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Centennial of Canadian Methodism
The Providential Rise of the Wesleyan Revival


By the Rev. Geoege Douglas, D.D., LL.D., Principal of the Wesleyan Theological College, Montreal.

THE history of the Church in its evolution through the ages is a perpetual attestation to the immensity of the divine resources, not only in ordaining and rendering all events subservient to its interests, but in bringing forward at the appointed time those types of mental and moral manhood, as instrumental agencies, which its ever-advancing necessities may require. How does history authenticate the fact that God not only appoints men gifted with plenary inspiration, but men uninspired, to accomplish His purpose in the regeneration of the world % When in the post-apostolic period it became necessary to formulate and vindicate the fundamental truths of Christianity against the Gnostic and Arian heresies, Athanasius and Cyril appear, whose searching and subtle intellects confronted the wondrous problems of Deity, and gave those definitions of the person of Christ and the Trinity which have commanded the homage of the universal Church.

Early in the history of Christian life and worship, the demand arose for the enthusiasm of song. Gifted with devout and poetic skill, John of Damascus, and in later times Bernard, penned their hymns, while Gregory, and Ambrose of Milan, in their chants and cantatas voiced these noble hymns in all the melodies of music.

Long before a sacred literature was born, we find that genius consecrated its powers, and became an educating force by which the multitudes were familiarized with religious thought. In the cartoons and statuary of Raphael and Angelo, incarnated in fresco and stone, there was an ever-open Gospel in which were recorded, in tinted and glowing colors, the leading events of Christianity. It was in the mediaeval times, when the inner life of the Church had gone down to zero, that the schools of the Mystics were originated, and the writings of Thomas a Kempis, Molinos, and Fenelon, attest how deep was the spiritual life which God had commissioned them to awaken. At length papacy, insolent as in the times of Hildebrand, avenging in its cruelty and abject in its corruption, became a burden intolerable to the nations, when Luther, Zvvingli, and Melanchthon arose, renounced the yoke of Rome, and led the way in the Reformation of the fifteenth century. With the advent of the Wyclif Bible in England, Wyclif, compassionating those wasted and trodden down by feudal despotism, sent forth one hundred men, loyal to the truth, to preach a Gospel of uplifting to the poor. Branded by the stigma of Lollards, and discounted by the grandees of the times, they yet lived on and blossomed into the Puritanism of another age. Never, in the history of the Church, did a great leader appear more essential than in the period immediately preceding the great Methodist revival.

The early part of the eighteenth century is one of the darkest pages in the religious history of England. The Restoration witnessed ^ complete reaction from the stringencies which marked society under the puritanic rule of Cromwell. It gave rise to a libertine literature, which found its expression in the nameless degradation of its dramatists, and the social corruption which abounded in the higher life of the nation. The infidelity of Lord Herbert had alienated the aristocracy from the Church, while that of Tyndal and Wolston had taken hold of the popular mind so that the press abounded with the most gross and ribald attacks on all that was noble and virtuous in man. The clergy of the Establishment were intolerant in the extreme, and with but few exceptions made no pretensions to piety, and in some instances not even to morality itself. The Non-conformist successors of Doddridge had inclined toward the principles of Sooinianism, while the poorer classes were steeped in ignorance, and had descended to a depravity well-nigh beyond conception. The impartial historian frankly admits that all language fails to adequately picture the deterioration which rested alike on all classes, from titled nobles to barbarous toilers in the grim and dismal mines of the North.

In the obscure rectory of Epworth, amid the marshy fens (j>f Lincolnshire, a child was born to one of the noblest mothers that God ever gave to counsel and inspire a son ; a son who, in the allotment of heaven, was to become the modern apostle to revive the Church and regenerate society; a soil whose line was destined to go out into all the earth, and h^s words unto the ends of the world. The name of John Wesley will gather strength with the years; and already he stands as one of the most prominent and remarkable agents whom Providenee has ever brought forward for the accomplishment of a great work. Feeble in its beginning? the ages only will tell the grandeur of its consummation.

In briefly sketching the elements which conspire to render Wesley foremost of all revivalists whom the Church has ever witnessed, we propose to notice the System of Truth which he accepted, the Character of his Spiritual Life, the Style of his Preaching, and his Power of Organization as seen in the means which he employed to give permanence to his work.

