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The Great Awakening of the Eighteenth Century

The Great Awakening of the Eighteenth Century

Jonathon Edwards of America, John Wesley, and George Whitefield were the three men responsible for the great spiritual awakening in the English speaking world in the 18th century. This evangelical movement emerged from the so called Enlightenment or what was also called the Age of Reason. The religious expression of the Enlightenment had been Deism, a belief that God made the world and then abandoned it to natural law. They placed their hope in human reason being able to create a wonderful future through science, reason, and technology. Deism also attempted to question the integrity of the Bible and the deity of Christ. From this environment, emerged perhaps three of the greatest evangelists, and the first preachers to succeed in large scale open-air evangelism—Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield.

In the early 1730s, John Wesley’s brother Charles formed a “Holy Club” at Oxford which John also joined. It was composed of young men dedicated to spiritual growth through spiritual disciplines. People at Oxford called them the “Methodists” after the method they employed in pursuing spiritual growth. George Whitefield also attended Oxford and joined their Holy Club. John Wesley and George Whitefield proved to be best friends at Oxford, and later were partners in the ministry. In 1735 both Wesleys accompanied James Oglethorpe to the American colony of Georgia where John expected to preach to the Indians and spread his missionary zeal. Wesley’s Georgia trip was a complete fiasco in which he had a romantic affair, and was disgraced. Wesley later wrote, “I went to America to convert Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?” One bright event on the trip was his experience with some Moravian preachers that convinced him he needed a new spiritual birth, but initially he responded, “How can faith be given in a moment in time. Must it not be worked for and pursued over a lifetime?” The answer was supplied in May, 1738 when he went to a Moravian meeting at Aldersgate Street to a reading of Luther’s commentary on Romans. At exactly a quarter to nine, the reader was describing the transformation which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, Wesley felt his own heart strangely warmed. At that moment he trusted Christ for salvation and knew he was saved and forgiven. Amazingly, his brother Charles Wesley had been converted three days before. Meanwhile Whitefield had a conversion experience in 1735 that would transform him into one of the greatest evangelists in history. All three men had been very active in religion, ordained ministers, and even missionaries in America, yet they were not saved until these experiences in England.

By chance, while walking from London to Oxford, John Wesley read Jonathan Edwards’ account of the successful evangelism efforts and mass conversions in America. It struck Wesley that this should be his life’s pursuit as well. His first opportunity came from an invitation from his old friend George Whitefield in 1739 to preach to the masses in an open field near Bristol. Whitefield had already preached to thousands of miners who never dared to enter a church. The hardened miners of Bristol believed in Christ in great numbers. Against his brother’s advice, John Wesley also followed Whitefield’s lead, and the Methodist revival had begun. After that great experience, Wesley went out to carry the Gospel to the poor wherever they would assemble to listen. He preached in jails, inns, on ships, and in any natural amphitheater he could find. In his diary, Wesley claimed to have averaged over 4500 miles a year for the next 50 years.

A Church Within the Church

Though Whitefield was the founder of this Methodist movement, he handed the leadership over to Wesley and encouraged him to increase the open air evangelism, and to appeal to the miners and common people who were not going to the established churches. John Wesley was an administrative expert who divided his flock into societies, and then into small groups he called classes of twelve or less. He appointed leaders of each class who would teach the others and hold them accountable. Each class would have weekly meetings for testimonies, prayer, and spiritual encouragement. Wesley even employed laymen to preach to the separate societies, but he avoided calling them ministers because he knew the Church of England would frown on non-ordained men doing the work of the church. By 1748, Wesley’s organization and followers were so large that they were not considered a part of the Church of England, but were called Methodists by the followers and by the Anglican Church. Nevertheless, Wesley always maintained they were acting from within the Anglican Church even though the doors of the church were closed to him. Wesley answered all charges that he was separate by saying, “I live and die a member of the Church of England.” In Wesley’s mind he was always working for the established church although his “maverick” style put him at odds with the church leaders, and much of his audience was considered riff raff by the powers that be. Therefore he really was operating a “church within the Church”. Wesley died in 1791 with about 79,000 followers in England who then separated from the Anglican Church and became the Methodist Church.

