John Wesley - Preacher of the Gospel
What kind of a preacher was John Wesley? To understand the impact of his preaching we must first appreciate his commitment to the task. He travelled some 225,000 miles throughout Britain and Ireland on horseback. At a conservative estimate he preached more than 4,000 sermons, some to congregations in excess of 20,000. He would regularly preach four or five times a day. His sermon register from January 1747 to December 1761 reveals that during this period he preached 7,000 sermons on 1,354 texts. He would regularly preach at five in the morning. Indeed, he laid great store by it, seeing it as a 'the glory of the Methodists'.
There is little doubt that Wesley's childhood years had a significant influence on his later development. Nurtured in the Epworth Rectory where family life was fashioned by Puritanism and the family was seen as a 'mini-church', John grew up absorbing values and beliefs which were later to shape his ministry. As a boy he must have sat through many of his father's sermons and their content, if not the style, must have shaped his theology. Speaking of Samuel Wesley's commitment to the doctrine of justification by faith Maldwyn Edwards writes: 'This indeed was the dominant note of his preaching. He spoke continually to his parishioners on the saving work of Christ, and he firmly accepted the Arminian and not the Calvinistic view of redemption'. A letter Samuel wrote to a young ordinand says preaching is 'not the whole of a minister's office, but a great part of it: for to this very thing we are ordained'. It is easy to see how Samuel's faithfulness to biblical truth, his commitment to evangelical doctrine and his concept of preaching as an essential part of his calling helped to shape John Wesley.
An even stronger influence came from his mother, Susanna. In November 1710 Samuel went to London leaving his parish in the charge of Inman, his curate. Inman's preaching left much to be desired and attendance at the Parish Church declined. Susanna was appalled and she decided to remedy the situation by providing a Sunday evening service for her family and domestic staff in the kitchen at the Rectory. It was very informal and during the meeting she would read a sermon. Others were drawn to these meetings, and by the end of January the attendance numbered about two hundred.
John Wesley would have witnessed these kitchen meetings, and one can understand how Susanna's pragmatism shaped his own thinking. The most important issue was not the conventions of the church, but whether the people heard the gospel. Susanna's spiritual pragmatism is evidenced again relation to Thomas Maxfield, one of Wesley's first converts in London. Maxfield was appointed to meet the society in London and offer counsel during Wesley's absence, but it was soon reported that he was preaching. Wesley hastily returned to put a stop to such irregularities, and bursting in on his mother exclaimed 'Thomas Maxfield has turned preacher, I find!' to which she replied 'Take care what you do with respect to that young man, for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching and hear for yourself'. Wesley heeded her advice and his decision marked the beginning of preaching by those not episcopally ordained within the Methodist Societies. The impact it made shaped Methodism in its early years, and we still owe an unspeakable debt to Local Preachers. Yet the most significant fact to emerge from this episode is the emphasis on the call of God as the essential requirement for a preacher of the gospel.
John Wesley was ordained Deacon in 1725 and Priest in 1728. Looking back on those early years in 1746 Wesley said of his own preaching: 'I preached much, but saw no fruit of my labour'. W.L. Doughty draws our attention to the unpublished sermons of that period: 'In not one of them is there any view whatever, any glimpse afforded of Christ in any of his offices. His name occurs in the benediction. That is about all'. One wonders how sermons of this kind, and those so used of God during the revival, could come from the same lips! The answer is that whilst the lips were the same the heart was changed.
In 1735 he preached at All Hallows Church in London. Preaching there again in 1776 he reflected upon his first visit: 'I came without a sermon… A woman noticed that I was deeply agitated, and she inquired, "Pray Sir, what is the matter with you?" I replied, "I have not brought a sermon with me". Putting her hand upon my shoulder she said, "Is that all? Cannot you trust God for a sermon?" That question had such an effect upon me that I ascended the pulpit and preached extempore, with great freedom to myself and acceptance to the people, and have never since taken a written sermon into the pulpit'.
The crisis of Aldersgate Street was the great turning point for Wesley. The significance of the experience was not that it provided him with a new theology, but a new dynamic. From that moment he had a heart on fire with a message which he was compelled to proclaim. As Skevington Wood remarks, 'No doubt many of his qualities already lay hidden within his personality, but it was only at the touch of the Spirit that they sprang to life'.
