by Jennifer Hurd.
Happy Wesley Day! Today, Methodists (and others) remember how, on the evening of 24th May 1738, John Wesley went “very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street”. There he heard a reading from Martin Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and, as he wrote in his journal, “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.”[i] The rest is history. From then on, under the leadership of John and his brother Charles, the Methodist movement grew and changed the face of eighteenth century Britain. Among other gifts, Wesley’s tireless commitment to preaching and his genius for organisation secured his place as a great Christian leader. When, in 2001, the BBC and the National Portrait Gallery conducted a poll to name 100 ‘Great Britons’, John Wesley came in at number 50.[ii] I wonder if that position would have pleased him or not!
Committed Methodist as I am, I have sometimes felt uncomfortable in ecumenical circles about our occasionally almost hagiographic approach to John Wesley. When I was an Authorised URC Minister in the West Midlands, we didn’t make any special celebration of Richard Baxter. George Fox Day is 13th January, but how many of us actually know that? Wesley Day, however, is enshrined in the Methodist calendar, and John is remembered all year long – with good reason, of course. Yet I have found I shrink into myself a little when John Wesley is ‘bigged up’ (technical term!) at ecumenical gatherings. At least, I did until I was appointed to serve in Wales among Welsh-speaking Methodist congregations. Living and working in Wales has given me a new, deeper appreciation of John Wesley, his theology and its impact on society. If anything, we need Wesleyanism more than ever.
John Wesley didn’t speak Welsh. His languages included English, Greek and Hebrew, but not Welsh. While he was leading the Methodist Revival in the English language, a parallel movement was happening in Wales through the medium of Welsh, primarily under the leadership of Howell Harris. At first, Wesley was pleased to support Harris’s evangelistic work, leaving him and his colleagues to preach to the Welsh speakers, while he continued in English. However, rifts appeared over theological differences. Harris was a Calvinist, in contrast to Wesley’s Arminianism, and the Methodist movement through the medium of Welsh developed under Calvinistic theological influences. While Wesley preached that all can be saved, Harris took a more selective approach, teaching that salvation was reserved for an elect predestined group of people alone. The two leaders parted company. It wasn’t until 1800, when Thomas Coke sent Welsh-speaking preachers to Wales, as he had he established missions to other nations, that Welsh-speakers heard the Wesleyan message in their own language.
There are therefore two traditions of Methodism in Wales – Calvinistic (later the Presbyterian Church of Wales) and Wesleyan. Welsh-language Wesleyanism has never been numerically strong, yet there are those such as Tad (Father) Deiniol of the Wales Orthodox Mission (himself the grandson of a Welsh Wesleyan minister), who believe that its influence has far outweighed its size, both theologically and socially.[iii] The open, inclusive approach of Wesleyan Arminianism may have been the salt and light that helped church and society in nineteenth century Wales to maintain a more generous, open approach. The Arminian influence of the ‘Wesla’ – however small – has enriched Wales, and the denomination’s contribution to Welsh life and culture has not been insignificant, in spite of its size.
John Wesley preached in a time of great social and political change. He proclaimed an all-embracing, all-encompassing gospel of love in a period of enormous division, discrimination, injustice and unrest, and encouraged and practised an activism that embodied it. This resonates with our own time. Part of me wants to cry out, “John Wesley, where are you now?” Part of me knows that the same Spirit of all-inclusive love that inspired and motivated Wesley is with us still, and the work is ours to do. A relatively small group of Wesleyans who believed that Christ died for all helped to change nineteenth century Welsh society. There is no reason why the same cannot happen anywhere today.
[i] P.L. Parker, Wesley’s Journal (abridged), (London: Ibister & Company Ltd, 1903), 43
[ii] John Cooper, Great Britons: The Great Debate, (London: National Portrait Gallery), 9
[iii] Opinion expressed in informal personal conversation