Hard Work for Christ: John Wesley

Introduction

  • In 1732, a woman named Susanna wrote a letter describing how she raised her 19 children.
  • “When [they] turned a year old (and some before), they were taught to fear the rod and to cry softly. … that most odious noise of the crying of children was rarely heard in the house…” Journal 104
  • In the same letter she also wrote, “In order to form the minds of children, the first thing to be done is to conquer the will and bring them to an obedient temper.” Journal 105
  • At home, she taught her children a catechism, the importance of the Lord’s Day, and how to read since there were no public schools yet.
  • In this home, they had 8 rules each child was taught including the private property of each child and strict observance of all promises.
  • What kind of man would be produced in a home with justice, fairness, and discipline like this?
  • From this home—as the 15th child, came John Wesley.
  • Church history has probably never recorded any man who evangelized as often or spent as many hours traveling as Wesley.

Thesis

  • If we were to draw a portrait of a man given over entirely to evangelism and building the church, it is hard to find a better example than John Wesley.

Upbringing

  1. John was the third pastor in a row following his father Samuel and grandfather John.
  2. His home had the flavor of the Puritans since both of his grandfathers had been ejected as pastors from their churches.
  3. 1710 At 6, the family home caught fire and John leapt from an upper window to be saved.
  4. When all his children were found, his father Samuel “Let the house go, I am rich enough [with these children].”
  5. 1720 At 16 he entered Oxford University where he excelled in his studies.
  6. This would become his home for the next 15 years where he tutored students who were training to be Anglican priests.

The Holy Club

  1. On all sides of his day, he saw religion—
    1. training men for ministry,
    2. ordained as an Anglican curate,
    3. and living in a society marked by Christianity.
  2. Yet he doubted his own salvation—3 times in 3 months around this time, he records that he is not ready to die. Journal 34-35
  3. As an effort to gain assurance, he began to “be diligent to make certain of His calling and election.” 2 Pet. 1:10
  4. His brother Charles and other students joining him, they formed the Holy Club with special rules to help them deny themselves and focus on religion.
  5. They would meet 3 times per week to discuss their reading, fast, pray, wake up early, and visit the poor as acts of devotion.
  6. Then John invited George Whitefield who was 11 years younger than him to join the Holy Club.
  7. But the doubts were still in Wesley’s heart.

Missionary to America

  1. 1735 At 32 years old, Wesley accepts an offer to move with his brother Charles and two friends to the new colony of America.
  2. In his journals, he records, “Our end in leaving our native country was… to save our souls.” Journal 33
  3. While on the boat they continue their dedication:
    • Wake at 4 AM for prayer
    • 5-7 AM Bible study
    • 8 AM Bible study with other passengers
    • 9 AM-12 PM Study German or Greek
    • 12 PM Accountability meeting for the 4 missionaries
    • 1-4 PM Personal evangelism with others on the boat
    • 4 PM Worship service on the boat
    • 5 PM Private prayer
    • 6 PM Personal evangelism with other passengers
    • 7 PM Worship service with the Germans
    • 8 PM Second accountability meeting for the missionaries
    • 9 PM Sleep
    • This schedule opens a window into the mind of a Methodist. His whole day was devoted to religion.
  4. These Germans were Moravians who showed Wesley a living religion, not merely discipline—true peace and love, not merely self-denial.
  5. After two years, they return from America rejected and discouraged.
  6. 1738 “I went to America, to convert the Indians; but Oh! who shall convert me?” Journal 53

Conversion

  1. The guiding hand of God brings Wesley back to the Moravians in England.
  2. Upon asking for their advice, Peter Bohler replied, “Preach faith [in Christ] till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith [in Christ].” Journal 58
  3. 1738 Four months after returning to England, John went to a Bible study with the Moravians where they read the preface to Luther’s Commentary on Romans.
  4. 1738 That night—at 34 years old—he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”
  5. Was he converted that night?
    • His doubts still returned to him. Journal 64-65
    • Three years earlier in 1735, Whitefield called Wesley “my spiritual father in Christ.” Could Wesley have been Whitefield’s spiritual father while Wesley was still a child of Satan?
    • 1733 He had printed a sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart”—5 years before his conversion. At 75 years old, he said that sermon from 1733 when he was 30 could not be improved.
  6. From this night—24 May 1738, his labors suddenly produce amazing results.
  7. Within 4 months of this experience, he was found preaching 3 times per day.
  8. Previously, his self-denial was offensive, but now both that and his emphasis on conversion angered pastors and priests in churches.
  9. Soon, he found that his first invitation was usually his last.

