Christian History Home > Issue 9 > Strangely warmed: the Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening
Strangely warmed: the Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening
Up to this turning-point, Wesley had been a sort of spiritual Hamlet. An Anglican clergyman for many years, he was still unsure of his vocation. He now knew that his salvation had been dearly bought, and he felt that he must endeavour to repay the mighty debt he owed by devoting his life to spreading this good news. It was the 'warmed heart' which made Wesley an evangelist. The flame lit in Aldersgate Street was the real beginning of his God-given mission. Methodism as a movement sprang from the conversion of John Wesley. and that of his brother Charles three days beforehand. At the same time, the central message of the Methodist revival was determined. 'Salvation by grace through faith' became Wesley's 'standing topic', shared by all who were his partners in preaching the gospel. His ministry was revolutionized by his recognition of this fundamental principle: that we are forgiven and made right with God on the basis of what Jesus' death and resurrection achieved, not because of our own merit or effort.
It would be hard to overestimate the impact of this one man on the age in which he lived. Other figures - especially that of George Whitefield - were undoubtedly prominent, but measured by the mark he made on England as a whole, Wesley stands above the rest. The poet Robert Southey considered him to be 'the most influential mind of the eighteenth century'. A more recent writer regards him as 'the ascendant personality' of the period. His aim was 'to reform the nation' and, by the time he died in 1791, the movement he led had made an impression for good not only on thousands of individual men and women but also on English society in general, and not least the Church of England which at first resisted his message.
As the essayist Augustine Birrell graphically expressed it, Wesley 'contested three kingdoms in the cause of Christ, during a campaign which lasted fifty years'. He travelled, mostly on horseback, close on a quarter of a million miles, or the equivalent of nine times round the earth. He reached more people with the good news of Jesus Christ than anyone before him in the British Isles, and set forces in motion which have not lost their momentum to this day.
'The great awakener'
The origins of the Methodist movement, however, and its expression in the Evangelical Awakening of which it was a part, are to be sought further back than the conversion of the Wesleys. George Whitefield was a leader of virtually comparable importance - especially in the early days of the revival.
In many ways Whitefield was the pioneer. It was he who first preached on the need for 'the new birth' as the means of entering God's kingdom. It was he who first recognized the urgency of evangelizing on 'the aggressive system'. It was he who first saw large-scale conversions to Christ. It was he who first employed lay preachers. Much that Wesley was to exploit with such success had been initiated by Whitefield.
Whitefield's conversion to Christ preceded that of the Wesley brothers by some three years. Little is known of the circumstances, except that it was while he was up at Oxford and a member of the group nicknamed the Holy Club. Whitefield evidently passed through what the mystics call 'the dark night of the soul', culminating in a prostrating illness, before 'a full assurance of faith broke in on his disconsolate soul.' He himself described his Christian experience as 'the day of my espousals, - a day to be had in everlasting remembrance. At first my joys were like a spring tide and, as it were, overflowed the banks; afterwards it became more settled -and, blessed be God, saving a few casual intervals, has abode and increased in my soul ever since.'
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