A Calvinist’s appreciation of the Arminian Wesley.
One criterion for our Statues of Liberty is that they have ‘sustained our Judeo-Christian culture and heritage by serving others and protecting the weak’. Today’s candidate saved Britain from bloody revolution and was instrumental in shaping the society we know today.
Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Britain was not a pleasant place. If you wanted a mid-life crisis you had to start in your late teens, since life expectancy was about 40. Hogarth’s works accurately illustrate the political corruption and moral laxity prevalent throughout society. ‘Drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence’ was the lot of many, whilst vast edifices such as Blenheim Palace flaunted the wealth and power of the elites.
The rapid acceleration of the Industrial Revolution drew workers from the countryside to the squalid life of the city. The rural poor became the urban poor. Too often working conditions were atrocious, with child labour keeping industry going and families fed. Dickens’s descriptions of social conditions, whilst sentimentally expressed, are accurate in substance.
In the countryside, the Enclosure Acts took common land belonging to the people and gave it to the wealthy, causing widespread resentment. An English folk song proclaimed:
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
Across the Channel, in the name of Liberté, égalité, fraternité, France plunged into a ruinous orgy of revolutionary bloodletting. This led to a disastrous military dictatorship which spread the bloodshed throughout Europe during Napoleon’s wars.
The period 1789-1848 was marked by revolutions throughout Western Europe, but not in Britain. Likewise when Marxism grew as a serious political movement in Europe in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Britain, although sheltering Marx and Engels, remained immune, undergoing a steady, if painful, evolution of political structures.
Why the difference? Historian G M Trevelyan remarked: ‘If the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.’ The unbridgeable gulf between aristocracy and peasantry was a significant factor in the French Revolution, but it would have taken more than the duke being bowled by the stable boy to fend off revolution in Britain.
On 24 May 1738 an Anglican minister, having returned from a failed pastorate in colonial Georgia, attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London. There he heard a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. John Wesley reported that ‘About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation’. Wesley’s faith had become a matter, not of striving and attainment, but of a personal relationship with Christ.
Wesley was urged by his friend George Whitefield, the greatest preacher of his age, to join him. Whitefield was having remarkable success, especially in Bristol. Hundreds of working-class poor, oppressed by industrialising England and neglected by the Church, were experiencing emotional conversions under Whitefield’s impassioned preaching.
The reserved Wesley was uncomfortable with emotional reactions to his own preaching and distrusted Whitefield’s more dramatic style. He also questioned the propriety of outdoor preaching. However, with the need so clear, Wesley overcame his inhibitions and with his impressive organisational skills, he quickly became the new leader of the movement.
The C of E of the day was largely lax and lifeless, a ‘gentry Christianity’ where too many indolent younger sons were parked in the Church to keep them out of harm’s way. ‘Enthusiasm’ was considered dangerous.
Wesley and those he gathered were enthusiastic. Wesley remained a priest of the Church of England until his death, but rejection by the establishment and his organisational genius forced him to work outwith its structures.
Wesley and his Methodists committed themselves to serving the poor; starting a spiritual and social revival touching every aspect of life. The first free medical dispensary for the poor was established, a rheumatism clinic in London. Societies for the unemployed were begun. In a period that viewed poverty as an indicator of the worth of the individual, Wesley preached God’s love for all mankind and consequent unrestricted love for one’s neighbour.
Schools were started where Methodist teachers and preachers provided elementary knowledge, and also the basic Christian truths of a life that honoured God. Methodism instilled a deep sense of the duty of educating and training children. Parents unable to pay for the cost of schooling were exempt, and needy children were clothed and fed.
The social impact of Wesley’s teaching spread beyond Methodism. His best-known saying, ‘Do all the good you can. Save all you can. Give all you can,’ changed the lives of millions and created a social atmosphere enabling a previously despised underclass to take responsibility for their own lives. Many rose out of poverty, creating England’s stable, responsible middle class, the bedrock of its prosperity and bulwark against revolution.
Travelling on horseback Wesley covered more than 4,000 miles a year. During his lifetime he preached about 40,000 sermons. When he died in 1791, aged 87, he left a Methodist following with 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers.
Countless souls were saved and a country was changed utterly, saved from the depredations of revolutionary turmoil. By the end of his life, Wesley was deservedly described as ‘the best-loved man in England’.
Although Whitefield and Wesley parted ways they respected each other. Asked if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven, Whitefield replied, ‘I fear not, for he will be so near
the eternal throne and we at such a distance, we shall hardly get sight of him.’