This article was found in the December 1951 copy of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church. It was written by R. A. Newman
The religious life of this country in the 18th century was at a very low ebb. The poor were illiterate and drunken. The rich were indifferent to their needs, and to religion. The clergy were lax, and many were not seen in their pulpits, or their parishes, for months at a time.
It was in this period that there was born the great revival of religion, led by the Wesleys, who were responsible for the birth of Methodism. They were the children of Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth in Lincolnshire, a man of great piety, and of High Church principles. He married Susannah, one of the 25 children of Dr. Samuel Annesley, a famous Non-Conformist of that day. She was a woman of strong character, ruling the household, and caring for the instruction of their nineteen children. John was the 15th, born June 28th, 1703, and Charles four years later in 1707. The revenue of the rectory was approximately £200 p.a., subsidised by farming, in which the rector was somewhat unlucky. He found himself in Lincoln Castle jail for a debt of £30. The mob stormed the rectory, and set light to the thatched roof. John was the last to be rescued, and in after life referred to himself as "a brand plucked from the burning."
Samuel and his wife Susannah were happily mated, but they had clashes of will. On one occasion he was praying for King William, and she, not favourable to the House of Orange, refused to say "Amen." "Very well, Sukey," said the rector, "if we are to have two kings, we must have two beds," and thereupon saddled his horse and rode to London on business.
The boys had good schooling, reaching Oxford University, from which they graduated Masters of Art, and were ordained priests of the C. of E. Both went out to Georgia as missionaries, but failed to influence the lives of the settlers and Indians, and soon came home again, admitting their failure and troubled in mind. This resulted in spiritual conversion. Henceforth their preaching attracted the crowds by its evangelistic fervour and great enthusiasm for the salvation of souls.
Eminent clergymen denounced them as false teachers, boasting of inspiration; encouraging abstinence, prayer, and other religious exercises, to neglect of the duties of their station; insolent pretenders, assuming language of the Holy Ghost, and much else.
They were refused admission to the Church pulpits, and took to the fields, preaching to enormous crowds with such effect that men, women and children were calling for mercy, crying, screaming, falling in faints as if dead. Thus was born the great revival. John, stating the world was his parish, was excluded from a benefice.
They were joined by George Whitefield, who, like the Wesleys, was descended from a line of Clergymen. He is said to have preached his first sermon at St. Botolph's Church, Bishopsgate, as an ordained priest, but had proved his ability by an earlier sermon at Gloucester, when it is said 15 persons were driven mad! The new birth, or conscious salvation, was his great theme. His evangel also upset the clergy, and no pulpit was open to him, so he took to the fields, preaching to colliers at Kingswood Common, near Bristol. Three weeks later he had a congregation of ten thousand, and it was recorded as having grown to twenty thousand. His voice was the finest in public oratory, with amazing compass and volume. C. E. Vulliamy, in his book on John Wesley, says Whitefield could make the people forgetful of place, and produce complete illusion.
On one occasion he was using the metaphor of a blind man tottering towards the edge of a precipice. The emotion of his audience was raised in an incredible way. Lord Chesterfield was present, and at the critical point of the illustration, sprang from his chair shouting - "By God he's over!"
On another occasion in his sermon he compared the stricken to a ship in distress, masts gone, ship on her beam ends. He shouted, "What is to be done?" Two or three sailors present jumped up, crying out, "The long boat, Sir - take to the long boat."
Once, when walking in Boston, he met a certain D.D. "Ah," said the Dr., "I am sorry to see you here." "So is the devil," answered Whitefield.
In August, 1769, he had nearly two thousand communicants one Sunday at Moorfields Tabernacle. He was Wesley's great help in the Revival, but worn out, troubled with asthma, he passed on to his rest at the age of 57 and was buried at Newburyport in Massachusetts.
He called to John Wesley to take over his work at Bristol, and under his quiet methods, but logical preaching, conversions of a violent and sensational kind took place in large numbers, some falling to the ground as dead, others sobbing, some laughing and crying in the agony of the spirit, until peace came to them. Then John started preaching all over the country, everywhere forming small societies, appointing leaders, some laymen, others ministers. Thus was born Methodism. A Methodist John defined simply as "one who lives according to the method laid down in the Bible."
Charles was in the battle with him, but in a quieter way. He was not a robust preacher, not of a robust constitution. He was the great Revival poet and singer. He had 6,500 hymns to his credit, 32 of which appear in our hymnary. He married a lady of means, and retired from the rough and tumble of the revival at the age of 49, but lived on to the age of 81, passing on in 1788.
John carried on with the help of many assistants and leaders he had appointed. He travelled many thousands of miles, in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and in Holland, preaching the Gospel may times daily.
In his latter days the tide turned in his favour. The Church dignitaries came to realise that he was a chosen instrument of God. He then had more invitations to preach in the Churches than he could accept, always regarding himself as belonging to the C. of E.
On 2nd March, 1791, at the age of 88, John passed to his rest. That same morning, earlier, he sang with great vigour a verse of one of his favourite hymns by Dr. Watts:
I'll praise my maker while I've breath,
And when my voice is lost in death,
Praise shall employ my nobler powers.
My days of praise shall ne'er be past
While life and thought and being last,
Or immortality endures.
The Wesleys often collaborated with both Watts and Dodderidge, as well as working with Whitefield, three great Congregational Divines. Whitefields Tabernacle at Tottenham Court Road is a permanent reminder to us of those stern days. Not only England, but the world, needs 20th century Revival in Religion.