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Wesley’s influence still strong

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He started one of the world's largest denominations — unintentionally — but never joined it himself.

He died with 70,000 devoted followers, but never found a happy marriage.

A man of astounding accomplishment — and not a few paradoxes — John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, stands among the tallest figures in Christendom.

June 17 marks the 300th anniversary of his birth. Methodists worldwide will commemorate the tercentenary with conferences, festivals and special worship services. Expect to find many a Methodist in period clothing, reciting passages from Wesley's prolific works.

But don't mistake John Wesley for a mere historical curiosity. Even though he died in 1791, his influence is still very much alive.

"He not only founded a church," said the Rev. William K. Quick, a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School. "He founded a movement that has grown faster (worldwide) in the last 10 years than in any other period of its history."

Even though Wesley, an ordained priest, never left the Church of England, some 78 denominations within the World Methodist Council — with 76 million members worldwide — consider him a spiritual father today.

Just as many a Christian asks, "What would Jesus do?" modern Methodists still consider, "What would Wesley say?" His writings remain part of the United Methodist Church's official teachings and a timely yardstick. When delegates at the United Methodists' general conference considered their stance on homosexuality a few years back, Wesley's words were quoted from both sides of the debate.

The term "Methodism" came from Wesley's description of his approach to Christianity: the methodical pursuit of holiness. "A Methodist," he wrote, "is one who lives according to the method laid down in the Bible." Members were to live a life of prayer and discipline.

Wesley viewed the practice of religion as more pragmatic than dogmatic. He balked at the Calvinists' notion of predestination and at the idea that faith alone could bring salvation. He insisted that conversion to his method — he did not envision it, at first, as a separate denomination from the Anglican church — must be followed by a life of personal holiness.

Wesley offered no great innovations in doctrine but packaged his Christian views in a way that transformed individuals — and English-speaking society.

"He combined a quest for holiness, a commitment to ecumenism and evangelism, and a catholic spirit, which overlooks differences in minor teachings as long as there is agreement on essential doctrines," said Scott Jones, a Wesley scholar at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology.

Wesley scholars don't like to compare him to modern counterparts; they say he has none. "He had a concern for the poor combined with a personal depth and a sense that salvation affects us in the deepest throne room of our hearts," said Kenneth J. Collins, author of "John Wesley: A Theological Journey" (Abingdon Press, $29). "I don't see anybody else putting that together."

Still, to begin to understand Wesley, and his impact in his time, think of someone with the stature of Billy Graham, Mother Teresa's compassion for the poor and, at least by 18th-century standards, the ubiquity of Oprah.

"Wesley traveled over 250,000 miles across Britain, mainly on horseback, preaching over 40,000 sermons during his lifetime," said J. Keith Cheetham, author of "On the Trail of John Wesley" (Luath Press Ltd., $14.95). Cheetham, a British travel consultant, helps organize tours for American Methodists traveling to England to visit Wesley's old haunts.

Collins called Wesley an "organizing genius." By commissioning lay people, while other churches insisted on clerical credentials for their leaders, Wesley organized Methodism so it could flourish in the American frontier. Many of his institutions, such as the annual conference, still exist within today's United Methodist Church.

Concerned over the lack of adequate health care for England's working poor, Wesley opened a free clinic and wrote a book, "Primitive Physick," a collection of home remedies. He created the first credit union as a way of helping the poor avoid debtors' prison.

Some historians credit Wesley's social efforts with saving England from the revolutionary fate of France. They say he headed off a bloody revolt by empowering the lower classes toward constructive action. Many similarly believe that the American Methodist Church, the largest denomination in the United States by the start of the Civil War, helped foster egalitarian social forms in which democracy could flourish.

These were amazing accomplishments, especially for someone of such humble beginnings.

Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in Epworth, England, the 15th child in a family of 19. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican priest; his mother, Susanna, a deeply disciplined woman of Puritan heritage.

