Methodists proudly refer to John Wesley as their founding father, but it may be doubted that few know much about the man himself. Here is a window to the great outdoor preacher.
EXCLUDED from preaching in the Established Churches, Mr Wesley (to use the respectful honorific) travelled at least 250,000 miles in his lifetime, preaching between 40,000 and 45,000 sermons, the vast majority outdoors in the “highways and hedges” of 18th century England.
Well known is the fact that he travelled on horseback, in all kinds of weather, usually starting out early in the morning (when most of us would be still asleep) to keep his next appointment. Often, he would preach twice, or even thrice that day. Less well known was his style, his personality and his effectiveness with which he accomplished this stupendous feat during his preaching ministry of more than 51 years.
Wesley was clearly uncomfortable about preaching in a highly unconventional manner outside church premises, having been trained and ordained as a Church of England priest. His earliest experience accompanying the Rev George Whitefield in March 1739 was traumatic. But, within a week, his own maiden outdoor performance stamped him as the evangelist of the century.
His Journal entry of Monday April 2, 1739 records:
“At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, 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. He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’”
Albert Outler (John Wesley, N.Y. 1964) says he had “come at last to the threshold of his true vocation”.
Preaching in the open fields required a different style, method, language – and volume – from that of a preacher in a church sanctuary. Dr Donald (Lord) Soper, himself with considerable experience as an open-air preacher, questions the absolute numbers Wesley preached to, but indicates that he was a “phenomenon” – he “appeared, and his appearance was invested with psychological (or I would want to put it, spiritual) dynamism, an impression that defies analysis”. His delivery was “destitute of the arts of oratory or elocution. … [in] action calm, voice natural, not loud, and clear and manly; [his] style neat, simple, perspicuous”. (Thomas Dodd, John Wesley, Cincinnati, 1891)
Swedish Professor Liden who was visiting England in 1769 commented:
“The sermon was short but eminently evangelical. He had no great oratorical gifts, no outward appearance, but he speaks clear and pleasant … He is small, a thin old man, with his own long and straight hair, and looks as the worst country curate in Sweden, but has learning as a Bishop and zeal for the glory of God which is quite extraordinary. His talk is very agreeable, and his mild face and pious manner secure him the love of all rightminded men …
He seems to me a living representative of the loving Apostle John.”
Finally, Thomas Rutherford, an early Methodist preacher, relates how the appearance and charm of Wesley deeply affected him:
“In May 1770, for the first time I heard that extraordinary man at Morpeth … His apostolic and angelic appearance struck me exceedingly … like one come down from heaven to teach men the way thither. He opened in a concise and easy manner … and spoke with much simplicity, and at the same time, with wisdom and authority, as I never heard before. To me he seemed like one of the apostles … confirming the churches.” Lives of the Early Methodist Preachers (Wesley’s Veterans), London, 1871-1872, T. Jackson, ed. Vol. III, 4ff.
Dealing with hooligans
It is fitting to be reminded that, at the beginning of his ministry in 1739, Wesley seemed a very proper gentleman, even boringly introverted. But, his field preaching for the next half century turned him into a ceaselessly moving extrovert, a veteran of many bruising encounters in the fields, and able to advise his younger colleagues about how to deal with the toughs: “The majority of any crowd will be bad throwers, and so only a few will hit you with their missiles. And of those that do hit you, most will strike your legs or body, which are protected by your clothes. The only ones that can damage you will be the few that strike your face, and most of these will be soft. And I have never received more damage from heavy or jagged missiles, than what a day or two in bed has easily repaired.” (Reginald Kissack, Two Hundred Years of Methodist Field Preaching, in The London Quarterly & Holborn Review, April, 1939, p. 152.)
Truly, if Methodism was born in song, it was certainly bred in the open air. By this means, the message of salvation penetrated the hearts of people, the great and the good, the bad and the base, the clean and the filthy.’(From an article by Dr William Parkes in METHODIST HISTORY, Vol. XXX, No.4, July 1992, pp.217-234. Used by
permission, and slightly edited.)
(You can read more about John Wesley and his life and preaching in the books and journals available at the Methodist Archives whose staff will be glad to assist you.)
The MCS Archives and History Library is open from Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5.30 pm except during lunchtime from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm.
Earnest Lau, an Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.