During the lifetime of John Wesley and George Whitfield England was a cesspool teeming with immorality, vice, and declension on every hand. Religion had become a joke and the mob had taken on the flavor of ancient Rome. One historian described the mob as a “persistent, violent element” of Georgian England. And the historian J.H. Plumb wrote, “in every class, there is the same taut neurotic quality; the fantastic gambling and drinking, the riot, the brutality and violence and always a constant fear of death”. England had hit a kind of spiritual rock bottom that the most valiant efforts of the Anglican Church couldn’t resuscitate.
It was into this melting pot of immorality, crime, and decay that the work of Whitfield and the Weasleys found its way. It revived and strengthened the colors of a dying social fabric, giving it new life and vibrancy. Interestingly it was embraced most ardently among the poorer classes. It was this class that suffered the most in Georgian England and it was to this class that the truths of the gospel meant the most. J.H. Plumb again notes that “Methodism (became) not a religion of the poor but for the poor”. It was a force to be reckoned with that left an indelible mark not just on 18th century England but also on the world in years to come.
Whitfield, who was instrumental in the spread of the movement, made the greatest impact in America. He was an itinerant preacher and left a deep impression on the hearts and minds of those who heard him preach. It is said that he preached over 18,000 sermons in his life and in 1770, at the age of 55 with declining health he was still preaching. To put things into perspective it’s important to understand that the average life expectancy in England was around 36. Whitfield died whilst on a trip to Massachusetts in America and was buried in the crypt of the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The Wesleys, on the other hand, spent their time ministering in England. John Wesley spent a vast amount of his time traveling the length and breadth of the country to fulfill preaching engagements.
Once while he was traveling it began to rain heavily and the roads, being in such bad condition, began to flood. The situation was so bad that he was forced to ride in the fields on either side of the road. Another time his horse became so tired that he had to get off it and walk till he reached the nearest town. When he resumed his journey the next day the hapless creature fell into a ditch and it took six men to hoist it out. Under such conditions, John Wesley is said to have traveled an estimated 240,000 miles.
Whenever he rode in a carriage it is said that he spent the journey reading or writing so as to make the best use of his time. Once while riding in a carriage to a speaking engagement the tide began to inundate the road he was traveling along. Undaunted Wesley urged his coachman to keep going and at one point during the crossing, the horse was up to its neck in water and the coachman was hanging on for dear life fully expecting the entire carriage to get swept away at any moment. When they reached their destination safely the first thing that Wesley did was to make sure that the coachman was warm, dry and well fed. He then proceeded to the meeting house to deliver his sermon, drenched to the bone in salt water and completely oblivious to the fact. He was 83 years old.
Another story that is told of his brother Charles, is of a visit he made to Sheffield in 1743. Here he wrote that he found the Methodists as sheep among wolves. A mob had gathered in May that year, organized by the local clergy, to tear down a Methodist meeting house. The mob targeted the house that Charles Wesley was staying at and began to throw stones at it. Wesley came out to address the crowd only to be hit square in the face by a rock. While he was tending to the gash in his head an army officer who was part of the mob pulled out his sword and charged headlong at Wesley with the intention of killing him. Seeing him approach Charles Wesley stood his ground firmly and looking the man directly in the eye as he barreled towards him said: “I fear God and the King”. Charles’s demeanor and words deflated the man to such an extent that he stopped in his tracks, sheathed his sword and slunk off shamefaced.
They were men of deep personal piety, strong in prayer and mighty in the word of God. John Wesley died in 1791 in his eighty-eighth year. His last words were “The best of all is, God with us”. Both he and his brother were used by God to bring a wave of spiritual revival through England that was not only much needed but also prepared the way for greater movements of revival that would follow.