John Wesley (1703-1791)
Wesley was 36 in 1739. He had returned from America an inconspicuous failure. Oglethorpe kept his disgrace there as quiet as possible, so as not to embarrass his colony of Georgia. So John's rejection by a succession of English churches was not due to prior reputation. The congregations simply would not tolerate his hectoring. John recorded the churches in his journal: St. John the Evangelist's, St. Andrews in Holborn, St. Catherine's, St. Lawrence's, St. Ann's at Aldersgate, St. John's at Wapping and St. Bennet's at Paul's wharf. Soon no church anywhere asked him to preach. Decent people didn't need such scolding sermons, he was told. John's life wasn't all bad. He had a glorious experience of the infilling of the Holy Spirit in a holy club meeting May 24, 1738. But still he was not asked to preach. So he busied himself with visiting jails and workhouses as well as attending holy societies. But it was not preaching.
John's old friend George Whitefield too was not welcome in the Anglican churches because of his harsh message. So he had begun to 'field preach'. He would simply gather people about him in the open and preach the Gospel. 'Preaching among the trees with clods as his pulpit,' grumped John. When John went to see Whitefield in Bristol he was offered a chance to preach. John was appalled. But Whitefield explained to John that England had been far too slow to approve new parishes. Unchurched people numbered in the thousands, especially in booming mining areas like Bristol. How else could they get the Gospel? Reluctantly John accompanied Whitefield one Sunday. It was bizarre the way Whitefield walked into a square in his clerical garb and waited as curious people gathered. When he had a few hundred he began to preach. By the time he was finished the crowd was many times that number. John was impressed, but had the crowd taken anything in?
Then Whitefield said he was leaving for America. He begged John to take his place at least the next day and the following Sunday. John reluctantly agreed. The next day - April 2, 1739 - John trudged to a brick yard at four o'clock in the afternoon, feeling the fool, stumbling over cobbles in his elegant cassocks. But when he first saw the crowd of grimy laborers and their families his heart ached; they deserved his utmost effort. Then he realized the extent of the crowd. Thronged on the clay banks were at least 3000 people! John stood on a small rise and preached on the very essence of his own calling now from Luke 4:18: 'The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.'
Sunday he found himself following Whitefield's footsteps of the previous Sunday. In Bristol he preached at seven in the morning. Praise God, about 1000 showed up. Then he preached at Hannam Mount in Kingswood to about 1500, he guessed, then continued on to other side of Kingswood and Rose Green. There in the afternoon he preached to 5000! At the end of the day he realized he had preached to over 7000 people. How many pulpits inside churches would it take to reach that many? And these poor people were so hungry for God they stood outside in the elements.
Over the next 50 years John Wesley would preach 40,000 sermons outdoors! Some of the crowds exceeded 30,000!
[sources: A Tale of Two Brothers: John & Charles Wesley by Mabel R. Brailsford, 1954, and The Journal of the Reverend John Wesley, 8 Vols., edited by Nehemiah Curnock, 1938]
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