The formal occasion of this article celebrates the tricentennial of John Wesley’s birth. John Wesley is know primarily today as both an Anglican church reformer and the founder of a sect – later to become a church denomination – the Methodists. What is important to note, however, is that neither John Wesley, nor his brother Charles, ever officially left the Anglican Church.
Some secular and church historians have posed a theory that because of the Wesley’s work among the poor and uneducated in the British Isles that England never endured the violent period of revolution that France and Russia did. Whether or not this is true can only be the theme of historical speculation. What we do know about John Wesley is that he directed one of the most comprehensive and innovative church reforms ever experienced in the Western Church.
The Outward Circumstance of John Wesley’s Life
To briefly set John Wesley’s life in its wider context, he was born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley on 17 June 1703 (or 28 June in the “new style” calendar after 1752). Wesley’s birthplace was Epworth in Lincolnshire. When he was six years old, a neighbor rescued young Wesley from a burning room in his family’s Epworth rectory. This narrow escape left a deep impression on Wesley. Because of his mother’s influence in impressing his miraculous rescue upon him, John Wesley often in later life referred to himself as a “brand plucked from the burning” (see Amos 4:11).
Historians make much of Wesley’s relationship with his mother who, as anachronistic as it might appear today, was an accomplished theologian in her own right. Susanna Wesley was the youngest child of nineteen sisters and five brothers. She learned Greek, Latin, French, and had a remarkable understanding of theology – all in an era that discouraged the education of women. In fact, Roy Hattersley writes, “Almost alone among rectory wives of the period, she [Susanna Wesley] was an intellectual (The Life of John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning, Doubleday, 2003, p. 10).
John was Susanna Wesley’s fifteenth child and she lavished her education upon him as she did all her children. Of the nineteen children born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, John appropriated this exposure to education most fully. This fact helps modern people recognize the amazing depth and breadth of Wesley’s understanding of the Christian faith. His extensive repository of learning would later serve Wesley well as he became one of the preeminent evangelists of his century. His preaching bridged the theology between biblical times and his own.
Wesley’s Education and Early Foray into Preaching
Wesley received his education at Oxford. He journeyed to Georgia and returned to England about the time that George Whitefield ventured to America. In America Whitefield enjoyed the evangelical success that had eluded Wesley. However, the two joined forces upon Whitefield’s return to England. However, most of the established Anglican clergy considered the two young evangelists excessively infected with “enthusiasm.” Thus, for this chief reason of “enthusiasm” among other factors, Anglican priests barred both from Anglican pulpits. Whitefield then took the initiative. He began to preach out of doors in what eventually became termed “open air” or “field preaching.”
Wesley’s venture into field preaching began, perhaps out of curiosity, when he traveled to hear Whitefield preach. Although it may have seemed at the time like an alien exercise to Wesley, he soon joined Whitefield. Whitefield invited Wesley to come to Bristol and preach to the Kingswood coal miners. Wesley soon found himself, conceivably against his will, preaching in the open air. This evangelistic and preaching endeavor began the Methodist Revival. Although Whitefield and Wesley worked together, they eventually separated on doctrinal grounds. Whitefield believed in double predestination; Wesley regarded this as an erroneous doctrine and insisted that the love of God was universal. However, their doctrinal dispute never became an impediment to the young evangelists’ fervor for gospel preaching. Whitefield and Wesley refused to allow their differences to diminish their revivalistic efforts. Thus, their focus is much to their credit.
Wesley’s theology, as scholars have studied his writing over the last 300 years, we might reduce to four primary focal points: these scholars named these theological principles the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Wesleyans believe that in order for a theological proposition to be acceptable that proposition must be in agreement with four criteria. The proposition must be true with regard to 1) Holy Scripture, 2) the tradition of the church, 3) human reason, and 4) human experience. If a theological proposition fails to meet these standards, then it is not deemed as the truth.
Essential Elements of John Wesley’s Preaching
Wesley published his first collection of sermons in 1746, Sermons on Several Occasions. In the Preface Wesley wrote:
I design plain truth for plain people; therefore, to set purpose, I abstain from all nice and philosophical speculations; from all perplexed and intricate reasonings; and, as far as possible, from even the show of learning, unless in sometimes citing the original Scripture. I labour to avoid all words which are not easy to be understood, all which are not used in common life; and, in particular, those kinds of technical terms that so frequently occur in Bodies of Divinity; those modes of speaking which men of reading are intimately acquainted with, but to common people are an unknown tongue.
