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 Issues | Church History | John Wesley


Great Churchmen (No 7)

John Wesley

by W Leathem

An Appraisal

The truly great man does not require the unbridled admiration of his friends nor need he fear the misrepresentations of his most violent detractors. Indeed it might easily be shown that he suffers most at the hands of over-zealous friends and least at the hands of his bitterest foes. The great can afford to leave their character and work to the fairer judgement of history.

When these canons are applied to John Wesley he gains much and loses nothing. He is a great and growing figure, and the more we are permitted to see him as be is .the greater he becomes. For this reason we can afford to make full acknowledgement of his defects and failures. They were real, and they were not a few, but viewed in a proper perspective they are but warts on a noble and impressive countenance. His greatness so absorbs them that we need not trouble to disguise them. Based upon this conviction of his great moral and spiritual worth we will proceed to make threeclaims for Wesley's place in history, and will endeavour in a brief space to justify our contentions :-

(i) That he is the greatest figure in eighteenth-century England.

(ii) That he is the greatest churchman of the English speaking peoples.

(iii) That he is one of the four greatest experimental theologians of the universal Church.

To these points we will now address ourselves.

(i) John Wesley is the greatest figure in eighteenth-century England. The centuries immediately preceding had each their outstanding personality. In the creative sixteenth century the literary genius of William Shakespeare set him on a solitary throne. The search for a better political order dominated the seventeenth century and led to the emergence of the colossal figure of Oliver Cromwell. In the eighteenth century the supremacy of one individual may not be so obvious at a glance, but more careful scrutiny can give the honour to none other than John Wesley, the leader of the Evangelical Revival.

There were other great names, some very great, if judged by the standards of lesser periods. There was the military genius of Marlborough at one end of the century, and the glorious successes of Nelson and Wellington taking shape at the other, all with far-reaching consequences for the nation. It was an era of intellectual pursuits, with Berkeley and Butler, Locke and Hulme, stars in a bright sky, and the encyclopaedic knowledge of Dr. Johnson casting a diffused light over the world of letters. In politics, the older and the younger Pitts at home, and Clive abroad, were statesmen of a high order whose names will live. But none of these served England so long nor bestowed upon her so much as did John Wesley.

It was an age of faint idealism. Carlyle's caustic comment “Soul extinct; stomach well alive”, was harsh but true.  Official religion may be judged by the fatuous episcopal remark that he was always sober as a bishop though frequently drunk as a lord. Eighteenth-century Christianity has been dubbed “Mohammedanism without Mohammed”.  England's profoundest and most widespread need was the moral and spiritual regeneration of the life of her people. When it came, as come it did, lifting the nation out of chaos and disintegration, it came through Wesley's life and work.

In support of this contention we must be content to quote two first-rate authorities and indicate others. The Cambridge Modern History (Vol 6 pp 76-77) says, “The earliest half of the eighteenth century in England is an age of materialism, a period of dim ideals, of expiring hopes ; before the middle of the century it was transformed, there appeared a movement headed by a mighty leader, who brought forth water from the rocks to make a barren land live again.”  There follows a generous reference to certain men who withstood the general tendency of the age, after which it proceeds: “But more important than any of these in universality of range and achievement  were John Wesley and the religious revival to which he gave his name and his life.”  The second witness is Sir Charles Grant Robertson, who wrote: “The Wesleyan Church was the creation of John Wesley. . . . The personal ascendancy noticeable at Oxford remained unshaken until the day of his death ; and it made him the self-constituted and accepted autocrat of a mighty spiritual organization. Great as a preacher, he was greater as an organizer and leader of men. His gifts for command stamp him as probably the most striking of eighteenth-century figures, and leave him in the select division of the first class of the great leaders of all ages.” (A History of Engand, Vol 6).

To these historical judgements let us add the personal opinion of Randall Davidson, who when Archbishop of Canterbury said : “He was one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived. It is not too much to say that Wesley practically changed the outlook, and even the character, of the English nation.” (The Times, Nov 2 1928).

This is impressive corroboration of our first point. The second is:

(ii) John Wesley is the greatest Churchman of the English speaking peoples. When we consider the widespread influence of the varied Christian traditions that have their roots in England, and which now are entrenched so firmly and bearing fruit so abundantly wherever the English tongue is spoken, we realize something of the claim that is here made for Wesley. But in spite of the manifold tokens of their rich increase there has not yet appeared in any of them a Churchman so great as he.

Perhaps the simplest method of finding proof for this assertion is to bring forward rival claimants to contest the field with Wesley.

The pre-Reformation period need not delay us long. There were great and influential leaders in the early and medieval British Church, but it would be hard to make out a claim for any to the first place among English Churchmen. Nor did the Reformation, probably the greatest movement in the Church since apostolic times, throw up an outstanding leader in the English Church comparable with the great Continental Reformers. Cranmer's deathless contribution distinguishes him as a front-rank liturgist, but not as a great man.

