The world of Wesley and Whitfield Is Britain in the 17 hundreds … It’s the age of empires, of the industrial revolution. The common land is enclosed and dispossessed are flocking to the cities, to centres of industry and factories. To London, to Newcastle, to Bristol.
Slum tenements are thrown up and the poor fill them. Bristol is a large thriving city, with a population of 20,000 which will treble over the coming century. Glass blowing, chocolate, tobacco, coal mining and ship building, and most of all the slave trade will form major industries. And as with all cities, disease, poverty and starvation are daily realities.
And the Church of England, formed 2 centuries ago, has become the possession of the gentry, a suitable profession for gentlemans sons, with an Oxford or Cambridge education who speak Latin and Greek.
Some, like Wesley’s parents, follow God wholeheartedly and shepherd their flock diligently. But for many ordination is a wage and nothing more : priests who don’t turn up from one year to the next, who don’t believe, who drink and gamble. Communion is offered twice yearly at most. The poor flocking to the cities, like the migrant miners of Kingswood, often fall between parishes and are cared for by none. The people are hungry for more.
Into this world Wesley comes. He follows God wholeheartedly, legalistically, attempting purity, working hard and at 37, with his degrees, ordination, compassionate works and a disastrous mission to the new colonies in America behind him, he finally understands salvation by grace. Up until this point this point ‘his vast theological reading, love of worship, knowledge of bible, self discipline and compassion hadn’t saved him but (now they ) were at the service of the gospel.’
For the next 50 years he would work hard, ride 280,000 miles, preach 54 thousand times. From his first prison visits as a student grows a vast number of compassionate works : orphanages, schools, pharmacies, surgeries, prisons changed and poor clothed.
Never appointed to a parish by the C of E , by his death 79,000 count themselves Methodists : men and women saved by faith in the gospel alone and built into societies for discipleship and accountability, whose desire for the word of God and taking of communion would lead to an inevitable break with Wesley’s beloved Church of England.
He was no saint : arrogant, self centred, unable to accept he was wrong and disastrous with women, yet God used him. As we travel to the New Rooms and the first ever Methodist chapel, I will tell you a couple of stories about this master builder, starting with his impact on individuals, then how he changed towns, especially Bristol, and finally our nation.
Firstly : Impact on individuals
I think the effect Wesley had on people is beautifully illustrated by a story he tells in this in his journal of a cartload of the new converts being carried before their justice of peace. When the Justice asked what they had done one man replied “Why they pretended to be better than other people and besides, they prayed from morning to night “. The justice asked “but have they done nothing besides?” “Yes sire, said an old man, ant please your worship, they have convarted my wife, till she went among them she had such a tongue! And now she is quiet as a lamb.” “Carry them Back, carry them back” replied the justice. “And let them Convert all the scolds in town.”
Another person was the Bristolian Abel Dagge. 0ne of Whitfield”s first converts, he was encouraged and supported by Wesley, who often visited the Newgate prison in Bristol where Dagge worked. We will pass the site of the prison as we drive through the centre of town. Over the years, Dagge singlehanded reformed the prison from the inside and in 1761 Wesley wrote to the London Chronicale listing the improvements Abel Dagge had made:
Due to prisoners cleaning their cells, the whole prison was physically clean. There was no fighting or brawling as Dagge settled disputes on the spot having listened to both sides. He had eradicated cheating, drunkeness abd prostition. He enabled men to carry o their professions, providing tools and materials for employment. Services of worship were compulsory ,and a Bible made available for the prisoners to read. Wesley finished the letter :
By the blessing of God on these regulations the prison now has a new face: nothing offends either the eye or ear, and the whole has the appearance of a quiet, serious family. And does not the keeper of Newgate deserve to be remembered full well? May the Lord remember him in that day! Meantime, will no one follow his example?
One Bristolian, saved by grace, discipled and encouraged by his local church community, changed a whole institution.
Not every individual Wesley came into contact with had such a good story to tell. He was a charismatic, likeable, impressive man – and he had a disastrous history with women.
Throughout his life Wesley confused discipleship, and spiritual encouragement, with romantic love. Or possibly the other way round. As a young man he had a pattern of becoming intimately involved, both spiritually and romantically, with women, and yet wouldn’t commit because he could not settle himself that his life would involve marriage. Out in the new colony of Georgia, one such relationship and his inability to cope with the young woman in question’s decision to marry another man led to him being hounded out of the country and fleeing tail between his legs to England.
