John Wesley

The Life and Teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791)

John Wesley is recognized as the founder of Methodism.  The term “Wesleyan” is still seen today in the names of churches, colleges, and theological concepts; it reflects the legacy established by this eighteenth-century preacher.

In 1703 John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Samuel and Susanna Wesley.  His father was a rector in the Anglican Church.  The young Wesley was educated at the Charterhouse in London, as well as Christ Church at Oxford, where he received his B.A. in 1724 and his M.A. in 1727.  After graduation he joined his father at the parish in Wroot and was ordained to the ministry the following year.  During his time at Oxford, Wesley was a serious student, with a keen interest in both logic and religion.  However, it was not until 1725 that his “religious” conversion took place.  That was a critical point in the young man’s life, as he was prompted to consider what direction he would go with his life.  Through a number of important influences, including the encouragement of his mother and his reading of Thomas à Kempis, he decided that religion would be his life’s business.

Wesley’s decision to make religion his life business led to his ordination as a deacon in 1725 and then to joining his father in church work at Wroot.  He was his father’s curate (a rector’s assistant) from 1727 to 1729, after which he returned to Oxford.  At Oxford he took over the leadership of the “Holy Club,” a small group of students that had been organized by his brother Charles.  That organization would later come to be called “Methodist,” picking up that name from their methodical approach to Bible study.  They were also known for their strict self-denial, which included acts of charity.  It was during that time at Oxford that both of the Wesley brothers came to be influenced by William Law, an English mystic.  Wesley observed that at this point in his life he did not understand justification by faith, which led to his seeking justification through his own righteous works.  It was also during this time that Wesley developed his views on Christian perfection, which later became recognized as a hallmark of the Methodist movement.

In 1735 Wesley left Oxford and traveled to Georgia as a missionary.  His experience there was disastrous.  Like his father, Wesley was a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.  The Society invited Wesley to be a volunteer missionary to Georgia, a colony that had been recently founded by his father’s friend Colonel James Oglethorpe.  He became a parish priest in Savannah, an office in which he served with some success.  However, he also became enthralled with Sophey Hopkey, the niece of Georgia’s chief magistrate, Thomas Causton.  His failed courtship of Sophey caused him to become critical of both Causton and Oglethorpe, and he believed them to be guilty of mismanagement.  Causton brought together a grand jury that indicted Wesley on trumped-up charges, which indictment prompted him to leave Georgia in 1737.  He had, however, helped to strengthen the congregation in Savannah.  Therefore, his experience in Georgia was not entirely a failure despite his somewhat dishonorable departure.

After returning to England, Wesley experienced an evangelical conversion at a society meeting in London on May 24, 1738.  That experience changed his life.  He became convinced that the activities of the Methodist society could be empowered by grace and the Holy Spirit, working through faith in Jesus Christ.  A revival started less than a year after Wesley’s conversion and continued until his death in 1791.  That revival began his fifty-two year itinerant preaching ministry.  During that ministry, Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons while averaging 4,000 miles of travel each year.  However, Wesley can be distinguished from other evangelists in that he did more than just preach.  A unique feature of his ministry was the formation of societies to assist in the strengthening of the people who were awakened and converted during the revival.  Those societies moved across the Atlantic in the 1760s.  The Methodist Societies remained essentially a lay movement.  However, in both America and England the societies were largely influenced by the style and discipline of Wesley himself.

The Methodist movement continued to grow in America, particularly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, who had been appointed by Wesley to serve in America.  The American Methodists wrote to Wesley in 1784 and asked for assistance due to their numerical growth.  Wesley’s response was the ordination of a number of men who would establish an independent Methodist Church in America.  Those men had Wesley’s authority to ordain itinerants.  The itinerants had the authority to preach, but not to serve the sacraments, not even to the many Methodists who did not have access to the sacraments.  The birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America can be traced to the Christmas Conference of 1784.

At the Christmas Conference Wesley appointed men to lead the American Methodist movement in America.  It was also at that conference that a number of other church-related documents known as Wesley’s “General Plan” were approved.  Included in those approved documents, which were used as the doctrinal basis of British Methodism, were Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, as well as his abridged versions of the Articles of Religion.  Most modern Wesleyan traditions still retain at least a trace of the “General Plan.”  In the aftermath of the Christmas Conference Wesley’s direct church authority began to decline.  His theological and spiritual legacy could still be seen in Methodism, but the American Methodists began to reject his direct involvement in their affairs.  Wesley was still loved by the American Methodists, but he was losing his ability to have a direct role in the church in America.  Throughout the years, Wesley’s influence has still been apparent in Methodism.  Some of the specific emphases that Wesley passed on include social justice, pietistic holiness, evangelism, and discipline.