Field Preaching

  1. 1739 the 35-year-old Wesley saw the 24-year-old Whitefield preach in a field.
    • He was so shocked that he wrote, “I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.”
    • The very next day, 2 April 1739, though he was only 5’6” Wesley stood just outside the town and began preaching.
    • Since field preaching was his main ministry for 50 years, let us look more closely at 7 descriptions of this practice.
  2. Audience size—Massive crowds came to hear him.
    • Soon a crowd of 3,000 gathered. Journal 68
    • From then to the end of his life, the records show him preaching to 5,000; 3,000; 10,000; until once at 70 years old, 30,000!
    • What can account for this ongoing steady interest of thousands of people from all over England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland?
  3. Sermon length: 1739 3 hours; 1742 3 hours; often 2 hours
  4. Preaching frequency: 2-3 times per day.
  5. Meeting times:
    • He preached nearly each day at 1:00 PM as well as 5 or 6 PM.
    • But most remarkably, very often he preached at 5:00 AM!
    • Where did he find the audience?
    • At this time, Bibles would have cost most people 3-4 weeks salary—R3,000-4,000.
    • This early preaching seems to have been a group devotional time before the common men went to work.
  6. Natural circumstances—He preached in all conditions.
    • 1739 36-years old, preaching in a large hall to 2,000 people, the main beam snapped. “…the floor, after sinking a foot or two… I went on without interruption.” Journal 79 (Happens twice to him)
    • At another time, “The violent rains did not hinder more, I believe, than 10,000 from earnestly attending to what I spoke…” Journal 83
    • People gathered in the street “in spite of wind and snow” and then they met again in the afternoon.
    • 1759 A pigsty nearby where the people gathered overwhelmed them as they preached.
    • At other times, he preached late into the darkness and in the hail.
  7. Demonic opposition—He was not surprised when hated by the world.
    • 1741 A mob of angry men try to drive a bull into the midst of the men and women who are listening to the sermon.
    • 1748 A mob of angry men follow him and his friend throwing dirt and stones at the preachers.
    • 1749 His friend is rolled in the mud by a mob. When they try to take the second preacher, he begins to preach to them on the “terrors of the Lord.”
    • Wesley then stood on a chair: “My heart was filled with love, my eyes with tears, and my mouth with arguments. They were amazed; they were ashamed; they were melted down; they devoured every word.”
    • Many years later he will return to this city and find it reformed and peaceful.
    • These scenes of mobs are so common, that I stopped after recording in the back of the book 20 separate incidents.
    • He is constantly hated, accused, and slandered.
    • This opposition continues until he is in his 70’s—about 40 years.
  8. Duration of ministry—57 years of preaching!
    • He was actively preaching the total number of years that Spurgeon lived.
    • His ministry was longer than the lives of Edwards or Whitefield.
    • An estimated 40,000 sermons!
  9. Summary: Preaching—especially in the open—was the chief tool that Wesley used to see thousands converted.

Itinerant preaching

  1. From the beginning of his ministry, Wesley traveled from town to town preaching.
  2. He averaged 5,000 miles per year: that is over 600 hours per year on the back of a horse—2-3 hours per day!
  3. Further, as other men were converted and joined him, he required all other preachers to travel.
    • So that they would be constantly evangelizing.
    • So that they would not be tempted to put their roots too deep into earthly comforts.

