THREE weeks after his great experience John Wesley set out for Germany. Had he been the crazy victim of a mere emotional upheaval we should look for him in the midst of a London mob, which would have found considerable delight in baiting a madman. Had he been a fanatic, exulting in the belief that he had suddenly escaped the fires of hell, we should expect to find him immediately exhorting the crowds and driving them in a frenzy of fear to flee from the wrath to come.
The picture is entirely different. Deliberately, but eagerly, he makes his preparations for a quiet pilgrimage. No one had constantly challenged the quality of his faith more than the Moravians he had met in America and England. The courage of the little group of emigrants aboard the Simmonds, the persistent questioning of Spangenberg and the tireless concern of Peter Böhler had spurred him on his quest. To these people he owed much and from them he was still prepared to learn. His heart had been strangely warmed but he had not lost his sense of proportion. Fellowship with the Moravian Societies would confirm or correct and interpret his new-found faith.
On his journey to Marienborn, where he met Count Zinzendorf, and on his long tramp to Herrnhut he was as keenly .observant and as critically analytical as ever. The journey itself was not easy going. He tramped along, with Benjamin Ingham, eyes wide open, mind alert. Passes must be continually produced and bona tides established. At Halle, the King of Prussia’s ‘tall men’ challenged the travellers, at the gates. For two hours they were sent from guard to guard, none being prepared to admit them. But when they did get in they saw the Orphan House and saw it so completely that it became the pattern for orphanages all over nineteenth-century England!
At Neustadt they were refused lodgings, and trudged wearily to the next town where they found ‘a sort of inn. But they told us plainly we should have no lodgings with them, for they did not like our looks. About eight we were received at a little house in another village, where God gave us sweet rest’.
Next day they came to Herruhut, where Wesley found Mr. Hermsdorf, an old friend whom he had met in Georgia. The little community received him graciously but without any ceremony or excitement. At once he began to attend their services, to talk with all whom he met concerning their religious experience, to visit the school, and to study carefully the constitution of the whole society. He was still precise and accurate, classifying and analysing his results, little dreaming how vast were the consequences of this personal pilgrimage.
At Marienborn his verdict had been, ‘I continually met with what I sought for, viz., living proofs of the power of faith’. At Herrnhut he found a community which thrilled him. All its members seemed to share a common experience of great joy. He wrote enthusiastically to Samuel: ‘God has given me at length the desire of my heart. I am with a Church whose conversation is in heaven, in whom is the mind of Christ, and who talk as He walked.’ Here was a vital experiment being tried out. A little society existed within the Church, not separated from it. Such communities might be extended in the Church of England. Perhaps God would use him in some such way. He stayed long enough to collect his material and then regretfully bade farewell to Christian David, the carpenter pastor and his friend. ‘I would gladly have spent my life here; but my Master calling for me to labour in other parts of His vineyard, I was constrained to take my leave of this happy place.’
He turned homewards with a stronger and more informed faith. There were certain features of the Moravian experiment which he criticized but there were more which he accepted. He began to see how saving faith might be applied to English life, and how the Moravian methods might be adapted to the English temperament.
The fellowship meetings at Herrnhut were the models for early Methodist Bands and Classes. A conference he attended at Marienborn became the pattern on which several of the first Methodist Conferences were planned. Lovefeasts and Watchnights were copied from meetings held at Herrnhut, which were themselves based on the agapæ and vigiliæ of the early Christian Church.
He was back again in London on September 16, having been away for three months. Next day, being Sunday, he preached three times and on Monday visited the condemned prisoners in Newgate.
It seems almost an anti-climax after the peak experience in May. The educative and ordered tour on the Continent was followed by months of preaching in such churches as would tolerate his intense evangelistic zeal. Almost obscurely, and with no idea of the vastness of the work he was soon to accomplish, he went on preaching wherever he could. He soon learnt that he must not divide his message into two sermons for morning and evening, because frequently the incumbent was so alarmed at the first discourse that he refused him a second opportunity.
