While some leaders of the established Church of England may have devoted themselves to Vulcan as the clockmaker god of reason, others begged to differ. For them, Methodism became, among other things, an emotional protest against the reasonable god of these Deists and the staid and respectable limitations placed on the worship of such a god.
Beginnings: Oxford University
John (1703-91) and Charles (1707-88) were two of the nineteen children born to Samuel Wesley (1662-1735). Samuel graduated from Oxford University and, at John’s birth, was serving as pastor in the established Anglican Church.
While studying at Oxford in 1727, Charles gathered a small group of fellow students to study the Bible, reflect on it, and pray about what it said, what it meant, and how it applied to their lives. His older brother John, returning to Oxford for further study, joined the group two years later. George Whitefield joined it in 1733. The group was methodical in its way of living. In ridicule, more frivolous university colleagues called its members methodists—and the name stuck. This is remarkable since, at the time, students at the all-male university had to be members of the Anglican Church to receive a degree and most graduates became Anglican pastors.
George Whitefield (1714-70, fl. >1736)
Pastors of various Anglican churches around Bristol refused to allow George Whitefield to preach to their congregations. Partly they objected to what they regarded as his undignified emotional intensity. Partly they objected to his objections to them. Lacking an indoor pulpit, George took the word to the streets. He preached his first open-air sermon to a group of coal miners in a field nearby. They cried like babies in response.
How did George have this effect? He spoke in a theatrical manner. He could project his voice well enough that 20,000 people at a time could hear him. He had the dynamic of the crowd working in his favor. He warned people of the destructive consequences of their Olympian ways and told them of how Jesus sought to save them. Most importantly, Jesus freely chose at times to take George’s words and make them his own.
John Wesley gets involved (1739)
In 1739, just before sailing to America, George asked John Wesley to continue his Bristol ministry in his place. At first John had misgivings about open-air preaching. Soon, however, he too was successful and continued as an itinerant preacher for the rest of his life. Everywhere he went he gathered witnesses into small mission groups like the one he, Charles, and George had enjoyed at Oxford.
For his part, Charles, with his great gift for music, added new hymns with inspiring words and spirited melodies to a new hymnal. A tradition of singing these continues to bind together Methodists otherwise separated in space and time.
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