The Societies

  1. What was the result of all this labor? Travels, preaching, and suffering?
    • Many people were hungry for a religion that took the Bible seriously.
    • Many were converted by the gospel.
    • What should be done with these people?
    • They were not being fed in the churches, but Wesley did not want to separate from the Anglican church.
    • He formed “societies” for these dedicated Christians to meet together.
  2. Membership
    • The societies were like clubs inside the Anglican church.
    • But they had a clear membership.
    • To be a member in the Methodist society was to submit to the Rules.
    • 1738 Some of the original “Rules” for membership
      1. That we will meet together once a week to ‘confess our faults one to another, and pray for one another, that we may be healed.’
      2. That every one in order speak as freely, plainly, and concisely as he can, the real state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.
      3. That all the bands have a conference at eight every Wednesday evening, begun and ended with singing and prayer.
      4. That any who desire to be admitted into the society will be asked, ‘What are your reasons for desiring this? Will you be entirely open; using no kind of reserve? Have you any objection to any of our orders?’ (which may then be read)
      5. That after two months’ trial, if no objection then appear, they may be admitted into the society.
      6. That no particular member be allowed to act in anything contrary to any order of the society; and that if any persons, after being thrice admonished, do not conform thereto, they be not any longer esteemed as members.
  3. Leadership
    • Stewards were chosen to gather the offerings and watch over the members.
    • Eventually superintendents were placed over a group of societies.
    • As long as Wesley lived, he was responsible at the top.
  4. An Annual Conference was started whereby all the leaders could meet for spiritual refreshment and responsibility.
  5. Wesley formed the new converts into groups complete with membership, spiritual oversight, excommunication, and fellowship.
    • In these ways, he was very Pauline.
    • Traveling, preaching, and forming bodies of believers.
    • All done around the gospel of Jesus Christ.
  6. Summary: In other words he started churches without calling them churches.

Writing

  1. Wesley’s writing fills over 30 volumes and has not yet been completely printed.
  2. Most of this writing is sermons, journals, and letters.
  3. He kept a journal for nearly 50 years and published it to encourage others spiritually.
  4. He wrote letters constantly to others to strengthen their faith.
  5. He began a magazine in his 70’s.
  6. He wrote Notes on the New Testament which is really like the notes for a study Bible.
  7. He also wrote on various other topics including a book on medicine with advice for the sick.
  8. He wrote a Concise History of the English People.
  9. But his great strength was not theological precision or powerful writing.

His death and legacy

  1. Wesley’s life is in one sense very simple and uneventful because he repeats the same methods in every little town he can find.
    • He is consumed with evangelism.
    • He cannot stop thinking about eternity.
    • On 24 February 1791, he passed into eternity praising God at 87 years old.
  2. But amazingly, this seemed to begin the story.
    • At his death, 110,000 men and women were members of Methodist societies, following the Rules.
    • 50 years later, the membership was roughly 1.1 million—10 times greater!
    • J. Hudson Taylor came from the Methodists and many other missionaries.
    • They sent out 78 missionaries just to West Africa during this time. (30 of them died within 12 months of arrival.)
    • “The growth cannot possibly be attributed to Wesley’s personality… If Wesley’s leadership was the secret, then the success would have been greatest in his lifetime. The opposite was the case, Methodism spread further and faster after his death.” Murray, 252
  3. C. Summary: Wesley’s death almost seems like removing a cork from a bottle so that the grace may flow more freely.