As a first and fundamental point, we notice that system of theological truth which Wesley formulated and has given as a heritage to the Church. It has seldom fallen to the lot of man to be endowed with a mind so full, so many-sided, as that with which he Avas intrusted. While it would be untrue to claim for him the inductive power of Bacon ; or to assert that he could walk the inner sanctuary of the soul with the stately tread of Shakspeare, who flashed the torch-light of his genius into the remotest corners of the heart; or that he could wield the philosophic argument of Butler; yet the more profoundly we study his natural endowments the more we are impressed with their remarkable character. He was gifted with a breadth of understanding and a logical acumen which enabled him to grasp any subject which came within die limits of human thought. In him there was reverence for authority, and yet a mental daring which led him into :iiew fields of investigation; an impartiality which refused to be biased, but calmly weighed the claims of rival systems. He had a spiritual insight which truly belongs to higher souls, by which they discern the affinities and relations of things spiritual. In addition to these natural endowments, jhe enjoyed that wide scholarship and rare culture which the jthen first university in the world could supply. Thus burnished, he early in his career laid the foundations of that theological system which, it is not too much to say, is at once the most comprehensive, scriptural, and best adapted for evangelistic work which the schools have ever given to the Church ; a system which is ever-widening in its influence, modifying other types of religious thought, and which gives promise of becoming the theology of the Church of the future. /Thus gifted by nature and cultured by art, he seems to have contemplated every system which had been propounded to the Church. Eliminating what was false, he retained what was scriptural, and combined them with matchless skill. How manifestly does this appear ! He accepted the Augustinian doctrine of sin, but rejected its theory of decrees. He accepted the Pelagian doctrine of the will, but repudiated that teaching which denied the depravity of man and the necessity of spiritual aid. He accepted the spectacular theory of Abelard, and the substitutional theory of Anselm, relative to the work of Christ, but utterly rejected the rationalism of the one, and the commercial theory of the atonement of the other. He accepted the perfectionist theory and deep spirituality taught by Pascal and the Port Royalists, but rejected their quietist teachings, which destroy all the benevolent activities of Christian life. He accepted the doctrine of universal redemption as taught by the early Arminians, but was careful to denounce the semi-Pelagian laxity which marked the teachings of the later schools of Remonstrants. He joined with the several Socinian schools in exalting the benevolence and mercy of God, but never faltered in his declaration of the perpetuity of punishment. Magnifying the efficiency of divine grace with the most earnest of Calvinists, he at the same time asserted that salvation was dependent on the volitions of a will that was radically free.

It is impossible to overestimate the influence of the theology of Wesley. If we accept the terms employed in modern theological science, its anthropology confronted and modified to an extent that has been underestimated, the sensuous philosophy of Locke, which, running its downward course, degenerated into the materialism of France, and all the degradation of the positive philosophy of Comte. By asserting the liberty of the moral agent, it vindicated the spiritual nature and essential royalty of man. Its soteriology modified and softened that ultra-Calvinism which overlooked the necessity of personal holiness by a misconception of the nature of Christ’s atoning work and the office and work of the Spirit ; while its eschatology rejects the wild and dreamy vagaries of millenarianism, and that monstrous assumption that untainted innocency and desperado villainy will be congregated forever in that state where retribution is unknown. How grandly comprehensive, how profoundly scriptural, and how intensely practical is this system of theology! It is pre-eminently the theology of the evangelist 1 who seeks to revive and extend spiritual religion.

It contemplates man as utterly lost, and with the knife of the moral anatomist reveals the deep and festering depravity of the human heart. Generous as God’s own sunlight, it looks every man in the face and says, “Christ died for you.” Vindicating the reality of supernatural communication to the spirit of man, it publishes the glad evangel that the invited Spirit will throne himself as a witness of sonship and a comforter divine in every willing heart. It holds out the possibilities of a victory over the apostate nature by asserting a sanctification which is entire, and a perfection in love which is not ultimate and final, but progressive in its development forever. Such

was the system of religious truth with which Wesley started on his mighty career of evangelistic labour. The world has never seen a formula which has more practically unfolded the Spirit of the Gospel, and given it an adaptation to the average intelligence of man. Though scholastic in its origin, yet as he and his coadjutors rang it out over the land, it became a power imperial to sway human hearts and sweep them into the kingdom of God. And this theology, because of its intense loyalty to the Scriptures, is gathering strength with the years. It is moulding the method of all Churches, and is the right arm of power to every man who aspires to lift up and save the race. Its character is written on every page of the history of the mightiest revival which the Church has ever known.

From the theology of Wesley we come to a consideration of its influence over his own mind as seen in his experimental life. We have already referred to the rare mental endowments with which God had intrusted him. Not inferior were those qualities which conspired to build up that Christian manhood which made him pre-eminent as a minister of God.