In his forties he met and fell in love with Grace Murray, who could have been the helpmeet for his life …. But again he dithered and lost her to another man.
His eventual marriage to Mary Vazeille, a rich widow with two sons, has gone down in history as one of the worst of a notable christian leader. He wouldn’t contemplate slowing down his ministry for marriage. She didn’t like the travelling, the hardship, the mobs, and wasn’t equipped to lead the Methodist women. In return his closest friends and advisors didn’t like her and let her know it. Mary would take wesley’s letters, reword them so as to be damaging, and get them published. As well as vicious, the marriage was violent : Once she was seen dragging him around the floor by his characteristic long hair. Wesley continued his over involved relationships with young women who he considered in need of spiritual discipleship – on reading his private letters, Mary accused him publically of having affairs.
He wrote about her and his disastrous marriage to Sarah Ryan – one of the woman Mary had accused him of an affair with. In his letter he describes Mary’s fury at finding an as yet unsent letter to Sarah which ‘broke her heart’ and put her in ‘such as temper as I have not seen her in for several years’. This, he concluded, was God’s way of showing that his correspondence to Sarah was blessed and he should continue with it.
Continually separating and arguing, his marriage continued unhappily until her death 30 years later.
However he was capable of amazing friendships : his closeness with his brother and partner in his work Charles Wesley survived despite their disagreement on how to remain within the Church of England. Charles who wrote ‘Hark the Herald Angels sing’ amongst thousands of others, lived here in Bristol too.
And his relationship with Whitfield too lasted till his death despite many predictions it could not. Whitfield was a Calvinist – he believed In predestination and that God has already called and chosen his elect who would be saved. Wesley was an Arminian – he believed that God desired all to be saved and that anyone could respond and be saved, and also that they had then to hold on and pursue God to the end.
This was the big issue of its day – and similar perhaps to today, the disagreement was more fierce between their followers than the men themselves. Nowadays we have Twitter and blogs- back then theological disputes happened through the printing of pamphlets, public letters and preaches. Whitfield and Wesley agreed not to preach and print their differences in public, because of the impact that could have on the work of God.
But in Bristol Wesley is put under pressure and finally agrees to print on his theology. Whilst Whitfield is in America, misunderstandings abound on both sides. Whitfield feels compelled to respond publically, but also writes privately to Wesley to tell him what he is about to do.
As things do, a copy of Whitfield’s public letter condemning Wesley’s theology arrives in the UK before the private letter does and, it is copied and distributed at a meeting where Wesley is due to preach. Wesley enters the meeting, gets hold of a copy and makes his way to the front where he holds it up. ‘A private letter, wrote to me by Mr Whitefiled, has been printed without his leave or mine. I will do just what I believe Mr Whitefield would were he here himself’ and tears it up. The congregation do the same, and Wesley prevents a private disagreement from ruining forever his relationship with Whitfield and worse, derailing the whole revival in England.
By believing the best of each other, and by talking face to face, by not listening to the twittering of followers and the public gossip, by agreeing to do God’s work in their own way, Wesley and Whitfield managed to hold fast to their friendship and work together despite their irreconcilable theological differences and the eventual going of separate ways of their movements.
So what was Wesley’s impact on Bristol?
Wesley was first entreated to come to Bristol, by Whitfield amongst others. He says ‘This I was not at all forward to do.’ And his brother Charles says ‘we dissuaded my brother from going to Bristol, from an unaccountable fear that it would prove fatal to him’
But come he did, and here he found not only the minors of Kinsgwood, but thousands of Bristolians who would gather to hear him preach. On one occasion so many people crowded into the room that the floor collapsed beneath them : thankfully it was supported by the barrels of tobacco the owner had recently invested in and only dropped 6 inches… Welsey just kept on preaching and the crowd continued to listen.
Welsey was welcomed by the societies in Bristol : these were small groups of committed christians who met together weekly to serve as an inspiration to ministers and examples to others. Here in Bristol, under Wesley,s leadership and with converts being added weekly, they were confident enough to join together and invest in land and property, to build permanent premises – Wesley’s room which we are travelling to see. Their confidence wasn’t misplaced : two and a half centuries later, the rooms are here and used for their original function – a claim which can’t be made for any other building in Broadmead.
