Saints and Heroes Since the Middle Ages - George Hodges


John Wesley


John Wesley had fourteen brothers and sisters. One time, after he had become a man, he asked his mother to write out some of the methods which she had used in bringing up her large family, and her reply he copied in his journal. She taught her children, when they were punished, to cry softly, "by which means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had." They were so constantly accustomed to eat and drink what was set before them, whether they liked it or not, that there was no difficulty in making them take medicine: "they durst not refuse it." Mrs. Wesley said that "in order to form te minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper." As soon as they could speak, they were taught the Lord's Prayer, which they said at rising and at bedtime, and "they were very early made to distinguish the Sabbath from other days." Every act of obedience, "especially when it crossed upon their own inclinations," was commended and rewarded. All property rights were very carefully observed. No child was "suffered to invade the property of another in the smallest matter, though it were but of the value of a farthing, or a pin." Every day the older children read aloud to the younger the Psalms for the day, out of the prayer-book, and a chapter of the Old Testament in the morning, and of the New Testament in the evening.

In this orderly household Wesley passed his early years. His father was a clergyman of the Church of England, and he was to follow in his steps. The life was strict and sober, but the children enjoyed themselves so much the more. They were very merry. It is remembered of John that he was "gay and sprightly, with a turn for wit and humor."

In due time he went to college at Oxford, and entered the ministry at the age of twenty-two. Part of his time he spent as an assistant in his father's parish, where he "read plays, attended the village fairs, shot plovers in the fenlands, and enjoyed a dance with his sisters," and perhaps with some who were not his sisters; besides attending to his more serious duties. But his chief interest was in the university. He was made a teacher of Greek there, and had a group of students about him whom he tutored.

All this time, religion was as natural to Wesley as eating and drinking. He was in no way disturbed by it, nor was he very earnestly concerned about it. His conscience did not trouble him. He was determined, however, to make the most of himself. He kept a diary in which he set down how he used his time; having his hours and tasks very carefully arranged,—this he would do at eight, and that at nine, and so on through the day. He began to read books of devotion, especially the writings of Thomas à Kempis. He gradually gather about him a little company of Oxford men who agreed to spend their evenings together. On weekdays they read the classics aloud, and on Sundays the Greek Testament. More and more, the life of religion seemed to these young men to be the supreme thing. They made rules for themselves, fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and going to the Holy Communion every Sunday. One day they heard about a man who was in the Oxford jail for killing his wife, and they went to visit him. That led to other visits to the prisoners. Presently, they began to go about among the poor, praying with them and reading the Bible.

This behavior attracted attention in the university. And, curiously enough, very few liked it. The young tutors and fellows were laughed at. Their little association was called the Godly Club, or the Holy Club. The men were called Methodists, because they kept the rules of the Church, and tried to live the life of religion methodically. When they went to church, they found a crowd of students by the door waiting to jeer at them as they went in.

It is hard for us to-day to imagine a time when young men were made unpleasantly conspicuous by going to church. There are men, indeed, who do not go to church themselves, and are not interested in religion, but they commonly respect those who are. At Oxford, in the beginning of the eighteenth century, men who showed an uncommon interest in religion were not respected. They were called hypocrites.

This was largely on account of a general dislike of Puritans. The great Puritan movement had been followed by reaction. The English people were like young men who have been brought up so strictly that when they get their own way at last they rebel against everything which they have been taught. Having been compelled to go to church, they resolve that they will never go again, and they devote themselves to the pleasures which were forbidden them at home. When the Puritan Commonwealth was over, and the monarchy and the Church were restored, a great part of the nation rejoiced in a new liberty. "Now," they said, "we will have a good time." They hated the very name of Puritan. It meant a long face, and a constant habit of quoting from the Bible, and a disapproval of even innocent amusement. It was represented by the Puritan minister at a wedding who congratulated himself that his presence there had banished all carnal joy from the occasion. The result was that all earnestness in religion was associated by many people with the days which they remembered with dislike. John Wesley and his Methodists at Oxford were suspected of being Puritans.

Wesley's enthusiasm led him to become a missionary. At that time, any zealous person who wished to do difficult mission work came to America. Thus Wesley took ship for Georgia, intending to devote himself to the conversion of the American Indians.

Among his companions on the sea were certain German emigrants who were of the Moravian religion. The early Moravians were disciples of John Hus. After many persecutions they had fled from Moravia, and a company of them had been invited by Count Zinzendorf to settle on his estates in Saxony. There they had built a town called Herrnhut. They had become a society in the Lutheran Church, as the Franciscans and the Jesuits were societies in the Roman Church. Out of Herrnhut these German emigrants had come, offering themselves for Christian work in Georgia. Now, on the voyage, there was a tremendous storm, and the wind split the mainsail, and the ship seemed likely to go down. but while most of the passengers were greatly excited and overcome with terror, the Moravians said their prayers with entire serenity of spirit and seemed quite ready to accept, with cheerfulness, whatever came, whether life or death. Wesley felt that they had something in their religion which he lacked.