Lessons to learn from Wesley’s life

  1. Dedication
    • Wesley’s life presents an almost unearthly picture of a man who seemed to deny all personal desires for the sake of evangelism.
    • He rose at 4 AM for 60 or more years.
    • He preached at 5 AM consistently for many of those years.
    • He took a salary of only 30 pounds per year when common laborers were receiving 40 pounds per year.
    • 1785 “Just as I began, a wasp, though unprovoked, stung me upon the lip. I was afraid it would swell, so as to hinder my speaking; but it did not. I spoke distinctly near 2 hours in all.” Journal, quoted in Noll, 227.
    • He was influenced early on by Thomas A Kempis, and his life reminds us of A Kempis words: “It is no small matter to dwell in a [single church] or congregation, to converse therein without complaint, and to persevere therein faithfully unto death.” B. I, Ch. 17
    • He walks through snow leading his horse so that he can preach.
    • Rejection by friends, mockery from the press, opposition from the Anglican church, and even mobs of angry people did not even slow him.
    • Martyrs were more dedicated in that they paid a heavier one time cost.
    • But who has paid so many individual decisions for so many years when so much comfort could have been his?
  2. Evangelism
    • The NT places an emphasis on evangelism over social ministry.
    • Wesley kept that balance.
    • He took offerings several times to help poor prisoners.
    • He received 1,000 Sunday School children at his house when he was 83.
    • But whatever he did for the poor, he did more for souls.
    • Repeatedly, he visits beautiful castles and cathedrals always writing at the end of the journal something like, “All this will burn up very soon.”
    • Listen to the way he preached in the fields:
    • “Thou ungodly one who hearest or readest these words. … I charge thee before God, the judge of all, go straight unto Jesus with all they ungodliness. Take heed thou destroy not thine own soul by pleading thy righteousness more or less. Go as altogether ungodly, guilty, lost, destroyed, deserving and dropping into hell… Thus look unto Jesus! … Plead thou no works, no righteousness of thine own! … No! Plead thou singly the blood of the covenant…”
    • And connected to that, Wesley was beyond his time in understanding that true evangelism must result in new churches.
    • In this way, he was beyond some of the Reformers who spoke more about the state and society than about NT evangelism and churchplanting.
    • He saw conversion as a great work that must be carefully produced and scrupulously guarded.
  3. Self-deception
    • Great men have great faults and this is sadly the case with Wesley. Some of his errors were doctrinal, but some were practical.
    • Baby sprinkling—Babies should be sprinkled to seal them in the New Covenant.
    • Arminian theology
      • God does not choose who will be saved.
      • Wesley and Whitefield disagreed on this point, but Wesley printed an attack on Whitefield.
      • Thankfully after 9 years they were restored even though they never agreed on the doctrine.
    • Perfectionism
      • Like Richard Baxter, Wesley hated antinomianism—the false teaching that there is no law for the one who is saved by faith.
      • In order to combat this false doctrine, he taught that men can reach a perfect condition through hard work.
    • Neglecting wife
      • Like Richard Baxter, Wesley also married when he was 47.
      • The month he was married he wrote in his journal, “I cannot understand how a Methodist preacher can answer it to God to preach one sermon or travel one day less in a married than in a single state.” 185
      • Eventually she left him, and he did not pursue her.
      • And he thought he had Scripture on his side (1 Cor. 7:15, 29).
  4. Wide learning
    • While riding on horseback, he read hundreds of books.
    • 1748 Of Homer “What an amazing genius had this man!”
    • He reads works of geography (such as Ireland), history (such as the English civil war), and biography (such as Richard Baxter).
    • He even read science and medicine. Journal 304
    • You can find him with unbelieving philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire (who were alive with him). Journal 309
    • He also loves classical music, gardens, and ancient architecture.
    • The Journal has many references to his reading or reflections on art.
    • It seemed to me that he was enjoying all the things of earth, but keeping his enjoyment in proportion to the real, temporary value in comparison with eternity.
    • Godly men today would be more interesting and more sound in their faith if they could see how Christ governs the whole world.

Conclusion

  • Wesley was a dedicated, driven man.
  • But his story highlights the many men and women who were willing to stand in the snow, listen in the rain, meet at 5 AM, and evangelize in their own villages.
  • The story of Wesley is best understood as a wide scale revival of many unnamed Christians who denied themselves and took up their crosses to follow Christ.
  • In an age of half-hearted Christianity, we need Wesley’s example.

Bibliography
The Journal of John Wesley, edited by P. L. Parker, Moody Press.
Murray, Iain. Wesley and Men Who Followed. Banner of Truth, 2003.

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