A History of the Christian Church
Part Twenty Four
compiled by Denis Jenkins
Title A History of the Christian Church
Part Twenty Four
Theme Whitefield and the Wesleys
This is Part 24 in the series. Parts 1 to 23 can be found by referring to the index of articles via this link --> Index to Articles
Whitefield and the Wesleys emerging from the confusion Created through Natural Theology
The soul-changing doctrine of "Justification by Faith", that had been preached by Luther had almost been obliterated by the acceptance of "Natural Theology". The higher classes and clergy rejected the notion of commitment to a supernatural God. They did not believe in the miracle of spiritual relationship with God. God was explained as a power or force and that all things that they observed were functions that God had set in motion, therefore, all observed apparent miraculous events had a scientific explanation. The rich and the clergy considered that anyone who accepted the idea of worshiping a supernatural personal and communicative God was a fanatic.
The lower classes in England were ignorant and purely followed the ceremony and form dictated to them by the state and the clergy; which was largely returning to the Roman concept of salvation by one's own personal effort. The common people treated the religious form in much the same way that pagan worshipers would follow ritual. Such worshipers believe that the very ritual is that which generates the power over their lives
In pursuing "Natural Theology", the clergy were preoccupied with the academic form of religion. This placed the clergy in the realms of being professional scientists and provided for them an air of importance and learnedness that, in their view, was beyond the, academic capability of the parishioners both rich and poor. So once again the scriptures were taken from the people's hands believing that they did not have the education to correctly comprehend the Word of God. The concept of divine guidance and Spiritual leadership by the Holy Spirit was completely disregarded. Satan once again had the world in confusion for another hundred years, where much of the clarity around scripture generated by the reformation had been lost. Satan through natural Theology had appealed to man's ego, and self indulgence, that never failing point of entry into man's being, that forms the part of sinful mans weakness to be led into a self-indulgent sinful life.
John Dunn, in his book, the Great Awakening, describes the conditions of the times in the following way: "It has been said that in the early 1700s the life of England was 'foul with moral corruption and crippled by moral decay'. Most Englishmen of the day considered that a life of unrestrained licentiousness could be indulged in with impunity, and with this frame of mind much of the nation threw off restraint and plunged itself headlong into godless living". ................. The vast majority of the parochial clergy were sunk in worldliness and:... neither knew nor cared anything about their profession. They neither did good themselves nor liked anyone else to do it for them. They hunted, they shot, they farmed, they swore, they drank, they gambled. They seemed determined to know anything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified."
It is no wonder that the land was deluged with infidelity and scepticism. Men and women had rejected entirely any belief in the Scriptures as such, and had therefore put out of their minds any serious thoughts of the God of the Bible, of holiness, of sin, of judgement or of the need for personal salvation. Man-exalting, God-debunking philosophies were rife, and few men had the courage or the ability to raise their voices in protest at the alarming spiritual and moral declension they saw about them. The whole nation was on the slide..(Dunn, John December 1983, New Creation Publications Inc. Coromandel East, South Australia,)
It was in this environment that Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley groped their way around searching for the truth and light of God in the muddy understanding of God through" Natural Theology".
When entering university in 1732, John Whitefield joined the "Holy Club". This was a small group of men who believed in a disciplined way of life. Observers began to call these men Methodists, as they were so methodical in the way they went about their daily life. This really was a form of very strict salvation by works. "It was asceticism, legalism, mysticism or strange views of Christian perfection created through personal focus and effort"(Dunn 1982 page 6). This severe form of religious observance was no doubt a reaction to the wickedness perpetrated by the so called religious people and clergy of the day. Whitefield was obviously being called by the Holy Spirit to come out of Babylon or confusion of the day. But as it often happens with us as human beings, we become zealous in our own strength in our desire to serve God. Whitefield was no exception; this zealous behaviour sent Whitefield headlong into trouble. After a long period of fasting during winter, for the purposes of focusing his mind on God, John nearly died. This experience jolted Whitefield into action; an urgent need to examine closely what he was doing to himself. He questioned the validity of these methods. Surely a loving God did not require such body-damaging practices in order for people to be saved? In his earnest search for the "Truth", the Holy Spirit filled Whitefield as he reached out beyond himself to God, pleading for insight into his dilemma. The Lord answered his prayer; Whitefield was led to a clear understanding of accepting a living faith through the Holy Spirit thus claiming righteousness by faith and understanding the reality of what Christ had done for mankind on the cross taking this burden of sin and works off our human shoulders. Whitefield understood for the first time how Christ through his death had bridged the gap between God and men, offering the Spirit of adoption and everlasting redemption. Whitefield was for the first time able to perceive God as a loving father rather than a tyrant forcing men into servile subjection and misery.