In the post-Reformation era some may find a possible contender in Laud, referring to him as the restorer of that type of Catholicism which flowered late in the Tractarian Movement, and which is dominant in the episcopal churches of Scotland, United States and South Africa, and is bidding fair to capture the Church of England. But Laud had not the necessary qualities of greatness in himself, and had not others greater than he revived the ideas associated with his name he would not have assumed the proportions claimed for him to-day in certain quarters.

The far more powerful candidate is John Henry Newman, the greatest figure of the Oxford Movement until his conversion to Rome, and thereafter possibly the greatest English Roman Catholic since the Reformation, if not of all time. Wesley and he had much in common. They possessed a common tradition of High Churchmanship. They were both profoundly God-conscious men. But there were greater differences. Wesley was essentially a man of action and affairs. Newman was the subtle thinker and recluse. Wesley's faith continued to the end to be the religion of the free Spirit. Newman's tended more and more to lean upon, and be subjected to, an. external authority. Wesley's faith was ever progressive, unclouded by serious doubt. Newman's frequently halted and had a strong element of doubt. Newman's faith turned in face of the coming storm and sought shelter in an infallible Church. Wesley rode the storm with a buoyant faith in a triumphant Lord, revitalizing the Church of his own day, and sending forth streams which have enriched all the churches of the Evangelical tradition. Moreover the Revival was the spring from which flowed the great missionary enterprise of modern times, and thus became possibly the largest contributory cause of the greatest fact of our time, the World-Church. It has also to be remembered that the Church which bears his name is the largest of the churches of the Reformation tradition in the world

to-day. On the other hand Newman deliberately and decisively rejected, as a mistake, the Oxford Movement, the sphere in which his influence has been most widely felt. His judgement, though on different grounds, is confirmed by all the Evangelical Churches of Christendom.

In this there appears to be sufficient evidence for the claim that John Wesley is the greatest Churchman of the Englishs peaking peoples.

(iii) John Wesley is one of the four greatest experimental theologians of the Universal Church, in the genuine Evangelical tradition of Paul, Augustine, and Luther. Each was born in an age of need. Each was destined to meet the need of his age. Each crystallized in himself both the need and salvation of his time. Each found in his profound experience of God in the soul the dynamic to save himself and the world of his day. This experience, vouchsafed to each, was the true Evangelical experience of conversion.

John Wesley had not the profound intellect of his three illustrious predecessors. Nor was he a theologian in the more formal sense. He produced no great dogmatic comparable with Calvin's Institutes. He was essentially a theologian of the heart, and all his theology was subservient to his calling as an evangelist. His greatness lay in the two-sided fact that he saw straight to the heart of saving religion and that he had a unique gift of communicating its secret to the common people in a language they understood without losing any of its essential spirit.

He has bequeathed us his experimental divinity in three works, the Hymn Book which he shared with his brother Charles, The Journal and The letters. The Hymn Book is a body of experimental theology without a peer. As an English Christian Classic it ranks with the Book of Common Prayer and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In it as perhaps nowhere else do we capture the exquisite verve and sparkle of New Testament Christianity. Here is both light and warmth, the forth-telling of Gospel truths in a language which at times seems to bear the immediate impress of the interpreter Spirit.

What is pre-eminently evident in the Hymn Book is also true of The Journal an amazing document of almost daily entry for dose on sixty years. In it we read the soul of a great pastor ranging over the whole field of Christian truth and experience-God and the wonders of his grace, Christ and the perfections of his salvation, the soul at prayer and in self-examination, the care of a pastor for the Church of God and the souls God has given him, his own strivings after holiness and his concern for the world which was written upon his heart ; and all this, not in formal treatise, but in immediate contact with concrete situations. It well deserves the praise bestowed upon it by a very high authority: “If we judge The Journal of John Wesley with the life which it lays bare, it is one of the great books of the world.” (The Cambridge History of English Literature, Vol 10 p369).

In The Letters we see the soul-physician at work, pouring out his experience and Spirit-taught wisdom to the end, that he might present every man perfect in Christ. We see his deep insights into soul-sickness, the ruthlessness with which he tears away the rags of self-righteousness, the expert use of his scalpel to remove hypocrisy and unreality, the unflinching rebukes for pride and harsh judgements, the tender compassion for erring and sinning brethren coupled with an unwillingness to lower the standard below the best, the emphasis on secret prayer and the diligent application of the means of grace, and the challenge to soul-seeking and saving.

Here is pastoralia at its best, not the product of a study armchair or of he hermit's cell, but a pastoral theology hammered out on the high-roads and in the saddle by a true pilgrim of eternity, the knight of the burning heart. In its loyalty to the original Gospel, in its insights into saving truth, in its power to express it so that it lives, and in the width and permanence of its results, few if any experimental theologies are worthy to be compared with it. John Wesley stands in the great succession of Paul, Augustine, and Luther, and shares their eminence.

From our appraisal of Wesley we turn to the study of those more than fifty years from his conversion to his death, the career of one who was both a saint of God and a genius in leadership and organization.


>>Those Fifty Years

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