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Home > Home Articles > Features >  John Wesley in Bristol

 JOHN WESLEY IN BRISTOL by Gervais AngelWesley

John Wesley preached clearly and powerfully

George Whitfield began to preach in the open air to great crowds in Bristol, but he wanted to go to Georgia, to bless the poor with funds and set up an orphanage. John Wesley shadowed Whitfield for a Sunday at the end of March 1739. On the Monday Whitfield left and Wesley went to the brickyard in St Philip’s Marsh to do what he had never done before, preach in the open at the level of the illiterate and not wear his clerical clothes, since they had not yet arrived from London. His preaching was not emotional, but he had godly freedom of speech. He was alarmed at the results, ‘Some of them drop down as dead, having no strength or appearance of life in them. Some burst out in to strong cries and tears, some exceedingly quake and tremble’.1 Wesley never encouraged these signs to accompany his preaching, nor did he stop them. At other times the Bristolians listened ‘with awful silence and great attention.’ The godly bishop found it hard to accept, but he did not block John Wesley. The missionary-minded defender of a God who intervenes in the affairs of people, Bishop Joseph Butler asked to see him. On August 16 Wesley visited him for a discussion, and Butler said, ‘I once thought Mr Whitfield and you well-meaning men. But I can’t think so now…Sir, the pretending to extraordinary revelations and gifts of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing, a very horrid thing.’2

John Wesley agreed to preach anywhere

Jesus said the disciples would preach to the ends of the earth.
Ever since Wesley had preached in St Philip’s Marsh and then in the other places pioneered by Whitfield, he got increasingly used to preaching at any place including in London. As a Fellow of Lincoln College Oxford he had a licence to preach anywhere, with the permission of the local Vicar. But Wesley ignored this. His reasoning was in line with Acts 1, ‘God in Scripture commands me, according to my power to instruct the ignorant, reform the wicked, confirm the virtuous. Man forbids me to do this in another’s parish; that is, in effect, to do it at all; seeing that I now have no parish of my own, nor probably every shall. Whom shall I hear, God or man? Suffer me now to tell you my principles on the matter3. I look upon the world as my parish.’ In a later interview with the Bishop of Bristol he reaffirmed his position, ‘I must preach the Gospel wheresoever I am in the inhabitable world’. He had found his vocation, after the twists and turns of Oxford, Georgia, and the meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, where the Holy Spirit began to give him a clear faith. A few days earlier at Whitsun 1738 he had prayed with his sick brother Charles, who was filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit. But John, far from being joyful in the Holy Spirit, was utterly miserable, on the Monday and Tuesday praying for ‘a full reliance on the blood of Christ shed for me; a trust in him as my Christ, as my sole justification, sanctification and redemption’. At the Wednesday meeting (24 May), ‘I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ His sense of fulfillment was even greater when his ageing High Church CofE mother told him in September 1739, as she had received the communion cup from her son-in-law with the words ‘the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,’ the words struck through my heart, and I knew God for Christ’s sake had forgiven me all my sins.’

Love for people in Bristol

John Wesley loved people. Apart from preaching to those who would never go to church, he organized those who sought a life of deeper godliness into groups. Such societies existed before Whitfield and the Wesleys came to Bristol, and they welcomed teaching from these Methodists, as they were called. But the groups grew and John Wesley organized them into bands of married, and single sex singles groups. He built larger premises for them to meet, the New Room in the Horsefair.
Before the awakening he and others members of the Holy Club in Oxford cared for prisoners and the poor. In Bristol and the South of England generally in January 1740 there were several weeks of snow and hard frost. Day labourers could not work and so got no wages. Parishes were legally bound to provide relief but many of them did not do so. John Wesley took up a collection from the three Bristol congregations in one week, appointed helpers and organized soup kitchens to provide food for 100-150 each day while the cold weather lasted. While he was doing this he got an urgent message that a man who had professed conversion in the previous year and been appointed by Wesley as an assistant teacher in Kingswood School, turned highwayman and was condemned to death. He asked to see Wesley, who immediately downed tools to see the man who had betrayed his trust. The coach couldn’t cover the frozen hills, so he rode for five days to get to London. The man repented before God, and Wesley was not sure whether to be glad or cry when the man was reprieved and transported to the American colonies. And a final example of Holy Spirit-inspired love.
Whitfield and the Wesleys felt strongly about the nature of God and his work. But they developed a difference of emphasis on how much in Christian conversion and living is owing to God’s initiative and how much to man’s response. In 1741 they were estranged. But John Wesley wanted their relationship to transcend the dispute. He met Howell Harris, the Welsh Methodist who saw things Whitfield’s way, and they began to talk about doctrine. After a bit Wesley, according to Harris, ‘begged that we might exchange controversy for prayer. We did so, and then parted in much love, about two in the morning’.4 Wesley joined Harris and Daniel Rowland, a Welsh revivalist vicar, on tour in Wales and they defended him against Calvinists who attacked him. Whitfield’s future wife from Abergavenny rebuked another two of Wesley’s critics. Then, according to Wesley, ‘God blessed the healing words which he [Harris] spoke; so that we parted in much love, being all determined to let controversy alone, and to preach “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Whitfield and Wesley were reconciled in Bristol that November. A year later Whitfield acknowledged a letter from Wesley which said among other things, ‘Let the king live for ever and let controversy die’. Whitfield responded, ‘It has died with me long ago…God be praised for giving you such a mind…I subscribe myself, reverend and very dear sir, your most affectionate, though younger brother, in the gospel of our glorious Emmanuel’.

Here is some evidence of awakening. They give us pointers for prayer.

For the Holy Spirit, we ask God and go on asking him, like the widow knocking on the door of the judge.
For effective witness: one to one; in writing; in public speaking; anywhere.
For the Holy Spirit to loosen our tongues, to speak boldly and clearly.
For a love of people that makes others sit up

© Gervais Angel 2011

1 Pollock, 116.
2 Pollock, 129
3 Pollock,127.131, 94-5., 132.
4 Pollock 147-9