WHEN Augustine Birrell was visiting Cornwall he said to a miner, ‘You seem a very temperate people here. How did it happen?’ The old Cornishman bared his head, and as if he were looking into the distant past, said quietly, ‘There came a man amongst us, and his name was John Wesley’.
There have been other men whose advent has changed the life and manners of a community, but there have been few whose advantages seemed so small and whose influence was so profound. He was always poor; he began his real work as a clergyman with no official cure of souls, and he began his preaching when almost all the pulpits in the land were barred against him. As Birrell concludes a survey of his life he writes: ‘No man lived nearer the centre than John Wesley, neither Clive nor Pitt, neither Mansfield nor Johnson. You cannot cut him out of our national life. No single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.’
The creation of what is called Methodism was perhaps the least of the major results of his life. In a terse sentence, Dr. Fitchett summarizes the issue. ‘He restored Christianity to its place as a living force in the personal creed of men and in the life of the nation.’
He effected this change not because he brought some new theological theory, nor because he devised modem ecclesiastical machinery, nor even because he spoke with persuasive eloquence and hypnotic power. The beginning of the transformation was in his own heart and its end no man can know. He interpreted his own experience with such passionate sincerity that the wayfaring man understood and responded. Heart after heart was kindled into flame; mind after mind was convinced of a new reality; one after another the solitary, hopeless folk felt the touch of God upon their lives and began to live. ‘England escaped a political revolution because she had undergone a spiritual revolution,’ but the spiritual revolution of a nation was begun by the man whose heart, being strangely warmed, strove to share its secret with volcanic urgency. The middle and lower classes were fired with new enthusiasm born of the tremendous conviction that God cared and that they, voteless and voiceless in the national life, were yet included in the eternal purposes of God.
The transformation of the individual affected his relationship to his fellows and changed his attitude to society. It altered his mental outlook and wakened his conscience to a new sense of right and wrong. All these stages—personal, social, intellectual, and moral—were the result of a spiritual experience. The revolution in the hearts of individuals spread so that presently there was a new sense of the sacredness of personality, a new conception of the possibilities of service, in short a new way of life, because men were discovering a new personal contact with God.
The practical application of this quickened conscience did not appear at once. Though Wesley himself tried endless experiments by way of object lessons, their full flowering was postponed or overshadowed by contemporary conditions. He pleaded for prison reform, for the abolition of slavery and for the right use of wealth. He attempted local schemes to relieve unemployment by throwing open his church premises and providing yarn so that poor women might weave and earn an honest livelihood. He subsidized small tradesmen hard hit by contemporary circumstances. He established schools and orphanages, and opened dispensaries for the poor. In countless ways he strove to apply the teaching of Christ to everyday life and work. If one is to estimate the outcome of these experiments one must look at England a hundred years after. The tedious and cruel drain of the long war with France, the corrupt political system which made mockery of the franchise and shut out the people from any share in legislation, and the sudden changes wrought by the industrial revolution, delayed the issue. In 1832, after the Reform Bill was passed, there began a long sequence of humanitarian acts and philanthropic enterprises which may be traced to their origin in the eighteenth-century revival of religion.
It is true, therefore, to say that Wesley, by the grace of God, changed England. The revolution was seen immediately in the lives of countless individuals and subsequently in the whole moral and spiritual life and conduct of the nation.
Whilst he and his itinerant preachers travelled the land from north to south and east to west, the people who were impressed and ‘converted’ by their preaching made very few journeys. The mobility of labour was not yet achieved. The little groups or societies needed constant oversight and there was no settled ministry. The tiny communities had lay leaders, and since the organization, such as it was, maintained the characteristics of a family, the leader’s oversight was paternal. These loosely defined fellowships assumed the form of class-meetings in 1742. There was still a debt on the property at Bristol. One of the members, Captain Foy, suggested a solution to the financial problem. ‘Let every member of the society give a penny a week, till the debt is paid,’ he said. In answer to an objection that some were too poor to make even that modest contribution, he replied, ‘Then put eleven of the poorest with me; and if they can give anything, well; I will call on them weekly; and if they can give nothing, I will give for them as well as for myself. And each of you call on eleven of your neighbours weekly; receive what they give, and make up what is wanting’.
