Compelled to preach

Daily Reading for March 3 • John and Charles Wesley, Priests, 1791, 1788

[John] Wesley’s friend and fellow preacher George Whitefield had begun preaching in the open air to anyone who would stop to listen, and he appealed to Wesley for assistance. Preaching out of doors was not an idea Wesley took to immediately. “I could scarcely reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he [Whitefield] set me an example this Sunday,” Wesley wrote on March 29, 1739. “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.” But Wesley, like Whitefield, had a passion to preach, so he preached his first outdoor sermon on April 2, 1739—“I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation,” he wrote. Thus began a half century of preaching, three and four times a day, never repeating a sermon, in fields, highways, streets, and village squares, in churches when invited, wherever he could gather a crowd. And gather them he did, often in the thousands. . . .

Wesley’s problems with the Church of England did not diminish once he took to the open air. . . . In a time of massive social upheaval, with factories opening, agriculture declining, and city populations rising rapidly, vast numbers of people among the poor and laboring classes had never heard the Christian gospel and were entirely untouched by the ministry of the established church. These were the people Wesley was reaching. The problem was not so much ill will on the part of church authorities as that the Church of England was set up to maintain an existing system rather than to adapt to a new social reality.

From “John Wesley: Outside Agitator,” quoted in Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality by Richard H. Schmidt (Eerdmans, 2002).

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