Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s - Religious exclusivity and inequality
Type of Spiritual Experience
The Church of England in the 1700s was essentially a state institution. Although religious pluralism had been legalized, the Blasphemy Act of 1698 still made denial of the Trinity, for example, punishable by imprisonment. Denying that Christianity was the truth or denying the authority of the Scriptures was also illegal. A great hierarchy of bishops, archbishops, deacons and so on both ensured that people who were ‘fitted’ to attending church did so and those they ‘deemed unfit’ were excluded.
From 1710 to 1714, conservatives tried to strengthen this union between the state and the Church of England. The Church of England gained a stranglehold in rural England, in the universities and in schools. Many universities denied entry to anyone who even whiffed of not toeing the line in Church policy on science, politics and so on. The Church of England, being both a powerful and rich organisation was also corrupt. Catholics remained a persecuted minority.
A description of the experience
Restoring Religious inclusivity and equality
Wesley's Oxford friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, excluded from the churches, had taken to preaching in the open air. Wesley hesitated initially to copy this bold step. But, overcoming his scruples, he preached a sermon in the open air for the first time in April 1739. Wesley wrote,
I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he [Whitefield] set me an example on Sunday; having 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.
He recognised the open-air services were successful in reaching men and women who would not enter most churches. From then on he took the opportunities to preach wherever an assembly could be brought together, more than once using his father's tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit. Wesley continued for fifty years—entering churches when he was invited, and taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him. 'Field preaching' became a key feature of the Revival.
Methodism is known for its rich musical tradition and Charles Wesley – John’s brother - was instrumental in writing much of the hymnody of the Methodist Church. These are jolly sing-along melodies in English that ordinary people can join in. This was totally different from the idea of a separate choir who might sing in Latin – however beautiful the singing might be.
Seeing that he and the few clergy co-operating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, Wesley was led, as early as 1739, to approve local preachers. He evaluated and approved men who were not ordained by the Anglican Church to preach and do pastoral work. This expansion of lay preachers was one of the keys of the growth of Methodism.
Early Methodists were drawn from all levels of society, the Methodist preachers took the message to labourers and even criminals who tended to be left outside organised religion at that time.
In Britain, the Methodist Church had a major effect in the early decades of the making of the working class (1760–1820). In the United States, it became the religion of many slaves who later formed "black churches" in the Methodist tradition.
Perhaps the clearest and most popular message for ordinary folk is that in the eyes of God all men, women and children are equal.
The structure of the Methodist church still reflects this – there are no vast hierarchies of priests. The Methodist Church has a ‘Connexional structure’. This is where the whole church acts and decides together. It is where the local church is never independent of the rest of the Connexion. Everyone who becomes a member through confirmation is a member of the Methodist Church as a whole, not just their local church.