Soon the whole situation was changed. Church doors were closed and he found himself preaching in a cathedral built by God! It was George Whitefleld who brought him face to face with the new situation.
Whitefleld, son of the landlady of the Bell Inn at Gloucester, had been a servitor at Oxford when the Wesleys were there. Poor and ill-equipped he had struggled to pick up what learning he could. He became a member of the Holy Club, was ordained and began to preach. Almost at once his dramatic power attracted attention. The day John Wesley landed in England, he sailed for Georgia. For a few months he preached in the American colonies, raising money for the orphanage he had determined to build.
He soon returned to England and people flocked to hear him. Unfortunately his preaching was much more emotional than John Wesley’s and in February 1739, his enemies began to complain of the disorder caused by his services. The church doors shut with a decided bang. It was a bitter winter but he went with greater confidence to preach to the colliers at Kingswood. Crowds listened to him eagerly. On Saturday afternoon, February 18, 1739, he spoke to ‘five or six thousand persons at Hanham Mount, and in the evening held another meeting on the Common, half a mile away. People came in coaches, on horseback and afoot. The crowd covered three acres and numbered twenty thousand. Their presence was a challenge’. Whitefield realized that this work must go on. He was preparing to return to America. There was no one in the Bristol area who could take his place as a field-preacher. What could be done? At once his thoughts turned to John Wesley, who was preaching in whatever churches he could, and working hard amongst the religious societies in London, especially at Fetter Lane. He sat down and wrote a letter appealing to him to come to Bristol at once.
John Wesley was staying at Bray’s in Little Britain, though he spent many hours each day at Mr. Agutter’s, where in the quiet of the Charterhouse precincts he could study and write.
The letter caused upheaval. Scriptural passages were read. Brother Charles and the Fetter Lane Society were consulted and the general opinion was that John’s health was bad and he should not go. None of the arguments, still less his own reluctance, were conclusive. Once more they resorted to the primitive method of casting lots. On March 29 he mounted his horse and rode out towards Bristol. Two days later he arrived at the city, having ridden hard from Basingstoke.
It was Saturday and people thronged the streets, marketing. Carefully he guided his tired horse through the rows of stalls and barrows in the narrow twisted roads. At last he turned its head up Wine Street. Horse was weary and rider was unwilling. Those last few yards were the worst! Past the whipping-post and the pillory he went, slowly enough, and at last dismounted outside a little grocer’s shop.
Why was he there? He might have been quietly reading in his rooms at Lincoln College. Customers came in and out making their Saturday night purchases. He did not hear their chatter. In the semi-darkness of the room he was thinking hard. All his life—till very lately—he had been an advocate of decency and order. Field-preaching would have seemed a strangely vulgar business. Had he not satisfied himself, over and over again, that souls must be saved in a church! But the churches were shut against him and the souls, for whom he had this burning message, were unsaved.
The door opens. Whitefield comes in, radiant with the joy of the messenger who has delivered his message. His sister, Mrs. Greville, joins them. They sing and pray together. At eight o’clock they go out again. The horse is resting in its stall, but the rider has not yet ended his day. He hears Whitefield preach at Weaver’s Hall, then they return to the little room behind the shop. The tent where Napoleon planned a great campaign, the cabin where Nelson talked with his captains on the eve of Trafalgar are tin-important places in comparison with this council chamber! Till midnight these two talk and pray and talk again. The arguments which have hindered John’s decision are overcome by the facts of the situation. The Chancellor of the diocese may protest, the Bishop pause perplexed, but the people come through stormy weather! The little Fellow of Lincoln may remember his old prejudices and natural reluctance, his body may object as strongly as his mind, but the miners and the quality have waited side by side, to hear the word. It is impossible to refuse to be the messenger. His arguments are ended, but once again he has not the the joy of positive acceptance.
Down on their knees they go—young George Whitefield and John Wesley, thirteen years his senior—and they commend the whole matter to God. They left all things with their Master, and slept.