This experience was the life-changing turning point in John Whitefield's life. Whitefield lost interest in what he was doing at university and the only vision he desired was to join the ordained ministry. While this ambition excited him, he was at the same time terrified. He for the first time understood what it was like for Jonah to be sent to Nineveh. The people around him were wicked and lovers of themselves; even the clergy. His fear was "am I able to stand up to them?". Would he be able to take on the responsibility of being the oracle for God. His discipline took on a new form. Instead of making himself good through personal behaviour, Whitefield used his discipline to always be continuously on his knees from this time on seeking the will of God and his directing as he studied the scriptures with fervour and Spiritual excitement. The doctrine of Grace took deep root in his heart and mind and as a result fear turned into urgency and enthusiasm to share the good news with those around. He no longer cared if he was going to be labelled a fanatic by those in authority.
John and Charles Wesley wandered in a fog of personal perception of what it really meant to serve God. This they pursued through their own efforts. John Wesley felt compelled to go to the American colonies as a personal sacrifice that he felt was necessary to really serve God. This placed him in personal hardship that made him feel that he was giving of himself to God; as the American colonies was much like going to the most primitive place on the face of the earth.
As John Wesley was travelling to Savannah Georgia by ship, the ship struck very bad Atlantic weather. The captain feared for the safety of the ship , thus preparing the passengers for the worst. A wave of fear swept among the passengers. Wesley himself was petrified with fear. While he continued in a state of panic his attention was drawn to a small group of people who were different to all other passengers on the ship. They were singing, and as John Wesley drew nearer to hear what they were singing he was amazed that they were singing spiritual songs in German. When the ship finally docked in Georgia, John Wesley found that the people were Moravians on the way to preach Christ to the North American Indians. Wesley asked the Moravian leader what was the source of their calm and serenity. The Moravian leader looked into John Wesley's eyes then asked, "Don't you believe in the saving power of Christ?" Wesley responded, "Yes I do". But as a he reflected later he realised how insincere was his reply. He knew that he did not have the peace demonstrated by those Moravian missionaries who through the storm sang calmly and with conviction of God's protection. Wesley longed for such an experience but he did not know how to gain it.
Wesley was also confused by the experience. Had he not grown up in a very devout Anglican family? Had not his father (being a minister) and his mother religiously taught their children in the obedience of the Lord? Had not he and his brother led groups of students to the obedience of God? Had he not devoted himself to studying the scriptures for three hours a day? He had been so readily ordained into ministry, so, was not that a sign of God's leadership for his life? Had he not willingly accepted God's calling to the New World? He anguished in his mind!!! What more does God want of me!!!
John Wesley pushed himself into his work determined to do better for God. He met a promising young lady whom he thought would be an ideal future partner. She deceived John and married another man. John Wesley descended into depression agonising," Lord why have you forsaken me?" He could see that his ministry was a failure. "Lord what am I doing wrong!!!", he cried before the lord. Wesley tried to enforce the disciplines of the "Holy Club" on the congregation. They openly rebelled and promptly left the church leaving him almost without a congregation.
Wesley remembering his encounter with the Moravian Leader from the ship sought out another Moravian, Peter Boehler. From this discussion Wesley concluded that he lacked the understanding of saving Grace. He continued trying more to be good. The more he tried the more frustrated he became. He said of himself, " I was indeed fighting the good fight but I was not conquering". He said I fell and rose and fell and rose again.
John Wesley continued to struggle until on May 24, 1738 he had an experience that totally turned his life around. Wesley's entry in his diary tells the full story.
"In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Wesley Diary website Wesley Historical records"
Whitefield's success in England was enormous. He was not able to cope. so he sent a message to John Wesley to come back to help with the large number of those poor people of Bristol and Birmingham. While the rich and the church authorities had turned their back on Whitefield, Whitefield had taken to preaching on the street in parks and in fields when the authorities would not allow him to preach in public places.
Wesley did not like Whitefield's emotional and flamboyant style of preaching. Therefore Wesley was hesitant to accept Whitefield's invitation. Wesley felt uncomfortable with the emotional reactions Whitefield's preaching had on the people. However, the conservative John Wesley soon warmed to the new method of ministry. With Wesley's organisational skills, he very soon became leader of the movement.
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