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Commentary: John Wesley's impact lives on

7/9/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

An artist's rendering of John Wesley is available at

A UMNS Commentary By Paul L. Whalen*

Look at European history and you will quickly realize that Great Britain is one of the few nations that have not undergone a civil war in the past 200 years.

Some scholars credit the fact that Britain escaped the political turmoil faced by other European nations to the spiritual movement started by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. It was in Wesley's Methodist movement that class lines were crossed, women shared in leadership and the acceptance of religious pluralism became common.

Methodists around the world celebrated the 300th anniversary of Wesley's birth on June 17. Today, his impact continues to be felt by people both inside and outside Methodism.

Wesley's theology emphasizing God's free grace and the responsibility of the individual to embrace that grace made a difference in 18th- and 19th-century British society, as he and his followers preached the message of free grace to all people, including the lower classes.

While "grace" or salvation is a gift from God, once a person embraces or accepts God's grace, he or she has the responsibility to act on it. With this in mind, Wesley and his movement founded numerous schools for the poor and homes for orphans, as well as churches. The movement also emphasized visitation with prisoners and evangelism to all. As a result, British Methodists supported prison reform and opposed slavery. This again was a spiritual and not a political movement.

Wesley was an Anglican priest who by accident started what would become the third largest Christian denomination in the United States and the world. While a student at Oxford, he participated in the "Holy Club" with his brother Charles, who later became a great hymn writer, and George Whitefield, who became one of the greatest evangelists of the spiritual movement known as the "Great Awakening" in the 1700s and 1800s. Because of the Holy Club's methodical ways of looking at religion, the group at Oxford became known as "Methodists."

The state-sponsored Church of England was in need of reform, due to lack of attendance and other problems, so Wesley as a minister of the church worked to reform it. He did this by serving briefly as a missionary to Georgia, which ended with mixed results and led to his return to England.

Two events marked major turning points for Wesley and Methodism. The first was his "Aldersgate experience" in 1738, when he attended a Moravian prayer meeting and experienced his heart becoming "strangely warmed." Until then, Wesley had been seeking to know God in a direct and personal way. The conversion experience became one of the cornerstones of Methodism, signifying that one should know God as well as worship him, and that grace or salvation are received through that relationship.

The second turning point was Wesley's decision to preach in open fields. As a "high" churchman, he had been hesitant to preach in the open outside the confines of a church. However, with Whitefield's encouragement, he began a career to preach wherever two or more were gathered. Often, this resulted in 1,000 people hearing him preach - more than he had been accustomed to reaching from an indoor pulpit. He preached to people from all walks of life - a famous example being miners on their way to and from the mines. In this way, he reached many who never set foot in a church.

He preached this way for more than 53 years, traveling more than 250,000 miles throughout the British Isles.

In addition to preaching, he helped establish schools and medical clinics for the poor throughout Britain as well as places of worship. He began encouraging and training lay people, both men and women, for work in the church. Through his preaching, people began discussing and thinking about not only theology but the social ills of the day and the best ways of addressing them. Wesley's discussions were not limited to members of his own movement and the Anglican Church but included members and leaders of other denominations including Moravians, Calvinists and Catholics.

After the American Revolution, Wesley sent Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke to the United States to help organize Methodists there. Methodism was part of the wave of popular religious movements that came upon the United States within a generation of independence. During this wave of religious fervor, American Christianity divorced religious leadership from social position. American Christianity declared the moral responsibility of everyone to act and think for himself or herself.

At the same time, the first Methodist circuit riders appeared, preaching throughout the American frontier. The circuit riders also distributed Bibles and books as well as Methodist periodicals, and these materials were often the primary reading materials of the early pioneers.

Circuit riders were also teachers, and they paved the way for the establishment of Methodist schools and colleges across the frontier. The church's legacy to education lives on in 124 colleges and universities in the United States alone, including schools such as Duke and Emory, plus 13 seminaries and Africa University in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the United Methodist Church, Wesley's movement resulted in the founding of more than 20 Christian denominations and groups, including the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal churches, the Wesleyan churches, the Church of the Nazarene, the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries.

Wesley died in London on March 2, 1791, at the age of 87. He had preached his last sermon but a few days earlier, Feb. 23.

As you can see, whether you are Methodist or not, the legacy of John Wesley has impacted you and your community.

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*Whalen is a lawyer and law professor residing in Fort Thomas, Ky. He is also an adult Sunday school teacher at Highland United Methodist Church there.

Commentaries provided by United Methodist News Service do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of UMNS or the United Methodist Church.

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