The morning came—an April Sunday, big with possibilities! He will see and hear for himself. To the bowling-green, in the Pithay, the crowd has come and Whitefield preaches, while Wesley listens, keenly alert and anxious to hear that other Voice, above his friend’s, commanding him.
The service ends, and they set out for Hanham and Kings-wood.
Once the countryside has been beautiful, a royal park blessed by a thousand trees. Now it is a wilderness of coal-pits, scores and scores of them on all hands. Rows of colliers’ dwellings, little better than black sheds, offer comfortless shelter to the miners. There are no schools for the children, no kind of religious service or teaching for these tired, poverty-stricken workers.
Over the waste ground, with its old tree-stumps and struggling scrub, past the slag-heaps and the pitiful hovels, George Whitefield and John Wesley trudge to the Mount. A tremendous crowd opens up a pathway for them. In a few moments they are all singing a hymn of praise. Presently they are listening spellbound to the young messenger, not so many years removed from the washing of tankards in the scullery of the Bell. The multitude is stirred to new hope as they hear the certainties the preacher, himself, has proved. The service ends, and the friends tramp on again, through the remnants of the wood, with its stunted trees to Rose Green.
A still bigger crowd has gathered. Coaches are drawn up on its fringe, horses are tethered, but the people, rich and poor alike, press eagerly round the man who has come to speak to them. The wind is fitful, and does not help to carry his voice to their eager ears. He prays for ‘strength to cry aloud’ and so preaches his farewell sermon.
Farewell! As the people cluster round Whitefield to wish him God-speed, John Wesley realizes the challenge more strongly than before. How can he leave this hungry multitude unfed? It is a day of decision for him—and yet he cannot decide.
That night Whitefield goes to preach to the Religious Society at Baldwin Street. He must take his leave of them before he sails. Down the little back lane he turns, and tries to enter the yard. It is packed with people. Someone brings a ladder. He climbs up, struggles to the roof of the next house and at last clambers into the room. He is sure enough of the rightness of it all. How can he doubt? The people listen to his words in tense silence. At the end of the service, he reminds them of his departure, and announces, simply, that John Wesley will preach next day ‘in the brickyard at the further end of St. Philip’s Plain’. It is an historic proclamation! Whether it was authorized or not, no man can tell.
Meanwhile John had gone alone, to speak to a little company gathered in a room in Nicholas Street. This was more like his proper environment! There was quietness and peace here. Why should a man go into the fields to face the mob? Strange, that God should have given him his text. Even as he began to expound it, he knows he cannot escape its challenge. It is the Sermon of the Mount–a pretty remarkable precedent of field-preaching’, he admits to himself as he thinks about it.
The day is nearly over. In the room behind the shop in Wine Street, the friends are met again. They review the events of the past few hours. Tomorrow Whitefield will be gone; tomorrow the people will wait in vain for a messenger and the Message unless—there is no avoiding the alternative—unless John Wesley accepts the invitation. He cannot reject it. He hates the prospect. For many a year he hated it. ‘To this day’, he writes in the 7ournal, ‘field-preaching is a cross to me. But I know my commission, and see no other way of preaching the Gospel to every creature.’ That night he made the great decision. They did not go to bed at once. How could they? At eleven o’clock they were assembled at Mr. Deschamps’s house, for communion, prayer and singing. It was one o’clock when they returned to Wine Street.
Next morning Whitefield rode off to Gloucester, where he had determined to preach before he sailed for America. John Wesley was left alone to face his great ordeal. First he wrote a long letter to the Fetter Lane Society, then he set out for the brick-yard at the farther end of St. Philip’s Plain. Three thousand people were waiting on the clay banks. On a little eminence he stood up, ‘submitting to be more vile’ as he felt, and there preached his first sermon in the open air in England. His text was: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.’
