Revival and Revolution
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, and had no soap as it was not yet in common use. Infant mortality was extremely high, and a person’s life expectancy was in the forties. Clothing was expensive, so many of the cities’ poor wore rags that were, like their bedding, full of lice. Even though the penalties for crimes today seem barbaric (hanging for petty thievery), no man was safe in the cities or on the highways or even on the high seas.
Imagine a world with no street lights, with no numbers on the doors of homes to tell addresses, with no television, no radio, no telephone, no telegraph, no efficient mail system, no frozen foods or even effective refrigeration, no cars, no vending machines, no electricity, no free libraries, and no aspirin. School of any kind was for the very few; therefore literacy was very rare. Corporal punishment was public—the stocks, the whip, the clipping of ears and nose, worse.
To us today even the terms of apprenticeship seem more like slavery than like work. Young boys and sometimes girls were bound over to a master for seven years of training. They worked six days a week, every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond. Finally they might gain their freedom and set up shop on their own. Or they would journey to work for whatever masters could use them for a while.
Those that migrated to the cities from rural areas neither had the proper skills nor could find many jobs. Perhaps you could sweep streets, run behind a man’s carriage, or sell yourself as a lowly servant. Perhaps you might drink with a group of good soldiers and awaken in camp with other forcibly recruited vagabonds, bound for the wars. If you were unlucky and starving, you might fall foul of the law and be packed off to the stench of Newgate Prison. From there you might have the chance to go to the New World in a boat loaded with prisoners of all sorts. Once you left the countryside, which was closing up, you did not return. Men took to theft, women to prostitution—whatever would feed them.
Samuel Johnson, the great doctor and creator of the great dictionary of English, wrote that if a man is tired of London, “he is tired of life.” Yet Johnson himself had to write with fury a book called Rasselas to make money to give his mother a decent burial; otherwise she would have been cast in a pauper’s grave. Johnson’s friend Oliver Goldsmith wrote The Vicar of Wakefield, a documentary view of poverty in the rural England of his day. In the city or in the country poverty was the norm.
Views of city and country life with a touch of romance are in Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett. Fielding was a judge and Smollett was a medical doctor who retired to write and to live off his wealthy wife’s fortune. The Rev. Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, was so outraged by the injustice around him that he wrote “A Modest Proposal,” which ironically suggested that child abuse and infant mortality were so bad in Ireland that children there should be raised only to be cooked and eaten. Poor Swift died mad and in delirium.
One of the greatest indictments of the age was in William Hogarth’s prints about the conditions of life around him. Hogarth’s print series warn about promiscuity and idleness and extreme religiosity, particularly that strain of evangelism brought out by George Whitefield, Wesley’s friend. Gin Lane and Beer Street rival, and in some respects surpass, present-day city scenes. One ragged mother in Gin Lane is letting her crying baby fall to his death while she, oblivious, seeks her moment’s pleasure in a glass of gin. Gin was fed to the babies too, to keep them quiet, with blindness and often death as a result. The people’s love of tormenting animals at bull-baitings was equalled only by their delight in a public execution.
If a woman could find work in the slave-trading town of Bristol, Wesley’s base of operation, she could look forward to none of the privileges of modern workers. Stifling heat or bitter cold, no breaks, no benefits, no child-care, small wages, and firing for the least provocation were standard fare. Of course, there were no unions. Swearing and physical abuse set the tone of work. There was no variety, there were no vacations, there was no advancement.
If a man was able to find work in one of the coal mining towns (started when the iron works shifted from charcoal to coke), he was thankful to rise at three-thirty AM for breakfast, work in the mine shafts with poor ventilation all day, then creep into bed at nightfall to begin again the next day. On Sunday he was too dirty and too poor to find comfort in a church, and he was likely to be turned away by an Anglican beadle if he tried. He lived in a warehouse-like building in the same enormous room with other mining families and had no privacy. Yet he bred many children, and those who lived went back to work in the mines when they were old enough. It was the overseers’ policy to keep miners on the edge of starvation, and what were the miners to do? They could barely eat and there was nowhere else to work.
What we know of today as a social conscience was not a prevailing state of mind in Wesley’s day. Remember that the Declaration of Independence was written when Wesley was an old man and the Rousseau’s Social Contract was written when he was in middle age. Political guarantees were considered revolutionary. The Church of England preached that man’s station in life was a reflection of his state of grace. The monarch was God’s vicar, and the power descending down the chain of being from the throne reached to the gentry and perhaps the artisans and no further.
