners, Cornish fishermen and Bristol brick-makers, gained a theological understanding they wouldn’t otherwise have had.”

Wesley developed a strong network of lay preachers and social workers, which helped the Methodists flourish in the United States — where they are the biggest single denomination, numbering President Bush among their members — and Australia. Methodists became part of the Uniting Church in 1977.

Their influence was strong in early Victoria, according to Professor Young. “Wesleyans were among the first who came to the gold fields, and didn’t have to wait for priests or ministers to get things going — the lay leadership took over.” Melbourne can thank Wesley’s interest in education and medicine for the Epworth hospital, plus Wesley College and Methodist Ladies’ College.

He was tireless, always balancing spiri­tual concerns with good works. This was too much for some. Samuel Johnson, himself no laggard, said: “The problem with John Wesley is that we no sooner stretch out our legs for a good conversa­tion than Wesley must be up and about some other good thing.” Professor Gribben says: “He was a driven man. I’m not sure I’d have liked to work with him.”

A humble man, Wesley died with virtu­ally no possessions. A tax letter exists, asking him how much silver he had. He replied that he had one silver spoon in Bristol and one in London, and he had no intention of getting more while so many were starving.

For all his intensity of purpose, Wesley had a sharp sense of humour. He is reputed to have met society dandy Beau Nash and friends on a canal towpath. Nash arrogantly demanded: “Give way, Mr Wesley. I never give way to fools.” With a bow, Wesley obeyed, replying: “I always do.”

However, he had a blind spot when it came to the doctrines of grace in the Westminster Confession. He liked them so little that he founded a magazine, The Arminian, to oppose them.

Wesley’s enduring power is admirably summarised by its effect on Robert Gribben.

The tradition certainly had a powerful influence on me — a simple per­sonal relationship with God which comes out in prayer and regular public worship and association with other Christians, but which at every point must issue in practi­cal care of the marginalised and the poor, whatever is the condition in your own territory.

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