Foremost among those qualities was a will-power which would have made him eminent in any sphere. Meteors flash and darken again, but planets burn steadily in their orbits. Wesley swung the round of his earthly orbit with unfaltering purpose and ever-increasing brilliance. There is an heroic grandeur in that constancy which carried him directly forward in the accomplishment of his great life-work. With this power of will there was a native integrity and sympathy with the spiritual which is constantly evident throughout his career. Several agencies conspired to fit him for his great work. The first was a sympathy with mediaeval asceticism. The lives of Lopez, Lawrence, and Francois Xavier had early arrested his attention. Accordingly, we find that the history of the Oxford Methodists very clearly brings out the ascetic mould in which the piety [ of Wesley was cast. The whole of their life assumed the form of monastic order. Their time was divided by seasons of fasting and solitude. Restrictions were placed upon their social intercourse, habits of thought, and daily action. This period was a sort of moral gymnasium in which his spirit was trained and toned, in which his conscience was educated, and in which his duty became the pole-star of his life. Like another Ignatius Loyola, though in the spirit of a servant rather than of a son, he was ready to cross seas and continents at what he believed to be the call of duty. Wesley never forgot the moral discipline and advantage of this period of his life. Indeed, he regretfully declares that an observance of these rules would have been helpful throughout his entire career. It may be safely doubted whether any man ever accomplished much for God who was not subjected to a like discipline. The lives of Luther, Spener and Knox give marked indications of that selfabnegation which gave fibre and power to their manhood, and, under God, made them mighty for the accomplishment of His purposes.

But while the ascetic principles which shaped his early religious life induced a habit of introspection and developed a certain thoroughness and depth in his inner life, it must not be overlooked that Wesley stands forever a debtor to that Moravian type of piety which so largely influenced the entire of his subsequent career.

The distinguishing attributes of Moravian piety were its vivid realization of spiritual truth, its demand for an inner consciousness of the divine favour wrought out by the Spirit of God, its. joyous aggressiveness, its unquestioning faith, and its loyalty to the Divine Word. There are, doubtless, some features of Moravian teaching, as propounded by Zinzendorf, that must be questioned; but the tone of piety is sweet and beautiful in the extreme. Its impelling power is seen in the fact that a comparatively feeble Church has lifted its banner in mission stations over all the earth to an extent unequalled by any Church of similar strength. No sooner had Wesley come under the experimental teachings of Moravians like Bohler than he beheld the ways of God more perfectly, and from the night when he felt his heart strangely warmed while reading on the atonement in the Epistle to the Romans, a new power possessed him. Fired by the enthusiasm of divine love, he henceforth more fully gave his entire being to evangelistic labours. But the full power of Wesley’s spiritual life stands inseparably connected with his acceptance of the doctrine of Christian Perfection. In his “Plain Account” of this doctrine we find that from the very beginning of his spiritual life his mind had been divinely drawn in this direction. Thomas a Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ” and Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living” first kindled aspirations for this grace.

Evidence of his early soul-yearnings is found in the fact that, when at Savannah, he penned the lines :—

“Is there a thing beneath the sun,
That strives with Thee my heart to share?
Ah, tear it thence, and reign alone,
The Lord of every motion there.”

And on his return voyage he wrote :—

“O grant that nothing in my soul
May dwell, but Thy pure love alone!
O may Thy love possess me whole,
My joy, my treasure, and my crown:
Strange flames far from my heart remove;
My every act, word, thought be love!”

If there be one master-passion which above all others absorbed the soul of Wesley, it was his intense admiration of the exquisite beauty of holiness which permeates and robes the character with the radiance of heaven. His ever-abiding desire was, that it should crown his own life and constitute the beatitude of others. As the mariner’s needle points to the pole, so his heart turned to those who glorified this truth.

The estimate which he set upon this experience of entire sanctification is shown in his repeated declarations that it constitutes the great power of the Church, and that wherever it was preached clearly and definitely, as a present experience, the work of God revived. Wherever Christians rose to its attainment, they became invested with a new power, which made them potential agents in the work of God ; and he does not hesitate to declare, that if this truth should become obsolete in the Methodist Church, its glory, ^ ; as a revival Church, would forever pass away. Holiness unto the Lord was, he declared, the great depositum intrusted to Methodism, distinguishing it from every other section of the Church of Christ.

In the three stages which’ mark the spiritual life of Wesley there is a remarkable preparation for his great work as the revivalist of the eighteenth century. The ascetic period gave him the mastery of the human heart, and armed him with power to search the conscience. The attainment of the Moravian type of piety led him out in the line of immediate conversion and spiritual attestation to the heart, while the acceptance of Christian perfection enabled him to guide the Church into that consecration which would make its members collaborators in the work of spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.