The End of a Great Friendship

John Wesley and George Whitefield began their close friendship at Oxford as members of the “Holy Club” that Charles Wesley had begun while both Wesleys were theology teachers. They began the ministry of revivalism, evangelism, and open air preaching together. They thought initially that they agreed on all things, but in 1739 Wesley preached a sermon attacking the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination as blasphemy. Whitefield was a great believer in predestination so he asked Wesley to stop preaching that sermon. Wesley refused and even published the sermon in 1741. From that point on Whitefield’s ministry was separated from Wesley’s. Wesley and his group were referred to as Arminian Methodists, and Whitefield and his followers were called Calvinistic Methodists. They were able to co-exist in a friendly way until 1770 when one of Wesley’s disciples began running articles in his magazine, “The Gospel Magazine”, which were very critical of Whitefield. In 1778 Wesley began his own magazine entitled, “The Arminian Magazine”. Historical records actually have copies of letters sent back and forth in 1740 from Whitefield and Wesley that record their private attempts to settle their differences. As is usual in these situations, Whitefield mistakenly thought that Wesley was “propagating the doctrine of universal redemption”, and Wesley accused him of preaching the doctrine of predestination that was blasphemy. Whitefield said that he never understood why he and his dear friend Wesley could have such different ways of thinking—“The great day (resurrection) will discover why the Lord permits dear Mr. Wesley and me to be of a different way of thinking.”

In studying the history of these events, I could not help but come to the conclusion that God “permitted” their differences in order to create two distinct teams of evangelists that would yield great fruit for the Lord. Wesley was the only prominent leader of the “Great Awakening” who embraced Arminian views, thus perhaps he was able to attract and lead a slightly different group than Whitefield and the others. Whitefield died in 1770, and Wesley spoke at his funeral of their “most generous and tender friendship”.

Distinctives of Wesley’s Theology

Wesley’s view of “original sin” was extremely Calvinistic. He embraced man’s total inability to find God on his own, total depravity of human nature, and inbred corruption. On free will, Wesley held that we are by nature free only to evil, yet every man has a measure of free will restored to him by God’s grace. Thus the atoning work of Christ restored some measure of free will to all. On justification, he said, “we abhor the doctrine of justification by works…our works have no part in meriting our salvation either in whole or in part.” He defined repentance as “a conviction of sin that caused you to obey God as far as you can, leave off evil, and doing good.” The difference here is that Wesley saw this happening before faith—you repented first and then through faith you were justified. It appears that Wesley was saying that God will give you the conviction, then you have to repent and clean up your life, and then God will save you. On the assurance of your salvation, Wesley seemed to be trying to fuse the two systems of Calvin and Arminius together. He affirmed the complete assurance of our salvation, but also taught that falling from faith could occur if we fall victim to temptation and turn away from the voice of God.

Wesley’s critics have claimed that his view of original sin and total depravity seem to contradict his teaching on free will, and especially the idea that repentance precedes faith. Wesley tried to overcome that apparent inconsistency by holding that the old nature is dissolved at the moment of grace, but that doesn’t save him. Once the old sin nature is dissolved he can then choose to work toward salvation, and thus there are two works of God’s grace—one to restore ability, and the second a mutual cooperation (between God and man). If this is confusing, know that Wesley was not known for his theology, he was known for his hard work as a tenacious evangelist whom God used mightily to bring thousands to Christ. Wesley’s ideas had nothing to do with his success, but his love for Christ and hard work in serving Him certainly did.

The story of the relationship between Whitefield and Wesley remind me of the conflict between Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15:36-40 over Mark. It says “there occurred such a sharp disagreement that they separated from one another”. Amazingly, God used their problem to create two evangelism teams instead of one, and at the end of Acts, Paul is reconciled to Mark and Barnabas. I have no doubt that Whitefield and Wesley are celebrating in Heaven with them now.

Picture of About the Author: Charlie Taylor
About the Author: Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor grew up in Dallas, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas Business School and went into the commercial real estate business for about twenty years before enrolling in and graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary with honors.

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