What were the elements of John Wesley’s power as a preacher? One can discover some of them in his printed sermons, of which he said: “I design plain truth for plain people. I labor to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life.”
The kind of speech Wesley used was one element of his power: of him as of his Lord it could be said: “The common people heard him gladly.” The kinds of truth he clothed in the speech of the common people was an even more elemental power in his preaching. The truths he proclaimed were those that set forth Scriptural, experimental religion.
“Our main doctrines,” he said, “are repentance, faith and holiness. The first of these we account the porch of religion, the next the door, the third religion itself.”
Many have been puzzled by the apparent disparity between Wesley’s effectiveness as a preacher and the quality of his printed sermons. Friedrich Loofs, the great historian of dogma, wrote of the wealth of content in them, the orderly progress of thought, the practical earnestness and the sheer lucidity which marked them. But they do not represent his ordinary preaching from day to day, except for their themes. They were prepared for the press rather than for the pulpit, to guide his preachers and people.
The sermons he preached to the crowds were much lighter in texture, more anecdotal and more interesting to a popular audience. No man could preach incessantly, as Wesley did — often four or five times a day to all sorts of people — without getting to preach easily and conversationally. No man could have possessed so varied an experience of life without drawing upon
When he was a young preacher he preached a highly polished sermon to a country congregation. It left them open-mouthed and Wesley saw that they had not understood him. He struck out some of the hard words and tried again. The mouths of his hearers this time were only half-opened.
He felt this would not do, so he read the sermon to an intelligent maid servant, asking her to tell him whenever she could not understand it. Betsy’s “Stop, sir” came so often that Wesley grew impatient. Yet he had the grace to persevere and to substitute simple words for hard ones, so that at last the people understood every word he said.
In the last year of his life he preached at Lincoln, where a lady on hearing him for the first time said: “Is this the great Mr. Wesley of whom we hear so much in the present day? Why, the poorest person in the chapel might have understood him.” The man to whom she spoke replied: “In this, madam, he displays the greatness that, whilst the poorest can understand him, the most learned are edified.”
Another element of Wesley’s power was his skill in extempore preaching. His first extempore sermon was delivered in All Hallows Church in London in 1735. Dr. Heylyn, whom he had gone to hear, did not come and Wesley was asked to take his place. He consented, but as he was going up the pulpit steps he hesitated and returned in much confusion to the vestry.
A woman who was there asked him what was the matter and when she found that Wesley had no sermon, she said to him: “Is that all? Cannot you trust God for a sermon?” Her question produced such an effect upon Wesley that he preached with great freedom and acceptance and never after that took a sermon into the pulpit.
May we not also include charm as an element of Wesley’s power as a preacher? Can anyone who recalls his magnetic power — how he attracted people to him, how his preachers almost worshipped him, how the poorest and most sinful reverenced him and turned to him — think of all this and doubt his charm?
There was a spiritual authority that always accompanied the utterance of the Word. John Nelson heard him preach at Moorfields in 1739.
“As soon as he got upon the stand,” he says, “he stroked back his hair and turned his face to where I stood and I thought fixed his eyes upon me. His countenance struck such an awful dread on me before I heard him speak, that it made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock, and when he did speak I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me.”
Wesley made every hearer feel that the preacher was looking at him and speaking to him and saying, “Thou art the man.”
Wesley was very careful about the texts he took. He knew that all truth is not to the same degree “saving truth.” He asked and answered a question on this point at the Conference of 1746: “What sermons do we find by experience to be attended with the greatest blessing? Such as are more close, convincing, practical. Such as have most of Christ, the Priest, the Atonement. Such as urge the heinousness of men living in contempt or ignorance of Him.” He took care to select the texts from which sermons of this type could be preached.
The applications were never slurred or treated lightly. He pressed home the truth. He pleaded for a verdict. He asked that it might be acted upon then and there. His supreme passion was to save souls. This explains the frequent story in the Journal “I offered Christ.” He saw himself as an ambassador of Christ, offering the gift of salvation and pressing for a decision.
In the Minutes of the 12th Annual Conference we find this: “What is the best general method of preaching? (1) to invite; (2) to convince; (3) to offer Christ; (4) to build up and to do this in some manner in every sermon.” In another place Wesley wrote: “To preach Christ is to preach all things that Christ spoke — all His promises, all His threatenings and commands.”
Our preaching can become filled with power when it presents the living Christ in all His glory and makes Him a reality.
Wesley’s preaching was as effective from the ethical as from the evangelical standpoint. He combined the passion for rescuing men and women from sin with the passion for educating them in righteousness. As we read the sermons and the many references in the Journal to Wesley’s subjects and texts we find that they fall into three classes:
– Those that deal with the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. Outstanding among them are those doctrines on which Methodism has always laid stress, namely, salvation by faith, assurance or the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification or Christian perfection.
– Subjects dealing with speculative theology, based on revelation but not derived from nor established by experience, such as the Trinity, the Person and Work of Christ, the Second Advent, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.
– Subjects dealing with morals: ethical preaching. There are thirteen sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, sermons on health, sleep, the use of money, the cure of evil-speaking, family, religion, wandering thoughts.
All his sermons are carefully planned. Many of them are set out under three clear headings with many sub-divisions, and all so logically interrelated that it is easy to grasp and to remember the general outline.
Wesley took strong objection to the term “Gospel sermons.” In a letter to Miss Bishop on October 18, 1778, he wrote: “I find more profit in sermons on either good temper or good works than in what are vulgarly known as ‘gospel sermons.’ That term has become a merchant word. I wish none of our society would use it. It has no determinate meaning. Let but a pert, self-sufficient animal, that has neither sense nor grace, bawl out something about Christ and his blood, or justification by faith, and his hearers will cry out, ‘What a fine Gospel sermon.’ Surely the Methodists have not so learned Christ. We know no Gospel without salvation from sin.”
Augustine Birrell said of Wesley: “No single figure influenced so many minds. No single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.”
Albert Outler says: “John Wesley was an evangelist with a Catholic spirit, a reformer with a heroic vision of the Christian life, created by faith, matured in love, a theologian who lived in and thought out of the Scriptures and tradition and who brought all his judgments to the bar of reason and experience. This Wesley offers a treasure to the Church of tomorrow that will leave it poorer if neglected.”
His life (1703-1791) was a constant motion of travelling and preaching that took him over 250,000 miles and gave him the opportunity of preaching over 44,000 sermons, yet he found time to write over two hundred books. He rose habitually at four, preached at five, and was on the road on horseback by eight. His saddle was his study.
More than once he covered 80 or 90 miles in a day. W. T. Stead spoke of his marvelous body “with muscles of whipcord, with lungs of leather and the heart of a lion.” His last sermon was preached when he was eighty-eight years of age, on the text “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found: call ye upon Him while He is near.”
He had offered Christ all his life and when he came to die he was still offering Christ as the Savior of mankind. His last words on his deathbed were: “The best of all is God is with us.”
John Wesley marches through the ages and through the world, his chosen and appointed parish. What was his secret? He gives us the answer in the words of Thomas a Kempis: “He rides easily whom the grace of God carries.”

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