The plan succeeded, and developed a pastorate which was much more important in its spiritual contacts than in its financial results. In some ways it became a pattern for the democratic movements of the next century.
The early Christian Church had issued symbols of membership called tesserae, and, on similar lines, tickets were devised for the members of these class-meetings. As the number increased the leaders met together, and their meeting became the court of discipline. Every three months each class was visited by an itinerant preacher—Wesley or one of his helpers—and the quarterly tickets were renewed. By such simple methods the whole of the people were linked up, the moral and spiritual levels were maintained by the exclusion of those who had ‘fallen from grace’, and a brotherhood of believers created all over England long before there was any question of establishing a separate Church. The Societies, considered as a whole, made up ‘the people called Methodists’.
Such a sense of family and of common kinship was unique in eighteenth-century England. It challenged class distinctions, and united rich and poor, educated and illiterate, in a way quite new. Since it was founded on a spiritual experience, it began to express itself in corporate acts of Christian service which gradually permeated and helped to change the whole community. From the beginning the revival was founded on individual experience. Every year made it more evident that personal salvation must precede social redemption. The lives of thousands of the early Methodists confirm this as a vital principle.
Many of the men whom Wesley influenced directly, left all to become preachers of the gospel. They furnish a body of evidence which is invaluable. Amongst them was a Yorkshire stonemason born in Birstal in 1707. ‘John Nelson’, said Southey, ‘had as high a spirit, and as brave a heart, as ever Englishman was blessed with.’ As a boy he had been introspective. Going to London to follow his trade his mind was restless and dissatisfied. None of the preachers he heard solved his problems. ‘Even George Whitefield he said, ‘was to me as a man who could play well on an instrument; for his preaching was pleasant to me and I loved the man; so that if any one offered to disturb him, I was ready to fight for him. But I did not understand him, though I might hear him twenty times for ought I know.’
In this mood of uncertainty he struggled on, playing his obscure part in building the French Church in Spitalfields. He was just one of a gang of labourers in a London street. Then something happened.
On Sunday, June 17, 1739, he found himself standing in a crowd gathered at 6.45 -a.m. on Moorfields to hear John Wesley preach. He was fairly near the front—was not he a Yorkshireman? At first he was just one amongst seven thousand others, then he was isolated—a solitary soul facing his destiny!
The crowd stirred a little as the preacher moved through the midst. ‘As soon as he got upon the stand, he stroked back his hair and turned his face towards where I stood, and I thought fixed his eyes upon me. His countenance struck such an awful dread upon rue before I heard him speak, but it made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock; and when he did speak, I said, “This man can tell the secrets of my heart; he hath not left me there; for he hath the remedy, even the blood of Jesus”.’
In that hour he made his choice. His defences were down. He welcomed his Lord. Such a sense of individual challenge was constantly experienced by people who heard John Wesley—even when they were lost in a huge crowd. The message and the messenger isolated them, and left them face to face with Jesus.
Back to his work he went, his convictions strengthened but his task unchanged. All through the winter he lived sparingly, fasting from Thursday night to Saturday morning and giving away the food he would otherwise have eaten. It was a rough and ready test of the reality of his experience.
Going one day to St. Paul’s Cathedral for Holy Communion he felt God strangely near. Kneeling in the shadows he cried out softly, ‘Thy will be done, Thy will be done’. Some inner voice seemed to be commanding him to return to Yorkshire. He argued against it but he could not long resist. His pitiful little bundle was packed and he set out. At Birstal he was discouraged. His friends thought him mad. His mother said, ‘Your head is turned’. He answered, ‘Yes, and my heart too’. The neighbours talked —his wife was ashamed. He preached to them all, until wife, mother, neighbours knelt with him at the Saviour’s feet.
