THE five-year-old boy was asleep with his young siblings in the second storey of their family home. The quiet night in the English village of Epworth unravelled into a noisy and traumatic nightmare. The village was rudely awakened by urgent shouts of “fire! fire!”
The house was on fire. The father of the family, who was the pastor in the village, woke his wife and children and hurried them out of the burning house, safely out of the inferno.
The family was out on the street helplessly watching their house burning in the cold night air. Then the parents noticed to their horror that their five-year-old son was still in the house. He was trapped in the upper floor as the hungry flames engulfed the whole house. The father’s heart was broken as he gave up hope and committed his little boy to the Lord. But some men acted swiftly and with a few nimble acrobatic actions plucked the boy out of the jaws of death. They said it was a miracle. That boy grew up and lived till he was 88. He considered himself to be a “brand plucked out of the burning”, a phrase that stuck with him throughout life. Those words can be found on his tombstone.
John Wesley was born on 17 June 1703 into a godly home, the 15th of 19 children. He was born at a time when the world was going through major changes. The machinery of the Industrial Revolution was beginning its noisy din to create a new world of factories, commerce, transportation and social relationships. It was the dawn of the Enlightenment and a new confidence in human powers.
Memories of the divine were dimming in many places, including the church. The Church of England was suffering from spiritual lethargy and was losing sight of Christ, its Lord and Master. Christianity was a convenient social experience more than a life-changing spiritual journey. The fabric of English society was also tearing up in many places. Social ills were on the rise. Poverty, alcoholism, child labour, slavery, the erosion of values, and many other forms of social pathology made life miserable for the majority.
It was into this kind of world that Wesley was born. Throughout his long and illustrious life, he was convinced that God had a purpose for saving him from the fire. From young, he had a strong sense of mission. When he was at Oxford University, he got together with a few friends to form a “Holy Club”. They earnestly sought to live holy lives and practised a Christian discipline that was intense and focused, almost to the point of obsession.
Wesley was a natural and spiritual leader in the group and led by example. He was intensely introspective, examining his thoughts, words and actions several times daily and drove himself to be a disciple of Christ. There was a deep hunger in his heart to be holy.
So serious and disciplined were Wesley and his friends that others made fun of them, calling them “Methodists”, because of their methodical way of practising the disciplines of the Christian life. The young Wesley was not deterred. He and his younger brother Charles were ordained as clergy of the Church of England and went to America as missionaries. There Wesley realised that his faith was deficient and longed for a deep experience of holiness. God answered his prayer when on May 24, 1738, the God who saved him from the fire that could kill, brought into the man’s heart the fire that purifies. Wesley had a deep experience of God’s saving presence and assurance.
After this, Wesley sought to bring renewal in the church and began preaching everywhere. He formed Methodist societies and organised the fruits of his labour. His intention was not to form a new denomination but to strengthen his church. The movement grew and he appointed preachers to take care of the growing work. He also sent preachers to America where the Methodist Church grew rapidly.
Wesley was the tireless and authoritarian leader of the movement. He preached 40,000 sermons and travelled a quarter million miles on horseback as an itinerant preacher and overseer of the movement. In addition to the thousands of hymns written by his brother Charles, he wrote books and tracts to teach, instruct, organise and preserve the fruits of the mission. He organised the Methodists into small groups to ensure discipline and to promote Christian growth and mission. He saw holiness as both personal and social and therefore began significant ministries among the needy and disadvantaged in society. He started schools, ran clinics, organised prison ministry, and fought against social evils such as slavery and alcoholism.
He read his Bible as a scholar and devotee of Christ. He led a very disciplined life, waking up daily at 4 am to read and to pray. A holistic view of life shaped his thinking and writing. He wrote a book on medical cures and experimented on the therapeutic uses of electricity. He kept himself fit and even had an “exercise machine” that simulated horse back riding — as if he did not have enough of that!
By the time Wesley died in 1791, there were about 70,000 Methodists in Britain and 45,000 more in the US, and about 500 preachers in the movement. The man who intensely sought holiness discovered a loving God who was always before him.
Wesley defined a Methodist as one who loved God and neighbour. This scriptural holiness is rooted in a holy and loving God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ. Wesley’s hunger for perfection and holiness brought him into the loving arms of God and he discovered the perfection of divine love.
What can God accomplish through one man? The history of God’s people is full of examples that prove that we worship an incredible God who blesses and uses individuals like Wesley to leave lasting legacies. That same God is at work in us today. As we remember Wesley this year, we see him at the feet of his Master, who plucked the brand from the fire and turned him truly into a firebrand of the Lord.