It was a great day for John Wesley, for England and for the whole Christian Church. He records it quite simply, little realizing the amazing consequences of his decision. His diary reflects his feelings. He had risen that day at 7 a.m. ‘singing, within’. On Tuesday, with the ordeal over and the step irrevocably taken, he rises at 5.45 and sings as he dresses! The warmed heart will not be denied. He did not like field-preaching, any more than Livingstone liked the fever-swamps of Central Africa, but he did like the certainty of knowing he was doing the will of God. He was not the man to draw back when once he had the assurance that a way, however dangerous or distasteful, was God’s way.
He was committed to the work of a field-preacher now and he would need no compulsion. Within a few days he had spoken to many thousands in the open air—at Baptist Mills, at Hanham Mount in Kingswood, and at Rose Green. These were all places where Whitefield had preached. Within a week he had advanced a little. He rode to Bath and preached in a meadow on the side of the hill close to the town; a little later in the day he stood on the steps of a house in Gracious Street and proclaimed forgiveness of sin to the casual passers-by.
Surely April 2, 1739, was one of the most important dates in the story of the Knight of the Burning Heart. That day he made up his mind that the whole world was to be his parish and that he would preach in those cathedrals whose floors were the cobble-stones of market-places or the slag-heaps about a pit-head, the deck of a ship or the rough ground in the corner of a field—cathedrals whose boundaries were hedges or walls or the sea-shore, and whose roof was the blue dome of heaven, built and consecrated by God.
One of the most interesting ceremonies in the Methodist Church, is the Induction of the President. Each year, when the new President takes up his duties, the retiring President hands to him not a gold mace or a regal chain or some brilliant regalia signifying that he is the head of an Order, but he gives him a little, worn, pocket Bible; it is the one John Wesley used on his field-preaching.
Important, however, as the decision to preach in the open air had been, it did not absolve him from its further obligations. He could never become just a wayfaring preacher, content to talk an hour to a crowd and ride away. He was profoundly concerned for the future of the people who were moved to a new beginning. What was to happen to them when he left? Conversion was, after all, an introductory experience.
He had already helped James Hutton to re-organize some of the Religious Societies in London, and he began a similar work in Bristol. Little groups of people were gathered into bands. The Societies meeting in Baldwin Street and Nicholas Street were encouraged and helped in the development and growth of a common experience. They grew in grace and in numbers. The rooms would not hold them. He bought a little piece of land between Broadmead and the Horsefair, and in May 1739, the foundation-stone of ‘the new room’ was laid. It was a simple building, and by June 3, he was able to hold a service of dedication in it, before he left Bristol for London. In the morning he had preached to six thousand people at Hanham Mount, in the afternoon to eight thousand at Rose Green. ‘In the evening’, he writes, we met in the shell of our new Society room. The scripture which came in course to be explained was, “Marvel not if the world hate you”. We sang, “Arm of the Lord, awake, awake”!’ One can almost see those shining, uplifted faces, as the little company stood on the bare boards in the stark simplicity of the place, undistracted and unaided by their surroundings, oblivious of everything but the presence of the living God in their midst. The entry in the journal ends with the words, ‘And God, even our own God, gave us His blessing’.
The service marked another stage in the movement for which he was, humanly speaking, so largely responsible. It was certainly not his intention to erect buildings in opposition to those of the Church to which he belonged. He was forced by circumstances to provide shelter for the Societies that wished to worship there. He could not see the outcome of these small beginnings.
The planning of the first building was probably influenced by Wesley’s memories of the community buildings in the Moravian Settlement at Herrnhut. There was a long room, with forms and a desk covered with green cloth. Two sconces, each holding eight candles, hung from the ceiling. Besides the main Society room there was a schoolroom where Wesley saw inquirers, a garret where he slept, and a stable for his horse. It was unpretentious, but it was hallowed by many prayers and great hope.
During the few days which remained of that first momentous visit to Bristol he continued to preach and to visit the Societies. He had to meet criticism, because some people who had heard him preach, had reacted strangely to the message. Patiently he dealt with each case, realizing differences of temperament and suspecting the more neurotic, until they ‘grew out’ of their convulsive manifestations into a calmer and more reasonable mind.
