Why are so many people fascinated by a preacher, born more than 300 years ago in a little town 150 miles north of London? For long stretches of American history, John Wesley was all but forgotten. Adam Hamilton, the most famous United Methodist pastor in the U.S. these days, thinks Wesley’s rising popularity stems from the culture into which he was born in 1703.
At that time, the English were exhausted by a tragic and bloody history of religious conflict. The skeptical winds of the Enlightenment had been blowing across Europe, which meant that Wesley faced an era in which many bright people were walking away from the church. Much like today, the mid 1700s was “a perfect seedbed for the revival in which Wesley would play so prominent a part,” Hamilton writes in his new book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It.
Wesley’s life parallels many religious trends today:
- John and his brother Charles understood that popular music was a key to church growth and, together, they unleashed on the world one of the largest bodies of then-contemporary church music.
- John was a ceaseless pamphleteer and independent publisher who hauled a printing press into his church—a master of his era’s social media.
- John wasn’t afraid of taking a stand on red-hot issues—condemning slavery long before the rise of the American abolitionist movement and supporting a daring new movement that encouraged compassionate care for the animals around us.
- Most importantly, the Wesleys proclaimed that their brand of Christianity was a faith for head and heart. Emotion and intellect both were welcomed—faith and skeptical questions as well.
How do we know Wesley is trending? His name keeps popping up. Widely read inspirational writers like Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have been talking about Wesley more in recent years. Google’s N-gram Viewer, which searches phrases in 5 million books published since 1800, provides more evidence: Books about John Wesley peaked in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Then, Wesley buzz rose again for a few years just after World War II. Most recently, Wesley has been trending upwards since 2004.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON
ON JOHN WESLEY’S ‘REVIVAL’
Why do you think he’s so popular today?
ADAM: I agree with you. I think there’s a great resurgence of interest in Wesley today.
He’s being embraced by people across the religious spectrum. Evangelicals continue to claim him as the father of the small group movement with an emphasis on spiritual disciplines and evangelical revival. And progressives in the church look to his teaching of the importance of works that go along with faith and his teaching that your faith doesn’t mean much if you’re not concerned for your neighbor. Almost everyone across the theological spectrum finds something they like and that inspires them in Wesley’s life.
There are people who follow Wesley all around the world. He’s had 300 years of people looking to him and taking what he’s taught and applying it in different ways.
WORLDWIDE WESLEY FAMILY TREE
DAVID: You’re right about the global scope. Today, there are many churches that trace roots back to the teachings of John Wesley. Of course, you’re part of the biggest branch: the United Methodist Church. Wikipedia’s “Wesleyanism” article lists more than a dozen current denominations that trace roots to Wesley.
ADAM: In traveling and researching and writing this book, my hope was to help people from the entire Wesleyan background to rediscover this powerful inspiration that still is important in our world today. I’m convinced that John Wesley’s approach to the gospel may be one of the best hopes we have of reaching new generations of young people who are not religiously involved at all.
DAVID: You and Abingdon Press make rediscovering Wesley pretty easy. You’ve divided your message into a whole array of multimedia options. There’s a Revival DVD that goes along with the book that shows you talking about Wesley in all of these settings where Wesley lived and worked in the UK. Want to direct a series of group discussions? There’s a Revival Leader Guide, a Revival Youth Study Book, and even a Revival Children’s Leader Guide.
ADAM: I want to teach people—whatever their age—about the life of Wesley by following his life, but not by providing a long biography in this case. There are other in-depth biographies of Wesley out there. I wanted to tell people about his heart and character, by going to places that were important in his life and ask: How does what Wesley did here, or there, affect our lives today? I want people, whatever their age, to ask: How could this affect my life now?
If you get the DVD along with the book, you can use it in your small group and you’ll see me standing in the place where each chapter unfolds, talking about that part of Wesley’s life.
A WESLEYAN PILGRIMAGE
DAVID: That’s one reason I heartily recommend this book. Your aim is to reach young people, especially, and one way to do that is to have a strong video component. More than that, people want to experience religion today. In the Catholic world, pilgrimage has been a huge part of Catholic spirituality for many centuries. Methodists aren’t so big on that idea of traveling as a spiritual discipline, but your book invites people on a Wesleyan pilgrimage. You’ve even got specific travel tips sprinkled throughout the book. You’re saying people should hit the road and rediscover Wesley.
ADAM: That’s exactly what I’m doing this summer. I’m leading two groups of people to places that were important in Wesley’s life. One group will be people from our Church of the Resurrection and a second group will be pastors from other United Methodist churches.
