Many within the Methodist Church in Malaysia have struggled with one issue over the past few decades—Is Methodism passé? In other words, has it lost its spiritual vitality, and therefore its relevance as well? Some find the worship services dull and lacking in life, and the sermons dry and insipid. Others complain that the structures are too bureaucratic and rigid, with the church as a whole infected by the modern disease of ‘committeeistis.’ Still others are concerned that the church appears to lack evangelistic zeal and passion for holy living. Some think that the Holy Spirit no longer works within the Methodist Church and other traditional churches, but only in so called charismatic churches. Thus many concerned Methodists do suffer from some degree of loss of confidence in their own church, and some have left to join other churches.
It is unfortunately true that some of the concerns raised are genuine and valid to differing extents. However, they also imply a lack of understanding of what Methodism stands for, and consequently a failure to fully appreciate and/or appropriate its distinctive strengths. It is out of this concern that I would like to do a series titled, ‘What’s Right with Methodism?’
In this first article, I would like to address the issue of revival and spiritual vitality. Is this an important issue in Methodism? In asking this question, many forget that Methodism began with the quest for revival and spiritual vitality. England in early 18th century had lost much of the spiritual energy of the 17th century Puritan movement. Church life was in steep decline and political leaders were no help. Both King George I and his son were indifferent to spiritual things, and Robert Walpole, Prime Minister for 21 years, openly hostile to the gospel. Immorality was widespread among both highborn and the poor, with the latter living in deplorable social conditions as well. John Wesley summed the conditions of his times as follows: ‘What is the present characteristic of the English nation? It is ungodliness …Ungodliness is our universal, our constant, our peculiar character.’ And though deism, probably the earliest form of modern liberal theology, was successfully resisted, the church simply lacked the inner spiritual dynamic to turn the nation round.
This spiritual decline was not limited to England. It was the same in various parts of Europe, as well as in Scotland, Wales and throughout New England in North America. For example, when an earthquake hit Boston in 1727, everyone flocked to church. But a few weeks later, it was back to business as usual. Thus one Boston preacher reported sadly: ‘Alas, as though nothing but the most amazing thunders and lightnings, and the most terrible earthquakes could awaken us. We are at this time fallen into as dead a sleep as ever.’
John Wesley’s quest for spiritual reality began in earnest in his student days. Then beginning in 1725, a series of events, including the study of the writings of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas a Kempis, and William Law, further contributed to the shaping of his life and thought. He describes his pilgrimage as follows: ‘In the year 1725, being in the twenty-third year of my age, I met Bishop Taylor’s Rules and Exercises of Holy Living and Dying. In reading several parts of this book I was exceedingly affected, by that part in particular which related to “purity of intention.” Instantly I resolved to dedicate all my life to God, all my thoughts and words and actions, being thoroughly convinced there was no medium, but that every part of my life (not some only) must either be a sacrifice to God, or to myself; that is, in effect, to the devil.’
From that time onwards, Wesley began to strive after God with great zeal—a habit continued to his dying days. It involved watchfulness in his words and actions, constant self-examination against sin, the regular practice of prayer, bible study and public worship, and earnest striving for personal inward holiness. With fellow members of the Holy Club in Oxford, he committed himself to systematic Bible study, mutual discipline, regular personal devotions and communion, and good works such as prison visitation, helping the poor and sick, and running classes for poor children. The primary aim of the club can be summed be Wesley’s words to his father in 1734: ‘My one aim in life is to secure personal holiness, for without being holy myself I cannot promote real holiness in others.’
Yet, Wesley could not find peace in his heart—despite the fact he had been raised in a godly home, trained for and ordained into the ministry, and earnestly sought God! When he returned as a missionary to the natives Indians in America, with a deep sense of failure, he wrote: ‘I went to America, to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me?’
His intense and agonizing search for God of more than ten years finally climaxed at a prayer meeting on the evening of May 24, 1738 in London. He wrote: ‘In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.’ What followed is now history. It opened the way for Wesley to become part of the revival that had already begun through others.
Wesley and his friends were to receive together a deeper touch from the Lord a few months later, on the evening of 1st Jan 1739. Some 60-70 persons were gathered together in prayer that night, when the Spirit of God was poured upon them, as at Pentecost in Acts 2. This is best described in Wesley’s own words: ‘About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord.”’ This, together with Wesley’s Aldersgate experience seven months earlier, marks the beginning of the Methodist movement in history.
Wesley went on to lead the revival for another 52 years until his death in 1791. The revival was sustained for the next hundred years or so, both in England and in America. In England, Methodist membership grew to almost 5% of the adult population in the decade of 1840-50 and impacted the whole of church life in the country as well. Other churches, especially the Congregational and Baptist, benefited from the revival and grew in tandem. (See the accompanying graph.) In America, it grew even faster in absolute numbers than in England, and outstripped almost all other churches in the 19th century. It would be good if God in His goodness would do something similar in our midst once again.