One of the preaching centres he had established was at Bath. It was then a most fashionable resort. All the ‘quality’ came there to take the waters. In the great Pump Room they gathered—a brilliant assembly, typical of the period.
At the entrance stood three busts, one of Pope, the poet, another of Isaac Newton, the scientist, but in the centre, in the place of honour, a large one of Beau Nash. He was the uncrowned King of Bath, men said. On the brilliant crowd the stone figure looked down—the elegant dandy who dominated the situation. It was a condemnation of all their values.
There was, indeed, a superficiality about the culture of the age. Beneath the thin veneer which gave an appearance of polish, there lay a coarseness which was no better than the vulgarity of the inarticulate and hopeless mob.
More than one critic of Wesley has been content to judge him against the highly coloured pictures of the novelists, who have found a picturesque background for their gay adventurers. They have shown him as a sombre, self-righteous little figure spoiling sport without reason. Sometimes it is a healthy corrective to remember how shallow was the covering which gave a first impression of elegance and good taste. In point of fact, the quality were none too cleanly in their bodily habits nor their mental outlook, and beneath the glamour they were tragically weighed down by taedium vitae—that weariness of life which had burdened the Roman Empire in an earlier Augustan Age.
It is one thing to see the gaily-clad crowd of spectators at the Baths. Minstrels in the gallery are playing, and playing uncommonly well. Many of the fair ladies of the Court disport themselves in the water with the young gallants of the day. Conversation is sparkling; it is an age of repartee. When the hour or so is over, the bathers wrapped in blankets, are carried back in sedan-chairs to their lodgings. Later they will spend the rest of the day at the card tables, gambling recklessly. It does look a gallant scene. It is most disconcerting to learn that they did not dream of changing the water in the bath more than once in two months!
To this superficial people John Wesley came with a message that reached men’s hearts. It was unwelcome to Beau Nash and his cronies. They determined to end his pretensions and score off this pitiful little parson, so full of exhortations and admonitions. He was warned that if he dared to preach in the town he would have a hot reception. Such a warning made him the more determined to be there.
He found an unusually big crowd waiting. Rumour had been busy, and they were on tip-toe. The quality were eager to see the latest adventure of their idol. John Wesley began to preach, and astonished them by declaring that they were all alike, sinners—’both high and low, rich and poor, one with another’. Whilst he was speaking a postchaise, drawn by six grey horses, and accompanied by outriders, footmen, lackeys with French horns, stopped on the edge of the crowd. A man alighted with an air of studied elegance. The ruffles at his neck and wrists were of the most expensive lace; the heels of his crimson shoes were set with diamonds and brilliants; he doffed his monstrous white hat in greeting to the crowd. Was he not the King of Bath?
With seeming carelessness he sauntered towards the speaker. The crowd made way for him. The little man standing on a hillock went on, unmoved. ‘By what authority do you preach, sir?’ asked Beau Nash sarcastically. John stopped speaking, looked at him closely, then answered, ‘By the authority of Jesus Christ, conveyed to me by the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he laid hands upon me and said “Take thou authority to preach the Gospel”.’ For a moment Beau Nash was surprised, then he said, ‘This is contrary to Acts of Parliament, this is a conventicle’. Again John Wesley answered, ‘Sir, the conventicles mentioned in that Act are seditious meetings: but this is not such; here is no shadow of sedition; for it is not contrary to the Act’. Beau Nash shuffled a little uneasily and bridled in his speech. He replied, ‘I say it is, and besides your preaching frightens people out of their wits’. ‘Sir, did you ever hear me preach?’ asked Wesley. ‘No.’ ‘How then can you judge what you have never heard?’ ‘Sir, by common report.’ ‘Common report is not enough. Give me leave, sir, to ask is not your name Nash?’ ‘My name is Nash.’ ‘Sir, I dare not judge of you by common report, I think it is not enough to judge by.’ This was a severe blow, and Nash was staggered—the crowd knew the common report about Beau Nash! Then he stammered, ‘I desire to know what these people come here for’.
