John Wesley and the
Methodist Christian Revival
[Excerpts taken from "John Wesley" , by
Basil Miller, BETHANY HOUSE PUBLISHERS, available online at:
. In the search section, type in "John Wesley, by Basil Miller."
For a complete description of this amazing revival of the
18th century Christian Church be sure to order
the book. The book starts out slow but turns into a real page-turner.]
"Samuel, a wandering cleric, was often in London and left
the management of his parish to Susannah with the assistance
of a curate. Doubtless Susannah and the growing John looked
upon the jaunts as a waste of the minister's time. There was
one trip, however, he made which was not all lost. And that
was the London safari during which he obtained the
scholarship for John. Concerning this he writes:
"I've a younger son at home whom the Duke of Buckingham has
this week written down for his going into the Charterhouse
as soon as he's of age: so that my time has not been all lost
That younger son was John. Though the letter was written when
John was eight, still he was assured of an open road toward
a qualifying education for whatever task he should undertake
in his mature years.
When Methodism's future sire entered Charterhouse he was in
no wise handicapped by a lack of routine or formal training.
For the private education he had received from Mother Susannah
not only taught him learning from books but drilled into his
system, both mental and spiritual, the principles of plain
living and high thinking. At this time he was "a diligent
and successful scholar and a patient and forgiving boy, who
had at home been inured not indeed to oppression but to the
hard living and scanty fare."
John was admitted as a charity scholar on the Sutton Foundation,
along with forty-three other boys who were unable to pay their
way. He received his meals in the dining hall and being small
for his age, the older boys robbed his platter of the tastier
"From ten to fourteen," John later writes, "I had little but
bread to eat and not great plenty of that. I believe this
was so far from hurting me that it laid the foundation of
lasting health."...While the youthful Wesley was busy polishing
his mind he became lax in keeping his religious diligence
up to par. Rather than abetting his religious growth his stay
at Charterhouse had the reverse effect.
This caused him to say, "Outward restraints being removed,
I was much more negligent than before, even of outward duties,
and almost continually guilty of outward sins, which I knew
to be such, though they were not scandalous in the eye of
the world. However, I still read the Scriptures, and said
my prayers morning and evening. And what I now hoped to be
saved by was--(1) not being so bad as other people; (2) having
still a kindness for religion; and (3) reading the Bible,
going to church and saying my prayers."
Tyerman in commenting on John's stay at Charterhouse doubtless
overdraws the picture of Wesley's character derelictions when
he says, "Terrible is the danger when a child leaves a pious
home for a public school. John Wesley entered the Charterhouse
a saint, and left it a sinner."...
John was a diligent student at this time, for Samuel Jr.,
writes to his father saying, "Jack is a brave boy, learning
Hebrew as fast as he can." Charterhouse, however, was but
the springboard into the broader world of education and training
for John. Finishing his course there in 1719 he was soon on
his way to Oxford, where his life was to be chiseled by the
hammer of divine providence.
THE OXFORD DON
Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford, on
June 24, 1720, receiving a scholarship of approximately $200
a year, or L40. It was this along with a few scant gifts from
the Epworth homefolk that made his university days possible.
Oxford did little to improve John's spiritual life.
In reality the university had struck one of the low levels
of its scholastic and religious history, and had little to
offer the student save a boarding place, a room in which to
study and lectures to attend. Degrees were given for residence
on the basis that the university was inhabited by students
in residence implied the habit of study.
Gibbon entering Oxford forty years later said of his stay,
"They proved the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable
of my whole life...The fellows...from the toil of reading,
or thinking, or writing, they had absolved their conscience..."
Little is known of John's undergraduate life, save that due
to his lack of money he lived almost as a recluse. A contemporary
describes him as "a very sensible, active collegian, baffling
every man by the subtleties of his logic, and laughing at
them for being so easily routed; a young fellow of the finest
classical tastes, of the most liberal and many sentiments,
gay and sprightly with a turn for wit and humor."
Here he was to remain until after his ordination as deacon
in 1725. Wesley makes little reference to his studies, but
gives us to understand that his religious life was little
better than during his Charterhouse days.
"I still said my prayers," he remarks, "both in public and
private; and read, with the Scriptures, several other books
of religion, especially comments on the New Testament. Yet
I had not all this while so much as a notion of inward holiness;
nay, went on habitually and for the most part very contentedly
in some or other known sin; though with some intermission
and short struggles, especially before and after Holy Communion
which I was obligated to receive twice a year."...
When John was twenty-two, the year after taking his degree,
he came to a turning point in his career. Living under Susannah's
constant oversight and training until he was ten, he found
implanted in his heart a bearing toward the ministry. Nor
could it be thought singular that such was the case, since
his heritage had brought down to him stories of those time-defying
curates who had marked his ancestry. He could not have been
Samuel's son and not inclined toward the pulpit, much less
This bent toward the ministry as a life occupation came to
the fore in 1725. Though he was outwardly a churchman still
the flame of divine fire flickered low in his life during
his educational career. For more than twelve years he had
been away from home, living in an atmosphere of culture and
training. This had dulled the keen edge of his religious sentiments.
