When John Wesley began his ministry in 1738, morality and religion had collapsed in England. In May of that year, Wesley had his Aldersgate experience and went out to minister to the multitudes in the open fields. A century later, the social and moral climate of England had changed dramatically. Queen Victoria was on the throne and “Victorian” became a synonym for piety and morality. Conditions can change for the better. It has happened.
The Fight Begins
Of the many moral and social reforms resulting from the spiritual awakening of the eighteenth century, perhaps the abolition of slavery was the most conspicuous. In 1772 England freed her slaves. This was partly the work of Granville Sharp, who pressed the “King’s Bench” (England’s Supreme Court) to make the decision that liberated slaves in England–but not in British colonies. His Lordship Judge Mansfield noted that the court did so because slavery is contrary to God’s law.
Great Strides in England
A couple of years later, Wesley wrote his famous essay on slavery, in which he said: “Notwithstanding ten thousand laws, right is right and wrong is wrong still.” Soon thereafter, a gifted young Member of Parliament, William Wilberforce, took up the abolitionist cause. Just a few days before he died in 1791, Wesley wrote his last letter to this Christian statesman, urging him to continue the fight. It was an almost impossible assignment, but in 1807, Wilberforce did get the government to forbid British ships to engage in the lucrative slave trade. Wilberforce died in 1833, one month before Parliament passed the law liberating all slaves in the British Empire.
In his book Saints and Society, Dr. Earle E. Cairns wrote that English evangelicals accomplished more for good than any reform movement in history. That is a precious part of our heritage. Why do so few Christians today know about these great achievements?
The Cause in America
The American Wesleyan Church came into being in 1843 because the mainline denominations refused to take a stand on the issue of slavery. Presidents Washington and Jefferson had been apologetic for the ancient evil and wished it to go away. Indeed, another Virginia slave holder, Colonel George Mason, urged the Founding Fathers to abolish slavery when they were drafting the U.S. Constitution in 1787, and he warned them that God would judge the nation if they failed to do so.
By the 1830s, the South had begun to justify its “peculiar institution.” Defenders of slavery claimed that the Bible actually approved of that practice, and it was not expedient to disagree with them. The situation was not much better in the North. In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who published an antislavery newspaper, was killed in Illinois. William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator, was dragged down the street in Boston with a rope around his body and would probably have been hanged if he had not been rescued and lodged in jail for his own safety.
Our Great Heritage
This was the atmosphere in which a few courageous Christians, including Orange Scott and Luther Lee, founded our church. Their purpose was both to spread “scriptural holiness over these lands” and to secure justice for their fellow human beings. “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote (Romans 1:16). In the same way, let us be thankful for our Wesleyan heritage.
Article written by Edward Coleson
More Wesleyan History
The Wesleyan movement centers around the Scriptural truth concerning the doctrine and experience of holiness. A revival of Scriptural truths concerning Scriptural holiness took place under the leadership of John Wesley in the eighteenth century and continues in various ways until the present.
Nurtured in a devout home, John Wesley committed himself to a search after God from earliest childhood. While at Oxford, together with his brother Charles and a few other serious-minded collegians, John Wesley methodically pursued holiness through systematic Bible study, prayer, good works, intensive examination, and reproof. The group earned the nicknames of “Holy Club” and of “Methodists,” but Wesley did not earn the assurance of salvation. Having graduated from Oxford, and having been ordained as a clergyman in the state church, he intensified his search for peace through legalism and self-discipline. The turning point came at a prayer meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, May 24, 1738, when he perceived the way of faith and found his heart “strangely warmed” in the new birth. As he went on to the experience of entire sanctification (an experience of sold-out love for God and rejection of willful sin), he shared his testimony and teaching with others, and a spiritual awakening spread across the British Isles and to America.
It was not Wesley’s purpose to found a church, but the awakening brought about the spontaneous origin of “societies” which grew into the Methodist movement. The movement spread to America by the emigration of Mehodists, who, beginning in 1766, began to organize the Methodist “classes” and “societies” in the colonies. In December 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was organized at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore, Maryland. The new church experienced a miraculous growth, especially on the frontier, and quickly became one of the major religious forces in the new nation.
Beginning in 1841, there began a series of withdrawals of churches and ministers from the Methodist Episcopal Church over the issue of slavery; some ministers and members of the M.E.C. were involved in slaveholding. John Wesley and early Methodist leaders in America had been uncompromising in their denunciation of human slavery. The earliest extensive withdrawal was in Michigan, and led on May 13, 1841, to the formation of the annual conference using the name, “The Wesleyan Methodist Church.”
The organzing convention for the Wesleyan Methodist Connection of America was held at Utica, New York, May 31 to June 8, 1843. The new organization was a “Connection” of local churches organized in annual conferences. It avoided the episcopacy, and provided for equal ministerial and lay representation in all of its governing bodies. Moral and social reform were strongly emphasized, with slaveholding and all involvements with intoxicating liquors being prohibited.
Adapted from the historical section of The Discipline of the Wesleyan Church p.1-10
More About John Wesley
The name “Wesleyan” is in honor of John Wesley, a priest in the Church of England who became the inspiration behind the Methodist movement. It was their disciplined routine (or method) of spiritual devotion and social work which earned Wesley and a few of his friends in ministry the nickname “Methodists” beginning in 1735. The name stuck later to the unique new organizational structure Wesley designed to provide prayer and spiritual care for tens of thousands of converts who found Christ through his work.
Wesley was an outstanding scholar, yet regarded himself as “a man of one book,” the Bible. It was while studying the Bible that he received assurance of his own salvation through faith. It was the Bible which motivated his vision for offering Christ to the common people of England in a way that led to that nation’s greatest spiritual revival. It was biblical truth which inspired Wesley to develop a school for orphans, job programs and medical assistance for the poor, efforts to reform inhumane prisons, and arguments for the abolition of slavery, a great evil of his time. Confidence in the Bible as “the only and sufficient rule for Christian faith and practice” (to use Wesley’s own words) is still a hallmark of The Wesleyan Church today.
Although we respect his example, John Wesley is not the person Wesleyans worship, however. “A Methodist,” he said, “is…one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” In fact, “perfect love” for God and for other people is the priority goal for Christian disciples emphasized in our churches.
The first Methodists came to America in 1766 and organized the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. In 1843 a group of pastors and local churches left that denomination because of their strong antislavery convictions and their preference for a more democratic form of church government. They adopted the name, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection; later it was changed to The Wesleyan Methodist Church in America. A number of smaller groups of churches merged with them over time, especially between 1948 and 1966, including the Alliance of Reformed Baptists of Canada.