Reformed Reflections

John Wesley (June 17, 1703 - March 2, 1791)

His Impact. (Conclusion)

Life in 18th century England was brutish and short. There were no railroads and only a few stagecoaches. Roads were unpaved, unmarked, and dangerous. Health conditions were terrible, infant mortality high, the plague and smallpox epidemic. The social conditions were appalling! The migration of labour from rural areas to the cities produced a new class of urban poor. The little leisure time these workers had was wasted on rough and often, like bull baiting and cockfighting, cruel. Alcohol abuse was prevalent. To most, the name of Christ was merely a swearword. The industrial revolution was in full swing, fired by coal. The working conditions in the mines were dreadful because there were no safety devices and the wages a pittance. There was no one to look after the spiritual needs of these people. In the sprawling, dirty mining villages, the churches failed to reach out to them. The government showed no real concern for their well being. It was too preoccupied with fleecing the public. It regularly raised vast sums of money by popular lotteries for building projects. Rather than helping the poor, the government sent those who owed money to debtors' prisons. In these barbaric prisons multitudes pined away in cells of utter misery. Punishment for even minor offences was severe. There were no less than 160 offences punishable with death, and it was a frequent occurrence for ten or twelve culprits to be hung on a single occasion.

John Wesley offered to all these victims of society the good news of Jesus Christ. He had a burning passion for the salvation of souls. His preaching schedule was phenomenal. It has been calculated from his Journal that he often preached fifteen sermons a week and that each year he traveled between four thousand and five thousand miles. He undertook all this work, often in spite of weariness and illness. In his time, travelling was physically exhausting, even for a healthy man. One entry in Wesley's Journal reads: " I rose extremely sick; yet I am determined, if it were possible, to keep my word, and accordingly, set out soon after four for Canterbury. At Welling I was obliged to stop; after resting an hour I was much better; but soon after I took horse my sickness returned." In spite of this, Wesley preached that evening and again at five next morning.

Wesley was not a man to waste his time. He used every waking moment to advance the cause of the Gospel. In good weather he read books as he rode his horse. He managed to get through an immense amount of reading that way. Mr. Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), a statesman and prime minister, commenting on Wesley's works, said, "I am supposed to be a busy man, but, by the side of Wesley, I join the ranks of the unemployed."

But Wesley did more than call for personal salvation; he also called for social action. Books and newspapers were the luxuries of the well-to-do few. Wesley was not only an avid reader, but also a prolific writer. No man of his age did more than Wesley to give low-cost literature to the people. His output of books has been tremendous. It has been calculated that he was responsible for 233 original works and made extracts from, or edited another 100. The purpose was to provide reading material for his followers. Through his pointed writing he agitated for major reforms. He was convinced that making an open stand against all ungodliness and unrighteousness, which overspread "our land as flood" was one of the noblest ways of confessing Christ in the face of his enemies. Many books were written to impress moral standards on his converts like Advice to a Drunkard or Advice to Smuggler. They also comprised histories, dictionaries, and grammars of several languages, travel, poetry, editions of classics and the like. In 1774, thirteen years before the famous Abolition Committee was formed, Wesley published his penetrating treatise, Thoughts Upon Slavery. His argument was direct and graphic. He stated: "I absolutely deny all slave-holding to be consistent with any degree of natural justice." He even found the time and energy to publish his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament. Wesley was very generous with his money. It has been estimated that he gave away more than thirty thousand pounds, which he had earned with his pen. And the prisoners were not forgotten. In 1753 he wrote in his Journal: "I visited one in Marshalsea prison, a nursery of all manner of wickedness. O shame to man, that there should be such a place, such a picture of hell, upon earth! And shame to those who bear the name of Christ, that there should need any prison at all in Christendom."

Wesley's ministry branched out to lead miners, iron smelters, brass and copper workers, quarrymen, shipyard workers, farm-labours, prisoners and women industrial workers. New converts had to be helped. Wesley's solution was mutual-self help. His response among the coal miners was phenomenal. He worked tirelessly for their spiritual and material welfare. He opened free dispensaries, set up a kind of credit union, established schools and orphanages. So great was his success in the early days of his ministry with the miners that they were "no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness" and no longer seemed "but one remove from the beasts that perish." But not every British citizen was enthused by Wesley's moral crusade. Keepers of ale- houses, smugglers, sellers of cheap ballads, all those who could persuade the poor to waste their money on unnecessary goods had no love for Wesley.

This amazing man's vision for the spread of the Gospel reached far beyond the shores of England. He declared: "The world is my parish." He was a strong promoter of missions. He sent numerous Methodist missionaries not only across Britain, but also to Ireland, and the Caribbean. In individualistic frontier America, Wesleyan personal evangelistic zeal contributed to Methodism's dramatic growth. In the 1800s Methodist missionaries spread the Gospel around the world, planting national churches that today include millions of adherents worldwide.

Wesley fervently called for individual salvation and thousands upon thousands came to the Lord. But while emphasizing the need for "the new birth," Wesley never failed to mention the consequent responsibility for relief and social reform. His simple lifestyle and concern for slaves and the poor coupled with his evangelistic message produced radical changes in English society. In 1928 Archbishop Davidson, after pronouncing Wesley "One of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived", declared that, it was "not too much to say that Wesley practically changed the outlook and even the character of the English nation." And even secular historians point out that the social reforms coming out of the Wesleyan revival saved England from its own version of the French Revolution. Wesley brought an element of stability to the poor in society with the result they were less attracted by the godless revolutionary ideas which came across the English Channel.

J.Wesley Bready wrote in England: Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform that half a century before the French Revolution had fanned Europe into a raging and consuming blaze. Wesley taught the mighty doctrines of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity but on vastly different basis than the French philosophers and revolutionaries. He taught Liberty from sin, misery and death, through the regenerating power of the living Carpenter of Nazareth, the Saviour of men; he taught the spiritual Equality of miners and kings, both being sinners equally in need of grace and both immortal souls equally precious to their Maker. He taught the Fraternity of all mankind, independent of colour or race.

Wesley was an extraordinary Christian living in extraordinary times, who was not afraid to exemplify the Beatitude, " Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5: 16).

Johan D. Tangelder
November, 2002