“Keeping traditions transforming the future”. Methodism has appeared not as a new church, but as a movement aimed at the spiritual renewal. John Wesley's theology has appeared out of his personal strive for holiness and looked toward reaching and spreading of holiness among the people so, that it will end up in reformation of the Church and the nation. This is how he saw his own mission.
What could we learn today from the history of Methodism in order to renew our faith and breeze a new life into our church? I invite you to join me in the trip to the 18th century England to find out about the practices of the early Methodists, by which they performed the will of God to transform peoples' lives.
In Oxford University there is a portrait gallery devoted to its famous students and teachers. Stopping by one of the portraits the guide would exclaim: “This is John Wesley. His sermons have saved England from the bloody revolution similar to the French one!”
The future father of Methodism was born in 1703 in the family of a vicar. Upon his graduation from Oxford in 1725 he was ordained for the ministry in the Church of England. Striving to be a real Christian in the nominal Christian facility which Oxford appeared to be at that time, John has founded “The Holy Club”, where he prayed, fasted, read the Holy Scripture and engaged in works of mercy together with those, who felt alike. They have been called Methodists for being so uncommonly systematic, and afterward it became the name of the newborn Revival movement.
In 1735 Wesley brothers went to Georgia state in America as missionaries, but their ministry there turned out to be unsuccessful, and they had to return home in 1738. During their travel John got acquainted with Moravians, and it had a tremendous impact on his future life.
John Wesley understood holiness as an internal renewal which leads to the transformation of the whole life of a human. He experienced the true conversion on May 24, 1738. He was filled with an extraordinary power that day, and the living faith appeared in his heart. On Thursday, 25th he writes in his Journal: “The moment I awaked, ‘Jesus, Master,’ was in my heart and in my mouth...”
So started the fifty years of his amazing life. He rode his horse for 400 000 kilometers which could make 10 trips around the world. He preached more than 42 000 sermons and wrote something about 200 books. Oftentimes more than 10 000 people listened to him field preaching. He had to preach three times a day regardless the weather. When he was 72, he wrote in his Journal that his health was better than at age 40.
When John Wesley was dying at age 87, he suddenly sat up in his bed, looked at his grieving relatives and friends and said: “Best of all God is with us. Farewell.”
Spiritual life discipline
In his strive to live the holy life, John Wesley asked himself what is righteous life and how can I check whether I live it or not? So he started to write a Journal which he used later on to measure his progress. Then he understands that true religion requires genuine heart and mind and not only pious deeds. Now he is to decide how to define sincerity of a heart. He has started Church and society Revival movement with himself. His own spiritual practices included:
- everyday prayer;
- Bible reading;
- communion (at least once a week);
- visiting Methodist society.
How do I spend my free time? What is my schedule? Is Jesus Christ real for me? Do I spend enough time with Him in prayer and in reading the Bible? What kind of relations do I have with other people, and what do I do about it? What do I feel? How do I live? What kind of person am I? These questions from John Wesley's checklist are still timely and important for the spiritual life nowadays.
Preaching the Gospel has become the main part of John Wesley's ministry. Soon enough churches of London started to shut their doors in front of the “vexatious preacher”.
So John has accepted the invitation of George Whitefield to preach in an open air. Thus for him Whitefield opened the door to the new world of ministry where the main dome was heaven, and his parish was the whole world.
John Wesley has written in his journal: “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation”.
Holiness has to have a social form to express it. Methodist societies where all believers followed common rules - to avoid evil, to do good and to engage in works of piety and works of mercy and thus express their love for God and neighbor, - were such a social form for John Wesley.
On the next level it was implemented in classes and bands. It were the bands, where people received pastoral care, where those, who search, could gain assurance in their justification and acceptance. The majority of the new believers experienced the new birth not when they heard John Wesley preaching but when they joined the Methodist society and started to visit classes and bands.
The small groups today are also the instrument of spiritual growth of the believers and the launching pad for spreading the Gospel.
Care for poor and rejected
John Wesley is in search of an answer to the question whether Christian life is something, that happens inside of ourselves or rather something outward, something that we should do. And his answer is – both. It is both personal piety and social ministry. Later on he would emphasize that there could be no personal holiness without social holiness.
Wesley cared for poor and rejected, trying to solve their vital problems.
He has organized fund-raising, opened the hospital for the poor, written and published a collection of inexpensive recipes common people could use to cure wide-spread diseases. He continued visiting the poor.
Wesley looked for the jobs for unemployed, hired people for fabric processing and knitting. He created interest-free loans system, which helped people to get rid of their debts and continued his ministry to the death sentenced.
Advocating for justice
Wesley engaged not only in the social ministry. He advocated consistently for the legislative changes supporting social justice and equality.
He wrote pamphlets calling to adopt legislature fighting the cause of poverty in England, as he understood it; he called for penitentiary system reformation, he stood against inhumane treatment of the war prisoners, opposed slavery and supported those who fought against it.
Broadening the rights
John Wesley supported educational projects for the most poor. He has broaden authorities of lay people, appointing them as preachers, society and class leaders; he has also given women opportunity to preach, lead the classes and to engage in pastoral care.
One of the distinctive features of the early Methodism was the development of the conferences, where Wesley met with his preachers to discuss the key aspects of their ministry. On the Conference of 1744 they have discussed three most important questions of the new movement – what do we teach, how do we teach it and what should we do?
What could we learn from the Methodist history?
Spiritual life discipline, preaching that goes beyond all borders, personal and social holiness practiced in small groups and social ministry, participation in formation of the just society with equal opportunities, broadening the rights of disadvantaged social groups, creating strong connections.
Perfection is something that lots of people, and not necessarily Christians, long to gain throughout their life. John Wesley asserted that Christians can live a perfect life. So who is a perfect Christian? John Wesley has described him as the one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul… He is therefore happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him “a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” and overflowing his soul with peace and joy”.
Is it not then the best thing that can ever happen to us beside the salvation? Such a joy is to reach the point where you have no need to fight the sin, and where there's no even a desire to sin, because Jesus fills our hearts, our minds and our souls so that there is no place or time for anything but love and praise to Him.
According to the data of The World Methodist Council in 2014 there were 80,5 million members of the Methodist and Wesleyan churches in 133 countries of the world.
More than a 100 of churches and bible groups in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan Kyrgyzstan and other countries form the United Methodist Church in Eurasia.
(Published in the magazine “Salt”, edition of the UMC in Eurasia).