Monday, September 20, 2010

The Real John Wesley: Part 2

On the last post about Wesley, we examined the life of this fallible, human preacher, and especially the details of his life pertaining to his separation from George Whitefield. A chapter from the book, George Whitefield: God's Anointed Servant in the Great Revival of the Eighteenth Century, revealed John Wesley's insistence on contention with Whitefield, his predisposition to, and desire for, the preeminent role among his brethren, his slight exaggerations in describing the actions and beliefs of those with whom he was in disagreement, his misunderstanding of the Calvinistic viewpoint of the doctrine of Predestination, and the propagation of his newly formed, and often inconsistent, doctrine of sinless perfection.

Again, the purpose of this series of posts is not to attack and defame, but to present a balanced image of the 18th Century preacher, and remove Wesley from the pedestal that we as human beings are so often prone to placing godly men of the past on.

That being said, the following excerpt further reveals the grieving details of Wesley's division and contention with George Whitefield, and consequently also reveals the humility of Whitefield, and the great love and forgiveness that he had for his two dear friends, John and Charles Wesley.

Chapter 10: Whitefield’s Darkest Hour

We have seen that there already were doctrinal differences between Wesley and Whitefield. When Whitefield returned to England, these differences brought about a separation between them. The truth of this matter is often distorted, for although professed reports of it have frequently been published, almost all are so strongly biased in Wesley’s favor that both his and Whitefield’s actions are very falsely presented.
Accordingly, as much as both writer and reader may find the subject distasteful, if we are not to let falsehoods continue to cloud a most noble portion of Whitefield’s life, we have no choice but to look into this matter. We do so, however, very briefly, noticing merely the chief facts.
One of Whitefield’s first activities after reaching London was meeting with his old friend, Charles Wesley. John was out of town at the time. Of course, the doctrinal differences were discussed, and the likelihood of schism was recognized. Whitefield stated, “It would have melted any heart to have heard Mr. Charles Wesley and me weeping, after prayer, that if possible the breach might be averted.” (1) But Charles was as strongly against the doctrine of election as Whitefield was for it, and as adamant in favor of sinless perfection as Whitefield was opposed to it. Charles refused to have any further cooperation with Whitefield, and accordingly they separated. But we shall rejoice when, ten years later, Charles’ doctrinal convictions changed to some extent and he came into a considerable measure of agreement with Whitefield. They then again enjoyed a rich friendship, and this continued until Whitefield was removed from him by death.
On Whitefield’s first Sunday in London, a burst of enthusiasm brought some thousands to hear him both at Moorfields and Kennington Common. But the enthusiasm quickly waned, and on the weekdays his congregations numbered merely two or three hundred. Moreover, he saw many of his former hearers rush by with their fingers in their ears, and several of them later informed him this had been Wesley’s instruction to them to prevent them from hearing heretical doctrine.
The loss of Whitefield’s host of hearers not only curtailed his gospel ministry, but also robbed him of the opportunity to collect for the support of the orphans. Moreover, he had expected that a sum of money would be awaiting him from the sale of the volumes of his sermons, but he found that James Hutton, his publisher, had become a Moravian and refused to sell any literature that did not agree with Moravian teachings.
A particular sorrow arose from the fact that William Seward had died. Some few months earlier, in accompanying Howell Harris as he conducted an open-air meeting in Wales, Seward had suffered a severe physical injury at the hands of a mob. But he soon went out again to another meeting, and as the stones were hurled he shouted, “Better endure this than hell!” In a few days’ time his body weakened, and he entered his heavenly home. He has long been spoken of as “The first Methodist martyr.”
Seward, however, had recently undertaken another £350 debt in the name of the Orphan House, and not only was Whitefield responsible to pay it, but he was threatened with imprisonment if he failed to do so. His creditors gloated over the opportunity seemingly before them, and he was in constant danger of arrest till in a miraculous manner the money became available. Moreover, although Seward had made himself jointly responsible for the maintenance of Bethesda, he died without making a will, and the whole responsibility fell upon Whitefield.

Whitefield’s chief sorrow, however, arose from the opposition of John and Charles Wesley. “…Many, very many of my spiritual children,” he wrote, “who at my last departure from England would have plucked out their own eyes to have given them to me, are so prejudiced by the dear Messrs. W’s dressing up the doctrine of election in such horrible colours, that they will neither hear, see, nor give me the least assistance: Yes, some of them send threatening letters that God will speedily destroy me.” (2) Yet he still spoke of “…my dear, dear old friends, Messrs. John and Charles Wesley, whom I still love as my own soul.” (3)

Nevertheless, Whitefield was not without help. A company of friends began building a large wooden shed in the Moorfields district that would shield its hearers from rain and cold. Since the location was not far from Wesley’s Foundery, Whitefield refused it. But being reminded that he had been first to preach at Moorfields, he came round to using it. Yet he thought of it as merely a temporary structure and therefore named it “The Tabernacle.”

Some friends had begun to publish a weekly paper. It carried news of the ministry of himself and of others of a Calvinistic mind on both sides of the Atlantic. He called it The Weekly History.

Whitefield also still faced the question as to whether he should publish in England his reply to Wesley’s sermon “Free Grace,” or as Wesley termed it “Against Predestination.” For nineteen months Wesley had circulated this sermon, and both he and Charles had opposed Whitefield’s beliefs in their daily ministries. Numerous people had accepted their teachings, and Whitefield decided he had no choice but to print his reply.

