October 17, 2017

In Pursuit of Souls

Edward M. Panosian

John Wesley stepped into the spiritual vacuum of eighteenth century England and led a movement that transformed that nation and had far-reaching effects on America as well.

[Though not a Baptist, the story of John Wesley remains inspirational and instructive for us today.]

“He acts as though he were out of breath in the pursuit of souls.” These words, perhaps more than any others, describe the man whose indelible impress upon eighteenth-century England has become almost legend.

John Wesley’s life (1703-1791) touched every decade of his century, and his work reflected every area of his country’s needs. Concerned for the social, moral, economic, political, and physical problems of his land, he was primarily “in pursuit of souls.” He was “the man on horseback,” coming to woo eternal souls with the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Preacher, popular theologian, author, organizer, he wore many hats and won many crowns. But those who in his day wore earthly crowns were not more effective in shaping the lives of their nations than Wesley was in shaping his.

From works to faith

His life follows a pattern often repeated in the lives of serious and sincere men in the past and in the present. Wesley was reared strictly and well in a Godly Anglican minister’s home in a family which had known 19 births (eight of whom became infant deaths). Spared marvelously at the age of five when his father’s parsonage burned, accustomed by his mother to a rigid personal habit of life, an able student an avid reader, swimmer, and rider, he became a priest of the Church of England and a fellow at Oxford University. John Wesley was active and industrious in doing good works, especially with the “Holy Club” at Oxford, which eventually became the foundation of those who were at first dubbed — and later more honorably described — Methodists. John later said of this period: “Doing so much, and living so good a life, I doubted not but I was a good Christian.”

In keeping with his eager righteousness-by-works he went with his brother Charles as a missionary to the new American colony of Georgia, under the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. He accomplished little, was frustrated by an unwise affair of heart, and was troubled that his profession of faith had not given him the peace and tranquility of soul which he had observed in some Moravians he had met. After two years Wesley returned to England.

That contact with the Moravians was the instrument which brought him to peace Much like Luther, Wesley had tried with ‘works” to achieve salvation. He had returned from America with the heart’s cry, “I went to Georgia to convert the Indians, but oh! who shall convert me?” He received the answer on the 24th of May, 1738, when he attended a meeting of a Moravian Society on A1dersgte in London. John Wesley’s lengthy entry — a veritable spiritual autobiography — in his journal for that day concludes with a simple eloquence born of the peace which came to his much troubled soul: In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

The world for his parish

This assurance was the starting point of Wesley’s service to the Lord — an energetic service that continued for the more than half century of his remaining life. He had labored — although impotent of spiritual good — to be saved; now he labored — empowered by the Spirit of God — because he was saved. It is estimated that during that half century he preached about 40,000 sermons and traveled 225 to 250 thousand miles, usually on horseback. He averaged nearly 5000 miles a year and 15 sermons a week. Wesley’s fervent and enthusiastic preaching was strangely foreign to the Church of England, of which he was an ordained priest. When the parishes of. that cold, formal liturgical church became closed to the intensely personal, direct, evangelistic, awakening preaching of this diminutive giant, he preached wherever there were people. Wesley declared that the whole world was his parish.

The influence of the field-preaching of his contemporary, George Whitefield, and his burning concern to reach dying souls overcame his native reticence and his reluctance toward “abandoning good order,” Whitefield, a fellow member with John of the Holy Club during their Oxford years, was seeing remarkable success preaching to the outcast miners around Bristol — men to whom no one had attempted to proclaim the Gospel. Tears flowed down coal blackened cheeks as hard hearts melted at the hearing of the saving truth and as the blood of Jesus Christ flowed to cover their sins.

The resulting converts — in England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales–were gathered in “societies” for association. Later the societies were divided into “bands” and those into “classes.” The lay leaders of these groups were later, though reluctantly, given permission by Wesley to preach and exhort in the classes. These societies were intended only to be fellowships within the Church of England; it was never Wesley’s design to establish anything like a new denomination, a movement he strongly resisted throughout his life. In time, however, the organization grew on both sides of the Atlantic, and Wesley ordained presbyters and other ministers who administered the sacraments. What had been begun within the Anglican Church, never intending to revolt from it, but expelled by it, became a practically independent body. So it could be said with truth that Wesley died, “leaving behind him nothing but a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman’s gown, a much-abused reputation, and the Methodist Church.”

The transformation of England

It is difficult to estimate properly the role God used John Wesley to play in eighteenth-century England. His brother Charles, possessed of complementary gifts, left hundreds of hymns firmly impressed upon the hearts and lips of modern Protestants. Of these, perhaps the most widely known are “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Jesus, Lover of my Soul,” “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and the Christmas evangel “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

No less significant was the transformation of England — the result of the evangelical revival from the work of Whitefield and the Wesleys. Many have written of the low state of morality and virtue on the eve of the century in the island. Christianity seemed to be waning. Watts said that “religion was dying in the world.” Moral, social, and political evils were rampant. Drunkenness, gambling, highway robbery, brutal amusements, slave-trading, and gross profanity of speech were common. Ignorant and inert clergy offered little offense against such evils and themselves participated. Bishop Butler remarked that it had “come to be taken for granted that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious.”

Across the English Channel, rationalistic infidelity was infiltrating the lands of the Reformation and France was being prepared for the bloody consequences of the worship of reason. France had no Wesley; England had nothing like the French Revolution. Under the influence of Methodist preaching, personal and practical piety produced a lessening of crime and a reformation of morals. The prison reforms of John Howard, the anti-slavery campaign of William Wilberforce, the Sunday school movement of layman Robert Raikes, the growth of the modern missionary movement by the end of the century, the advance of access to education, the introduction of more humane conditions of labor — all of these are among the earthly blessings that followed “the foolishness of preaching.” The heavenly trophies of grace, the rebirth of souls, are beyond number.

A little incident, often retold, illustrates just one aspect of this picture of England after Wesley: Hot, tired, thirsty, impatient, the English nobleman asked a peasant: “Why is it that I can’t find a place where I can buy a drink of liquor in this wretched village?” The humble peasant respectfully replied: “Well, you see, my lord, about a hundred years ago a man named John Wesley came preaching in these parts.”

An unashamed testimony

John Wesley possessed a quaintness which reflected his humanity. He wrote much, never seeking a polished style, but emphasizing clarity and conciseness. He even wrote a book on home medicine for his people and he used much of his income to publish inexpensive editions of good books for them, believing in the value of wide reading.

He married in his late forties but was unfortunate in his choice. The Wesley home of happiest memory was that of his parents, Samuel and Susanna, not that of which John was head. He seems to have been unimaginative concerning the nature of children, recommending little play and soul examination at four in the morning. But even though the doctrinal emphases peculiar to his movement have not been universally acceptable to believing Christians, he still left an unashamed testimony of the grace of God and a heritage born of an unqualified embrace of two fundamental and timeless truths:

I the chief of sinners am,
But Jesus died for me.


This article was originally published in Faith for the Family, January / February 1975. It is republished here by permission.


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