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The Wesleys – founders of Methodism

11 Oct

My understanding of Methodism has been rather limited, experienced until recently only through interdenominational services in my youth.  My teenage observations were that there seemed to be a greater emphasis on the Bible and preaching (longer bible readings and sermons than in our church) and less of a focus on the sacrament, with greater engagement of lay people in ministry.

As a new board member of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund, I thought I had better find out a little more about Methodism.  I grew up worshiping in an Anglican church so I’m well versed in the words of Charles Wesley, singing many of his hymns during my time in the choir.

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Favourites include:

And can it be that I should gain
an interest in the Savior’s blood!
Died he for me? who caused his pain!
For me? who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
   And the famous wedding hymn….
 
Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heaven, to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling;
all thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation;
enter every trembling heart.
But what of the other brother, John, and the principles of Methodism?  This week, while I was visiting London I stumbled upon the Wesley Chapel and Wesley’s House (free entry) and took some time to explore.
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John was born in Epworth in Lincolnshire in 1703, the 15th child of parents Samuel and Susanna (buried opposite the Wesley Chapel in Bunhill Fields Burial Ground).  Samuel was the Rector, so John experienced life in the church from a young age. Educated at Charterhouse School in London and then Oxford University, he was ordained as an Anglican deacon (1725) and priest (1728) at Christ Church Cathedral, and became a tutor and Fellow of Lincoln College.  He was a member of the ‘Holy Club’, a group of like-minded people who disciplined piety, but it was not until 1738 that he had a spiritual experience that convinced him of his salvation through Christ and made him want to preach the Good News. John Wesley is estimated to have travelled 250,000 miles in 50 years to preach the gospel.
Perhaps one of the most famous quotes of Wesley is:
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can!”
He was committed to preaching a gospel that stood up for living a life based on scripture and standing up against injustice. He would start his day with prayer and devotions for at least an hour.
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Christianity was not something to be kept within the four walls of the church, but to reach out to others, particularly those in need, bringing them the love of Christ.  He placed an emphasis on personal faith and holiness. Justification by faith, forgiveness and redemption through Jesus Christ, was the essence of his theology. Sanctification (defined in terms of “pure or disinterested love”), is found through the Holy Spirit. Its characteristics are to love God and one’s neighbour as oneself; to be meek and lowly in heart, having the mind which was in Christ Jesus; to abstain from all appearance of evil, walking in all the commandments of God; to be content in every state, doing all to the glory of God.
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This is the foundation for the Methodist interest in helping the poor and promoting social justice and Wesley led by example. During his time at Oxford, he took courses in basic medicine and first aid and ventured into London during much of his free time to work with the poor, providing medical aid where he could.  Wesley and his Methodists worked hard to raise the money to provide food and clothing for the poor.  He introduced interest-free loans to the poor in London and Methodists devoted themselves to helping the poor to find jobs.   In a time and place in which many viewed poverty and sickness as an indicator of the worth of the individual, Wesley preached God’s love for all mankind and demanded unrestricted love for one’s neighbour. Long before the Quakers introduced anti-slavery legislation to Parliament, Wesley was convinced that slavery was an atrocious blot upon mankind.  In 1774, Wesley wrote Thoughts upon Slavery, presenting his case for abolition.  Wesley’s staunch opposition to slavery heavily influenced abolitionist members of Parliament such as William Wilberforce.

Wesley’s famous Sermon 50: The Use of Money, stated ”gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can,” demanding his followers be good stewards of their wealth.  In fact, Wesley earned quite a bit of money from his published writings, and yet lived and died in relative poverty.

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But this life of preaching and service took a toll on his family life.  Wesley and Mary Vazeille, a well-to-do widow and mother of four children, were married in 1751. By 1758 she had left him—unable to cope, it is said, with the competition for his time and devotion presented by the ever-burgeoning Methodist movement. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation. Due to her husband’s constant travels, Molly felt increasingly neglected.
In 1778 he built the Wesley Chapel and the house next to it where he lived until he died in March 1791.
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Despite John Wesley’s claim ‘I live and die a member of the Church of England’, by the time of his death the Methodist movement (which, by then, was largely associated with John Wesley) had grown apart from the national church.
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He is buried in the grounds of the Wesley Chapel, but has left a long legacy behind him of Methodism, people who walk in the footsteps of Christ, caring for the poor and standing up for injustice.
If you want to carry one the work of Wesley how about starting by studying the Bible, showing kindness to your neighbour and making a donation to the work of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund?
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