He had become a gay collegian, a favorite in any society,
a wit, whose repute for scholarship was high, but whose religious
life was indifferent. Late one evening he met the college
porter, a deeply pious man, with whom the don began to speak.
The poorly clad porter was urged to go home for a coat, the
evening being cold. In return the porter thanked God for the
one coat he had on, as well as for water--his only drink during
the day. When John asked him what else there was to be thankful
for, said the porter, "I will thank Him I have the dry stones
to lie upon."
Being urged by John to continue, the servant said, "I thank
Him that He has given me my life and being, a heart to love
Him, and a desire to serve Him."
Returning to his room that evening John began to feel there
were emotional depths to salvation he had not plumbed. He
was a stranger to such sentiments. He wrote to his parents
about this urge to enter the life of a cleric. His father
replied that he should not enter the priestly office "just
to have a piece of bread."...
There were deep springs of spiritual overflowing down in Susannah's
heart which kept bubbling to the surface in the form of advice
to her son. She had taught him aright while directing his
early education, and now beyond the pale of her immediate
influence, she wanted young John to be certain of his relationship
to Christ. In reality it was her own experience of redemption
through Christ that mothered the Methodist revival...
John's heart was warmed toward such sentiments, for recently
he had been reading Thomas Kempis' Imitation of Christ,
and Taylor's Holy Living and Dying, as he was later
to read Law's Christian Perfection. These books awakened
his conscience, and began to toll a bell in his mind, the
burst of whose melody had but faintly sounded since leaving
"The providence of God," writes Wesley, "directing me to Kempis'
Christian Pattern, I began to see that true religion
was seated in the heart, and that God's law extended to all
our thoughts as well as words and actions...I set apart two
hours a day for religious retirement. I communicated every
week. I watched against all sin, whether in word or deed.
I began to aim at and pray for inward holiness..."
THE HOLY CLUB
While John was serving as his father's curate
at Wroote, great things were happening at Oxford, which as
a strange providence were to give birth to Methodism. Wesley's
soul was longing for the highway that led to religious freedom.
He was striving outwardly to conform his life to spiritual
standards, while the inner glow making this possible failed
to spark to flame...
He began to attend the Sacraments weekly and to induce others
to join him in this search for righteousness. He and his companions
adopted rules for the governing of their lives, directing
their religious activities, allotting their time carefully
for study and churchly duties. In this time-charting they
gave little attention or space allocation to sleep or food,
and as much as possible to religion.
It was a small group that circled around Charles [John's brother]
but their weekly trip to Oxford cathedral caught the attention
of an undergraduate who said, "Here is a new set of Methodists
Charles says the word Methodist "was bestowed upon
himself and his friends because of their strict conformity
to the method of study prescribed by the university." However
the name was first used as, and in its connotation it came
to bear, an approbrious designation, and later when John referred
to it, he did so with a consciousness that it was used in
a derogatory manner.
In an early sermon John speaks of his associates as "the people
in derision called Methodists." In his English Dictionary
he defines a Methodist as "one that lives according to the
method laid down in the Bible."
On October 21, 1729, Dr. Morley, the Rector of Lincoln, informed
Wesley that as a junior fellow he must attend his duties in
person, and sent him an invitation to return to Oxford. On
returning to the university John found the little group of
Methodists in action, and at once became their leader.
His age as well as his scholarship made it inevitable that
he should assume this position. Various names were applied
to these methodical religionists as fellow students viewed
them. Some spoke of them as Sacramentarians, Bible Moths,
Bible Bigots; two names, however rapidly gained the ascendancy--Methodists
and the Holy Club.
John was nicknamed "curator of the Holy Club," or sometimes
"the father of the Holy Club."...
The first work of the Holy Club was Bible study. While other
items were on the agenda, the searching of the Scripture was
the paramount one. [putting on the Armour of God.]
"From the very beginning," said Wesley, "from the time that
four young men united together, each of them was homo unius
libri, a man of one book...They had one and only one rule
of judgment...They were continually reproached for this very
thing, some terming them in derision Bible Bigots, others,
Bible Moths, feeding, they said, upon the Bible as moths do
on cloth...And indeed...it is their constant endeavor to think
and speak as the oracles of God."
This was to be the fundamental issue in the growth of Methodism,
and wherever you find John during the long decades of his
career, he was still a Bible Moth.
So great was this love of the Bible that in his later life
he wrote his Notes on the New Testament, which in its
day was a classic and created a favorable impression outside
The members of the club at first met Sunday evenings, and
this in time became a twice-weekly session when they gathered
for Bible study and discussion. At length these meetings became
nightly, from six to nine o'clock. Those famous sessions were
begun by beseeching God's benedictions upon their lives. After
this prayer season they opened their Greek Testament for a
period of searching the Scripture in the original language.
This was followed by a brief study of the classics. The evening
was climaxed by a detailed review of the day, an outlining
of tomorrow's tasks and, finally, a frugal supper.
