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The Infrastructure of the Wesleyan Revival

John Wesley (1703 –1791) preaching outdoors

John Wesley (1703 –1791) preaching outdoors

The original Methodist revival was a movement intended to produce “real Christians,” that is, Christians who would actually live out the faith they professed. In my opinion: we are in desperate need of such a thing today.

In the Methodist revival, the means used to achieve this goal were:

  1. a message of experienced religion & holiness which drew heavily from the Bible,
  2. large praise and preaching gatherings (the Societies),
  3. small accountability groups (the classes, bands & select societies),
  4. works of service and mercy (generally: addressing the needs of the poor or imprisoned).

This was not intended to produce “Church Growth” or some such thing, it was intended to produce Christians who visibly and noticeably loved God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and their neighbors as themselves.

What can be learned by this evangelistic & discipleship strategy for our day?

new_creation-bkTheodore Runyon’s book on Wesley’s theology attempts to show that the structure of the 18th Century Methodist revivalism grew out of Wesley’s theology of the church. Because Wesley was seeking renewal of the church, he emphasized the very things that had fallen into neglect among the people, including worship and Christian community.

To me, the key thought here is that the societies, classes and bands grew out of the concern for a renewal of the sense of Christian community.

And, I was especially struck by these remarks:

Statistical research by Thomas Albin on the spiritual lives of five hundred fifty five early British Methodists, whose spiritual biographies were published in the pages of he Arminian Magazine and the Methodist Magazine, shows that, according to their own testimony, only one-fourth experienced new birth in the context of preaching they heard prior to joining a Methodist society. By far the majority needed the nurture of the society, classes, and bands, and spent an average of 2.3 years in this nurturing process before experiencing what they themselves identified as new birth. In this process, fellow class members, class leaders, and lay preachers were the primary influences. Methodist preaching at typical open-air meetings ended not with an ‘altar call’ and a count of the number of conversions, but with an announcement of where the local Methodist society met and an invitation to attend these meetings.

So, the community itself was a part of the evangelistic process. It seems to me Runyon’s phrase should be something like “gestation process” rather than “nurturing process.” (Maybe there is a better term.) And, of course the “altar call” hadn’t been invented yet. One should bear that in mind. There was little expectation of immediate conversions (as might be the case in some groups today).

But, it is interesting that there was an “invitation” of sorts: an invitation to attend the Methodist society.

And, then, skipping down a few lines:

It is undoubtedly true that it was by means of the Methodist organizational pattern that the fruits of the revival were conserved and multiplied. George Whitefield consistently attracted larger crowds and more public acclaim. But Whitefield, after he parted ways with Wesley, did not give great attention to the infrastructure to continue to nurture those who were attracted by his preaching and, as a result, the fruits of his labors were for the most part not preserved. From 1746-1748 Wesley experimented with placing the emphasis on preaching alone without forming societies, with disastrous results. ‘Almost all the seed has fallen by the wayside; there is scarce any fruit remaining,’ noted Wesley in the Minutes of the Conference of 1748. and at that Conference the decision was made to turn again to the formation of societies.

— Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today Abingdon, Nashville 1998 pp. 115, 116. (He cites: Thomas Albin, “An Empirical Study of Early Methodist Spirituality,” Wesleyan Theology Today ed. Theodore Runyon, Kingswood Books, Nashville 1985 p. 278.)

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

George Whitefield (1714-1770)

Theology seems to me to be a shaping influence here. And, it is certainly possible that Whitefield’s practices also grow out of his theology. Couldn’t Calvinism be taken to suggest that “God will save whom God will save”? Thus, Whitefield’s preaching provided the occasion for God to effectually call the elect to salvation. Since God was determined to save the elect — come what may — no further efforts were necessary.

Plus, there were extreme forms of Calvinism in existence at the time, and it’s teaching undermined the call to Christian faithfulness. Both Wesley and Fletcher spent a lot of time sharpening their rhetorical axes against an antinomian form of “Calvinism” (which Fletcher called “solafideism”) — already well represented in their day.

Theology also informed Wesley’s efforts. His societies, classes and bands were understood to be necessary precisely because of the need for human response to God’s grace — both in justification and in the ongoing process of sanctification. (And, from the Albin research, it is clear that they were also often the womb in which faith was born.)

Wesley encountered the “holiness of heart and life” and “purity of intention” themes in writings of the English Arminians like William Law and Jeremy Taylor and also in the writings of the Roman Catholic mystics, like Thomas à Kempis and Madam Guyon, François Fénelon and others. Harald Lindström’s study of Wesley’s theology shows the remarkably close associations between the ideas in William Law’s books and Wesley’s Christian Perfection doctrine (see especially chapter 4 and chapter 5). Of course, Calvinism was some influence on Wesley through the Articles of Religion and the Homilies of the Anglican Church. But, the most important and direct  influences were the Arminians and the mystics — and then the Moravianisms (who gave his quest for “purity of intention” an evangelical basis).

George Whitefield, on the other hand, pretty much learned the Bible by way of the Calvinistic Matthew Henry.

And, now the practical question: have subsequent attempts to renew or revive the Church suffered from a lack of attention to infrastructure? What is our plan to “form” Christian disciples? Where are the places that both the “gestation” and subsequent “nurture” of faith can take place? The effectiveness of renewal and revival attempts in our day will likely depend upon these issues. (And, it is nice to see that I am not alone in raising these issues!)


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