Wesley’s quotation suggests that he understood himself as a preacher who wanted to communicate with ordinary people more than he desired “to wow” his fellow preachers. Many Wesleyan scholars over the years have advocated that Wesley was not really a “theologian’s theologian.” In truth, Wesley certainly could have functioned as an academic theologian should he have chosen. His scope of reading and learning still stand as remarkable. Yet Wesley’s aim was less personal aggrandizement than it was evangelical. Indeed, his goal was to communicate the gospel in terms that nearly anyone paying attention could comprehend.
Preachers today can learn a valuable lesson from this unusual Anglican priest. The primacy of preaching is to offer Christ to those who need him. One of the great twentieth century authorities on Wesley, Albert Outler, wrote that Wesley’s “chief intellectual interest and achievement, was in what one could call a folk theology: the Christian message in its fullness and integrity, in ‘plain words for plain people'” (John Wesley, [Library of Protestant Thought], Oxford University Press, 1964, p. vii). In a nutshell, Wesley preached for people to understand. Let this principal attribute of Wesley guide our efforts in communicating the gospel.
A second thing that preachers can still learn from Wesley is that he held a firm conviction regarding the Bible’s authority. For although Wesley was as widely read as any academic of his time, he also confessed himself to be homo unius libri – a man of one book. We would be hard pressed to find an existing Wesleyan sermon that was not based on a scripture text – verse, chapter, or book of the Bible. In his theological method he always held to the primacy of the biblical text. Wesley’s preaching, with scores of biblical allusions, bears this fact out. He often followed the church year in his selection of preaching texts, and by so doing he preached the “whole counsel of God” over time.
In his own words Wesley writes of his relationship to Holy Scripture. The following excerpt comes from a letter to James Hervey, a former pupil and one of the original Oxford Methodists. This letter is from the Telford edition of Wesley’s letters and is dated 20 March 1739:
Permit to speak plainly. If by “Catholic principles” you mean any other than scriptural, they weigh nothing with me. I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures. But on scriptural principles I do not think it hard to justify what I do. God in Scripture commands me, according to my power, to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous.
Consistently, from the Epworth parsonage to the end of his preaching ministry as an octogenarian, Wesley planted himself firmly in holy writ. Thus, if contemporary preachers want to learn from Wesley, then they must stand under the authority of Scripture. But like Wesley, we do not regard the Bible as an idol or wooden icon to worship, but rather a living document of God’s word set loose in the world.
A third point we contemporary preachers can learn from Wesley is the truth that reminds us that ministry in general and preaching in particular are simply callings that entail hard work – and a lot of hard work. We preachers regularly suffer the fools who invoke the old and relatively inaccurate joke having as its punch line something like “I wish I had to work only one hour a week.” Perhaps various ministers operate under this one hour burden, but they are few and far between. Preachers worth their salt recognize that preaching and ministry are labors of love. John Wesley is “exhibit A” of this reality. He worked hard and worked hard for a very long time. In our day when a tiny minority of preachers skate by on glitz and the cult of personality, Wesley’s work ethic reminds us that he was a “lunch bucket” type of preacher. Although he was probably one of the best-known personalities in 18th century England, he in no way capitalized on his fame. Rather he worked hard because the driving force of his life was service to God and spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.
Recently William Kellon Quick, the chair of the history committee of the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History, wrote of Wesley:
During his 53-year ministry, he traveled 250,000 miles on horseback and by carriage. He preached more than 40,000 sermons, sometimes four a day, and wrote or edited some 400 books and tracts. His concern for the poor led him to open free medical dispensaries and homes for orphans and widows and provide loan funds. He also began a ministry to prisoners and to the military. When Wesley’s voice fell silent, when his eyes closed for the last time that March morning, he left behind a movement of 71,463 Methodists in Great Britain and more than 80,000 in the United States. He had launched an evangelical revival that would, in time, girdle the globe and “offer Christ” to the nations. The global Wesleyan community today numbers more than 76 million persons in 138 countries (Interpreter Magazine).
No human being can accomplish all that Wesley did in his lifetime without an exemplary work ethic. For contemporary preachers Wesley is a constant reminder that hard work is part of any preacher’s job description. With God’s help and a solid work ethic, Wesley accomplished much toward helping influence the Kingdom of God in his time.
