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In the late 18th century many European countries were engaged in violent revolution. England was not one of them. Some historians credit a religious movement in that country with creating a climate that prevented such upheaval.

The Methodist Movement, spearheaded by John Wesley and his brother Charles, had its origins in the academic environment of Oxford. They were joined by a small group of other students in rigid religious rituals. Because of their methodical approach in their devotional and charitable activities they began to be called the “Methodists,” a derisive term.

This small group of people became known as the Holy Club. They rigorously practiced the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, fasting, and accountability but their religious fervor was not limited to such acts of piety. They regularly visited the prisons and hospitals. They established schools for poor children, offered basic medical care for those who could not afford it, provided housing for poor and elderly widows and their children, and much more.

The long term effect of this movement was due largely to the well-disciplined organizer, John Wesley. To what did he owe his strong faith, persistence, and tolerance?

Much is known about the impact of John’s mother, Susanna Wesley. She has been called the Mother of Methodism. “Her example of faith and religious reverence she set for her children inspired them to become powerful spiritual leaders and to launch the Methodist Movement.” Her constant devotion and strict discipline to the education and spiritual formation of her children certainly impacted John, the 15th of her 19 children.

Adam Hamilton* says, “If John learned about his faith from his mother, he learned how to deal with disagreements from his father and grandfathers.” His grandparents on both sides of his family were dissenters from the established Anglican Church but his parents were committed Anglicans. John “adopted a posture that is often called the via media- a middle way- that found truth on both sides of the theological divide.”

In one sermon that is among John Wesley’s most famous he said, “Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart? Though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.”

Hamilton suggests that this spirit of Wesley leads us to “give them the benefit of the doubt. We assume the best in others, not the worst. We speak well of others, not poorly. We treat them as we hope to be treated. We listen more and talk less. We walk in other people’s shoes and try to understand what they believe and why. This does not mean we give up our convictions, but it does mean we test them.” The focus is intended learn what we have in common and to build bridges not walls.

It was this humble, listening, catholic spirit supported by a strong resolve to follow Christ wherever He would lead that transformed the religious practices and daily routines of people across England in the late 18th century. This helped to create a climate where social changes could be accomplished without widespread violence. One does not have to be a Methodist to see the value and to follow the precepts of Wesley but in doing so we just might make a better world.

Jamie Jenkins

*Revival: Faith As Wesley Lived It, Adam Hamilton, Abingdon Press 2014

 

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Sam and Susan are folks you might never have known if it was not for two of their children. They lived in a small town and although they both were well educated neither of them were in high profile positions of leadership.

Sam’s career path was certainly not one that many would count successful. He spent over 40 years in a rather non-descript place. Many of the folks he worked with and for did not like him. Some of them even burned his house down- not once but twice. One of his associates had him thrown into jail because he could not immediately pay a debt. This was one of two times he spent in jail due to his poor financial status. Lack of money was a perpetual problem.

It could be easily argued that Susan was more gifted than her husband but there was no attempt to upstage or overshadow him. She gave birth to nineteen children but nine of them died as infants. Her primary role was to focus her attention on her children. She was the primary source of her children’s education and ultimately the prominent force in shaping their lives.

Sam was also a poet but never achieved any real fame or success as a writer. One account suggests that Sam “spent his whole life and all of the family’s finances” on one literary work that “was not remembered and had little impact on his family other than as a hardship.” In contrast, Susan’s writings were foundational to her children’s education.

Susan devoted several hours every day to her children’s education. She was a commanding presence and a profound influence in their lives. Sam failed to provide financial security for his family but his life was a demonstration of perseverance- holding on when suffering, tragedy and opposition came.

In different ways Sam and Susan profoundly impacted their children. Their influence can be seen especially in two of their boys, John and Charles, the founders of the Methodist Movement that changed the course of history in 18th century England and is a continuing spiritual force in the world today.

Stained glass windows depicting John and Charles Wesley.

Because of the impact of the Wesley brothers, the world knows Samuel and Susanna Wesley. In his book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It, Adam Hamilton says that the boys learned a lesson from their father that would be essential to their future work by his example that “when suffering, tragedy, and opposition come, don’t turn away; turn to God. And don’t give up.” As for their mother, Hamilton says: “Susanna Wesley changed the world by shaping the heart and faith of her children and by her wise counsel and persistent prayers and encouragement.”

I suspect that Samuel and Susanna had no idea of the impact they were having on their children. There was no way they could have seen the effect of their teaching and example on their lives. They were just doing what good parents are supposed to do- live before their kids a life of faith and integrity and leave the results to God. The role of parents has never been easy but has always been important- and never more so than today.

Jamie Jenkins