He began to preach in the district. The clergy and ministers tried to restrain him as a fanatic. He fell on his knees and prayed aloud, ‘I am not my own, but Thine; therefore, Thy will be done in me, on me, and by me’. As he rose it seemed that the clouds broke and light was everywhere. Little knots of people gathered to hear him. He would come straight from work, his leather apron fastened with a piece of rope through which was stuck his hammer and trowel. Mounting a stand, he would hitch up the clumsy apron and begin to preach—a John the Baptist proclaiming repentance and hope. Mobs threatened and ill used him, but nothing silenced him. Every hour that he served his Lord made him more sure, more determined, more courageous.
At last a great day dawned. John Wesley sent for him to go to London. His wife looked out his clothes—they were very worn. He looked at her tenderly and said, 1 have worn them out in the Lord’s work, and He will not let me want long’. Just before he started on his journey some one brought him a piece of blue cloth for a coat, and some black cloth for waistcoat and breeches. ‘The Lord is mindful of them that trust in Him,’ he cried, and set out for London.
He did not stay long there, for Wesley desired him to go westward to Oxford, to Bristol and to Cornwall. Sometimes he shared a horse with another preacher. For several weeks he slept on bare boards, roiling up his great-coat to serve as pillow for John Wesley, and resting his own head on Burkitt’s Notes on the New Testament! In the middle of a sleepless night John turned over for the hundredth time and exclaimed, ‘Brother Nelson, let us be of good cheer. I have one whole side yet, for the skin is off but on one side’.
Food was scarce, and in these earlier days hospitality was not readily offered. Wesley accepted the conditions philosophically and his companions learnt from him. ‘Brother Nelson,’ he said as they tightened their belts, ‘we ought to be thankful that there are plenty of blackberries, for this is the best country I ever saw for getting a stomach, but the worst that ever I saw for getting food.’ Sometimes a cottager took them into his house, dried their clothes and gave them a meal. In the dimly lit room they would kneel
and pray together, and know that One stood in their midst, risen triumphant Son of God. Amazing love, how could it be! As they knelt there they knew it to be true. As they took their leave they rejoiced for another heart strangely warmed. So the flame spread.
The converts were not the product of momentary emotion. They stood the test of hardship and persecution unflinchingly. Materially they lost many things; spiritually they gained all. In Leeds Mrs. Nelson was ill-treated by the mob. They beat her and killed her child. She did not waver in her faith. When her husband returned he took up his work, once more, toiling as a stonemason from five in the morning till six at night, and then going out, in the evening, to preach.
A plot was devised by some of the Lacal clergy and innkeepers. They must get rid of the pestilent rogue who presumed to be a preacher. They would have him ‘pressed for a soldier’. His neighbours warned him, but he was not afraid. At Pudsey the constables waited for him. He rode to the inn to talk to them. They were nonplussed. How could they take him? He was not a vagrant. For a few days more he went unmolested. At Adwalton, immediately he finished preaching, the constable’s deputy, an innkeeper, arrested him. He must join the Army. By whose orders? The townsmen and the clergy demanded it. Ten hours later the warrant came. At Birstal the commissioners were amused. ‘Why have you brought this man?’ they said. ‘Because the people don’t like so much preaching,’ the constable answered sheepishly. The magistrates laughed, and one swearing lustily, declared the man should be a soldier and have preaching enough. ‘Sir, you are not to swear,’ said John. ‘You have no right to preach,’ bellowed the man suddenly angry. ‘Sir,’ said John very calmly, ‘I have as much right to preach as you have to swear.’ There was nothing to do with such a cool customer but to commit him to the guard. He was marched off to Halifax, and presently to Bradford.