In this world of little hope and few options, John Wesley appeared on the scene. Where his brother Samuel followed the prescribed path for sons of the clergy—to become a stolid gentleman preacher in the Anglican Church, associating with the gentlemen and wits of the day, John and Charles Wesley took a path that was hazardous and requiring self-sacrifice. John decided to live on a stipend of 28 pounds annually (well below the poverty level by today’s standards), using any additional earnings to fund his various ministries. Charles turned down a fortune in inheritance from an Irish relative to do God’s work. What made such men? And why did they turn out so very different from their elder brother Samuel?
John Wesley was born in 1703 during the reign of Good Queen Anne. His childhood was ruled by his pious and strict mother and exacting father. His mother believed that children’s wills should be subdued, that they should be whipped soundly when they misbehaved and that they should cry softly after being whipped. John was the fourteenth child. He would have perished in a fire at Epworth Rectory except that he was snatched from the blaze by a neighbor who stood on another neighbor’s shoulders. He was seven years old at the time, and frequently thereafter his mother would remind him that he was “a brand plucked from the burning”. She felt—and he later felt—that he had been spared for a purpose, to serve God.
Samuel, John’s father, was a scholar, for many years at work on a monumental scholarly work on the Book of Job. A stern, not to say relentless preacher, once required an adultress to walk the streets in her shame and he forced the marriage of one of his daughters after she tried to elope with a man not of her father’s choosing. From his father and mother, John Wesley developed excellent study habits and also became used to physical hardship.
John Wesley went to Charterhouse School in 1714, to Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1720, and in 1726 was elected fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford. After taking a position of curate at Wroote, Lincolnshire, from 1727 to 1729, he returned to Oxford not only to continue his studies but also to begin living the holy life. Many other bright young men had gone through a curriculum like Wesley’s, but few had his diligence. He mastered at least seven languages and developed a truly comprehensive outlook on all areas of investigation. His mind never closed to inquiry for the rest of his life. When he resumed to Oxford from Wroote, he assumed leadership of a group called the Holy Club, begun by his brother Charles. Here they sought to reinforce faith through scriptural study and of measuring the quality of holiness of each member’s life.
The Holy Club did more than think and pray. They went to the prisons to bring salvation to prisoners. Although they were ridiculed by their fellow Oxfordians, from their small ranks came towering men of the age, particularly the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield. Their regimen required periodic fasts, regular study meetings and self-examination. Only much later did John Wesley realize that they followed more the letter than the spirit of Christianity.
In 1735 great changes beset John and Charles Wesley. Their father died, and both men went with Governor Ogilthorpe to the colony Georgia with their mother’s blessing and encouragement. Georgia was a test for John, who reamed that he really did not like the Indians and that his strictness was not much appreciated by the Georgians. More important than this was John’s contact with a small band of Moravians on the voyage over to the colony. These men and women fearlessly sang hymns during dreadful storms at sea while he despaired. He wanted to know the faith they seemed to have. In 1737 he returned to England.
It is to John Wesley’s credit that he could be critical enough of himself to stop now that he was an experienced minister to examine his lack of faith. Peter Boehler, a Moravian, gave him the key—to preach faith until he had it, and then he would preach faith. So it came about that John Wesley dwelled on faith until on Wednesday, May 24, 1738, at the well-known Aldersgate meeting, he had a conversion, a deep and unmistakable experience of faith. His “heart was strangely warmed.” Then his real work began in earnest.
For all his independence of mind, John Wesley could still draw on the best resources of the best minds of his time. For example, William Law was his teacher, friend, and mentor for years, but Wesley found that an important ingredient was missing from Law’s program for a devout life—faith. The Oxford Platonists were able to impart to Wesley an intellectual framework that was spiritual rather than material, but Wesley’s habit of mind was as much as molded by Newtonian analysis as by Platonism. The Moravians were the closest to a synthesis of all the elements he desired that he could find. He even visited Herrnhut to see how their community worked. But something was missing there as everywhere else, and in 1740 he and his followers broke off from the Moravians, but not before he had learned to give open-air sermons, which were an essential part of his later program.
John Wesley at age 37 began to travel and preach. He often exaggerated the numbers of those who came to hear him. Very often the very people who needed his help the most persecuted him. He would preach in pulpits until they were closed to him, and he would then preach in the open fields. He would preach three times a day, beginning at five AM since workers could stop to hear him as they walked to their daily drudgery.