At that, an old lady standing in the crowd piped out in her shrill voice, ‘Sir, leave him to me; let an old woman answer him. You Mr. Nash take care of your body; we take care of our souls; and for the food of our souls we come here’. Beau Nash dropped his eyes, answered no word, just walked away. It was a strange and unexpected victory fOr this wandering preacher, aided by an old woman whose heart had been strangely warmed like his. The crowd melted away, and the coaches rolled off towards the Pump Room. A most disappointing afternoon!
So Wesley came to the end of his first visit to Bristol, and returned to London to settle certain difficulties in the Fetter Lane Society. In the great city there were still churches where he could preach. Field-preaching would surely be unnecessary here! The day after his return he went with Whitefield, who was still in London, to Blackheath. Twelve or fourteen thousand people had gathered to hear him preach. To Wesley’s astonishment his friend insisted that he should deliver the sermon. He agreed, ‘though nature recoiled’, and he took his favourite subject, ‘Jesus Christ, who of God is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption’. Strangely enough his comment is, ‘I was greatly moved with compassion for the rich that were there, to whom I made a particular application. Some of them seemed to attend, while others drove away their coaches from so uncouth a preacher’.
He had not forgotten the poor, silly idlers at Bath, so sure of their glamorous clothes, so tired of their aching hearts.
It was a busy week, but Sunday came at last. How would he use it? Where could he most surely preach?
There was a great open space at Upper Moorfields, the site of the modern Finsbury Square. To the south lay another piece of open ground, Middle Moorfields, and trees encircled both. It was a pleasant spot where Londoners took the air on Sundays, dressed in their best and in happy mood. Across Lower Moorfields, along the gravel walks, they came for their weekly promenade. But why were there seven thousand walking abroad at seven o’clock that Sunday morning? Why did they direct their steps to one particular place, instead of wandering idly to and fro? Why, if not to hear the little man who was standing on a wooden platform, announcing his text, ‘Ho! every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters’?
If you would hear him again that day you must cross London, walk through the outlying hamlet of Newington, until, a mile further on, you come to a great common at Kennington. It is a very different place. Here you will find the rag-tag and bobtail of London town. Here, on a weekday, you may see a cartful of criminals hanged. Here, sooner or later, you may come across all the pimps and procurers, the pickpockets and vagabonds, who haunt the darker streets of the city at nights. An unsavoury place. Here, that Sunday afternoon, at five or thereabouts, you will find fifteen thousand people listening eagerly, to that clear-voiced messenger who is saying, ‘Look unto Me, and be ye saved, all ye ends of the earth’. There is no menace in his words, no wild condemnation in his careful sentences. He is a voice, uttering the urgent invitation of his Master. The crowd know sincerity when they see and hear it. He would not last five minutes on Kennington Common if he were a charlatan, or if he were conducting experiments on the raw material of their souls for the sake of his own! They are not driven mad by a ferocious onslaught of words. For the first time in their lives they dare to wonder if God cares.
So London heard the man who had made up his mind that the world was to be his parish. Little room in the Horsefair, brick-yard or pit-head, stone steps in Gracious Street, Moorfields or Kennington Common—it was all one to him. He is going to those who need him—and first to those who need him most. Never again will he know a settled home. His journeys are beginning according to plan. Up and down the land he must range. His bases, for bases there must be, will be established in London, Bristol and, later, in Newcastle.
The winter of 1739-40 was very cold. The need for some shelter for the crowds was becoming desperate. The last thing in his mind was to erect buildings that should rival the Anglican churches, but something must surely be done if the work of field-preaching was to be consolidated. There must be shelters for the little bands who were grow-mg rapidly, and there must be some linking up and ordering of scattered communities. –
One day, two men, whom he did not know, came to Wesley and suggested that he should preach in an old ruined building near Moorfields. It was called the Foundery, and it stood on Windmill Hill. For many years it had been an arsenal, until in 1716, whilst the guns, taken from the French in Marlborough’s campaigns, were being recast, a tragic accident happened. An explosion shattered the building, killed many of the workmen and caused the Royal Arsenal to be moved from Windmill Hill to Woolwich.