Underneath a slaughter-house, in a vile little cell three feet square, he was thrown with another ‘pressed’ man. There was no room to sit. He crouched on the floor—happily! ‘My soul was so filled with the love of God that it was Paradise to me.’ Darkness fell. Now, if the comfortable critics who talk glibly of neurotics and poseurs be right, we shall find him dejected and collapsed. The prisoner hears the sounds of footsteps. Food and water are pushed through the hole in the door. Candles follow. John Nelson gives God thanks. His friends will surely bid him good night and go to their beds. That is not the reaction of warmed hearts! All through the hours of darkness they stay outside the grim little door, below the slaughter-house. They are singing hymns of joy and faith. There is no morbid sympathizing. It would be absurd. Inside the noisome little cell the stonemason is singing as cheerfully as they. ‘Sir,’ says his fellow prisoner, astonished, ‘are all these your kinsfolk that they love you so well?’ John answers happily, ‘By this you may know that they are Jesus Christ’s disciples’. It was this new sense of kinship with God himself which revolutionized the life of thousands.
– So he became a soldier, and the regiment marched on to York. People lined the streets to see him! The officers forbade him to preach, but in giving him his orders they swore roundly. This gave John the text and the occasion for a sermon! He reproved them for their bad language. They brought him a gun. ‘I will bear it as a cross,’ he said. They marched him to Heworth Moor to drill, but the corporal bade him lay down the gun and talk to him about God. The people were curious, and followed him through the streets when he was off duty. They begged him to preach to them on Sunday morning. He told them he would ‘take a walk on to the moor at half an hour after seven’. To the moor he went, and there found three hundred people waiting to hear him. At night he preached in several houses. On Monday his officers threatened him with a flogging if he dared to preach again, but crowds followed him everywhere—not to hustle him but to listen to his words. He was thrown into the guardroom and later brought before the Major, who listened to the charges against him. ‘Well, if that be all, it is no crime,’ said he. ‘When you have done your duty I do not care if you preach every night in a house or any private place out of the town, but I would not have you make any mobs. Go back to your quarters, and if there is some convenient time I will hear you preach myself, for I wish all men were like you.’
Northwards to Easingwold, on to Northallerton and Durham the regiment marched. At every opportunity John preached and never lacked an audience. Suddenly he was discharged, through the influence of the Earl of Stair, a friend of the Countess of Huntingdon. The Major sent for him. ‘I wish you well wherever you go,’ he said, ‘for I believe you Methodists are a well-meaning people.’ There was a murmur of assent from the other officers. John gave them each a little book and took his leave. Back in the barracks his comrades crowded round him. ‘We are glad you are free,’ they said, ‘but sorry to let you go.’ Here again is a difficult problem for the superficial critic who finds that Wesley and his preachers drove men mad and did more harm than good. The neurotic and introspective stonemason had been changed completely. He was certainly an embarrassment to a regiment! Why should his officers give him a kindly farewell? Why should his comrades regret his going, yet rejoice in his good fortune on being discharged? It is a unanimous verdict from a surprising jury. One does not associate a regimental mess or a barrack-room with sentimentality or flattery. John Nelson was a man—a man, moreover, who told them of the certainties of God.
All over the kingdom similar changes were taking place in individuals. Contemporary literature affords a mass of irrefutable evidence. It is not the record of passing emotions but the account of lives permanently changed; the hopeless suddenly accepted a goal and bent all their energies towards reaching it; the arrogant and selfish saw the sorrows of their neighbours and forgot all else save that they might serve them; the gross and sensual learnt new spiritual values, because they had entered into a new spiritual relanonship.
There was John Murlin, cursing, drunken miserable Cornish farmer, to whom came ‘a great deliverance’. Very reluctantly he became leader of ‘a little class’, and buying ‘a large Bible with other books’, found himself saying presently, ‘it pleased God to open my understanding more and more’.
