Post 29, The Wesleys and the Background of Adventism

Note: It will help us to understand early Adventism if we explore the various movement from which Adventists came. Here is a short excursion into Methodism, along with Baptists the most important influence upon our pioneers.

John Wesley was born in 1703 as the fifteenth child of the Anglican rector of Epworth, the Reverend Samuel Wesley, and his wife Susannah. John Wesley wanted to transform the Church of England from within rather than develop a new organisation. However, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, at the time of his death in 1791, Wesley’s Methodist Movement had “294 preachers and 71,668 members in Great Britain, 19 missionaries and 5,300 members on mission stations, and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America.”

“Bible Moths”

A life of faith was a high priority for the young John Wesley as a student at Oxford University. His magnetic personality attracted other devout, studious young men to a group founded by his brother Charles—ridiculed by many as the “Holy Club,” “Methodists” or “Bible Moths.” Charles, writer of more than 5,500 hymns, was Samuel and Susannah’s eighteenth child. George Whitfield, one of the “Bible Moths,” would become famous in Europe and the United States as a Christian orator.

To onlookers it seemed that the derided “Methodists” at Oxford were drawn to the Bible like moths are attracted to a flame. But the Wesleys weren’t satisfied with just being part of a holy huddle. In company with Charles, by 1735 John was venturing across the Atlantic Ocean to preach in Georgia, representing the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. The experience was disappointing. The colonists sensed John’s inexperience as a minister and they detested his aversion for both gin and slavery. In 1736 Charles returned to England; the next year a disappointed John was also back home.

Both John and Charles were searching for a deeper understanding of the Bible and God’s purpose for their lives. Peter Böhler, a young Moravian Christian en route from the continent of Europe to the United States, convinced John Wesley that he lacked “that faith whereby alone we are saved.” In John’s mind were wistful memories from his 1735 crossing of Atlantic en route to Georgia when, during fierce storms, calm faith was shown by a group of Moravians. On 24 May 1738, urged by Charles, John attended a meeting in London of a small group of Moravian Brethren. John Wesley’s vivid account is available to us as a tiny part of his copious published journals:

In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change 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; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (emphasis in original).

Wesley’s heart was not only “strangely warmed” with the saving message of the Scriptures; he determined thereafter “to promote as far as I am able vital practical religion and by the grace of God to beget, preserve, and increase the life of God in the souls of men.”

Grace: “Say It!”

John Wesley was now better equipped to move multitudes with his preaching, but most of the churches were closed to him. However, he discovered coal-miners were very willing to hear his message while standing in the open air. Soon Wesley was travelling widely throughout the British Isles as an itinerant preacher; in 1747 he made his first trip to Ireland; in 1751 he made the first of 22 visits to Scotland. By 1760, as Irish and other converts migrated across the Atlantic, Methodism was taking root in North America.

Historians estimate that John Wesley travelled on horseback an average of eight thousand miles a year to proclaim the grace of God. Perhaps his journeys were longer than those of any other Christian witness who lived before his era. Certainly the famous missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul, largely on foot or by boat, were much shorter. We think that some of Wesley’s huge open-air meetings may have attracted audiences of up to thirty thousand people.

Not everyone was glad to hear Wesley’s message, however. There were “classes” in English society of the 1740s, sometimes described as the “upper ranks,” the “middling ranks” and the “lower orders,” with land ownership being the cherished key to power. As Henry D. Rack, one of Wesley’s best biographers well observes, “Men were expected dutifully to obey their betters and to be content with the lot appointed to them by God, even if they could try to prosper within their sphere.”[1] Over against this notion, some people sensed what was rightfully due to them in employment, wages and physical protection. While the poor were sometimes seen to have a religious advantage that enabled them to escape the worry of wealth, frequently they were expected to believe that poverty was ordained of God as essential for the well-being of society. So, to use Rack’s description, the eighteenth century was “punctuated by riots.”

There are many reasons why Wesley was a focal point of social tensions. A clergyman censured his teachings as presenting “an imaginary new birth, and an imaginary new faith and an imaginary assurance” of salvation in Jesus Christ. The wealthy suspected any gathering of the poor as likely to imperil their status. Pious folk felt church order was threatened by a dangerous new religion. Some tradespeople—alehouse keepers, musicians, actors and entertainers—deemed Methodist morality might cost their jobs. Since rumour can readily distort reality, it was easy to provoke unrest. Hence, in John and Charles Wesley’s journals, we read vivid account of mobs, riots, assaults, violence—and remarkable escapes that they interpreted as miraculous.

To read the Christian Scriptures is to be confronted by the command of Jesus: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15; compare Matthew 28:18-20, NIV). In 1739, John Wesley wrote, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” He was, by this statement, defending the way he disregarded recognised church boundaries that were deemed to be so important in Britain at the time. Wesley was also expressing the vision of an entire world transformed by the grace of God. Few others match John Wesley’s diligence and energy as a herald of the gospel.

Grace: “Sing it!”

The Encyclopedia of Religion in sixteen volumes, with Mircea Eliade as its general editor, is one of the best publications of its type, Such encyclopedias assign topics to experts in each of the areas under consideration; understandably, Frank Baker wrote the entry on Methodism and a single entry for the two most-famous Wesleys, John and Charles. Both brothers were itinerant preachers and able writers. If John was a master at expressing the Christian faith in prose, Charles is noteworthy for his skill in enabling people to sing their faith.

After 150 years of comparative neglect, in 2006 the world was given a comprehensive, fresh biography of Charles Wesley, written by Gary Best.[2] In 390 readable pages we get to know John’s younger brother as founder of the Holy Club, as John’s most constant travelling preacher for two decades, as founder of Methodist societies, as mentor of local preachers, and as an effective sounding-board who moderated some of John’s radical ideas. Best tells the story of Charles Wesley winsomely, helped by many graphic examples of his poetry.

Beset by illness, Charles tried to recover his health in the famous spa city of Bath. During that difficult time he wrote over two thousand items, published as Short Hymns on Select Passages of the Holy Scriptures. Not only was his health at risk, Charles was distressed by the controversy over John’s extreme concept of Christian perfection. In his poetry, Charles often struggled to present the case clearly, as when he wrote in 1749:

Thou wilt not leave Thy work undone/But finish what Thou hast begun,

Before I hence remove/I shall be, Master, as Thou art,

Holy, and meek, and pure in heart/And perfected in love.

These two sons of Samuel and Susannah Wesley were stronger together than they could ever be apart. John’s “enthusiastic religion” with its reliance on the miraculous was wisely tempered by Charles; John’s disastrous marriage was balanced by the delightful relationship between Charles and his wife Sally, even though five of their children died in infancy.

It has been claimed that “a skilful man, if the Bible were lost, might extract it from Wesley’s hymns.” At least, John said his brother’s verse was “the handmaid of piety” and contained “all the important truths of holy religion.” The compelling biographies by Henry Rack and Gary Best demonstrate the challenges and rewards of diligent Bible study and the joy of God’s transforming grace that is “open to all, regardless of their inadequacies and sinfulness.” With this in mind, the last words of Best’s book, written by Charles Wesley, seem to fit John’s faith as well:

Peace, righteousness, and joy Divine/Thou dost with love impart,

That Thou art love that Thou art mine/Assure my happy heart:

Then am I meet for Thy reward/Renew’d in holiness,

And live the image of my Lord/And die to see Thy face.

Arthur Patrick, 11 December 2011

[1] Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism (London: Epworth Press, 2002), 6.

[2] Gary Best, Charles Wesley: A Biography (Werrington, Peterborough: Epworth, 2006).