Christian History Home > 1986 > Issue 9 > Strangely warmed: the Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening
Strangely warmed: the Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening
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The scene is set in the city of Oxford, England. It is a warm Sunday afternoon in June. The year is 1738.
As the clock in the famous Tom Tower strikes two, an impressive procession moves slowly into the university church of St Mary the Virgin on High Street. It is led by an official bearing the insignia of the 'Vice-chancellor, followed by the Vice-chancellor himself arrayed in all his finery. Sandwiched between him and the university Proctors is the select preacher for the day, with the scarlet-robed Doctors of Divinity bringing up the rear.
This is a university service which all resident members are expected to attend. The church fills as a hymn is sung and a bidding prayer offered. Then the preacher, small in stature and quiet in manner, announces his text from Ephesians 2:8-'By grace are ye saved through faith'.
Before long it is clear that this is no routine sermon. It is a cry from the heart and a call to battle. It is the manifesto ofa new movement within the church of God.
It heralds the advent of what became known as "the Methodist revival'.
The preacher was John Wesley, almost thirty-five years of age, the son of a cleric and a Fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford. The message was a re-affirmation of the Protestant Reformers' emphasis on free grace and saving faith. Nothing but this, Wesley declared, could check the immorality which was flooding the land. Endeavouring to empty 'the ocean of wickedness' drop by drop through piecemeal reforms was a futile exercise. Only the proclamation of the 'righteousness which is of God by faith' could stem the tide of permissiveness.
In such direct and uncompromising terms Wesley threw down his challenge. It was more than enough to disturb the customary calm of a Sunday afternoon university service. It represented the opening salvo of a campaign which was to cover the whole of England and eventually spread far beyond it.
John Wesley's own days as a don at Lincoln College, Oxford had ended in 1735 but, while there, his rooms had been the rendezvous for the so-called 'Holy Club', formed in 1729. This dedicated group of tutors, graduates and undergraduates -never more than some twenty in number-combined prayer, fasting and Bible study with visits to the sick, the poor and those in prison. The members may have been strangers to the experience of Christian conversion at the time, but their commitment to each other and to those they tried to help was exemplary. Even after Wesley's departure from Oxford the group continued to function and, indeed, to extend its influence.
Between 1735 and 1738, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, undertook a mission to the Indians and colonists in Georgia, which proved a fiasco. On his return to England, John Wesley wrote, 'I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?' Yet the university service in June 1738 saw him preaching with new-found conviction and issuing an epoch-making appeal to a decadent nation. What had made the difference?
The most significant fact was that only eighteen days before preaching this sermon, Wesley had experienced an evangelical conversion. His heart had been 'strangely warmed', as he put it, at a little meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, where someone read from Martin Luther's preface to Paul's letter to the Romans. The passage describes the nature of faith - the faith that brings a man into a right relationship with God. Wesley had already accepted the doctrine of justification by faith with his mind. Now, under the instruction of his Moravian friend, Peter Bohler, he began to seek the reality of it for himself. On 24 May 1738, he became truly aware of it for the first time, and received an assurance that the death of Jesus Christ had indeed freed him from the punishment he deserved for his sin.
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