They all arrived in Georgia safely, and Wesley was put in charge of the parish of Savannah. But the Indians were in the woods, and Wesley could not reach them. Even the English did not receive him with much satisfaction, for immediately he insisted on applying to the people there in the wilderness the rules which he and the Holy Club had kept at Oxford. He proposed to have all the provisions of the prayer-book observed strictly. He declared that infants must be baptized by immersion, because that method was given the preference in the book. He required that everybody who intended to come to the Holy Communion must give notice the day before, according to the book. And one young woman who had neglected to give such notice he repelled from the Lord's Table. Unhappily, this young woman had been so great a friend of Wesley's that he had asked her to marry him, and she had declined, and had married another. The young minister's action was laid to jealousy and anger. And all her friends were so indignant about it that Wesley thought it wise to bring his ministry in Savannah to a rather abrupt close. He suddenly departed from the town, and from the colony, and returned to England.

One of the complaints against Wesley was that he introduced new hymns into the service of the Church. He published, in Charleston, in 1737, a book of Psalms and Hymns, some of which he had translated from the German. It was the beginning of a new use of music in the eighteenth century for the stirring of religious emotion. The singing at revival meetings goes back for its origin to Wesley's book. The hymns of Charles Wesley contributed almost as much to the renewal of religion in England as the sermons of John.

Also, in Savannah, Wesley formed a society. He had in his congregation a company of devout persons who met together like the Holy Club at Oxford. They began and ended their meetings with singing and praying, and in the midst of these exercises they read the Bible and talked about it. It was the idea which was at the heart of the administration of the great movement which Wesley was soon to start—this assembly of like-minded persons to pray and sing and speak together directly and informally.

Wesley said, the year before he died, "I do not remember to have felt lowness of spirits for a quarter of an hour since I was born." His journal shows, however, that he returned from Georgia much depressed. He felt that he had made a failure of his ministry. On the return voyage there was another dangerous storm, and he remembered the Moravians. He doubted if he had ever in his life been a good Christian. He perceived that all his excellent doctrines, and his endeavors to grow in grace by means of the customs and sacraments of the Church, still left him cold. He seemed to himself like a house well-built, but neither warmed not lighted. Looking back over his ministry in later life, he said that thus far his labors bore no fruit, because at first he "took for granted that all his hearers were believers and that many of them needed no repentance."

Arrived in London, Wesley found a young Moravian named Peter Böhler. Böhler told him that what he needed was faith: not faith in the sense of accepting certain articles of belief, but faith as Luther taught it, meaning a real and personal approach to Christ. And Böhler said that this living faith comes definitely, often suddenly, into the soul. Böhler told Wesley that what he needed was to be converted, and by conversion he meant this sudden emotion, this feeling of assurance of salvation.

On the twenty-fourth of May, 1738, Wesley opened his Bible early in the morning, and looked to see what text would meet his eye, and it was St. Paul's saying about "great and precious promises." In the afternoon, he attended the service at St. Paul's Cathedral, and was deeply impressed by the anthem, which

This experience was the beginning of a new kind of ministry. Wesley began to bring others into his own religious happiness. At first in Fetter Lane, then in a foundry in Moorfields, he preached his new gospel, and began the formation of a new society. He may have remembered how Francis founded the Franciscans and Dominic the Dominicans; he may have had in mind the society of the Moravians, within the Lutheran Church; or he may have been conscious only of the human impulses which call people together into organization. Whatever the reason, Wesley set about the establishment of societies. He was not content with appealing to the people, and bringing them into a new way of living, he made the appeal effective and kept them in the new way by organizing them into bands. He had a genius for that kind of work. Wherever he went he found a great response of emotion, people groaned and cried, sometimes they fainted; Wesley hardly knew whether it was the work of good spirits or bad. But he never failed to see to it that the people thus affected and converted were put under instruction and oversight. There were necessary expenses connected with the meetings, and the people were asked to pay a penny a week. One man said, "I will pay my penny and collect the money of eleven others." Wesley made these twelve into a "class," and the collector was the "leader." When they brought their pennies, they stayed for prayers; they talked together concerning their various religious experiences, speaking of their temptations and trials and of the divine assistance. By-and-by, to experience meetings were added conferences, and watch-nights, and love-feasts. In order to enter the society one must have a desire to flee from wrath to come and to be saved from sin; and evidences of salvation must be shown "by doing no harm, by doing good of every possible sort, by attending on all the means of grace." The societies bore the name by which Wesley had been called at Oxford; they were called Methodists. And all the Methodists belonged to the Church of England, as all the Franciscans belonged to the Church of Rome.