But from his inner life we may pass on to notice that style of preaching which Wesley employed in accomplishing his great work. The history of the pulpit is in a sense the history of the Church, reflecting, as it does, the spirit of the age. Thus, in the apostolic times we have the age of direct statement, as found in Justin Martyr; the age of allegory, which found its exponent in Origen; the age of superstition, as expressed in the Montanists; the age of ecclesiasticism, in Gregory the Great; the age of doctrine, in the times of the Reformation ; the age of polemics, in the sixteenth century; and the age of exposition, which found its expression in the great productions of Owen and Howe. It was reserved for Wesley to inaugurate a new method of preaching, which, divested of scholastic forms, should at once command the homage of intellect and the heart of untutored simplicity.

The eighteenth century has given us only two names illustrious for pulpit eloquence : Wesley and Whitefield. If one was the Demosthenes of the age, the other was the Seneca. The one was bold, impassioned, full of declamatory power and emotional force ; the other was calm, cultured, searching, clear, and powerful in appeal. While the grandeur of Whitefield’s pulpit eloquence swayed for the time, the convincing and heart-searching appeals of Wesley left a more permanent impression on the age. Stars were they both of the first magnitude; binary stars, that revolve around each other and shed the refulgence of their light on the darkness of their times ; but while the lustre of the one is dimming with the years, that of the other is ever increasing in the growing magnitude and permanence of that work which he began. It is conceded by the historians of Wesley, that, while his printed sermons indicate the theology of his preaching, they furnish but an imperfect conception of that popular power which he wielded. Sir Walter Scott heard him in his early life, and bears testimony to his great versatility, employing argument and anecdote, the simplicity of conversational address, and yet an all-pervading and incisive earnestness which was potent to arrest all who heard it. The preaching of Wesley had always for its object the accomplishment of definite results. Recognizing man as exposed to an eternal penalty on account of sin, and yet unconscious of his peril, he proclaimed the law in all its conscience-searching significance, and uncovered that dark immortality to which unsaved men were hastening, with a vividness and power that awoke the guilty sinner, and prompted him to flee from the wrath to come.

It is a complaint throughout the Churches that the spirit of deep conviction and thorough repentance is seldom witnessed as in the past. May this not arise from the want of that tremendous and searching appeal in the modern pulpit which marked the ministry of Wesley and his coadjutors % To the truly awakened man he brought the fulness of the Gospel, offered an immediate pardon, and insisted upon the attainment of a witnessing Spirit, as authenticating the reality of the gift conferred. With sharpness of definition he kept ever reiterating the privilege of son-ship, and never ceased to urge on those who had received the marks of sonship the necessity of perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord.

The preaching of Wesley presents a marked contrast to that class who decry all dogmatic teaching, and would emasculate the Gospel of those great distinctive truths which constitute the bones and sinews and fibres of our Christianity. What gave strength to his teaching was the perpetual presentation of doctrine in its practical relation to the experimental life of man. It was thus an educating force, and, being surcharged with that divine influence which flowed out from his personal consecration and union with God, it became mightily transforming, making the moral wilderness to rejoice and blossom as a rose.

Nothing more fully reveals the grand possibilities which inhere in man than the magnitude of those forces which belong to one who is called, commissioned, and anointed to proclaim the Gospel. We admire the power and skill of the artist who evokes from the instrument of music its many voices, weaving them into harmonies and planting them in the soul so that they live in the memory along the years; but what is this to the achievement of the preacher who wakes the silent souls of thousands into melodies divine and sends them singing through the great forever, waking in turn music in other hearts as they go to the mountains of myrrh and frankincense, where the day breaks and the shadows flee away ! Such was the power of Wesley. From his lips came words that moved the spirits of multitudes toward God, and from that centre there has gone out a power which is ever accumulating with the march of time, working out the regeneration of mighty militant hosts on earth and lifting uncounted millions to the skies.

With a theology such as we have described, wielded by an agent so consecrated, and in a manner so adapted to produce immediate results, we cannot wonder that over all the land the flame of revival was kindled to an extent such as the Church had never witnessed. The success which crowned the ministry of Wesley brought into play what must be regarded as one of the crowning attributes of his character—his power of organization. Nothing so distinguishes the essential greatness of a man, and gives to him such historic pre-eminence, as the power to organize. The names that stand peerless in government, in war, and in the annals of the Church, were, perhaps, more distinguished in this particular than in any other. This talent for government Wesley possessed in an extraordinary degree. He had, says Macaulay, the genius of a Richelieu in directing and controlling men. The first outcome of this power was seen in his ability to read the character of men, and select his agents to co-operate with him in his work. It was no ordinary soul that could choose his agents from every class, fling over them the spell of his inspiration, and hold them in line with a precision that well-nigh approached the rigidity of military discipline. Yet this was the sublime spectacle which was witnessed in the last century. Men throughout the isles and over the seas responded to his call, and loyally toiled at his bidding for the evangelization of the world.