The building was bought for one hundred and fifteen pounds, and on Sunday, November ii, 1739, John Wesley preached to several thousand people standing amidst the vast, uncouth heap of ruins. On that day, the eleventh of November, he proclaimed the spiritual armistice on which the peace of men and nations must, at last, be founded.
Another seven hundred pounds had to be raised, partly on loan, to recondition the building. It became the first Methodist Chapel in London, and a little later suitable premises were added. There were two front doors, one for the chapel and one for the preacher’s house, the school and the band-room. There was a bell hung in a very plain belfry. Every morning at five o’clock it summoned the people to early service, and every evening at nine they came there for family worship. One can imagine them, although it was only two hundred years ago, wandering along those dark lanes, the flickering candles in their horn lanterns guiding them through the early morning darkness to this simple House of God. There were no pews, just plain seats, most of them without backs. Under the front gallery were three rows for women and under the side gallery three for men. The front gallery was occupied by women, the side gallery by men. Perhaps the best description is one that Wesley gives: ‘From the beginning the men and women sat apart, as they always did in the primitive Church; none were suffered to call any place their own, but the first corner sat down first. They had no pews; and all the benches for rich and poor were of the same construction.’ In the band-room which was about eighty feet by twenty feet classes met, a day-school was held, and at one end there was the book-room where Wesley’s tracts and various writings were sold to the congregation. Over this band-room were smaller rooms which Wesley himself used when he was in London. In one of them, his mother, Susanna, died. Beyond these buildings was the coach-house and stable.
The old pulpit, which Wesley first used in the Foundery, now stands in the beautiful Chapel of Richmond College. One remembers experiencing a twinge of disappointment at discovering it was made of rough deal and elm. The feeling was momentary. It was a field-preacher’s pulpit after all!
Here then, in the old Foundery, Wesley had his first London pulpit. Here in this gaunt bare room these Methodist pioneers knelt in lowliness of spirit, and knew the joy of God’s pardoning grace.
The third permanent centre was established at Newcastle. In 1742 Wesley decided to go northward on a preaching tour. Towards the end of May he rode with John Taylor, into Gateshead, where he stayed in a little inn at the old bridge-head. Next day he went into Newcastle and was appalled at the condition of the people. ‘So much drunkenness, cursing and swearing (even from the mouths of little children), do I never remember to have seen and heard before.’ How they needed his Master! That was always his reaction to such a situation. Early on Sunday morning he and John Taylor stood in Sandgate, the poorest part of the town, and sang the hundredth Psalm. A crowd began to collect. Out of Wesley’s pocket came the little Bible, and in a moment he was preaching, to those broken, battered folk, about Him who was wounded, too, but for the sins of men. When he finished the crowd did not disperse. The message and the messenger had amazed them. They looked at the spare figure and wondered. Then they heard him speaking again: ‘If you desire to know who I am, my name is John Wesley. At five in the evening, with God’s help, I design to preach again.’ True to his promise he came to Sandgate to find, this time, a tremendous crowd waiting. They heard him eagerly, and clutched his coat, begging him to stay with them. It was not the reception one would expect of a man who has been portrayed as frightening people • into the madhouse!
Unfortunately he had promised to travel back to Bristol by Tuesday night. Charles Wesley rode north as soon as he could, and Newcastle received him with great joy. When John returned he bought land near Pilgrim Street Gate. On December 20, 1742, the foundation-stone of the ‘House’ was laid, and three months later he preached in the partly finished building. When it was completed the lower part was used as a chapel, fitted with pulpit and forms. Over the main building was a band-room, and class-rooms. On the upper story were apartments for the preachers and their families, and on the roof itself was a wooden hut, eleven feet square, which was called ‘Mr. Wesley’s study’.
