John Wesley, Anglican priest, founder of a movement called "Methodists," this summer the 300th anniversary of his birth.
But, even more than that -- why are we Methodist? Why is Sunnyhills a United Methodist Church, and why is that different and distinctive from the Episcopal church that meets on our campus, the non-denominational churches, the Baptist, the Congregational, etc, churches -- and do we care?
Today's church growth experts do inform church leaders that church-goers are much less "brand" aware when church going these days. Individuals and families look for churches with programs that meet their needs, and worship with an atmosphere that appeals to them, and a message with the "right amount" of challenge. And, I think this has been true, and will remain true at many levels of church-going. But, there is a part of church-going - at least that I have found in my own past -- where I have been conscious of the messages of Grace and God's love: how they were preached, (If they were preached), how the members of the church lived out those messages, and what impact the congregation had on the life of the community.
But, what can I tell you -- of interest and import -- that will answer those questions in a way that the answers are in a context important and interesting to you. I've recently read that today's church -- sociologically, that is, is much more like the Church of England in Wesley's day than like the people who responded to Wesley's preaching. I was taken aback -- The Church of England in the 1700's was more government than religion, its theology was awash with Calvin, Luther, Roman Catholic minutiae. The folks who responded to Wesley's preaching -- the poor and the marginalized -- were outside the Church. And I realized how much truth there was in the statement.
A man of faith in a time of need...
So, who was this guy Wesley, and how did the Methodist Movement come about?
Church of England was a political creation. The Reformation Parliament established the Church of England, as Henry VIII moved from his role as "Defender of the faith" in support of the Roman church against Luther's writings to head of the new church of England. All matters of church doctrine would pass through Parliament. During the subsequent years, monarchs had more or less Roman Catholic influence on the Church of England, and more or less influence from the Continental protestant movements of Luther and Calvin.
It was in this England that Susanna Wesley, wife of Samuel Wesley, parish priest in Epworth gave birth to John, their 15th (or 16th) child.
A typical unit of organization in a local church in the day was a religious society. These religious societies were generally self led, and intended to promote holiness of heart and life. Members gathered to encourage others in a spiritual life, bible reading and devotion, discuss shortcomings of the week.
As an ordained pastor with a role as tutor at Oxford, John and his brother Charles, still a student, met together with other students in what was derisively called the Holy Club, whose aim, like other religious societies at the time was to promote "real holiness of heart and life." The Holy Club, met regularly for Bible Study, prayer, self-examination and the Lord's Supper. Its distinction, however, was that it visited prisoners and participated in other charitable activities, including providing care for children and destitute.
The Holy Club spawned more societies, organized and influenced by the Oxford Methodists, as they were now known -- promoting holiness of heart and life, keeping personal discipline, and involved with charitable activity in their communities.
Soon after John returned from a failed missionary trip to Georgia, several issues came to a head for John. Though studied and articulate, Wesley had a continuing concern that he had no assurance of his faith. During the crossing from Georgia, during a bad storm, the Moravians on board had prayed resolutely, while John was simply scared. A Moravian Pastor convinced John that his problem was not one of the "degree" of his faith, but "either you have it or you don't." John, now convinced he had no faith at all, felt it in appropriate to continue preaching. Bohler's advice has stood the test of time.
"Preach faith till you have it and then, because you have it you will preach faith." So John continued preaching.
And he preached his experience of salvation by faith alone.
In 18th century England, the Calvinist influences made the doctrine of predestination (God has chosen to save who God has chosen to save) the order of the day in the Church of England. The message that God's salvation is available to all made an impact: It got him banned from many pulpits in London and surrounding towns.
John did have his experience of "assurance of faith"
It was on May 24, 1738, John Wesley recorded that while attending a meeting of a religious society that was studying Martin Luther's commentary on Romans, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation. And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away My sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." Wesley's "heartwarming experience" was preceded by thirty-five years of attempting to earn worth, acceptance, and God's favor, And the struggle continued. Yet, Wesley came to appropriate what he had heard others preach and what he himself had preached; that is, we are saved by grace through faith.
