This conviction, the offspring of his faith and love, was the germinal principle of organic Methodism, though Wesley did not then recognise it in that light. At this time he had not the feeblest conception that be was about to become the builder of a vast ecclesiastical structure. Never, perhaps, was a learned clergyman at thirty-five years of age so utterly without a plan of life as was John Wesley in 1738. He knew that his heart was ablaze with love for Christ and for human souls, and that he was possessed by a passionate desire to proclaim the doctrine of present salvation by faith alone, and that he was determined, cost what it might, to be guided by that desire. Beyond this his intentions did not reach. He was a stanch, even a High, Churchman, and very naturally supposed that the fruit of his labors would contribute to the spirituality of the Established Church... Hence Methodism must be regarded as an accident rather than the result of a purpose deliberately formed in the mind of its great founder. It was the outgrowth of a sublime principle wrought into organic form by circumstances which could not be controlled, except by the surrender of the principle itself. The facts in Wesley's career subsequent to 1738 scarcely admit of any other satisfactory interpretation. Let us briefly review them.
There were several "societies" in London, chiefly composed of persons who were desirous of spiritual fellowship and instruction. Some of them were under Moravian teachers, others were made up of Churchmen. Wesley very naturally associated with these societies, and preached to them and to such Episcopal congregations as were open to his ministrations. But his exceeding earnestness, his theory of instantaneous conversion through faith, and. above all, the remarkable spiritual results of his preaching gave such offence to the vicars and rectors of the churches that. after a few months, he found his further access to church pulpits very generally refused, and his sphere of operations limited, in the main, to the rooms of the societies, to prison chapels, and to hospital wards. Neither was there any probability that he would be presented to any church living. At this critical moment his friend Whitefield sent him a very pressing invitation to visit Bristol. After some hesitation he went thither; and his High-Church sensibilities were shocked by seeing that eloquent evangelist preach to an immense congregation in the open air. "I could scarcely reconcile myself at first," he observes, "to this strange way of preaching in the fields . . . having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been in a church." But seeing Whitefield's field preaching divinely blessed, he conquered his life-long prejudices, and, standing on an eminence near the city of Bristol, preached for the first time in the open air to about three thousand souls. Thus the problem of his evangelistic career was solved. The great purpose of his life could be accomplished in spite of closed church doors. He did not know it then, but he really made organic Methodism, with its itinerant ministry, possible on that memorable Monday, April 2, 1739, when, with a courage which in his circumstances was truly sublime, he crossed the Rubicon by becoming a field preacher.
The success of his out-door ministrations soon made it necessary to erect a chapel for the accommodation of his converts at Bristol. Lack of ability on the part of the people compelled him to assume the financial responsibilities of this enterprise. To protect his pecuniary interests thus acquired, and to secure the use of its pulpit to himself or his representatives, he felt obliged to vest the title to the chapel in himself. All this, to his mind, bore the aspect of an undesirable burden forced upon his shoulders by unsought circumstances. But it proved to be the inception of that system of vesting his chapel titles in himself but for which the organic unity and growth of the Wesleyan societies could not have been secured. By adopting it, Wesley was unconsciously working on the foundations of a Church the ideal of which had not as yet arisen even in his imagination.
Last modified 30 April 2010