He began by declaring his strong reluctance to publish anything critical of Wesley.

…Jonah could not go with more reluctance against Nineveh, than I now take pen in hand to write against you. Was nature to speak, I had rather die than do it; and yet if I am faithful to God, and to my own and others' souls, I must not stand neutral any longer. …Numbers have been misled, whom God has been pleased to work upon by my ministry, and a greater number are still calling aloud upon me to show also my opinion. I must then show that I know no man after the flesh, and that I have no respect to persons, any further than is consistent with my duty to my Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. (4)

In his reply Whitefield makes his arguments clearly, and he is unmovable in his doctrinal convictions. But his attitude towards Wesley is characterized by the respect we have seen in his letters, and to him Wesley is ever “My Honoured Friend” and “Honoured Sir.” There is definiteness of statement, but never a harsh word.

One point, however, of Whitefield’s reply must have our attention. In publishing his sermon, Wesley inserted a brief introduction stating that he had been moved to preach the sermon “by the strongest conviction, not only that what is here advanced is ‘the truth as it is in Jesus,’ but also that I am indispensably obliged to declare this truth to all the world.” (5) Numerous readers of the sermon would believe that since he had been “indispensably obliged” in the manner he surely had received some special commission from God, and that therefore the doctrine he declared must indeed be true. The little introduction was as valuable in enforcing Wesley’s teaching as any of his arguments.

Yet the “indispensible obligation” was nothing more than the casting of a lot. That is, he had written out two or three possible courses of actions, each one on a separate slip of paper; he had picked up one, and it had read “Preach and Print,” and this was his authorization for thrusting such a divisive issue into the revival movement.

Accordingly, in his reply Whitefield pointed out that Wesley’s “indispensable obligation” was merely a lot. The issue was a doctrinal matter, not a personal one, and to reveal the role of the casting of a lot was essential to removing the false impression Wesley’s statement had made. Moreover, Whitefield stated that on a previous occasion Wesley had been mistaken by casting a lot and suggested that Wesley ought to have been more careful in using the practice.

Moreover, Wesley had seized as his own the New Room at Bristol and the School House at Kingswood—buildings for which Whitefield and Seward had raised virtually all the money. Whitefield wrote to him about the matter, and Wesley replied in a long harsh letter. (6) He adopted an attitude that he had done nothing to provoke discord and that Whitefield had begun and continued the strife. This totally false attitude Wesley maintained throughout the rest of his life.
During these days, however, Whitefield was gradually winning back his congregations. Thus Wesley realized he was losing much of the fruit of nineteen months of opposition, and the loss provoked him. He made charges that were distorted and untrue, saying that Whitefield refused to offer him the hand of fellowship and that Whitefield asserted he would everywhere preach against him. We can only recognize Wesley’s disappointment as the cause of his statements.

Some of Whitefield’s people were indignant that he had been so forgiving to Wesley and had not claimed a share in the New Room and the Kingswood School. But Whitefield replied,
My heart doth not reproach me for my kindness and friendship to those that differ from me… I cannot renounce those precious truths that I have felt the power of and which were taught me not of man, but of God. At the same time I would love all that love the Lord Jesus, though they differ with me in some points… I have not given way to the Moravian Brethren, or to Mr. Wesley, or to any whom I thought in error, no not for an hour. But I think it best not to dispute when there is no probability of convicting. (7)

Nevertheless, one cannot but feel sorry that Whitefield did not leave an account of his part in the controversy just as fully as Wesley did of his. But Whitefield left us very little and chose to allow Wesley’s statements to remain unchallenged. Accordingly, a false concept of the separation and of the actions of its two chief participants has been passed down to mankind, and has become so fixed in the minds of men that any attempt to correct it will undoubtedly seem to many to be biased against Wesley and severely slanted in Whitefield’s favor.

Ten years later, however, having occasion then to recall the treatment he had experienced at the hands of the two Wesleys, in a letter to Lady Huntington Whitefield stated:

It is good for me that I have been supplanted, despised, censured, maligned, judged and separated from my nearest dearest friends. By this I have found the faithfulness of Him who is the friend of friends… and to be content that He to whom all hearts are open…now sees…the uprightness of my intentions to all mankind. (8)

                During these days Whitefield was assisted by a young man, John Cennick. Cennick was a very gracious man, but a powerful preacher, and the anointing of God was upon him. From this time onward he played a very important part in Whitefield’s life.

Whitefield pressed on with his ministry, and by the time he had been in England four and a half months, his work had returned to so healthy a state that he felt able to leave it and respond to the many invitations he had received from Scotland.


1. Whitefield: Life and Times, Volume 2, p.45.
2. Ibid., p.46.
3. Ibid., p.44.
4. An Letter to the Rev. Mr. John Wesley in Answer to His Sermon Entitled “Free Grace”; Whitefield: Life and Times, Volume 2, p. 552.
5. Introduction to Sermon “Free Grace,” found in any issue of Wesley’s Works; Whitefield: Life and Times, Volume 2, p. 56.
6. Ibid., pp. 71-73.
7. Ibid., pp. 76, 77.
8. Whitefield’s Works, Volume 2, p. 466; Whitefield: Life and Times, Volume 2, p. 77.

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