In 1709, fire struck his father's rectory, and young John was rescued, as his mother later recalled, like "a brand plucked from the burning." The brush with death instilled in him a deep sense of purpose. He attended Oxford, along with his brother, Charles (who went on himself to become a central figure in Methodism and one of England's most famous hymn writers). At Oxford, the Wesley brothers joined a study group that fellow students derided as a "holy club."

After graduating, John was ordained and traveled to colonial Georgia, where he spent less than two years (from 1735 to 1737) in a ministry that, by his own account, was a failure. Discouraged, and convinced that he was about to die, he wrote a last will and testament.

Then, in 1738, Wesley attended a service at a religious society in Aldersgate Street, London, where he had an emotional experience that profoundly affected him. "I felt my heart strangely warmed," he wrote in his journal.

"Methodism was born that night," said Quick. From then on, it seemed, Wesley seldom stopped preaching.

His fervor and penchant for extemporaneous prayer made enemies within the Church of England. When he was banned from preaching in churches, he continued to do so outdoors, exhorting miners as they walked to work before dawn.

As he converted people, he gathered them into Methodist societies, small groups that met in homes for encouragement, prayer and Scripture reading. The groups empowered lay people to develop leadership skills, so they could in turn minister to other converts.

Wesley was far less successful in love than in ministry. His marriage in 1751 to Mary Vazeille was, by all accounts, a disaster. He refused to pare back his brutal preaching schedule. She grew weary of this and went home.

"He had no business getting married," said Dr. Collins. "He was married to his ministry."

And, Collins added, although Wesley was gracious and kind, he had an intensity and focus that may have made him annoying if not downright humorless at times.

"Wesley was not a back-slapper," he said. "He was concerned that 'levity' might take his mind off God." Wesley never sprinkled his sermons with jokes and rarely ended any conversation without inquiring into the state of the other person's soul.

He preached his final sermon just six days before his death, in 1791, at age 87. In accordance with his will, six unemployed men were found to dig his grave, and each was paid a pound — a lavish wage for a day's work.

Although he earned considerable sums from his writings, Wesley died with only 10 pounds and a teapot to his name. Everything else, he'd given to charity.

Today, as Methodists celebrate the tricentennial of Wesley's birth, many hope that the United Methodist Church — the largest U.S. Methodist denomination, with 8.3 million members — will use the occasion, and their founder's example, to revitalize itself.

While Methodist denominations are growing in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the United Methodist Church is shrinking in North America. Reports from last year's annual conference indicated that the church lost 43,200 U.S. members between 2000 and 2001, continuing a downward trend that dates back to the mid-1960s.

At a time of social upheaval in many parts of the world — not unlike Wesley's time, when the Industrial Revolution shredded existing social structures — his system of creating community through small groups has become more relevant than ever, said Steven Manskar, director of Accountable Discipleship for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.

Small group programs such as Covenant Discipleship Groups, Walk to Emmaus and Disciple Bible study — all Wesleyan by design — are flourishing within the United Methodist Church.

"Wesley created a system where people found acceptance, care, instruction and accountability," Manskar said. "People are looking for that kind of community now, more so than ever."

He added that Wesley's balanced approach to the "holiness of heart and life" could heal modern rifts within the denomination.

"Today, the United Methodist Church is polarized between churches that are focused on works of mercy and those that focus solely on personal holiness to the exclusion of social action," said Manskar.

"Neither side can get along with the other. I think that would break Wesley's heart. He said you can't divorce the two."

So the question for many Methodists remains: Will Wesley's anniversary be marked solely with quaintly charming historical celebrations? Or will it provide a renewed opportunity for followers to take his message to heart?

Wesley once wrote, "Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God. Such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on earth."

Said Dr. Quick, the Duke scholar: "We're still looking for those 100 preachers, by the way."

On the net:

For more on the anniversary, visit www.umc.org/headlines/wesley—tercentenary.