A fourth ingredient that contemporary preachers might learn from Wesley’s preaching is that Wesley was a deep thinker who allowed his listeners some room for their own thought. Wesley’s own theological background was one reason that Wesley granted his listeners a certain latitude with respect to their understanding of the gospel. Clearly, Wesley always considered himself a son of the Anglican Church. However, Wesley never limited himself in his wide-ranging exploration of the fullness of the Christian witness of faith. Not only did he read deeply in Western theology and classics, but he also immersed himself in Eastern (Orthodox) theological thought as well.
Wesley believed deeply in the articles of faith developed within the womb of the Church of England. He saw the essential doctrines of the Christian faith as vital, but on the non-essentials he allowed debate. Wesley’s well known maxim, “We think and let think,” sums up this perspective. Wesley’s expressed intolerance for any deviance from faith’s essentials. Still, Wesley allowed his listeners to function as theologians, interpreting faith in light of their own Christian experience.
That Wesley thought this way in contradistinction from many other preachers in his day resided in one simple assumption. Wesley deeply believed in the human experience of God. For this reason Wesley put much theological stock in the work of the Holy Spirit in the life and experience of the believer. Wesley could afford to have this eclectic approach to doctrinal theology because he always allowed room for the work of the Spirit. Consequently, the doctrines of assurance and perfection became rivets that held his theological program together. This reliance on the Holy Spirit, Wesley deeply believed, operated in the hearts of those who heard him preach. This absolute reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit in the preaching moment might be a source of comfort to modern preachers. When we preach, and taking a cue from Wesley, it is not only us at work – God’s Spirit works through us to bring the message to listeners.
The fifth and arguably most essential element in Wesley’s preaching for contemporary preachers is the fact that he valued relationships. If one were to read Wesley’s sermons (and there are many editions of his sermons available), we would likely see them as dry theological treatises. Yet when Wesley preached, his hearers note that he was lively and engaging. Evidently Wesley used many illustrations as he preached, often alluding to things that were in the sightline of the people to whom he preached.
We can also see from his far-reaching letters and correspondence that Wesley valued his extensive web of relationships. Many of these relationships lasted for several decades and even longer. Wesley never lost sight that the purpose of God working through Jesus Christ focused directly on a world lost in sin. He recognized that it was for people that Jesus died and God resurrected the Christ. Wesley cared deeply for people. If we could preach with this image in mind, I suspect that all of us would preach with greater purpose and confidence.
The Bottom Line on John Wesley
Wesley preached with an evangelical agenda everywhere and always. He knew that he had good news to share. Even more than the good news was Wesley’s understanding of human’s psychological makeup-we want to be a part of something that has high expectations. Interestingly, in our world today it is not the church that habitually offers the highest of expectations. Wesley would have no doubt abhorred the marketing and “what can Jesus do for me?” mentality rampant in the modern church. Rather the best exemplar of this attitude of high expectation is the United States Marine Corps. The Marines do not draft. Naturally there is no current military draft, but when there was a draft, the Marines did not draft. Why? Because young people line up to join the Marines because the standards are so high and the demands are so stringent. The expectations are so great that they want to be a part of something like that. “All we want is just a few good men/women,” so the Marine recruiters say.
Part of Wesley’s genius was, not only was he purveyor of the gospel, not only was he an organizational genius, but what he instilled in his Methodist Christians was a sense of accountability. Wesley did this primarily via preaching. He was someone who held people to a high standard – a divine standard. That standard at the minimum is that we never take the church of Jesus Christ casually. Contemporary preachers are part of this kind of organization, whose standard is so high that it is beyond anything of this world. Our standard is Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus Christ who is our referent, not the standards of the world, not even the best of the world. Our standard of conduct, fellowship, ministry, proclamation, and evangelism is Jesus Christ. Everybody wants to be a part of something that calls out the best that we are and can be with God’s help. Everybody does. Wesley understood this fact of human psychology and everything he did served offering Christ to people in need of meaning and value in their lives.
Some people say that Wesley is now irrelevant because he lived 300 years ago. However, Wesley – then or now – preached the truth of God to a people in need. For this reason and others too, John Wesley even now has much to teach contemporary preachers.
David Mosser is the Senior Minister at the First United Methodist Church, Graham, Texas.