George Whitefield, the pioneer Evangelist of the 18th Century Christian Awakening’ was thrilled to see his good friend John Wesley come to Bristol and join the work he had begun.
Wesley had heard about Whitefield’s ‘field preaching’, which had been modelled on Howell Harris’ approach in Wales.
There was no guarantee that Wesley would agree with it or participate in it and, being more inclined to formality, he was at first reluctant.
Wesley wrote about his Bristol visit in his journal.
Wesley reluctant at first
‘Saturday, 31. In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there.
‘I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday;
‘I had been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.’
‘April 1.—In the evening (Mr. Whitefield being gone) I began expounding our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (one pretty remarkable precedent of field-preaching, though I suppose there were churches at that time also), to a little society which was accustomed to meet once or twice a week in Nicholas Street.
Wesley’s first, uncomfortable attempts at field preaching
‘Monday, 2.—At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. ‘
‘Sunday, 8.—At seven in the morning I preached to about a thousand persons at Bristol, and afterward to about fifteen hundred on the top of Hannam Mount in Kingswood.
‘I called to them, in the words of the evangelical prophet, “Ho! every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters;.…come, and buy wine and milk without money and without price” [Isa. 55:1].
Wesley finds his life’s work
‘About five thousand were in the afternoon at Rose Green (on the other side of Kingswood); among whom I stood and cried in the name of the Lord, “If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink. He that believeth on me, as the Scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” [John 7:38].’ (John Wesley’s Journals, Vol 1, p.185, Baker Edition, or Christian Classics Library)
So Wesley joined the evangelistic battlefield for the souls of 18th Century England. It has been estimated that by the end of his life he had preached something like 40,000 times, and travelled over 200,000 miles on horseback.
Wesley was not merely picking up Whitefield’s methods for a temporary season; field preaching, founding societies and, later, training leaders, became his life’s work.
© 2009 Lex Loizides