May
13

The Transformation of John Wesley: From Failed Missionary to One of the Most Effective Preachers Ever

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This is the last in a blog post series about Anne Evans’ article, “John Wesley and the Methodists”, written in 1909 for the Theosophical Quarterly. The article, which surfaced after the publication of my biography of Anne Evans, was about the life and teachings of the founder of Methodism, that religious denomination so fervently embraced by her parents, Governor John Evans and his wife, Margaret.

“John Wesley and the Methodists: The Unity at the Heart of All Religions.”

“John Wesley and the Methodists: Earning the Nickname ‘Methodist’ and His Transformation – Part 2.”

Wesley and the Moravians
In her article about John Wesley and the Methodists, Anne Evans noted how impressed John Wesley was by the behavior of a small group of Moravian Church members during the voyage to America. He kept in touch with them after landing. Attending the consecration of their bishop, he found it so simple, “so lacking in all usual pomp that he forgot the seventeen centuries intervening and imagined a time when pomp and state were not – when Paul the tent-maker or Peter the fisherman presided, yet with the demonstration of the Spirit of Power.

When he returned from America, fully conscious of his miserable performance as a missionary, John Wesley became the disciple of a young Moravian pastor. “The teaching seems to have been simple enough; merely the primal fact which, differently described, has inspired the teachers of the world – that God speaks directly to the heart of man.” Anne Evans noted that Wesley described this, in Methodist terms, as “Justification by Faith.” In broader, theosophical, terms, she translated this into “The Voice of the Silence.”

Intellectual conviction was not enough: “he still had to undergo a season of humble seeking…a gradual widening of his sympathies and of his nature is apparent until…he tells of his moment of the great silence.” Anne Evans then quoted directly from Wesley’s writings, “My heart was strangely warmed; assurance was given me that my sins were taken away, even mine, and that I was saved from the law of sin and death.”

Anne Evans described how Wesley “drew a gracious margin of peace…around this pivotal centre of his life by a grateful pilgrimage to the Moravian colonies at Marienbad and Herrhut.” After spending a month in their community guest-houses, attending religious services and talking with bishops and laymen, he came away with a deeper insight into spiritual life – but also questioning whether the Moravians were not too insistent on the glorification of their own church, too spiritually exclusive? These questions were soon to prove “the rock that turned aside the little rill of Methodism from the Moravian stream, to run its own independent course…

No Welcome Home from the Church of England
Although Wesley returned to London eager to engage in the work of teaching, organizing and preaching, he soon found that the pulpits of the church were promptly and universally closed against him. This in spite of the fact that he “never considered himself as other than a devout churchman, or the Methodists as aught save a society for the purpose of spiritual culture and philanthropic work, strictly within the church’s fold.”

Trying to discover why Wesley’s efforts aroused so much antagonism from church leaders, Anne Evans concluded that it was because the moving spirit of the times, both in society and within the Church of England, “was a tepid rationalism; the mildest enthusiasm was enough to bring the word into disrepute…

John Wesley preaches in the meeting house of Mathew Bagshaw in Nottingham, England, in 1747. UMNS1329. From http://www.umcmission.org.

The “Wonder-Story” of Wesley, Preacher and Organizer
The closing of church pulpits forced Wesley to “turn commons and bowling greens into churches.” And so unfolded, in Anne Evans’ words, “The wonder-story of the next fifty years…Up and down the length and breadth of England, preaching, teaching, exhorting, never resting, rode the indomitable little man, blessing providence for the hatred against him which brought the lowest and most profligate within the circle of his listeners. Such preaching had not been heard in phlegmatic England for a hundred years and more...”

In addition to his unparalleled gifts as a preacher (“The rabble and mobs who came full of hatred to scoff and jeer and do him bodily harm were held, subdued, and won, departing with a new light by which to live“) Wesley’s concern for the well-being of those who came to hear him preach, developed him into a brilliant organizer. Whenever he preached, he organized a Methodist group, “and as soon as he organized a group he studied the cause of their misery and spared no effort to remove it.”

He organized charity after charity; “hospitals, schools, orphanages, free medical dispensaries, provident loan associations, each to meet some crying want of his people.” Similarly, as the movement spread throughout Great Britain and Ireland, “he worked out bit by bit the organization of his society, still one of the most highly centralized, most flexible bodies in existence.”

Principles of John Wesley’s Methodism
According to Anne Evans, the conditions on which individuals could be admitted to membership in the Methodist society were testaments to “the liberality, the toleration, the open-mindedness of the great founder.” There was no limitation of opinions imposed on would-be members, according to Wesley’s own writings. “Let them be Churchmen or Dissenters, Presbyterians or Independants, it is no obstacle. The Quaker may be a Quaker still and none will contend with him about it…Is there any other society in the habitable world so free from bigotry?

The major Wesleyan principles that Anne Evans describes in her essay are:

  • The only test of fitness to join the Methodist enterprise was “Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough; I give thee the right hand of fellowship.”
  • Wesley “always affirmed that he would abandon any teaching that could not safely make appeal to his reason, but he did not limit his reason to the narrow realm of past-proven facts and skeptical logic. An eager explorer, he haunted the borderland of science…
  • When he was a student at Oxford, John Wesley found that he could live on less than his yearly allowance of thirty-five pounds, and so have seven pounds left for charily. As his earnings grew with his fame, his expenses for living remained the same. “In a world of want, he could not permit himself wealth.”

One historian, according to Anne Evans, believed that the most notable accomplishment of the Wesleyan movement was its continuing effort “to remedy the guilt, the ignorance, the social degradation of the profligate and the poor.” Another historian designated Wesley as “the power which prevented the French Revolution from spreading through England.” But Anne Evans believed that it was important to remember that the great size, power, and volume of good works of the Methodist Church of her day “were but …the practical fruits of a life of applied devotion. Its great strength, its inherent growing power, came from the fact that it was from first to last primarily a religious revival – a revival of the practice of the presence of God.”

Source of almost all quotes:
Evans, Anne. “John Wesley and the Methodists.” Theosophical Quarterly Magazine 7.1 (1909): 50-58.

Anne Evans does not give an exact source for her direct quotes from John Wesley’s writings.

Comments

  1. Kathi Bernier says:

    Reading about John Wesley and learning more about his writings was interesting
    to me. As a very young child I spent much time with my grandparents who grew up in New Orleans. Both of my grandparents became Methodists and my mother and her siblings were very close to the Methodist church. My grandparents had moved
    to Los Angeles and I went to the Methodist church as very small child. When my mother married she moved to the foothills above Los Angeles. Both of my parents
    decided to look at other churches and decided to become Lutherans. They did however celebrate their wedding as Methodists.

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