Wesleyan Wisdom: Back on the trail of Methodist roots, 1738-1784

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns tracing the footsteps of John Wesley.

Let’s take a look at Wesley in the spring of 1738. Back in London since early February after his difficult pastorate in Georgia, he first met with trustees to explain why he was breaking contract and coming home early. He felt troubled in his spiritual life and received careful counsel from Moravian leaders, particularly Peter Bohler.

Donald Haynes

Donald W. Haynes

Wesley’s spirits on May 24 were so low that he wrote to a friend, “. . . How deep I have fallen! How far I am from God’s glory! . . . God is holy, I am sinful.” He was still living “under the law” and not sensing the love of God. In this state, he went that afternoon for meditation and prayer at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. The choir was rehearsing for evensong, and their anthem was Psalm 130: “O Lord, out of the depths I call to you. . . . My soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord is steadfast love, and with Him is great power to redeem.”

After a while, Wesley slipped out of the cathedral’s north door, veered onto Aldersgate Street and into a Moravian Bible study. The congregation sang; then a layman read from Martin Luther’s preface to the book of Romans. After feeling his heart “strangely warmed,” Wesley returned home to write the words we all have memorized about the witness of the Spirit.

You can still visit the place where the Moravians met that night. It is now an elevated patio with a very attractive plaque. All Methodists should take delight in knowing the City of London has dedicated this spot to what happened at Aldersgate.

From there, it’s a short taxi ride to the area of London called Moorfields. (The London underground stop is labeled “Moorgate.”) At City Road, we find four special places that represent different times in Wesley’s life and the Methodist movement. The first is hard to locate, but is called Foundery Chapel. In 1739 Wesley bought from the Crown an abandoned foundery where molten iron was poured into sand molds to make cannon. The purchase price was 115 pounds, and he spent 800 pounds converting it into a chapel with rooms for traveling preachers, apartments for his mother Susanna and at least one sister, and dispensaries for food, clothing and medical treatment.

The deeds of mercy and acts of kindness that took place at the chapel are what Wesley called “social holiness.” This is quite different from what we mean today by the term “social justice,” because except for slavery, Wesley did not attack systemic evil. The site served as Methodism’s London headquarters for nearly half a century, and Susanna died there. All that remains is a small prayer chapel and some of the benches from the foundery.

Now go across the street to Bunhill Fields, originally named “Bonehill.” It was a cemetery for persons who had dissented from the Church of England and could no longer be buried in what Anglicans called holy ground. Notable persons buried in this Dissenters’ graveyard are the hymn writer Isaac Watts, Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, who wrote Pilgrim’s Progress—and Susanna Wesley!

Moving on to Bristol

If you are on a tour, no doubt you will remain at City Road a while to see the places of Wesley’s last years, death and burial. However, if you are doing this as a “dream trip from your living room,” let’s keep it chronological and catch the train 60 miles west to Bristol, on the border of Wales.

A statue of John Wesley on horseback can be seen outside the New Room, a Methodist site in Broadmead, Bristol, England. PHOTO COURTESY CHAPELWOOD UMC, HOUSTON

In March 1739, in response to a plea from George Whitefield, Wesley left for the “west country.” Bristol was surrounded by a combination of hunting grounds for the king and wealthy barons, and coal mines where men worked out their short lives underground with only a meager supply of oxygen. Here, Wesley was called to preach at mine shafts, factory gates and open fields. The Methodists later placed a monument on Hanham Mount, a hill overlooking the city, to mark where he preached in the fields to 1,500 people on April 8, 1739.

The response to Wesley’s preaching in Bristol and its environs was so great that he decided to buy some property in the middle of town at the Horsefair, a livery stable area where people rented, traded or boarded their horses. The “New Room” opened there in 1741, and was never to be called a church or even a chapel; it was a two-story building for teaching laity to preach. The original building is still standing with John’s statue on his horse at one entrance and a life-size statue of Charles Wesley at the other. Charles has his hand extended with the inscription, “Let me commend my saviour to you.”

A well-known phrase originated in the Kingswood area of Bristol when Wesley organized a school there. It was here that he determined to “unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety”—a vision later inscribed in the seal of Duke University in Durham, N.C. Also in Bristol, weekly class meetings were started, divided into groups of 11, both men and women; this became the most ingenious institution in Methodism.

From 1739 until he was in his late eighties, Wesley moved constantly in a vast triangle from Bristol in the west, to Newcastle upon Tyne in the north, to London in the southeast. He also crossed the Irish Sea 60 times and made a number of preaching forays into Scotland. On Sept. 1, 1784, at 6 Dighton Street in Bristol, he ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey, “set aside” an ordained clergyman named Thomas Coke and sent the three men forth “upon the continent of America.” Nine days later Wesley, a Tory in his politics who had opposed the American colonies’ war for independence, wrote an amazing letter:

“By a very uncommon train of providences many of the Provinces of North America are totally disjoined from their Mother Country and erected into independent States. The English Government has no authority over them, either civil or ecclesiastical. . . . In this peculiar situation some thousands of the inhabitants of these States desire my advice; and in compliance with their desire I have drawn up a little sketch. . . . They are now at full liberty simply to follow the Scriptures and the Primitive Church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty wherewith God has so strangely made them free.”

So it was that in Bristol, Wesley laid the spiritual and ecclesiastical cornerstone for American Methodism.

Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. Email: dhaynes11@triad.rr.com.

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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