DAVID: Let’s talk about one of the places you take readers—and viewers of the DVD—the famous church in London known as The Foundry. Americans who follow faith-and-politics in the news know another Foundry church in Washington D.C., which is famous for all of the presidents who have worshiped there. For 200 years, the D.C. Foundry has kept the name of Wesley’s Foundry alive in this country.
So, tell us about Wesley’s original Foundry in London. And, remind us: Where are we in his timeline?
ADAM: The Foundry work really begins in the 1740s.
He wound up there because he needed to find a place to meet in London after he experienced breaks with other religious societies. The Foundry was an old cannon factory—an ironworks used for making weaponry. It was a very large building and he saw it as a place where Methodists could meet in London. In the fall of 1739, he takes hold of the building and begins having it renovated. It becomes the home of Methodism in London for the next 38 years.
What the Foundry represents for me is Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy. That’s what I talk about in that chapter of the book.
DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines: “At the Foundry in the 1740s, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expression. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. In 1747, Wesley published a book on ‘easy and natural’ methods for ‘curing most diseases.’ Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And, they started a school for children who roamed the street.”
ADAM: And at Foundry, they brought in a printing press.
MASTER OF 18TH CENTURY SOCIAL MEDIA
DAVID: Let’s talk about that printing press at Foundry. John Wesley was deeply involved in the major issues of his era and, over time, he became a prophet way out ahead of others. He certainly was in his condemnation of slavery and in his call for compassionate care for animals. Some of Wesley’s critics used to joke that you could tell Wesley followers in a village by how well they treated their horses.
ADAM: That printing press was important! Wesley was constantly printing and publishing his sermons and tracts and responses to debates of the day. He published hundreds of different pamphlets and he published a huge number of books, too. He made these as cheaply as he could and distributed them as widely as he could. He was a major user of the social media of his day. If he were alive today, he would have been a master of social media.
DAVID: And that’s a big part of the reason that Methodism took off like wildfire across America after the Revolution. Of course, the explosion of Methodism in the early 1800s was the work of some other geniuses of religious organization. Historian Martin Marty once called Francis Asbury the George S. Patton of strategic deployment for Methodism for the way he deployed circuit riders across the American frontier—each one toting around with him Methodist books, like Wesley’s sermons.
ADAM: Wesley had many talents. He was an effective preacher and we know from so many accounts that people were stirred when they saw or heard him. He was an Energizer Bunny who just kept going and going and going.
We know he traveled 250,000 miles across the British Isles and he did most of that on horseback. He was constantly reading and we know he did a lot of that reading while riding his horse! (Laughs!) Today, he’d be a terrible driver! He’d want to text while he was driving.
And he had this capacity to organize so it would continue after he was gone. His publishing efforts were a big part of this. He equipped the circuit riders—these traveling preachers—in his movement with a number of essential books. Every circuit rider at least had a copy of his notes on the New Testament, plus copies of his sermons. Publishing was a huge part of Wesley’s life. I own a copy of his notes on the New Testament that dates back to three years before he died in 1791. It’s one of the great treasures I have in my library.
DAVID: And you’ve said repeatedly over the years that you model your own ministry on Wesley’s, right?
ADAM: Yes, and I’ve shared this with my church and at many conferences where I’ve spoken. Here at our Church of the Resurrection, we have multiple campuses—and we also have more congregations that partner with us in other ways. We upload the sermons and share them online. Our partnering churches can just take the sermon and use it in that form, or they can preach their own sermon using some of the things they find in our sermons.
When I explain the way we do this, I say: “If Wesley were alive today, he would be uploading his sermons to share them and help other pastors preach. He would actively share his ideas and themes. From the beginning, he was providing so many ways that he knew a movement could flourish and grow.”
DAVID: So, we’re now about three centuries from his birth and roughly two centuries from his death. When readers go through your book, they will learn about parts of Wesley’s life when he was a failure. Early in his life, he had some unfortunate experiences. And they will learn about the faith that shaped his ministry into a movement that now circles the globe. Some of the things I’ve mentioned in our interview—the opposition to slavery and the care for animals, for example, were themes he emphasized much later in his long life.
ADAM: Yes, you’re right. When he was older, Wesley did become a sort of heroic and widely popular figure. In the last 30 years of his life, in particular, he was a folk hero across Great Britain. People wanted to meet him and talk to him in a way that wasn’t true early in his ministry. In that part of his life, he could speak more freely about issues like slavery.
In this book, I tried to capture what I love about Wesley and the most important thing I want to emphasize is that Wesley was able to hold in tension things that often would split communities apart. He taught that we should hold together the intellect and the heart. He didn’t want people to check their brains at the door.
Centuries ago—and still today—he called men and women to trust in Christ and, at the same time, to live out their faith in the world.