In 1739 John set out for Bristol, a growing commercial center in Southwestern England. The Cathedral there was surrounded by coal mines that fueled the growing industrial revolution -- with all its attendant problems and possibilities. George Whitefield, a friend and fellow Methodist, had invited John to Bristol -- George was headed for America. John was surprised, to say the least, when he found that Whitefield had been preaching in the open air -- preaching in the fields. Outdoor preaching was not illegal, but it certainly was irregular, and often associated with odd folks all round. But, after he realized his own text for field preaching, the Sermon on the Mount, was a fairly impressive precedent, he continued -- to crowds of 1 to 7 thousand people.
It was with folks like the miners, workers in the industrial revolution that Wesley brought a word of hope as well as the organization of societies -- and the message of salvation by faith alone. 18th century England, the early Industrial revolution, with a burgeoning under class, a societal structure in a state of flux, hard work led to wages that did not feed a family.
Eddie Fox, Director of Evangelism for the World Methodist Church tells the story of Wesley preaching to the Tin miners in Cornwall -- as Wesley approached the out-door area where he was to preach, a chant went up in welcome, "For all! For all! For all!" That message -- God's love and salvation by faith alone and available for all -- a message of God's love that Wesley and his circuit preachers carried the length and breadth of the British Isles and America.
Where the message was carried, the movement was organized: personal assurance, scriptural holiness, social witness.
Wesley resisted declaring the Methodist Movement a church outside the Church of England -- either in the colonies, or in England. In both places, the issues of celebrating the Lord's Supper became the deciding factor.
As the Methodist movement to came to the colonies, which soon became the United States, organization followed and the movement grew. After the revolution, however, the ordained priests of the Church of England and all but one of Wesley's appointed representatives returned to England. This left the Movement in the United States with no sacramental authority - no one in the Methodist movement remained with the authority to celebrate sacraments: the Lord's Supper or Baptism. The letters flew -- well, were carried by ship, back and forth across the Atlantic. "How can we continue when our children have not been baptized and we have not been to the Lord's table in many years?"
Reluctantly, Wesley took action. He did ask opinion of several of his advisors -- who all told him it was a bad idea. He did not ask opinion of his brother Charles -- he knew the answer Charles would give. But, consulting Scripture and the operation of the Ancient church, using authority he deemed biblical and his from his own ordination, Wesley ordained Thomas Coke a "superintendent," and two others Deacons and sent them off to bring order to the fledgling church in America.
At his death in 1791, the Methodist movement in Great Britain was still very much a part of the Church of England, though many of its preachers urged for a dissenter status. John Wesley did not want the movement to separate from the Church of England. Dissenter status, while providing legal status for a separate denomination, literally stripped the members of that denomination of their citizenship rights. The Methodist Movement did not become the Methodist Church in Great Britain for more than 40 years after Wesley's death.
The "Methodist Episcopal Church" of the United States had exhibited their independence from 1785.
Unlike other Protestant churches -- Lutherans, Presbyterians (Calvinists), the Methodist movement was not born out of a theological struggle. Wesley set out neither to reformulate doctrine nor to begin a separate church. Despite that, we did inherit distinctively Wesleyan emphases. For better or worse, the church struggles with these emphases -- Wesley did not write a "systematic theology, laying out his "once and for all" ideas on all things theological. Nor was he consistent in ideas from the beginning of his ministry to the end of his ministry.
God's love is at the heart of the Wesleyan tradition. It is the ground of theology, the impetus for mission and the reason for organization. To speak of God's love is to speak of grace, to speak of grace is to speak of in relational terms of God's loving relationship to humankind.
Wesley's theology, grounded in Scripture, emerged from Wesley's experience, and attempts to explain Christian life in the presence of God. Wesleyan mission developed to spread the love of God to every neighbor -- that is -- to everyone who had a need.
According to Wesley, God raised the people called Methodists "to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land." It was a two pronged gospel of personal assurance and social witness. Wesley preached no holiness apart from a social holiness, no Gospel apart from a social gospel. That message, proclaimed in the fields, nurtured in class meetings and lived out in the factories, mines, schools and shops, transformed the soul of 18th century England, and shaped the people called Methodist in the early United States.
The question remains, as we delve into our Wesleyan heritage, and into our theological underpinnings -- Are we the still the church of John Wesley? As Wesley might ask it, "Are we yet alive?"
 John Cobb, Grace and Responsibility, p 15.