If we draw a line between Bristol and London, another between London and Newcastle and a third between Newcastle and Bristol, we shall have a rough outline of Wesley’s travel routes. At these three centres he now had permanent buildings as the headquarters of the Societies there.
Meanwhile an even more important process of building had been begun. The little spiritual communities known as ‘bands’ must be linked up and ordered, so that there was some sense of corporate life and fellowship. It would be useless to continue to hold great mass assemblies, where people entered into the primary experience of conversion, and to ride off leaving them alone and uninstructed. They were encouraged to join together in little groups.
After a while he discovered ways in which he might improve the first elementary methods. In 1739 many little Societies began to be formed in London. There were only three or four people in them at first, but they were modelled rather on the lines of the Religious Societies already existing. These bands, for which, in 1738, Wesley had first made the rules, met every week. There were not less than five or more than ten people in them, and they were the inner circle of the Methodist Societies. Later on the Class-Meeting was developed, and in addition Lovefeasts and Watch-night Services were held. The whole point in Wesley’s mind was how to hold together the people who were beginning to share a common experience of the Risen Christ in their hearts. Leaders were appointed for the Classes, which were held in all sorts of places, in farm kitchens, in little cottage parlours, in elaborate drawing-rooms; sometimes they even met in a coal-mine, and very often in a barn. Leaders kept the names of members in a little book, and every quarter each member received a ticket of membership.
Another very strong influence, which held together these little Societies, was the singing of the new hymns which were written by Charles Wesley or translated by John. Although Samuel Wesley, the old Rector of Epworth, had been something of a poet, and John and Charles could write rhyming verse, it was only after 1738, and the great awakening of Charles, that he began to write his marvellous hymns. Within a year he had written, ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin?’ ‘And can it be that I should gain’, ‘Come, Holy Ghost, all-quickening fire!’ Next year he wrote, ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’ and ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul’, ‘0 for a thousand tongues to sing’, and ‘Earth, rejoice, our Lord is King’. Such hymns as these immediately welded together the people who were singing them, just as a little later the ‘Marseillaise’ united the French people. No one can understand the real meaning of Methodism who is not prepared to read carefully the hymns of Charles Wesley and to try to understand their vital message to an eighteenth-century England, whose religious outlook had become dim and impersonal.
There had been no hymn-singing, as we understand it, in the Church of England. The Psalms, which had been arranged by Tate and Brady or Sternhold and Hopkins, were sometimes sung, but they never produced enthusiastic congregational singing. In 1696 there had been hymn-books issued by the Congregationalists whose great hymn-writers were Philip Doddridge and Dr. Watts. In 1737 John Wesley had published a little book of translations for his people in Georgia. He had evidently got the idea from the Moravians, who were great singers, but it was not till Charles Wesley became the hymn-writer of Methodism that their full value was realized. They are not just solemn paraphrases of scripture—they have their own vitality, they are alive, your heart dances as you sing, or it is bowed with shame, or again it rises up on wings to the very throne of God. They are not pieces of patchwork, there are no unnecessary adjectives, no catch-phrases; some of the hymns remind us of the poetry of William Blake, and some are like the battle-cry of the Scottish clans.
Gradually, then, the little communities were built together in their common, progressive experience. There was no question of calling them one Church, though perhaps some of the clergy began to have their fears.
The work did not go unopposed. Pamphleteers wrote scurrilous criticisms, and some of the most cultured of the clergy made John Wesley’s task more difficult. But his heart was burning. He could not be stopped by acid comments or by criticisms that caricatured, not only his brave little body, but his fearless and confident message. Neither stones from the mob nor vitriolic outbursts of the lampooners could turn him back. One of the critics came to George Whitefield and said, ‘Sir, do you think when we get to heaven we shall see John Wesley?’ ‘No, sir’, answered George Whitefield, ‘I fear not, for he will be so near the Eternal Throne and we shall be at such a distance, we shall hardly get a sight of him.’