It’s early Sunday morning, May 30, 1742. The northern port city of Newcastle-upon-Tyne is hardly awake. Two strangers from London, one a slight man in his late thirties, walk quietly down Sandgate Street in “the poorest and most contemptible part of the town.”
The two men stop at the end of the street and begin singing the Hundredth Psalm. A few curious people gather, and the shorter man starts preaching from Isaiah 53:5—“But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (KJV).
The knot of listeners grows to a crowd of several hundred, then more than a thousand. When the small man stops, the crowd gapes in astonishment. Soon the preacher announces: “If you desire to know who I am, my name is John Wesley. At five in the evening, with God’s help, I design to preach here again.” That night Wesley finds a crowd of some twenty thousand waiting. After he preaches many urge him to stay longer, at least for a few days. But Wesley has to leave at three o’clock the next morning to keep an appointment elsewhere.
So begins Wesley’s work in Newcastle, henceforth to be the northern point in his annual triangular tour of England. For nearly fifty years he would make a yearly circuit from London to Bristol to Newcastle and back to London, preaching and teaching daily, with many side trips along the way.
It is hard to grasp all that is happening in this one small incident. Perhaps a more contemporary comparison will help. Suppose someone like Billy Graham were to show up, alone and unannounced, with no advertising or sophisticated preparations, in Chicago’s worst neighborhood and begin preaching from the sidewalk. Wesley’s first appearance in Newcastle was something like that. Wesley followed this basic pattern for decades, all over England.
Wesley, the master organizer, never built a great evangelistic organization. He simply went everywhere preaching, and he sent out other preachers in similar pattern. Wesley’s gift for organization was bent toward the one objective of forming a genuine people of God within the institutional church. He concentrated not on the efforts leading up to decision but on the time after decision. His system had little to do with publicity or public image but everything to do with building the community of God’s people. From the beginning of Wesley’s great ministry in 1738, the secret of his radicalism lay in his forming little bands of God-seekers who joined together in an earnest quest to be Jesus’ disciples. He “organized to beat the devil” (Charles W. Ferguson, Organizing to Beat the Devil: Methodists and the Making of America)—not to make converts but to turn converts into saints. Wesley would have nothing of “solitary religion,” secret Christians, or faith without works.
Many years later Wesley wrote, “In religion I am for as few innovations as possible. I love the old wine best.” (Letter from Dublin, June 20, 1789) Yet Wesley was one of the great innovators of church history. Although eighty-six when he made this remark, he could have said the same thing fifty years earlier.
The remark is in fact typical of Wesley’s whole ecclesiology, his view of the church. The key words are “as possible.” Hold to the old. But if the old hinders the gospel, then changes and innovations must be made. Wesley’s ecclesiology was a working synthesis of old and new, tradition and innovation.
Perhaps the church today can learn new things from John Wesley. People, even the born-again kind, are notoriously weak at holding together paradoxes which belong together—the Spirit and the Word, the private and the social, or “things old and new” (Matt. 13:52). Yet true renewal in the church always weds new insights, ideas, and methods with the best elements from history. And true renewal is always a return, at the most basic level, to the image of the church as presented in Scripture and as lived out in a varying mosaic of faithfulness and unfaithfulness down through history. John Wesley represents an intriguing synthesis of old and new, conservative and radical, tradition and innovation that can spark greater clarity in today’s new quest to be radically Christian.
By any standards, John Wesley was a remarkable man. His life (1703–91) nearly spanned the eighteenth century. From the time he began “field preaching” in 1739 until his death fifty-two years later, he traveled some 225,000 miles and preached more than 40,000 times, sometimes to crowds of more than 20,000.6 At his death he left behind 72,000 Methodists in Great Britain and Ireland and a fledgling Methodist denomination in America of some 57,000 members. C. E. Vulliamy described Wesley was the “ascendant personality” of his age, more widely known in Britain than any other Englishman of the time. (Robert G. Wearmouth, Methodism and the Common People of the Eighteenth Century)
But the reasons for studying Wesley today go beyond mere historical curiosity. Wesley’s role in bringing spiritual renewal to a rapidly industrializing society and his understanding and practice of Christian discipleship suggest his continuing worldwide relevance. If anything, Wesley is more significant today than for any period since the eighteenth century. He is important—and often cited—as an example of warm-hearted evangelism tied to active social reform. His historical and theological significance keeps getting rediscovered and reassessed.
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.