The RMN blog posts today an interpretation of John Wesley’s ministry that offers the following explanation why he the movement was opposed, sometimes violently:
Why would the leaders of the church attack him and his followers? There may be many answers, but a clear reason is that he sought to include people who weren’t accepted in the churches. They were the coarse workers from factory and field. They were not the respectable folks of the parish. The respectable folks didn’t want to sit next to the unwashed, illiterate rabble that Wesley was sending to church.
See, he took them the word of God’s redemptive love, but he sent them to the churches for communion and baptism. John Wesley was an Anglican until he died. He didn’t set out to found a new denomination; he set out to reform Anglicanism. He sought to expand the church to include all of God’s children – not just the “respectable” ones. Perhaps had he not sent the less respectable folks to church, had he performed baptisms and communion outside of the church, he might not have stirred up such a storm of opposition.
In all my reading of John Wesley’s works, I’ve never found anything that would support the conclusion that he faced rock-throwing gangs because he sent poor people to the local church to take communion. Maybe it is in the histories that I have not yet read.
His own account of the troubles faced by Methodists, written in 1745, goes like this:
1. About seven years since, we began preaching inward, present salvation, as attainable by faith alone.
2. For preaching this doctrine, we were forbidden to preach in the churches.
3. We then preached in private houses, as occasion offered: And when the houses could not contain the people, in the open air.
4. For this, many of the Clergy preached or printed against us, as both heretics and schismatics.
5. Persons who were convinced of sin, begged us to advise them more particularly how to flee from the wrath to come. We replied, if they would all come at one time (for they were numerous) we would endeavour it.
6. For this, we were represented, both from the pulpit and the press, (we have heard it with our ears, and seen it with our eyes) as introducing Popery, raising sedition, practicing both against Church and State; and all manner of evil was publicly said both of us, and those who were accustomed to meet with us.
7. Finding some truth herein, viz., that some of those who so met together walked disorderly, we immediately desired them not to come to us any more.
8. And the more steady were desired to overlook the rest, that we might know if they walked according to the Gospel.
9. But now several of the Bishops began to speak against us, either in conversation or in public.
10. On this encouragement, several of the Clergy stirred up the people to treat us as outlaws or mad dogs.
11. The people did so, both in Staffordshire, Cornwall, and many other places.
12. And they do so still, wherever they are not restrained by their fear of the Magistrate.
In neither this letter nor any any of the other of Wesley’s works that I have read — journals, letters, sermons, pamphlets — do I recall the issue being about who was sitting next to whom in church.
The matter at hand was doctrine. Wesley preached a strict holiness and a justification by faith in Jesus Christ that saves from the guilt and power of sin. Wesley preached this gospel to all would hear, but his journals are replete with cases of him ejecting from the Methodist society those who were “disorderly walkers.” This was not movement of blind inclusivism. It was a movement of egalitarian spiritual renewal. All need to be saved from sin.
Wesley did preach to the poor, the in prison, the illiterate, and the unloved people of the British Isles. He did care for their spirits, their minds, and their bodies. He did encourage them to partake of constant communion, but I can find no evidence at all that it was the unwashed showing up for communion that got him in trouble with the establishment.
It was doctrine that started all the trouble. It was preaching moral and spiritual holiness that enraged the well-heeled and the powerful. It was calling on sinners to “flee from the wrath to come,” to repent of their sins, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling that upset the comfortable church people.
If you know of evidence that contradicts my reading, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Until then, I’ll close with another quote from John Wesley’s journal about the redemptive love of Christ he preached in the fields and public squares:
I had a great desire to visit a little village called Placey, about ten measured miles north of Newcastle. It is inhabited by colliers only, and such as had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s day; on which men, women, and children met together, to dance, fight, curse and swear, and play at chuck, ball, and span-farthing, or whatever came next to hand. I felt great compassion for these poor creatures, from the time I heard of them first; and the more, because all men seemed to despair of them. Between seven and eight I set out with John Heally, my guide. The north wind being unusually high, drove the sleet in our face, which froze as it fell, and cased us over presently. When we came to Placey, we could very hardly stand. As soon as we were a little recovered, I went into the Square, and declared Him who “was wounded for our transgressions,” and “bruised for our iniquities.” The poor sinners were quickly gathered together, and gave earnest heed to the things which were spoken. And they did in the afternoon again, in spite of the wind and snow, when I besought them to receive Him for their King; to “repent and believe the Gospel.”