The new preaching attracted crowds of hearers. Partly because it was new, but much more because it was plain and earnest and direct, people came to hear it. Many who listened felt that the preacher spoke straight to their own souls. They felt the burden of their sins, and he told them how to get rid of it by giving themselves to Jesus Christ. "Victory over sin was the goal which he set before all his people." He went about, as his Master had gone, among the poorest people. He found them ignorant, indifferent to religion, and drunken. It seemed to him that nobody was caring for their souls.

At first he preached in pulpits, but many of the regular ministers did not like what he said. And whether they liked it or not, the congregations were too big for the churches. He began to preach in the churchyards, and in the streets, and in the open fields. People came in thousands. Thus he went from one town to another. Early in his ministry he formed the habit of getting up every morning at four o'clock; and almost every day he preached at five. For years he traveled five thousand miles a year and preached fifteen sermons every week.

He had to have assistance, but he could not find ministers enough to help him. Some did not approve of him, some could not leave their parishes. He made preachers out of the people. Presently he had a hundred earnest men who had been converted by his preaching, and were going out to preach to others. The movement extended out of England into Ireland, into Scotland, into America. It aroused the whole English-speaking people.

Wesley met with continual opposition. People hooted at him, and stoned him. Sometimes when he spoke in a churchyard, they rang the bells so that his voice could not be heard. In one place they drove a herd of cows in among the congregation as they stood in the street. In another place, "we came into town," says Wesley, "about eleven; and many people seemed very desirous to hear for themselves, concerning the way which is everywhere spoken against; but it could not be; the sons of Belial gathered themselves together, headed by one or two wretches called gentlemen; and continued shouting, cursing, blaspheming, and throwing showers of stones, almost without intermission. So that after some time spent in prayer for them, I judged it best to dismiss the congregation."

One time a mob beset the house where he was staying. "Bring out the minister!" they cried, "we will have the minister!" Wesley went out and "spoke a few words, which God applied," and they all cried with might and main, "The gentleman is an honest gentleman, and we will spill our blood in his defense." One day he writes in his journal, "To attempt speaking was vain, for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea; so they dragged me along till we came to the town, where seeing the door of a large house open I attempted to go in; but a man, catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob. I broke out aloud into prayer. And now the man who had just before headed the mob, turned and said, 'Sir, I will spend my life for you; follow me and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head.'" And Wesley adds, "from the beginning to the end I found the ssame presence of mind as if I had been sitting in my own study."

Thus he preached day after day. His journal reads like the account in the Acts of the missionary journeys of St. Paul.

But there were attentive congregations, too. "In the midst of the sermon, a large cat, frightened out of a chamber, leaped down upon a woman's head, and ran over the heads and shoulders of many more; but none of them moved, or cried out, any more than if it had been a butterfly."

Wherever he went, the sick were made well by his prayers. "I dined with one," he says, "who told me in all simplicity, 'Sir, I thought last week that there could be no such rest as you described; none in this world, wherein we could be so free, as not to desire ease in pain; but God has taught me better; for on Friday and Saturday, when I was in the strongest pain, I never once had a moment's desire of ease, but only that the will of God might be done.'" And in many places the results were such as were described among the miners of Kingswood. "Kingswood does not now, as it did a year ago, resound with cursing and blasphemy. It is no more filled with drunkenness and uncleanness, and the idle diversions that naturally lead thereto. It is no longer full of wars and fightings, of clamor and bitterness, of wrath and envyings: peace and love are there."

Wesley ministered not only to the souls but to the minds of the poor people. "No man in the eighteenth century did so much to create a taste for good reading, and to supply them with books at the lowest prices." This printing became a great business, and the money which Wesley made by it he used for the relief of poverty. He provided those who were in distress with clothes and food. He established lending offices for the help of struggling business men. To all these interests he brought his wonderful genius for organization. He changed the life of England.

All this time, the Methodists were a society in the English Church. Wesley would not allow them to hold their meetings at the hours when there was service in the parish churches. They were sent to the regular ministers for the sacraments.

But in America the Church of England had no bishops. There was great need of supervision and nobody to supervise. And at last Wesley appointed men for the American work, who were at first called superintendents, but were soon called bishops. Wesley felt, indeed, that he was himself a bishop by the grace of God, as St. Paul was. But the final result was separation. During Wesley's life the Methodist societies continued in the Church, but when the end of his long labors came, the desire of the leading Methodists waited no longer. Out they came into independence.

Wesley lived through the hard days of opposition into a time when almost all men revered him. He was recognized in England as one who belonged with the saints and the apostles. One who knew him in those days said, So fine an old man I never saw. The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance." He might well be happy. He had served God with all his strength; he had saved souls; he had fought the good fight; he knew that there was laid up for him the crown of righteousness which is the reward of the faithful servants of God.