The genius of Wesley for organization was further seen in the adjustment to the nature of man of that economy which he has given to the Church. The Protestant Church had hitherto resolved itself into two historic forms, the elaborate ritualism of Episcopacy, and the rigid baldness of Presbyterianism ; in the one, the worship assumed a sensuous form, appealing to the senses; in the other, there was a certain cold and unattractive formalism. The quick intelligence of Wesley at once grasped the situation; he recognized the power of social influence, and, as a first step, established those class-meetings and modern agapce, or love-feasts, which have developed the spirit of testimony, and generated a warmth of Christian affection that largely constitutes the distinguishing bond of Methodism.

With this provision for Christian fellowship he organized a system of accurate supervision, by the appointment of an order of sub-pastors, or leaders, whose mission it should be to watch over the individuals intrusted to their care to an extent beyond the power of the ordained pastorate. The wisdom of this appointment all must acknowledge who are familiar with the tendencies of human nature to recede from that position into which they have been brought in times of religious revival, and to renounce their allegiance to God. An eminent prelate has well said, that nothing in Methodism more evinces the far-seeing sagacity of Wesley i than his expedient to supply to his followers at once the opportunities for fellowship with the minutest oversight of individual interests.

It may well be doubted whether the social economy of Methodism could have been sustained without those wondrous spiritual songs which form the liturgy of the Methodist Church. The hymns of the Wesleys are undeniably the finest exponents of every phase of inner life that uninspired genius has ever given to enrich the psalmody of the Church. They strike every note in the possible of human experience, from despairing penitence up to ecstatic assurance, from tremulous doubt to an exultant faith that smiles serenely amid the wreck of earthly hopes, and sings its jubilate in anticipation of the coming inheritance. The hymns of the Wesleys have shaped the experimental life of the Church, they have given it an impress of joy, and for the last century have made it the singing Church of Christendom, to witness before the world that Christianity is not to walk the ages robed in mourning, but with the light of heaven sparkling in her eye. Clad in garments of praise, with thanksgiving and the voice of melody, she is to testify that “ happy is that people that is in such a case; yea, happy is that people whose God is the Lord.”

No statement of Wesley’s power to organize would be complete without marking the comprehensiveness of his aims, which gave him an elevation that seemed to overlook the ages, and anticipate the demands of an advancing civilization. Long before Methodism had built a school or college, Wesley had provided a series of elementary books to aid his untutored converts in the attainment of an adequate education. Recognizing the forces that slumber in cheap literature, he let loose these forces in tracts, pamphlets and magazines, ere yet man had dreamed of organizing tract societies. He thundered with strong invective against the liquor traffic a hundred years prior to the birth of prohibition, and sought to educate his followers to just conceptions of the political issues of their times. Whatever would give strength, endurance, and beauty to the Church ; whatever would fit its members in the highest and noblest sense to make the best of both worlds, this great master-builder pressed into service and consecrated to God. Every type of Methodism over all the earth is at the present instinct with the organizing genius of Wesley. This has given to it permanence and power, and must project its influence along the line of its entire history.

Manifold are the lessons which the history of John Wesley as a revivalist suggests. Let none suppose that the Highest culture unfits for the revival work of the Church, f The finest scholarship may be associated with the most y enthusiastic zeal for the salvation of men.

Let none suppose that ministerial power must decline when the freshness and buoyancy of early manhood depart. With advancing years the influence and usefulness of Wesley’s ministry increased, and the splendour of its eventide far surpassed the glory of its dawn.

Whoever aspires to fill the horizon of this life with highest benediction to his race, and gather glory to himself that shall be enduring as the Eternal, let him emulate the spirit of Wesley and the grandeur of his consecration.

Sun of the morning, that openest the gates of the day, and comes blushing o’er the land and the sea, why marchest thou to thy throne in the heavens, filling the firmament with splendour % Why, but to symbolize the coming glory of the spiritually wise. “ They that be wise shall shine as the firmament.”

Star of the midnight hour, that has shone on patriarch and prophet, waking the wonder and admiration of ages and generations, why thy ceaseless burning? Why, but to show the abiding brilliance of the soul-winner. “They that turn many to righteousness shall shine as the stars for ever and ever.” .

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