If Wesley hoped following Aldersgate Street that the churches would welcome him with open arms he was mistaken. Instead, one church door after another closed to him. Yet God was opening up a new way. In 1739 Whitefield invited him to take over the work he had begun in Bristol, preaching to crowds in the open-air. Wesley's Journal tells the immortal story: 'At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation'. At last he had found his mission. He had been liberated from the pulpit and given to a people eager to hear the word of life. Luke Tyerman has calculated that of the 500 sermons delivered between April and December 1739, only eight were in churches. Open-air preaching was always difficult for him, but the evidence was clear. This was the way that ordinary people were to be reached with the gospel.
The preacher had been moulded by the hand of God. The commitment to biblical truth he learned from his father, his mother's spiritual pragmatism, the dynamic imparted by the Aldersgate Street experience, the opportunity afforded by Whitefield's invitation; all now came together. John Wesley's real preaching ministry was about to begin.
The Content of His Sermons
For Wesley biblical authority was absolute. He was not ashamed to be identified as a biblical preacher. Indeed, this was the secret of his effectiveness. He confessed himself to be homo unius libri, a man of one book, and he boldly declared the truth irrespective of any offence it caused to his hearers.
However, it would be wrong to speak of Wesley as an expository preacher in the way we understand that phrase today. His printed sermons have a number of main points, each with sub-points, and each built on the one preceeding it in a systematic and logical way. It is easy to understand that they were written by someone who had taught logic at Oxford! But did he preach in the same way that he wrote? It is difficult to believe that the crowds were so stirred by the contents of the published sermons!
It is clear that Wesley did write his sermons. The phrase 'writ sermons' occurs frequently in the Journal. We know too that he did not take a written manuscript into the pulpit. Furthermore, contemporary eyewitnesses record that he frequently included anecdote and story within the preached sermon. Wesley thus prepared his sermons with great care; but he recognised, like all great preachers, that the act of preaching demanded a freedom that was not assisted by being tied to a written manuscript. Having fixed his discourse in his mind, he preached with power; probably adding illustrative material in the process. Knowing that he may be quoted, and sometimes misquoted, he later published many of his sermons not only to edify believers, but with the expressed intention of silencing his critics. The written manuscripts provided a benchmark by which the soundness of Methodist doctrine could be judged.
John Wesley preached what he knew a particular congregation needed to hear. Thus, whilst some sermons had as their aim the winning of souls for Christ, others were directed at those who were already believers and concentrated on incentives to holy living. His conviction that all life belonged to God meant that no subject was beyond the scope of his preaching; and he was not averse to speaking about the use of money, the use of leisure, national sins and miseries as well as the doctrines at the heart of the Christian faith. But the decision about what subject to preach to which congregation was determined solely by the spiritual condition of his hearers.
Wesley in Action
What would it have been like to be a member of one of Wesley's congregations? Every Christian knows that the impact preaching makes depends on far more than sermon content. Philips Brooks defines preaching as 'Communication through personality'. Was this true of Wesley?
We are fortunate to have the record of many people who heard him preach. Wesley was such a character that none could remain neutral about him, and very often one gets the impression that everything about the gatherings he addressed drew people into the presence of God. There was what Skevington Wood describes as 'a Spirit-filled attractiveness and penetrating power' about his ministry. John Nelson testifies to the impact of both Wesley's appearance and his preaching: 'As soon as he got upon the stand he stroked back his hair and turned his face towards where I stood, and I thought fixed his eyes upon me. His countenance struck an awful dread upon me, before I heard him speak, that it made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock; and when he did speak, I thought his discourse was aimed at me'. Thomas Rutherford, one of Wesley's preachers, also speaks of the impact Wesley made: 'In May 1770, for the first time, I saw and heard that extraordinary man, Rev John Wesley, at Morpeth. His apostolic and angelic appearance struck me exceedingly. He appeared like one come down from heaven to teach men the way thither. He spoke with such...simplicity and, at the same time, with such wisdom and authority, as I never heard before. To me he seemed like one of the apostles going about, confirming the churches'.
These accounts convince us that something was happening through John Wesley's ministry which was far bigger than him. God was at work. The heart of the matter lies not in what Wesley did, but what God did through him. When Wesley preached, his message lay not just in the words he said, but a heart filled with Christ and longing that others might come to know him too. Those who heard him all bear testimony to the impression that his character and personality made upon them. It is clear that there was a power and passion which the published sermons lack. In them we meet Wesley the theologian, anxious to be clear, precise and not misunderstood. But here we have Wesley the preacher and evangelist, for whom the sermon is a vehicle enabling the grace of God to meet the human heart.
God give us more such preachers today