Simple Rule Inspirations – C18th Britain & North America

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John Wesley and the text of a familiar Christmas
carol, hand-written by his brother, Charles Wesley.

John Wesley’s steadfast exercise of pastoral and preaching ministry outside of the inherited church structures of eighteenth century England made him one of the most persecuted and reviled people of his day. The disciplines of spiritual formation written into the fabric of of his assemblies, classes and bands, took no account of the feudal stratification of eighteenth century society. To many this was a scandal.

The Wesleyans’ spirituality was rooted in an intentional approach of obedience and application of the Gospels and New Testament. This led Wesleyan believers to associate with the poor, the sick and those in prison, as well as with those among polite society. It led them to open-air preaching, to generous giving and an individual and corporate culture of giving ones surplus to those in need. Wesley was renowned for his own commitment to these disciplines and his associates enthusiastically followed his example.

These disciplines provoked others to label the Wesleyans as “communists” and“colluders with the French!” Because of their expectation of ongoing conversion of life and their intentional approach to ongoing spiritual formation they were often accused of “attempting to revive the spirit of monasticism” – a badge which Wesley was happy to wear! Wesley was a perpetual student of earlier spiritual movements and drew great inspiration from Francis and Clare of Assisi and from the Celtic apostles. He noted their shared injunction to, in the words of Aidan, “be naked in your imitation of Christ and his apostles.”

Wesley and his associates were also deeply affected by their contact with the Aamish-like Moravians. These were reformed believers who lived in community in Germany, having been exiled from Slovakia on account of their protestant faith. The life of prayer of the Moravian community was renowned (they famously held a continuous prayer vigil which lasted unbroken for a full century) and people traveled to visit with them from all across Europe because of accounts of the power of Holy Spirit at work in their community.

This association with the Moravian believers led Wesley and his peers into deeper experiences of God in new birth and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. Their teaching and ministry were powerfully altered by these experiences. Subsequently the fruit of the preaching of Wesley’s movement was reviva on an unprecedented scale. It spanned the Atlantic and was marked by manifestations of the Spirit including deliverance and healing, and a deep conviction among those who heard the preaching.

One of the most iconic moments of this revival is a recollection of Wesley preaching to a crowd of coal miners returning home from their shift in Bristol, their blackened, sootty faces lined with bright white streaks as their tears fell freely in response to the message of the Gospel. The revival that ensued spanned the Atlantic, bringing people to faith in Christ on a scale not seen before or since in the West. The Salvation Army of the 19th century and the Pentecostal revivals that spanned the globe in the 20th both find their roots in Wesleyan Methodism.

Charles Wesley (John’s brother and fellow priest) was one of a generation of hymn writers that included the likes of Isaac Watts and John Newton. Their contemplation and creativity in the areas of corporate prayer and devotional song was so inspired that much of their work stands today. You will find their hymns in hymnals Catholic and Reformed! Their words of contemplation, particularly on the themes of the incarnation, the Cross,  new birth and the work of the Holy Spirit, still retain a power to move hearts and minds to joy, awe, wonder, conviction and adoration, three centuries later.

The longer term impact of Wesleyan faith is not limited to the religious sphere. Historians generally concur that the wesleyan revival dramatically altered the moral aspect of British and American life, notably with regard to the emancipation of women, regard for children and for the poor. New kinds of grassroots leaders from the unprivleged classes of society could not be ignored. Indeed the roots of the British and Australian labour movements can be traced to Wesley’s Methodist Chapels which, unselfconsciously enobled working people, empowering them and releasing them in ministry and social engagement.

Through the course of the revival Wesleyans found themselves increasingly shut out of the mainstream churches. Their alternative structures for fellowship centred on small, self-selected simple cells called “bands”. These replicated the intimacy and close conversation of the seed group at the genesis of the movement. So it was that soul friendship, the contemplative life, simplicity and the way of love marked a movement whose influence is genuinely incalculable.

Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the Methodist story is that the movement, the revival and all its eventuations originated when a group of three students at Oxford University formed a simple cell for the purpose of personal spiritual formation. They called it the “Holy Club.” And the rest is history!