May
07

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

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This is the second in a three-part blog post series about John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church. The quotes are from Anne Evans’ article titled John Wesley and the Methodists. Click here to read the first blog post.

Charterhouse and Christ Church College, Oxford

Neither the Charterhouse School nor Christ Church College…seem to have found him (John Wesley) an especially noteworthy denizen, though a good and tractable pupil.” So wrote Anne Evans in her 1909 article about Wesley. However, she noted that Wesley later credited “much of his physical endurance to the fact that for years of his early life he scarcely tasted animal food, his portion of meat being invariably stolen and devoured by the school bullies.

“A Systematic Life of Ceaseless Toil”

John Wesley, Founder of Methodist Church

John Wesley, Founder of Methodist Church. Image from http://www.gcah.org/

After graduation from Christ Church, Wesley was ordained a minister of the Anglican Church and was admitted as a fellow of Lincoln College, where he prophetically wrote that “Leisure and I have parted company forever.” The (not particularly complimentary) nickname of “Methodist” was given to Wesley by more happy-go-lucky Oxonians, because of “his methodical planning and utilizing of each minute of each day, both for himself and for the group of like-minded youths who straightway gathered about him.

The small group accepted the nickname with good humor, and soon reinforced its meaning by their strict observance of the rituals of the Anglican Church and “their strenuous philanthropy, both consciously calculated for a high return in personal spiritual gains.” Anne Evans comments that of course, the movement did not become popular, “for it was exclusive and self-seeking and righteous over much.

So, in spite of the fact that John Wesley was personable, had good manners, a quick wit and a “keen logical faculty,” his years as an Anglican minister in Oxford were something of a failure. But not as much of a failure as his next religious venture.

Missionary to the American Colonies

John Wesley was dispatched to the Colonies in 1735 to take up duties as an Anglican minister in Savannah, Georgia. Anne Evans describes his two years there as “grotesque in their solemn futility.” He courted a woman who rejected his advances and married another man. His insistence on exact religious ceremonial form did not go down well with “frontiersmen, careless of proprieties, struggling with raw, half-savage conditions.” In fact, his congregation rebelled. He made no attempt to reach the Indians with his message because, he wrote, “there was not one to be found desirous of his teaching.” He had to return to England, dispirited and at a loss as to what to do next.

What happened to transform this good but despondent man into a firebrand, preaching “unflinchingly to a half-mad rabble, who howled their anger and derision and repeatedly threatened his very life,” but who, by Wesley’s preaching, “were held, subdued, and won, departing with a new light by which to live“?

The Humble Moravians

Wesley’s transformation began when he encountered, on the voyage to America, a small band of members of the Moravian Church. He was strongly attracted by their “simplicity, their cheerfulness, their willingness to serve in the humblest offices, unpaid and unthanked…” (These qualities undoubtedly appealed greatly to Anne Evans, for they were ones she strove to follow herself. She spent a good deal of time researching the history and tenets of the Moravian Church for an article she wrote on the subject, which I covered briefly in my biography of her.) Wesley discovered some extraordinary characteristics of these Moravian passengers: “No neglect could rouse them to protest, no insult to anger, no danger to terror.” He saw these characteristics in action on the voyage, when a huge wave washed over the ship, throwing “all the other passengers into a wild panic while the Moravians, undisturbed, continued the hymn they were singing at evening worship.” Wesley asked their bishop, “Do not even your women and children know fear?” The bishop replied confidently, “Not fear of death, certainly.

The End of the Story of John Wesley and the Methodists – to be discussed in the next blog post.

Sources:
Evans, Anne. “Foundations of the Moravian Church.” Theosophical Quarterly Magazine (1917-1918): 267-273.

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

Sternberg, Barbara E., Jennifer Boone, and Evelyn Waldron. Anne Evans – A Pioneer in Colorado’s Cultural History: THE THINGS THAT LAST WHEN GOLD IS GONE. Denver: Buffalo Park Press and The Center for Colorado and the West, 2011. 284-85.

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