In his theology Wesley emphasized justification by faith alone.  Another emphasis of his was the pursuit of holiness, with the goal of that holiness being what he called “Christian perfection” (the belief that it is possible for the Christian to not sin).  He believed strongly in the supernatural, while also appealing to Scripture, reason, and the church fathers to support his intellectual claims.  Later in his life he also increasingly appealed to experience to support his arguments.  Wesley valued liturgical prayer, Eucharistic devotion, and extemporaneous worship.  The personal characteristics that made him an effective leader include his magnetism, his organizational abilities, and his capacity for self-discipline.  Another interesting characteristic of Wesley is his emphasis on charitable giving.  He had a distrust of the rich and was aware of the (often negative) effects that wealth can have on the spiritual life.  In his mind, the only legitimate reason to pursue money was for the sake of being able to give to those in need.

There are many movements and denominations that trace their roots back to Wesley and could therefore be characterized as being in the Wesleyan tradition.  The legacy of Wesley can be seen primarily in the various Methodist denominations, although traces of his legacy can also be seen in other groups, including the Holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and the Church of the Nazarene.  The Wesleyan tradition has historically been Arminian, as was Wesley himself.  Free will was an important aspect of Wesley’s theology, and is an aspect that separates Wesleyans from Calvinists.  However, the primary distinction between Wesleyans and Calvinists can be seen in sanctification.  Wesley’s issue with Calvinism stemmed from his belief that justification should lead to sanctification, and that faith should lead to works.  The theology of Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition could be summarized as using justification by faith as the “gateway” to holiness or sanctification.

The Spirit of God Decides

(This article was written by Frank Reed and originally posted here

One of the most defining moments in Church History occurred in 1523 in Zurich, Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli had been studying and teaching the Bible with his students. The local authorities eventually realized that this Bible study was bringing division to the community. The whole religious world was Roman Catholic. The Bible study in Zurich was a challenge to the Catholic system.

Actually, the Catholic system had been challenged by Martin Luther in Germany since 1517.  Now that challenge had spread to Switzerland. Zwingli, an excellent Bible scholar and priest in the Catholic Church in Zurich, was teaching a group of his students to study the Scriptures. His students would take that study more seriously than Zwingli ever imagined.

The students, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Simon Stumpf and others’ study of the Scripture led them to accept the Word of God at face value. They took the Bible study beyond the academic approach of their teacher. Their lives were changed. They began to challenge the current religious system of belief and practice. It only seemed logical to them that understanding of the Scripture would produce changes in lives. One of the changes they saw was the need for believers’ baptism. Infant baptism was the practice of the Catholic Church. These men believed that the Bible taught adult, believers’ baptism.

The authorities called for meetings where these differences could be discussed. The authorities wanted to control the changes to be made. At one of these meetings, Zwingli, instead of standing with his students, deferred to the authorities. He said, “my lords will decide” how to proceed with decisions about following the Scripture.

His students were dumbfounded. They were taken aback. How could their respected Bible teacher now defer to and allow authorities to decide about truths which they had learned from the Bible? When Zwingli said, “my lords will decide,” Simon Stumpf responded, “Master Ulrich, the Spirit of God has already decided!”

These young men were committed to following the Spirit of God in the face of what ever the authorities would do to them. Indeed Zwingli, their beloved teacher, had deserted them at a time when they desperately needed him. What would they do? Would they follow their teacher? Would they follow the authorities? Who or what was the authority? Their study of the Bible convinced them that God and His Word was the only authority that was safe to follow.

What authority is safe to follow? The only safe authority is the Scripture as studied under the direction of the Holy Spirit. This was the conviction of Zwingli’s students in 1523. This commitment was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement. The Anabaptist movement was the beginning of the Mennonite, Hutterite, and Amish Church groups. This Anabaptist movement greatly influenced the beginning of the Brethren movement in 1708. Alexander Mack had similar convictions about the source of authority. He believed that the source of authority was the Scripture as understood by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The question today is: what is our source of authority? Can we say that it is the Scripture as understood by the indwelling Holy Spirit? Or, have we replaced that conviction with something else? Has a system of authority replaced the ultimate Authority?

May the words of Zwingli’s students continue to be the conviction with which we approach the decisions of life – “The Spirit of God decides!”

Radical Discipleship – Dirk Willemsz

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  (Romans 12:14, ESV)

One of the finest historical examples of a commitment to radical discipleship is the story of Dirk Willemsz.  Dirk was a sixteenth-century Anabaptist who lived in Holland.  According to the account in the Martyr’s Mirror, Dirk was imprisoned for his faith.  He managed to escape, although he was pursued by a guard.  As he fled, he came to a river that was covered with a thin layer of ice.  Dirk made it across safely, but the guard fell through and would have soon drowned.  Astonishingly, Dirk turned back and rescued his pursuer.  The guard wanted to spare him for his act of love, but the burgomaster ordered that Dirk be returned to prison.  In May of 1569 Dirk Willemsz was burned at the stake.
This engraving was created by Jan Luiken and was published in the Martyr’s Mirror.  

