Strangely warmed: the Wesleys and the Evangelical Awakening

THE SCENE IS SET in the city of Oxford, England. It is a warm Sunday afternoon in June. The year is 1738.

As the clock in the famous Tom Tower strikes two, an impressive procession moves slowly into the university church of St Mary the Virgin on High Street. It is led by an official bearing the insignia of the ‘Vice-chancellor, followed by the Vice-chancellor himself arrayed in all his finery. Sandwiched between him and the university Proctors is the select preacher for the day, with the scarlet-robed Doctors of Divinity bringing up the rear.

This is a university service which all resident members are expected to attend. The church fills as a hymn is sung and a bidding prayer offered. Then the preacher, small in stature and quiet in manner, announces his text from Ephesians 2:8-'By grace are ye saved through faith.’

Before long it is clear that this is no routine sermon. It is a cry from the heart and a call to battle. It is the manifesto ofa new movement within the church of God.

It heralds the advent of what became known as “the Methodist revival.’

The preacher was John Wesley, almost thirty-five years of age, the son of a cleric and a Fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford. The message was a re-affirmation of the Protestant Reformers’ emphasis on free grace and saving faith. Nothing but this, Wesley declared, could check the immorality which was flooding the land. Endeavouring to empty ‘the ocean of wickedness’ drop by drop through piecemeal reforms was a futile exercise. Only the proclamation of the ‘righteousness which is of God by faith’ could stem the tide of permissiveness.

In such direct and uncompromising terms Wesley threw down his challenge. It was more than enough to disturb the customary calm of a Sunday afternoon university service. It represented the opening salvo of a campaign which was to cover the whole of England and eventually spread far beyond it.

John Wesley’s own days as a don at Lincoln College, Oxford had ended in 1735 but, while there, his rooms had been the rendezvous for the so-called ‘Holy Club', formed in 1729. This dedicated group of tutors, graduates and undergraduates -never more than some twenty in number-combined prayer, fasting and Bible study with visits to the sick, the poor and those in prison. The members may have been strangers to the experience of Christian conversion at the time, but their commitment to each other and to those they tried to help was exemplary. Even after Wesley’s departure from Oxford the group continued to function and, indeed, to extend its influence.

Between 1735 and 1738, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, undertook a mission to the Indians and colonists in Georgia, which proved a fiasco. On his return to England, John Wesley wrote, ‘I went to America to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?’ Yet the university service in June 1738 saw him preaching with new-found conviction and issuing an epoch-making appeal to a decadent nation. What had made the difference?


The most significant fact was that only eighteen days before preaching this sermon, Wesley had experienced an evangelical conversion. His heart had been ‘strangely warmed', as he put it, at a little meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, where someone read from Martin Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans. The passage describes the nature of faith - the faith that brings a man into a right relationship with God. Wesley had already accepted the doctrine of justification by faith with his mind. Now, under the instruction of his Moravian friend, Peter Bohler, he began to seek the reality of it for himself. On 24 May 1738, he became truly aware of it for the first time, and received an assurance that the death of Jesus Christ had indeed freed him from the punishment he deserved for his sin.

Up to this turning-point, Wesley had been a sort of spiritual Hamlet. An Anglican clergyman for many years, he was still unsure of his vocation. He now knew that his salvation had been dearly bought, and he felt that he must endeavour to repay the mighty debt he owed by devoting his life to spreading this good news. It was the ‘warmed heart’ which made Wesley an evangelist. The flame lit in Aldersgate Street was the real beginning of his God-given mission. Methodism as a movement sprang from the conversion of John Wesley. and that of his brother Charles three days beforehand. At the same time, the central message of the Methodist revival was determined. ‘Salvation by grace through faith’ became Wesley’s ‘standing topic', shared by all who were his partners in preaching the gospel. His ministry was revolutionized by his recognition of this fundamental principle: that we are forgiven and made right with God on the basis of what Jesus’ death and resurrection achieved, not because of our own merit or effort.

It would be hard to overestimate the impact of this one man on the age in which he lived. Other figures - especially that of George Whitefield - were undoubtedly prominent, but measured by the mark he made on England as a whole, Wesley stands above the rest. The poet Robert Southey considered him to be ‘the most influential mind of the eighteenth century.’ A more recent writer regards him as ‘the ascendant personality’ of the period. His aim was ‘to reform the nation’ and, by the time he died in 1791, the movement he led had made an impression for good not only on thousands of individual men and women but also on English society in general, and not least the Church of England which at first resisted his message.

As the essayist Augustine Birrell graphically expressed it, Wesley ‘contested three kingdoms in the cause of Christ, during a campaign which lasted fifty years.’ He travelled, mostly on horseback, close on a quarter of a million miles, or the equivalent of nine times round the earth. He reached more people with the good news of Jesus Christ than anyone before him in the British Isles, and set forces in motion which have not lost their momentum to this day.

’the great awakener'

The origins of the Methodist movement, however, and its expression in the Evangelical Awakening of which it was a part, are to be sought further back than the conversion of the Wesleys. George Whitefield was a leader of virtually comparable importance - especially in the early days of the revival.