Working from Bristol and his other two apostolic bases in London and Newcastle, Wesley would replicate the pattern of Bristol. In each town and village he and his itinerant ministers would preach to the working class poor, gather them into the already existing societies or set up new ones, and they would build their own chapel or meeting house.
Here in Kingswood you can see his effect by the number of Methodist buildings we
Kingswood became a by word for a place where the word of God was received: Wesley writes :
kingswood does not now, as a year ago, resound with city cursing and blasphemy, it is no more filled with drunkeness and uncleaness. No longer full of wars and fightings, of wrath and envying. Peace and love are there, great numbers of the people are mild, gentle and easy to be entreated. Hardly is their ‘voice heard in the streets’ or indeed, in their own wood, unless they are at their usual evening diversion, singing praise unto God their saviour’
From Bristol Wesley preached in Bath, in Two Mile Hills, Baptist Mills, Pensford, Clifton and Kingswood. And then further afield : to Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall, to Wales, and to Ireland. In the future he would also travel to Europe, and send ministers to America. After one such journey he wrote ‘I came back safe, blessed be God, to Bristol. I found both my soul and body much refreshed in this peaceful place’
Bristol also benefitted from Wesley’s emphasis on good works. From his early days as a student, when Wesley set up a school for hearing children read, much like our Homework Help, charitable works were part of the principles of Methodism.
In 1740, at Lawfords Gate a few miles from here, Wesley and the Bristol congregations helped at least 150 people who were on the verge of starvation due to the severe frosts preventing them working.
And like many other people in our city’s history Wesley wasn’t scared to confront the status quo. It was in Bristol, whose fortune was built on the slave trade, that he first chose to preach against Slavery. And indeed the last letter he ever wrote was to William Wilberforce, to encourage him in his fight to make slavery illegal.
So we’ve seen the impact Wesley had on individuals, and on cities. Looking even further out, what was his legacy in our nation?
Methodism started at uni on Oxford with his brother and a handful of fellow students. It spread to London, then to Bristol, to Newcastle and across the Uk. By his death, 79000 people in Britain were on the membership rolls of his ‘connexion’.
Although called the great revival, and thousands saved, It wasn’t within his lifetime that spiritual renewal of Britain or his desired reformation of the Church of England happened (although some commentators attribute it to Wesley that Britain didn’t fall in to the bloody revolutions of France during the same time period.)
But Methodism didn’t stop with wesley’s death. 25 years later at the start of the 19th century, the membership in the UK was 230000 (5%of the population ) with another 210,000 in North America and it continued to grow. The working poor, under Methodism were encouraged to be ambitious, industrious and respectable. By giving up former sins of violence and drunkeness, by working hard to earn and to give, by learning to read, They became the backbone of industrial and imperial England. Wesley’s influence was seen throughout Philanthropic Victorian Britain, with changes to child labour, slavery, buildings, medicine, hospitals and prisons. And as one biographer commented, after Welsey, the ‘man in the street’s view of Christianity was of Methodism. From singing hymns, to taking communion, an expectation that both priesthood and laity believed what they preached and lived what they believed, full of good works : this was now the perception of Christianity.
Wesley was a great man, and you can read more about his tremendous works at the New room. But I’m encouraged most by his faults : unable to have good relationships with women, arrogant, constantly changing his theology but never able to admit he could be or had been wrong, the master at using the Bible or church tradition to support his changing thoughts, unable to receive criticism or to hand over power… And yet he said yes to God, and God used him, powerfully and wonderfully, to save thousands and influence a nation. God is good.
Hughes write ‘Wesley has demonstrated that a true prophet of God has more influence than all the politicians and soldiers and millionaires put together, he is the incalculable and enexpected element that is always putting all the devices of the clever to naught.’
References and further reading
Hattersley, Roy. (2002). A Brand From The Burning
Peterson, William. (1983). Martin Luther had a Wife
Pollock, John. (1989), Wesley the Preacher
Waller, Ralph. (2003). John Wesley: A Personal Portrait
Welsey, John. (Ed. Parker 1953). The Journal of John Wesley