Along with the weekly celebration of the Lord's Supper, they
also set aside two days each week for fasting and prayer,
and laid out a set of rules by which each member was to try
himself before the bar of conscience...This chart [get the
book to see the list, found on pages 34-35] is a worthy ideal
for attaining and diligently did John try to align his outward
life and inner soul with its regulations. He lived with such
severity that often one wonders whether he did not do himself
a grave injustice...
It was this diligence in keeping his outward life conformed
to his spiritual idea that was the source of his power with
others. As the Holy Club leader John realized that great was
his responsibility not only for rules but for building those
regulations into living experiences...
Charles became the singer of the Methodist revival as John
was to be its organizer. The third member was George Whitefield,
the outstanding evangelist and preacher of his generation.
Whitefield joined the Holy Club through a kindness of Charles
in loaning him a book to read, which burned through the outward
shell of his religious life and set aflame the passions of
his soul. No man since Paul has been more entitled to fame
as a preacher than Whitefield.
George was the son of a tavern keeper, whose Christian mother
asked him to lead the singing one day for a women's meeting.
From this kind request George's feet were turned toward the
Cross. Arriving at Oxford when eighteen, time ripened his
friendship with Charles and at length he became a new creature
"I found and felt in myself that I was delivered," he says,
"from the burden that had so heavily oppressed me...The Daystar
arose in my heart. I know the place; it may perhaps be superstitious,
but whenever I go to Oxford I cannot help running to the spot
where Jesus Christ first revealed Himself to me and gave me
a new birth." [Interesting, the term born-again is
not so new.] This was 1735, the year he cast his lot with
the Holy Club...
During 1733 John wrote two sermons which are of enticing doctrinal
import and mark a milestone in his theological thinking. The
first of these was on the need of the influence of the Holy
Spirit to convert the soul. This is the doctrine which Peter
Behler was to impress on John's mind in 1738.
"The circumcision of the heart," writes the Holy Club father,
"is that habitual disposition of soul, which in the sacred
writings is termed holiness; and which directly implies the
being cleansed from sin, from all filthiness both of flesh
and spirit; and by consequence, the being endued with those
virtues which were also in Christ Jesus; the being so renewed
in the image of our mind, as to be perfect as our Father in
heaven is perfect."
This in plainest terms was Wesley's doctrine of Christian
perfection, germs of which he had dug from the writings of
his friend William Law. "This sermon," he says in 1765, "contained
all that I now teach concerning salvation from all sin, and
loving God with an undivided heart." Further on in the sermon
he says "He alone (the Spirit) can quicken those who are dead
unto God and breathe into them the breath of Christian life...Those
who are thus by faith born of God have also strong consolation
through hope. This is the next thing which the circumcision
of the heart implies: even the testimony of their own spirit,
with the Spirit which witnesses in their hearts, that they
are the children of God." [taken from Romans 8, obviously]
Here in this sermon, "The Circumcision of the Heart," Wesley
lays the foundation of the two doctrines upon which the superstructure
of his dogmatic position is to be erected: Christian perfection
and the witness of the Spirit. The latter doctrine is John
Wesley's one original contribution to the body of Christian
The second sermon is on the Holy Spirit who is justly given
the rightful position of import in the Christian's life. "From
Him flow all grace and virtue, by which the stains of guilt
are cleansed, and we are renewed in all holy dispositions,
and again bear the image of our Creator," he says...
It was 1734...John's father, Samuel was sick, and the end
seemed to be leaning upon the corner of the Epworth rectory.
Word was sent out for one of the boys to come hastily and
take his place, else the roof should pass from over Susannah's
Samuel Jr., wrote John implying that since he was "despised"
at Oxford he could do more good at Epworth, to which John
at once replied: "1. A Christian will be despised anywhere.
2. No one is a Christian until he is despised. 3. His being
despised will not hinder his doing good, but much further
it, by making him a better Christian. 4. Another can supply
my place better at Epworth than at Oxford, and the good done
here is of a far more diffusive nature, inasmuch as it is
a more extensive benefit to sweeten the fountain than to do
the same particular streams."...
Shortly the fate of the Club was to hang in the balance when
the Wesley's sailed to America. For awhile Whitefield held
the group together until in 1738 he followed his friends over
the sea, to add luster to his own name. And one by one members
departed for other spheres of service, until the Club was
It had served its purpose by being the cradle of Methodism.
Some looked upon its first four members as being the charter
members of the Methodist Church. Nevertheless it threw around
John an atmosphere of piety where his own faith could germinate.
Through three sons of genius, John, Charles and George, gradually
the spark of the Holy Club blazed at Oxford, showered forth
across England, leaped to America and the great revival was
Philosophically the basic doctrines of justification by faith
and the witness of the Spirit had already been written into
John's soul, yet they were not living experiential facts.
Dogmatically he knew the doctrine but he had not yet experienced
it as a soul-transforming power. How to make this transmutation
he was to learn from a humble Moravian preacher.