In many ways Whitefield was the pioneer. It was he who first preached on the need for ‘the new birth’ as the means of entering God’s kingdom. It was he who first recognized the urgency of evangelizing on ‘the aggressive system.’ It was he who first saw large-scale conversions to Christ. It was he who first employed lay preachers. Much that Wesley was to exploit with such success had been initiated by Whitefield.

Whitefield’s conversion to Christ preceded that of the Wesley brothers by some three years. Little is known of the circumstances, except that it was while he was up at Oxford and a member of the group nicknamed the Holy Club. Whitefield evidently passed through what the mystics call ‘the dark night of the soul', culminating in a prostrating illness, before ‘a full assurance of faith broke in on his disconsolate soul.’ He himself described his Christian experience as ‘the day of my espousals, - a day to be had in everlasting remembrance. At first my joys were like a spring tide and, as it were, overflowed the banks; afterwards it became more settled -and, blessed be God, saving a few casual intervals, has abode and increased in my soul ever since.'

Not for nothing has George Whitefield been dubbed ‘the great awakener.’ His own spiritual ‘awakening’ in 1735 prepared him for his distinctive ministry.

In the fewer years that were spared to him, Whitefield was as prodigal as Wesley in his efforts to spread the message of salvation and forgiveness. ‘1 had rather wear out than rust out,’ he said. ‘A true faith in Jesus Christ will not suffer us to be idle. No; it is an active, lively, restless principle; it fills the heart so that it cannot be easy till it is doing something for Jesus Christ.’ Whitefield preached on average for up to sixty hours a week. He reached almost every corner of England and Wales, went to Scotland fifteen times and Ireland twice, and paid no less than seven visits to North America. His expressed wish was that he could ‘fly from pole to pole preaching the everlasting gospel!'

One of his biographers described Whitefield as a ‘wayfaring witness’ and so he was. As a preacher and an evangelist he was without equal in effectiveness. Although he and the Wesleys were to part company after a difference of theological opinion, they never lost their regard for each other, and no account of the Methodist movement is complete without recognizing the pan played by Whitefield in its birth and growth.

The ‘state of the nation'

What, then, were the conditions in eighteenth-century England and its established church which called for urgent reform and renewal?

There can be no serious doubt that moral standards and behaviour had declined alarmingly. The Church of England was poorly equipped to deal with the situation, and the nonconformists were in no better shape. Nothing short of a spiritual awakening could meet the desperate need of the hour.

John Wesley himself painted a devastating picture: ‘Is there a nation under the sun, which is so deeply fallen from the very first principles of all religion? Where is the country in which is found so uttera disregard to even heathen morality, such a thorough contempt of justice and truth, and all that should be dear and honourable to rational creatures? . . . Such a complication of villainies of every kind, considered with all their aggravations, such a scorn of whatever bears the face of virtue, such injustice, fraud and falsehood; above all, such perjury, and such a method of law, we may defy the whole world to produce.'

There is ample evidence to indicate that such a trenchant indictment was no exaggeration. With 253 capital offences on the statute-book, the law had fallen into disrepute and in many cases could not be put into effect. Anarchy and violence prevailed. The nickname ‘Sir Mob'was an acknowledgement of the strength of mob rule in the cities. No-go areas were not unusual. Footpads and pickpockets abounded. Shoplifting was on the increase. Muggings were an everyday occurrence. Gambling reached epidemic proportions.

Drunkenness amounted to a national disgrace. The gin craze had so enslaved the populace that novelist Henry Fielding, in his capacity as a London magistrate, declared that ‘should the drinking of this poison be continued at its present height during the next twenty years, there will, by that time, be very few of the common people left to drink it.’

Cruel and degrading ‘sports’ - such as bear-baiting, bull-baiting, badger-baiting, cock-fighting, goose-riding, dog-tailing-reflected the brutal temper of the age. Prize fights with the minimum of protective rules attracted large crowds. Sometimes the contestants were women: one known as ‘Bruising Peg’ was a champion.

The licentiousness of the eighteenth-century stage was deplored by Joseph Addison in the pages of The Spectator and conceded even by ‘a man of the world’ like Lord Hervey in his memoirs. No wonder Wesley castigated the theatre as ‘that sink of all profaneness and debauchery.’

This landslide into permissiveness was rightly seen by the spiritually alert as stemming from an abandonment of living, Christian faith. The denial of God had resulted in a ditching of moral sanctions. Thomas Seeker, then Bishop of Oxford, recognized the connection between the two when he referred to ‘this unhappy age of irreligion and libertinism.’ Sir John Barnard, an outstanding MP of the time, regretted that ‘at present it really seems to be the fashion for a man to declare himself of no religion', and hymn-writer Isaac Watts called on Christians to ‘use all just and proper efforts for the recovery of dying religion.’