Dirk

Source: http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/dirk_willemsz_d._1569

Radical Discipleship – Cyprian

A challenging example of radical discipleship is the life of Cyprian.  Cyprian was a wealthy Roman who lived in the third century A.D.  He became a Christian in 246 at the age of 40.  As a new convert, he was so overjoyed to have found Christ and receive the new birth that he liquidated his entire estate, gave the money to the poor, and rejoiced because he was free from material possessions.  Cyprian became an overseer in the church and also wrote some valuable works, including some remarkable passages on Christian rebirth.  Because of persecution, most of his ministry was conducted underground.  He worked tirelessly for the church and proved faithful unto death – he was beheaded by the Romans in 258.

(Source: David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, p. 13)

The Birth of Anabaptism

The Anabaptist movement began in 1525 and was an offshoot of the Protestant Reformation.  The Protestant Reformation is recognized as starting in October 1517, when an Augustinian monk nailed a document to the door of a castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  The document on that church door challenged the mighty fortress that the Roman Catholic Church had become.  Within days that document, which became known as the Ninety-Five Theses, had ignited the fire of reformation across Europe, perhaps to an even greater extent than Martin Luther himself had anticipated.

It was also in 1517 that another German-speaking priest was beginning to apply himself to a serious study of the New Testament.  He was serving as people’s priest at Einsiedeln during that period of extreme wrestling with Biblical truth.  By the time he accepted the call to serve at the Grossmünster in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli was determined to preach nothing but the Gospel.

Zwingli used preaching, teaching, and disputation to guide the progress of the Reformation in Zurich.  His personality attracted a number of gifted young intellectuals who were interested in studying the Greek classics.  In November 1521 a young scholar named Conrad Grebel joined Zwingli’s group of students.  Grebel’s father was a member of the Zurich city council.  The students were incredibly zealous for learning, which prompted Zwingli to introduce them to the Greek New Testament.

Zwingli’s students quickly became zealous for reform.  However, a group of those students, including Grebel, went beyond Zwingli in their understanding of what Scripture teaches, particularly in regards to baptism.  Zwingli and his former disciples engaged in a public dispute in January 1525.  The city council declared Zwingli the victor and denounced the young radicals.  The small band of radicals had three options.  They could conform to Zwingli’s teaching, leave Zurich, or face imprisonment.  Which would you have chosen?

Several days after the debate between Zwingli and his students, approximately a dozen men traveled through the snow to the home of Felix Manz, located near Zwingli’s Grossmünster.  History was in the making as those men considered their next step.  The events of that momentous night have been preserved in The Large Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (A. J. F. Zieglschmid, Die älteste Chronik der Hutterischen Brüder, p. 47).  These words seem to be from an eyewitness, generally thought to be Jörg Cajakob, who came to be known as George Blaurock.

“And it came to pass that they were together until anxiety came upon them, yes, they were so pressed within their hearts. Thereupon they began to bow their knees to the Most High God in heaven and called upon him as the Informer of Hearts, and they prayed that he would give to them his divine will and that he would show his mercy unto them. For flesh and blood and human forwardness did not drive them, since they well knew what they would have to suffer on account of it.

After the prayer, George of the House of Jacob stood up and besought Conrad Grebel for God’s sake to baptize him with the true Christian baptism upon his faith and knowledge. And when he knelt down with such a request and desire, Conrad baptized him, since at that time there was no ordained minister to perform such work.”

After his own baptism, Blaurock proceeded to baptize the rest of those present.  The newly baptized believers pledged themselves to be true disciples of Jesus Christ, to be separate from the world, to teach the Gospel, and to maintain the faith.  The Anabaptist movement had been born.  This group, which came to be known as the Swiss Brethren, broke with the Roman Catholic Church to an extent that not even Luther and Zwingli had dared to approach.  The Swiss Brethren sought to form a church according to the pattern they saw in the New Testament.  This meeting was arguably the most revolutionary act of the Reformation.

The Swiss Brethren emphasized a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as being both essential for salvation and a prerequisite for baptism.  This conviction about baptism being only for adult believers had not been arrived at recklessly or hastily.  Rather, it was the result of an intense and earnest study of the Scriptures.  Even though they were not able to convince Zwingli about the need for further reform, this small group of committed Christ-followers acted on their convictions by withholding their children from the infant baptism that continued to be administered by Zwingli and other Reformed preachers.  In so doing, they risked imprisonment and death for the sake of Christ and the Scriptures.

The meeting on January 21, 1525 was the beginning of a movement.  The worldwide Anabaptist church (which includes Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Brethren, and related churches) now counts 1.77 million baptized believers in over 80 countries.

 

Sources:

Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. 3rd ed., revised and enlarged.  Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.  Pages 9-15.

http://www.mennoworld.org/archived/2013/2/18/anabaptists-increasing-worldwide/

 

Early Christian Worship

This description of early Christian worship was written by Justin Martyr (100-165).  It comes from chapter 67 of “The First Apology of Justin.”   

And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.

For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.