The ministry of John Wesley from his New Room Bristol headquarters is one of the most remarkable in evangelical history.
As a young man, John Wesley (1703-1791) and his brother Charles (1714-1770) studied theology at Oxford and then entered the ministry, because, in his own words, his father told him to do so.
At university in Oxford they were part of a group students who had formed a holy club, which brought a Counter-Reformation Catholic fervor to low-temperature English Protestantism, which would later come to characterize the spiritual intensity at the New Room Bristol. They fasted, went to Communion as often as possible and worked to help the poor.
It was a very methodical way of trying to achieve holiness; and someone probably without any friendly intent, nick named them Methodists.
However, the revivalism of the New Room Bristol lay far in the future. Ten years passed and the Wesley brothers joined a mission to America, to the State of Georgia. Governor James Oglethorpe (1696-1785) asked John to serve as minister of the newly formed Savannah parish.
A statue of John in Reynolds Square commemorates his ministry in Savannah.
They sailed home defeated and depressed. John
later writes: "I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who
shall covert me? I, who went to America to convert others was never
myself converted to God."
But the Wesley’s chance meeting with a group of evangelical Moravians from Germany on board the ship would take them a step closer to their destiny.
Back in England the Wesleys kept in touch with the Moravians. On May 24, 1738 John attended Anglican evensong and then a Moravian prayer meeting on London’s Aldersgate Street.
It was a powerful combination that would change both him and Protestantism.
Something new happened to Wesley that night. While the solemn music of
the Evensong was still ringing in his memory, he listened to Martin
Luther’s restatement of Paul’s message to the Romans—we’re saved by
faith alone. The Reformation came alive for him:
“About a quarter before 9:00, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in 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.” (John Wesley)
John Wesley finally found the faith which he had once tried to bring to the New World.
A new fire, a new urgency came in his religion and it burst through the hymns of the Moravians to create a new message for his generation. For both Wesley brothers what mattered in their faith now was a direct relationship with God. They wanted to spread this message of salvation, just as the Moravians had done. They take this new found spirit directly to the people of England, particularly the poor, who do not attend church regularly.
John Wesley’s own headquarters was his New Room Bristol. It was not just the words of John that moved people. It was also the magnificent hymns of his brother Charles. The New Room seems cool, classical and ordered. Yet in 1739 it would have been deafening in services here with shouts of joy and repentance and the roar of Charles’s new hymns about Christ’s blood and sacrificial death.
By 1800 around half a million people in Britain attended Methodist worship; that’s over five percent of the population, grown from nothing in 60 years. Heartfelt Protestant religion was hugely popular in Wales and spread among Scottish and Irish Presbyterians too. It was an Evangelical Revival.
Like the Moravians in Germany, the evangelicals in Britain discovered an intensely personal Reformation. They study their Bibles in order to meet Christ. They also reached into the depths of their own souls to make that meeting complete and they longed to get others to do the same.
Above: John Wesley preaching at Gwennap Pit, Cornwall
Wesley sought to shed the layers of doctrinal controversy in an effort to get to the core of emotion at the heart of Christianity. At his New Room Bristol Wesley did not argue or make an appeal to constructive reason. They make a direct, intuitive appeal to the minds and hearts of ordinary people.
To find those minds and hearts, Wesley does not need a church. For him, any place he preaches, a backyard, a town square, an open field, even a tavern—is a place of worship. He preaches in all kinds of weather—rain or shine, by day or by moonlight.
This was the beginning of the modern day evangelical and the birth of the revival meeting. The revival meeting proves an astonishingly popular form and would soon adapt particularly well to the frontiers of the North American colonies.
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