John Wesley’s Point of No Return

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By the late 1740s Methodism had set its course. “The People called Methodists” were popping up everywhere. Wesley saw them as a renewing force within the Church of England, committed to proving in experience what the church professed in doctrine. They preached costly religion on the one hand, but also the universal offer of salvation on the other. When Whitefield began emphasizing his more rigid doctrine of election, Wesley turned away from him as decisively as he had from the Moravians. Methodism proclaimed the offer of God to all, but also showed the power of God to transform lives in all who responded in faith and obedience.

These years were the making of John Wesley as a radical Christian. The direction had been set, the momentum established. With remarkably little variation Wesley worked tirelessly over the next fifty years to bring a radical reformation to the church. At every point of conflict he determined to be as radical as the Bible, to be faithful “to the law and to the testimony” (Isa. 8:20 KJV) as he understood them.

By this time Wesley was largely disowned and ignored by most in the established church. He continued however as a fellow of Oxford University, which meant he was legally bound to preach before the university at least once every third year, and the university was required to hear him. Thus Wesley had preached at Oxford in 1738, 1741, and finally in 1744. These three sermons, as George Croft Cell notes, contrast with Wesley’s sermons prior to 1738. “They are Revival manifestoes,” boldly assailing “the dead theology and decadent Christianity of Oxford circles and of the Church at large.” (George Croft Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley, 38)

Wesley preached his last Oxford sermon, “Scriptural Christianity,” on August 24, 1744. Tracing “scriptural Christianity” from the days after Pentecost and down through history, Wesley asked:

Where does this Christianity now exist? Where, I pray, do the Christians live? Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are “all (thus) filled with the Holy Ghost”? Are all of one heart and of one soul? Cannot suffer one among them to “lack anything,” but continually give “to every man as he hath need”? Who one and all have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbour as themselves? . . . Who offend not in any kind, either by word or deed, against justice, mercy, or truth, but in every point do unto all men, as they would these should do unto them? (Works, 1:172-73)

Wesley made it plain that he didn’t believe such Christian faith was to be found at Oxford, and he called for repentance. The reaction—and some measure of Wesley the man—can be gauged by this eyewitness report of twenty-five-year-old Benjamin Kennicott, later an eminent Hebrew scholar:

On Friday last, being St. Bartholomew’s Day, the famous Methodist, Mr. John Wesley, fellow of Lincoln College, preached before the University; which being a matter of great curiosity at present, and may possibly be greater in its consequences, I shall be particular in the account of it.

All that are Masters of Arts, and on the foundation of any College, are set down in a roll, as they take their degree, and in that order preach before the University, or pay three guineas for a preacher in their stead, and as no clergyman can avoid his turn, so the University can refuse none; otherwise Mr. Wesley would not have preached. He came to Oxford some time before, and preached frequently every day in courts, public-houses, and elsewhere.

On Friday morning, having held forth twice in private, at five and eight, he came to St. Mary’s at ten o’clock. There were present the Vice-Chancellor, the proctors, most of the heads of houses, a vast number of gownsmen, and a multitude of private people, with many of his followers, both brethren and sisters, who, with funereal faces and plain attire, came from around to attend their master and teacher. When he mounted the pulpit, I fixed my eyes on him and his behavior. He is neither tall nor fat; for the latter would ill become a Methodist. His black hair quite smooth, and parted very exactly, added to a peculiar composure in his countenance, showed him to be an uncommon man. His prayer was soft, short; and conformable to the rules of the University. . . .

He expressed himself like a very good scholar, but a rigid zealot; and then he came to what he called his plain, practical conclusion. Here was what he had been preparing for all along; and he fired his address with so much zeal and unbounded satire as quite spoiled what otherwise might have been turned to great advantage; for as I liked some, so I disliked other parts of his discourse extremely. . . .

I liked some of his freedom; such as calling the generality of young gownsmen “a generation of triflers,” and many other just invectives. But, considering how many shining lights are here that are the glory of the Christian cause, his sacred censure was much too flaming and strong, and his charity much too weak in not making large allowances. But so far from allowances, that, after having summed up the measure of our iniquities, he concluded with a lifted-up eye in this most solemn form: “It is time for Thee, Lord, to lay to Thine hand” —words full of such presumption and seeming imprecation, that they gave an universal shock.

This, and the assertion that Oxford was not a Christian city and this country not a Christian nation, were the most offensive parts of the sermon. . . . Had these things been omitted, and his censures moderated, I think his discourse, as to style and delivery, would have been uncommonly pleasing to others as well as to myself. He is allowed to be a man of great parts, and that by the excellent Dean of Christ Church; for the day he preached the dean generously said of him, “John Wesley will always be thought a man of sound sense, though an enthusiast.” However, the Vice-Chancellor sent for the sermon and I hear the heads of colleges intend to show their resentment. (Quoted in Cell, Rediscovery of John Wesley, 67–70.)

Wesley was no longer welcome at Oxford, nor in most of the established churches of the day. He had broken with the Moravians. But the common people heard him gladly, and the people called Methodists were multiplying. Yet Wesley refused to turn his back on the Church of England. By skill and determination he not only formed the Methodist movement but steadfastly held it to its renewing mission within the established church.

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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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