John Calvin in Geneva had seriously attempted to establish a church-controlled society in the municipality of Geneva. In the British Isles, with special emphasis upon England, Oliver Cromwell attempted so to organise a society that people would be restrained from evil and practically compelled to lead sober and godly lives. Naturally such attempts proved to be failures. It is interesting that the world at the present time is witnessing like attempts to control large national groups with a totalitarian programme. When history repeats itself these will likewise fail. The church in Wesley’s day was mistaken in its thought that an organized religious expression would be adequate. The pages of history record through centuries the succession of failures to make such programmes a success. Across in France the common people revolted against the unfair social and political order which ground them and their children into object poverty. They were infuriated when a queen foolishly suggested, in response to their cry for bread, that they be given cake. No permanent society can be established with such breaches between groups of people. One great historian has given in judgement that the evangelical movement released in England by Wesley and his associates saved England from a bloody revolution like that which devastated France. In this period the people in the British Isles, to a remarkable degree, responded to a spiritual emphasis and one finds that the roots of most of the movements for the alleviation of poverty and distress go back to this period in the latter years of the 18th century. We are especially happy as a group of people, most of whom are called Methodists, to commemorate this 200th anniversary of the conversion of this good man, but we must not forget such comments as have been made by J.R. Green, the English historian who said “The Methodists were the least result of the Methodist revival”.
One’s mind naturally turns to a well known conversation when Nicodemus, a doctor or the law, came to talk to Jesus of Nazareth about his emphasis upon the life of the spirit. His question was: How can a man be born again i.e. be born from above, spiritually. Jesus answered “The wind bloweth where it listed, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, nor whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the spirit”. Two of His followers, after his resurrection, conversed with him not knowing who he was and after-ward when they recognized him said to another “Did not our heart glow within us while he talked to us by the way?”. It is this glow of the heart, this transformation of the human soul, this comprehension on the part of a man that his heritage is that of a son of God, his assurance, that becomes a part of his being, that life here can be the fore-runner of a life that is to come. This is the miracle through the ages that has touched life after life as seen from generation to generation and from century to century until it was especially apprehended by the Movarians in Germany and passed on by them to John Wesley and produced in him the miracle of a changed life.
John Wesley did not at first understand the channels through which his influence would flow. Figures can be merely prosaic representations of uninteresting facts. The number of rubber trees in a garden and their average yield per month can be recorded in figures but statistics tell only a small part of the record of a cultural or spiritual influence. Denied access to the regular churches, Wesley whose mind was methodical and whose methods were so methodical that the wags christened his followers as “Methodists”, a name from which the sting of jeers has been removed, organised the first groups into societies who met for study and mutual helpfulness in the search for spiritual values.
It is of value to us to note what statistics are given at the present time concerning the Methodist churches throughout the world. I take these from the latest the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ministers 59,824; Lay preachers 93,081; Church membership and probationers 11,869,388; Sunday scholars 10,086,907; Churches etc. 105,596. December 24, 1794 the Methodist Episcopal Church was organised in the U.S.A. under the leadership of Thomas Coke, D.C.L. (Oxford) and Francis Asbury both appointed by Wesley to be superintendents of the work in America. The church thus established began its ecclesiastical career with 18,000 members, 104 travelling preachers, about the same number of local preachers, and more than 200 licensed exhorters. There were 60 chapels and 800 regular preaching places. Within five years the number of preachers swelled to 227, and the members to 45,949 (white) and 11,692 (coloured).”
You will note on page 4 of your programme a quotation from Bishop Boaz of the Methodist Episcopal Church South in which he estimates the number of adherents, or those who naturally turn to the Methodist churches for their religious expression at some 40 millions. These are scattered round the world in some 50 countries and major colonies and represent the direct outgrowth of the Methodist movement in England and the British Isles and later that which, following the organization of a separate government, developed in the U.S.A. The world-wide Methodist constituency represents the out-growth of the missionary effort of the American church co-operating with their brethren in Great Britain. It is interesting to note how close and friendly has been the fraternal relationship of these groups. An Ecumenical Conference held approximately each decade, brings together for mutual study and fraternal relationship representative Methodists from the entire world.
Five years ago the three major Methodist groups in Great Britain united to form one organic church known as the Methodist Church. It is interesting that three Methodist Churches in America are following that good example. One small group now numbering about 300 thousand members withdrew 100 years ago from the main body over difference of organization and method of work. In 1844 the Methodist Church in America was split in two on the question of slavery, a great moral issue on which it was more honourable to separate than to remain together. For years there have been friendly approaches. We have long been using a common hymnal. It is interesting now for us to record that three weeks ago the last of the three groups voted in the affirmative on Unification. The whole vote has been from 85% to 94% for union which will be completed upon the assembling of a Uniting Conference in May of 1939. This does not tell the story. It shows a willingness to unite for the sake of greater effectiveness as messengers of the Christian faith. Through the years no group has been more ready to co-operate with other groups than have the rank and file of this church, who have followed the spirit of the leader, who, when asked what was required to become one of his associates replied: “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand”.
There has been through these two centuries a fairly successful attempt to maintain a constructive evangelical note in the interpretation of the Christian faith, but along with this there has continued the spirit of John Wesley in allowing for wide liberty of individual development and religious expression. It has been the spirit and not the letter of the law that has been the quest.
As I tried to say in the opening sentences, this 200th anniversary service throughout the Methodist Churches of the world in commemoration of the conversion of John Wesley which enabled him to shift the centre of gravity from himself to God, is not primarily a recognition of the man but an attempt so to understand what happened to the man John Wesley that the same transforming power can be apprehended by others in this day. I am sure that if John Wesley were to step into our midst to-night he would remind us of the confusion and the floundering throughout the world of the present day that is not a little akin to that which prevailed in western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. We have on every hand short-sighted and selfish attempts to lift the level of life in various nations by an unwise emphasis upon nationalism. Someone has wisely observed that since the world war all the movements of mankind have been in reverse. I recently listened to a professional economist who, with much enthusiasm, explained a proposed law which he had written which is expected to revise the land laws of a country and to bring in the rights of the common man. I could not fail to sense the fact that this man expected to do this solely as an economic programme stamped with the approval of a national assembly. Would that he would go back and read the pages of history and learn that in every age unscrupulous men have found ways to defeat well intentioned laws and to enslave those who were less fortunate than themselves. It is just this point to which I would call your attention, all who are within the sound of my voice in this hall or listening in on the air. Never before have we more solely needed a religion of dynamic spiritual power than we need to-day. I therefore challenge you to a study of the life of this remarkable man John Wesley, who is one of the outstanding contributions England has made to the world.
In closing I invite your attention to the words of Richard Watson Gilder, a poet whose pen was certainly inspired. This is his estimate of John Wesley.
“In these clear, piercing eyes behold
The very soul that ever England flamed!
Deep, pure, intense; consuming shame and ill;
Convicting men of sin; making faith live!
And—this the mightiest miracle of all—
Creating God again in human hearts.”
By Bishop Edwin F. Lee
The Malaysia Message
Vol. 48 No. 6