This week we celebrate the three hundredth birthday of John Wesley. He was born on 17th June 1703.
The story of his life and conversion are well known. Raised in a parsonage he studied at Oxford university. Ordained into the ministry of the Church of England he was a fellow of Lincoln College where he was actively involved in forming and leading a society for spiritual improvement.
After an abortive three year mission to the Indians in the colony of Georgia, he returned to England in 1738. On May 24th that year at a Moravian meeting in London he was saved as he listened to Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Paul to the Romans.
Shortly afterwards Wesley commenced his preaching ministry. Travelling all over England and Scotland to declare the great news of the gospel of Jesus.
His own story – a parson’s son, a missionary, an ordained clergyman who still needed to be born again and saved – was an affront and a threat to many in the Church. His preaching of the gospel was not appreciated by many churchmen. He was frequently opposed bitterly. Pulpits were often closed to him.
Under the encouragement of the great preacher and his friend George Whitefield, Wesley took to open air preaching. The church might have kept the Gospel out but the Spirit of God entered into the lives of many of his hearers.
Wesley organised the follow up of the converts into societies and trained lay preachers to continue the pastoral ministry as well as to extend the evangelism. He sent missionaries to America and “ordained” Thomas Coke to Superintend the work there.
John Wesley described his life’s work as: “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.”(1) By the time of his death in 1791 “there were 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Great Britain, 19 missionaries and 5300 members on mission stations and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America”(2)
While the subsequent organization of his work became the Methodist church, Wesley remained within the Church of England, and his influence within the national church was enormous.
The opposition to gospel preaching of repentance and faith in Christ, has always been staunchly opposed by those in power and position both in society and in religious establishment. It was no different in the days of the Old Testament prophets nor in the days of Jesus and the apostles. It was the pattern in the reformation and in the Evangelical awakening of the 18th century.
It is hard for those of us who feel that we have consistently stuck to the rules of our religious upbringing to accept the message of repentance and the need for rebirth. Like the older brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son – it is easy to live at home but fail to share the father’s love.
John Wesley was ostracised for his willingness to step outside the authorised structures of religion for the sake of the salvation of others. He rightly could not wait for the committees and consultations, the administration and the authorisations to bring a well-ordered evangelistic campaign to Britain. It would never have happened that way.
But like other people that the Church of England persecuted – e.g.John Bunyan and William Tyndale – John Wesley is now given a place of honour – even a saints day! But it is to be doubted that he would be any more welcome in the twenty-first century than he was in the eighteenth.
1 New International Dictionary of the Christian Church p1034
2 Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church p1467