Church History: A Biblical View
Part VI - The Modern Age: Lesson No. 38 - Spiritual Revivals
By the beginning of the Eighteenth Century Rationalism had left the English religious scene dull and dry with sterile intellectualism. The gospel of Christ in the minds of many people was nothing more than a divinely sanctioned system of morality - an attitude reflected in the vitiated, colorless lectures of pulpiteer preachers. As always, there were those who wanted more than this out of religion, and it is not surprising that a reaction developed to this religious sterility (Jn. 4:24; I Cor. 14:15). This reaction came in the form of private "religious societies' devoted to prayer, Scripture reading, mutual encouragement, benevolent aid, revitalized preaching, and a generally warmer spiritual life. From such societies Methodism sprang.
John Wesley, the father of Methodism, was born on June 17, 1703, and his brother Charles, also to be a prominent figure in the movement, on December 18, 1707. After receiving his education John was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725, though his conversion did not occur until 1738. In 1728 he was ordained a priest. In 1729 he became a leader of a religious club formed at Oxford by Charles and other students. It was characterized by higher religious ideals than generally prevailed and thus received the derision of those who dubbed it the "Holy Club" and "Methodists" (presumably from their insistence upon methodical prayer and Bible reading). The latter name stuck.
In 1735 the Wesley brothers sailed to Georgia for what was to be a brief and disappointing ministry. John labored earnestly, but his tactlessness and high ideals soon resulted in resentment toward him. This reached a climax in the case of Sophy Hopkey, a woman deemed worthy of being his wife and evidently holder of his affections. Yet, John wavered between matrimony and clerical celibacy. Throughout his life he had a tendency toward resolution of his quandaries by superstitious methods such as usage of the first Scripture to which he happened to pen or the drawing of lots. When the lot fell against Miss Hopkey her resentment led her to hastily marry another suitor. Wesley refused her communion on the grounds that she was not making proper preparation (I Cor. 11:28). (For a long time Wesley also refused to allow unordained men to administer the sacraments.) To others this seemed the action of a disgruntled suitor. His influence in shambles, Wesley was forced to return to England. However, Wesley had come away with one memorable lesson from his experiences in America. En route to America he was much impressed by the pious conduct of Moravian passengers, particularly during a storm. Thereafter, Wesley was attracted to the Moravians and emulated some of their ways, though differences with them kept him from ever uniting permanently with them.
On the evening of May 24, 1738 John Wesley attended a religious meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and there experienced the conversion that was to be the greatest turning point of his life. It occurred during the reading of Luther's preface to the Commentary on Romans. He describes it in his own words thusly: "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".
Because of his views many pulpits of the establishment were closed to Wesley, so he resorted to preaching to the "societies" or wherever he could find an audience, especially among the lower classes. Emotions ran high under Wesley's preaching, and people sometimes gave way to crying, fainting, or convulsions. Such actions were viewed as workings of the Holy Spirit or the resistance of the Devil by Methodist preachers, but they only increased the suspicions of establishment clergymen (I Cor. 14:23,27-33,40).
Controversy between Wesley and other Methodists broke out primarily over
two doctrines. Firstly, Wesley taught perfectionism, the doctrine that one may reach a state of absolute freedom from sin. Wesley and his followers believed this "sanctification" or "second blessing" was produced by a direct operation of the Holy Spirit and occurred sometime after justification. (Wesley's exact views on perfectionism are unclear, and he himself never claimed to have attained perfection. Modern Methodism has abandoned the doctrine., but offshoots from it, such as the Holiness sects, still place much emphasis upon it.) Wesley also engaged in controversy with Calvinistic Methodists over the doctrine of predestination. Wesley had strongly anti-Calvinistic views on this matter.
Wesley was also a great organizer. As Methodism rapidly acquired adherents, he saw the need for greater discipline and organization. He organized the first real Methodist "society" in 1739. He issued "society tickets" to those he considered worthy of full membership. Members were further divided into classes. Each class had a leader who was charged with collecting a penny from each member every week. Societies were formed into "circuits" with a superintendent in charge of each. Despite this organization it was never Wesley's intention to break away from the Church of England, and the Methodists were never formally separated from the Church of England until sometime after Wesley's death in 1791.
II. The Great Awakening
From 1726 until it was overshadowed by the American Revolution a vast religious fervor swept America. It has been called "the Great Awakening" and seems to have been the American version of the revivals that occurred in England (Methodism) and Germany (Pietism). It was characterized by fiery preaching and emotional displays. Emphasis was placed on sin and salvation while doctrinal differences among denominations were downplayed. "Conversion" took the form of an emotional experience which provided entrance to a transformed life characterized by strict morality and earnest piety. As usual, there were clashes between those who embraced the invigorating new religious style and those who preferred the old, more sedate style.
III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) (T or F) Methodical, or regular, attendance to spiritual activities makes one a Methodist.
(2) (T or F) Justification and sanctification may occur at two different times.
(3) (T or F) John Wesley never wanted Methodists to have a status entirely independent of the Church of England.
(4) What two elements does the gospel of Christ require that one have in balance in his service to God?
(5) What was wrong with Wesley's superstitious methods of determining what he should do?
(6) What was a chief characteristic of Methodist-type conversions? How do they compare with Scriptural conversions?
(7) What two doctrines caused controversies in the Methodist ranks? Briefly, what do the Scriptures say about them?
(8) How were early Methodist groups organized?
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