John Wesley grew up in a world of rapid change, very much like ours in some respects and very different in others. The whole way of work was changing in eighteenth-century England. Revolutions in smelting, spinning, and distilling created whole new industries. The world of science was unfolding—the first chemical tables, the first comprehensive biological classification system, the first experiments with the physics of electricity, of photographic materials, and of the steam engine, emerged during Wesley’s life.

Meanwhile, the cities collected the debris of society. Poverty, gin, and filthy living conditions in the city contrasted with the refined life of the new city gentry and the new country gentry, with their ample incomes or lands. The gentleman with his fixed income did not worry about work. He bought a military commission or spent his days with good friends and good literature, as did the young James Boswell. Very few Britishers were this fortunate.

When Wesley began his itinerant preaching in the seventeen thirties, there were no railroads, only a few coach lines, a network of notoriously bad dirt roads, no well-marked maps, no restaurants, and only occasional inns. Instead of welfare or any other relief for the poor, the government gave punishment for the crime of poverty—confinement to a work house. Churches helped some of the poor, but they were mainly the domain of the well-to-do. Still, only five or six members of Parliament even went to church!

Personal health and cleanliness were deplorable. The plague, smallpox, and countless diseases we call minor today had no cures. Rodent and insect control was minimal. Most dwellings had no running water, had chamber pots only for elimination, ...

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