Theologically the church seemed to be exhausted by its struggle with the Deists, who did not believe that God had revealed himself directly to mankind. In loo many instances. Deism had gained the upper hand. Many younger laymen succumbed to this philosophy, and defection was not unknown among the ranks of the clergy. At the same time, there had been a dramatic drop in the sale of Christian books. Sermons in church had degenerated into lifeless moral exhortations, inviting hearers to do good and to be good without really showing them how. It has been said that they fell into three categories - dull, duller and dullest!

Quite obviously there must have been exceptions to this powerless and demoralized picture. Some of the religious societies set up in the mid-seventeenth century as safeguards against permissiveness continued to flourish throughout this period. Yet, when every allowance has been made for such mitigating factors, there can be no question about the general impotence of the-institutional church to arrest the moral and spiritual collapse of the nation.

Fire of revival

This appalling decline had brought both church and state to the brink of catastrophe when God intervened in revival. In the words of Wesley himself, ‘just at this time ... two or three clergymen of the Church of England began vehemently to “call sinners to repentance". In two or three years they had sounded the alarm to the utmost borders of the land. Many thousands gathered to hear them; and in every place where they came, many began to show such concern for religion as they had never done before.'

The awakening, Wesley later recorded, dated from the year 1738. ‘Then it pleased God to kindle a fire which I trust shall never be extinguished.'

John Wesley’s conversion, along with that of his brother Charles, was a critical turning-point in the initiation of the Methodist movement. It was this change which made him into ‘the apostle of England.’ The sermon in St Mary’s, Oxford, less than three weeks later, represented the first trumpet-blast of a reforming crusade.

But it was at a remarkable gathering on New Year’s Day, 1739, that the leaders of the movement had a sudden and memorable experience of God’s Holy Spirit. From then onwards, Methodism was more than a programme for reform. It was caught up in a wave of revival in which the dynamic for mission was supplied by God himself through the Holy Spirit.

On Monday 1 January 1739, the Wesleys and Whitefield, together with members of the Holy Club and about sixty others, met for a ‘love feast', or agape. This communal fellowship meal was a feature of the life of the early Christian church revived by the Moravians.

The room where they gathered was in Fetter Lane, London, where what is regarded as the first Methodist society now regularly assembled. Whitefield described this occasion as ‘the happiest New Year’s Day that I ever yet saw.’ God supported him without sleep, and the whole night was spent in ‘close prayer, psalms and thanksgivings.’

John Wesley now takes up the tale. ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, in so much that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his majesty we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, 0 God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord".'

This ‘Pentecost at New Year’ proved to be the launching-pad for the Methodist mission. It was the prelude to a period of swift and striking church growth and a sustained assault on the forces of evil in the land.

Out in the open

The Methodist movement now had its men and its message. The inherited concept of a religious society was to provide the means for nurturing new Christian converts and establishing believers in their faith. What was now needed was a method by which ‘the masses’ could be reached, since so few of them ever attended a church. Such a method was discovered almost inadvertently and by the pressure of circumstances. It was nevertheless to supply the missing link in the evangelistic strategy of Methodism. It all came about early in 1739, when

George Whitefield ran into difficulties as he left London hoping to preach in Bath and Bristol. The opposition he had already encountered in England’s capital was now displayed in the West Country too. After being refused two churches, he appealed to the chancellor of the diocese who put an embargo on him, even forbidding him to preach in the prisons.

Whitefield, however, was convinced that he had a message from God to deliver. He remembered that Jesus spoke to the crowds who flocked to hear him on the mountainside or down by the lake. Whitefield’s attention was drawn to the Kingswood coal-miners - a rough, sullen, often vicious set of men who lived and worked in appalling conditions. Women and even children joined them underground, toiling for long hours in the dust and dirt of the coal-mines, exposed to danger and disease.

It was to these victims of an unjust social system that Whitefield’s heart went out in compassion, with the result that on 17 February 1739, he ventured to preach the gospel message to them out of doors. Some 200 were present on that first occasion, but there were 2,000 the second time, and before long the numbers shot up to 10,000 and even 20,000. ‘Blessed be God that I have now broken the ice!’ Whitefield wrote in his Journal. ‘I believe I was never more acceptable to my Master than when I was standing to teach those hearers in the open fields. Some may censure me, but if I thus pleased men I should not be the servant of Christ.' CH

By A. Skevington Wood

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #9 in 1984]

Next articles

Christ in his church: Newman and the Tractarians

John Keble annual assize sermon kicked off the Tractarian movement.

Michael Harper

The Lord’s Watch: the Moravians

The small Moravians denomination was born out of the fires of persecution but became a world-wide mission movement.

A. Skevington Wood

Winning the world: Carey and the modern missionary movement

Few men have been as influential in the church as one impoverished cobbler.

Brian Stanley

Christian History Timeline: Organizing for mission

A chronology of early British mission organizations.

the Editors
Show more

Subscribe to magazine

Subscription to Christian History magazine is on a donation basis


Support us

Christian History Institute (CHI) is a non-profit Pennsylvania corporation founded in 1982. Your donations support the continuation of this ministry


Subscribe to daily emails

Containing today’s events, devotional, quote and stories