He sometimes covered sixty miles a day on horseback. Weather conditions made no difference; he made his schedule and kept it regardless. He would flee an angry mob by jumping into a cold pond, swim out and go on to preach again. He had the ability to turn hostile people his way.
He went to South Wales in 1741, the north of England in 1742, Ireland in 1747, and Scotland in 1751. In all he went to Ireland forty-two times and to Scotland twenty-two times. He returned to cities again and again. Sometimes he would return years after his last visit and record that the little society he helped form was still intact and still faithful. He would examine every member of every society personally to search for faith and spiritual growth. The societies thus formed provided the local organization for his movement.
What did Wesley preach? Thrift, cleanliness, honesty, salvation, good family relations, dozens of other themes, but above all, faith in Christ. He did not ask his listeners to depart from their own churches but to continue going to them. He gave them spiritual refreshment they did not find outside his circle. As his decades of trial yielded to decades of triumph the crowds increased. High and low came to hear him speak. He developed networks of lay assistants. His exhortations to live perfectly in love today seem harsh, but consider the effects on his congregations. Swearing stopped in factories, men and women began to concern themselves with neat and plain dress, extravagances like expensive tea and vices like gin were dropped by his followers, neighbors gave one another mutual help through the societies.
Wesley taught as much by example as by his measured sermons. His annual expenses have been mentioned. He published many volumes for use in devotions and turned profits into such projects as a dispensary for the poor. His personal life was beyond reproach. He translated hymns, interpreted scripture, wrote hundreds of letters, trained hundreds of men and women, and kept in his journals a record of expended energy that has hardly a rival in western literature. His manner of speaking in the language of the common man had an immeasurable impact on the emergence of modern English, just as Charles Wesley’s numerous hymns had an impact on English hymnody, not to mention poetry of the subsequent Romantic Age.
But the impact of the Wesleys on the lower classes runs deeper than merely in habits of living and in habits of speech. John Wesley provided a religious framework that was local and personal as well as energetically moral. His theology did not disenfranchise anyone, for everyone could find God’s grace to resist evil and to be saved, if only he will seek and receive it. The societies that he formed preserved in their studies a focus on faith—a faith that also led to a way of coping with the reality of lower class living. Religion was not just for the rich, but neither was Wesley’s preaching a revolt from Anglicanism—until very late and then almost by historical accident.
John Wesley’s Anglicanism was very strong, even though Anglican pulpits became universally closed to him. Only when he was eighty-one years old did Wesley permit a rift between his followers and the national church. Having sent many men to America, in 1784 he ordained more for this missionary effort and, because “ordination is separation,” effectively started a new church. Wesley’s conservatism was political as well as religious. He published an open letter to the American colonies warning them to stay loyal to Britain just before the American Revolution. He would not have tolerated any talk of civil upheaval in England.
It has been argued that other forces were at work in England besides Wesley and a few other preachers. For example, the coming Industrial Revolution progressed faster in Britain than elsewhere giving men new kinds of work, the Justice of the Peace system and Prime Minister government were unique in form to England and gave much more power than elsewhere was possible to the local middle class, and the major problems that might otherwise have caused revolution—just were not present after 1750. Still, without Wesley and his followers, how could widespread atheism such as existed among French peasants be avoided and how could a downtrodden and vice-ridden underclass see hope?
John Wesley died on March 2, 1791, about three years after his brother Charles died. Up until his final years he made the same journal entry each year on his birthday, thanking God for his long life and his continued good health, and stating that early morning sermons and much outdoor activity had kept him fit for God’s work. From the time he became free of influence except from God, he had fifty years of steady service and did England immeasurable good through perseverance, endurance, and faith. His legacy was not just limited to his century or country, but survives today in the faith of millions in a variety of churches.
The following diary entry was made on Tuesday, 28 June, 1774:
This being my birth-day, the first day of my seventy-second year, I was considering, How is this, that I find just the same strength as I did thirty years ago? That my sight is considerably better now, and my nerves firmer than they were then? That I have none of the infirmities of old age, and have lost several I had in my youth? The grand cause is, the good pleasure of God, who doth whatsoever pleaseth him. The chief means are, I, my constantly rising at four, for about fifty years: 2, my generally preaching at five in the morning, one of the most healthy exercises in the world: 3, my never travelling less, by sea or land, than four thousand five hundred miles a year.
Copyright © 1983 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.