There was John Lancaster, backslider, who stole candlesticks and velvet and was condemned to death. In Newgate, Sarah Peters, the ministering angel who gave her life to the comforting of condemned felons, led him back again to life and hope. He was not reprieved by man but he was pardoned by God! That last night, with five others in the condemned cell, he prayed not for himself but for the salvation of the world! As the grim cart rumbled along through the crowd to the place where the gallows stood, he cried out, like John the Baptist, that they should repent. Then he burst into song, the song which Charles Wesley had written for such an occasion.
Think on us, who think on Thee,
And every struggling soul release!
0 remember Calvary
And every struggling soul release
His corpse was taken from the gibbet by men, hired by surgeons who hoped it might be used for experiments, but a crowd of sailors chased them, and securing the poor lifeless body carried it tenderly to his mother that she might bury it decently. Why should the sailors bother? Why should old Sarah Peters spend her life in those tragic cells?
Charity children become respectable citizens, old folk lost to decency and longing to die become young in spirit and joyous in service, soldiers sunk in brutality learn a new meaning in sacrifice—England is changing because individuals are being changed. It is not the dilettanti, sitting in the coffee-houses, sipping their wine and reading the Spectator, who accomplish the transformation by their pretty wit; it is rather the ordinary people out in the fields preaching, or busied with commonplace tasks singing the new song at their work— these wayfaring men transfigured by a new experience. They are no longer inarticulate, indefinite parts of a mass; they have acquired a new individuality, a new sense of the supernatural, a new vision of the Kingdom of God. Hell may be real but Heaven is very near. Their words may be grotesque at times, but their lives are being lifted out of the gutter to heights of sacrificial service that are sublime. They cannot contain the good news. They spread it everywhere. To Scotland, Ireland, and Wales the Wesleys go, and little groups of people become the nucleus of bigger Societies.
Ignorant men became cultured and scholarly. The son of a village carpenter—Thomas Walsh—became the best Biblical scholar Wesley ever knew. Speaking only Erse, he taught himself Hebrew and Greek, so that ‘he could tell you, after a pause, how often any word occurred in the Bible, where it was found and what its particular meaning was in any given context’. Listen to his prayer as he began his studies, each day: ‘Lord Jesus, I lay my soul at Thy feet to be taught and governed by Thee. Take the veil from the mystery, and show me the truth as it is in Thyself. Be Thou my sun and star by day and night.’
More than forty times John Wesley crossed the Irish Sea, nursing the little Societies in their most difficult circumstances. He took fourteen journeys to Scotland, and preached at Edinburgh to crowds of twenty thousand people. In America the work spread, because three people came with transfigured souls—Barbara Heck, Philip Em-bury the carpenter, and Captain Webb the soldier.
It is absurd to say that the revival was temporary either in its influence on individuals or on the English nation. Its ethical results were seen in the growth of Sunday schools, the better moral tone of the Army, the Universities, the purification of literature, the increasing amenities of hospitals, the reform of Poor Relief, the decrease of crime, the more humane and reformative method of penal procedure, and the gradual lessening of political corruption. These movements, and many like them, were not suddenly and finally effective. The progress of the next two centuries was influenced by the spiritual forces which began to be harnessed by the Wesleys and their comrades.
The words of Professor Rufus Jones, the distinguished Quaker philosopher, summarize the position with great clarity:
‘One of the most dynamic things the modern world has seen was that same evangelical movement in the days when it moved, with its original high caloric. It came like a vernal equinox into the morally dull and static life of the eighteenth century. It turned water to wine, it brought prodigals home, it raised life out of death. It produced miracles of transformation. But the most remarkable thing about it was the freshly inspired social impulse which it produced. It reformed prisons, it stopped the slave trade, it freed slaves. It made its converts uncomfortable over wrong social conditions. It sent missionaries to create hospitals and to conquer ignorance in almost every land on the globe. It was always as much outward as it was inward, though its creative spring was assuredly a birth of new life from the central Source of Life.’