John Wesley’s Start in Preaching to the Poor

One hundred miles west of London lies Bristol, in Wesley’s day
a bustling port city of thirty thousand people and the second
 city in the United Kingdom. Located near the Welsh border, it 
was the coal-mining center which fed England’s booming industrial
 revolution. Blossoming trade with the New World—including
 slaves—was bringing prosperity and debauchery to the growing
 city. Ale houses flourished; by 1736 more than 300 were licensed,
 and this number grew to 384 by 1742.

George Whitefield (1714–1770), evangelist and former Oxford
 junior colleague of the Wesleys, had just returned from preaching 
in America. Soon barred from London pulpits, he set off for Bristol.
 There on February 17, 1739, he preached for the first time in the
 open air to about two hundred colliers (coal miners) at Kingswood.
 Within three weeks the crowds had mushroomed to ten thousand,
and Whitefield called on Wesley for help.

Whitefield had been drawn to Bristol for three reasons. His
 home was nearby Gloucester on the Welsh border north of Bristol. He had been in touch with Howell Harris, leader of the Welsh revival 
which had begun some years earlier. Then, too, turmoil and rioting
 had recently broken out among the coal miners of the region, 
particularly at Kingswood. When two of their leaders were arrested
 on January 19, soldiers were called out to secure the prisoners “in 
the face of all the mobbing women and amid a barrage of stones.” (Halvey, Birth of Methodism, 69).

The rioting around Bristol was part of a larger pattern of
 unrest during the period 1738–40 sparked by high corn prices,
 low wages, and the oppressive poverty of the new class of urban
 workers. Although food riots erupted off and on throughout the
 century, historian Bernard Semmel notes that “the years 1739 and
 1740, when Methodism erupted, were especially bad years” and
 the Kingswood miners were “regularly a source of difficulty.” (Semmel, Methodist Revolution, 13).

In these unsettled conditions Whitefield had immediate success
in preaching among the neglected Kingswood colliers. The ever
 watchful Gentleman’s Magazine reported:

Bristol. The Rev. Mr. Whitefield . . . has been wonderfully laborious
and successful, especially among the poor Prisoners in
Newgate, and the rude Colliers of Kingswood, preaching every
day to large audiences, visiting, and expounding to religious
Societies. On Saturday the 18th Instant he preach’d at Hannum
Mount to 5 or 6000 Persons, amongst them many Colliers.
In the Evening he removed to the Common, where . . . were
crowded . . . a Multitude . . . computed at 20,000 People. (May 1739)

Whitefield’s efforts did not go unnoticed or uncriticized. One 
alarmed London gentleman warned:


The Industry of the inferior People in a Society is the great
Source of its Prosperity. But if one Man, like the Rev. Mr.
Whitefield should have it in his Power, by his Preaching, to
detain 5 or 6 thousands of the Vulgar from their daily Labour, what a Loss, in a little Time, may this bring to the Publick!—
For my part, I shall expect to hear of a prodigious Rise in the
Price of Coals, about the City of Bristol, if this Gentleman
proceeds, as he has begun, with his charitable Lectures to the
Colliers of Kingswood.8 (May 1739)

Whitefield sent for John Wesley, knowing his preaching power
 and organizing skill. Up to this point, however, Wesley had preached
 only in regular church services while in England. Should he accept
 Whitefield’s appeal and help with the open-air meetings in Bristol?
 Charles, his brother, thought not. But John submitted the decision to the Fetter
 Lane Society which cast lots and decided he should go.

Wesley’s Journal for Saturday, March 31, reads:


In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. 
I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of
preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on
Sunday, having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious
of every point relating to decency and order that I should have
thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done
 in a church.9

Sunday evening Wesley spoke to a little society on the
Sermon on the Mount—“one pretty remarkable precedent of field
preaching,” he observed, “though I suppose there were churches at
 that time also.” The next day, Monday, Wesley reports:


At four in the afternoon I submitted to “be more vile”
[2 Sam. 6:22], and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of
 salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining
to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture on
 which I spoke was this . . . : “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
 because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”

Characteristically, Wesley immediately began organizing. He
 formed a number of societies and bands and on May 9 acquired
 a piece of property where he built his “New Room” as a central
 meeting place. When Whitefield returned to America in August,
 Wesley was left totally in charge of the growing work. He divided
 his time between Bristol and London, concentrating on open-air
preaching, organizing bands, and speaking at night to a growing 
number of societies.

The Wesleyan Revival had begun. From the beginning it was a
movement largely for and among the poor, those whom “gentlemen”
and “ladies” looked on simply as part of the machinery of the new 
industrial system. The Wesleys preached, the crowds responded,
and Methodism as a mass movement was born.

Wesley soon discovered that some of his helpers had gifts for
 exhortation and preaching, and he put them to work. In 1744, he 
began a series of annual conferences with his preachers at which 
questions of doctrine, discipline, and strategy were discussed. The 
minutes of the first conference show that Wesley quickly developed
 a general strategy for the movement. The “best way of spreading
the gospel,” Wesley concluded, was “to go a little and a little farther 
from London, Bristol, St. Ives, Newcastle, or any other Society. So a 
little leaven would spread with more effect and less noise, and help 
would always be at hand.” (Minutes for June 28, 1744)

Are you interested in learning more about John Wesley? The Radical Wesley: Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker is August’s Book of the Month! When you buy one copy, we’ll send you a second one free, so that you can read it with a friend. Get your copy now.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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