John Wesley would have certainly approved of the variety of ministries today that take Methodism out of the security of its buildings and into the communities that our worldwide movement serves. This includes our Methodist chaplains to the armed forces - a ministry currently in the spotlight during these troubled times and one staunchly supported by Wesley during his own day. Wesley's practice of taking the message to the people began April 2, 1739, a date of huge significance to the Methodist movement and one that, 264 years on, surely resonates very much with the challenges facing our church. Two days earlier, in response to fellow preacher George Whitefield's invitation, John Wesley had arrived in Bristol, England. Although Whitefield was an open-air preacher of great eloquence, who had built up a large following in the area, he wanted to return to America and was keen for Wesley to continue the style of work he had begun.
The next day, having observed Whitefield preaching to the Kingswood tin miners, Wesley became persuaded of the necessity of "field preaching" as the means most likely to reach the great mass of people who had become virtual outcasts from the elitism of much of the established church - untouched and seemingly untouchable.
It was not a conviction reached without some struggle, however. And Wesley's own words, written in his journal, reveal the inner dilemma with which he was confronted.
"I could scarce reconcile myself at first 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 wrote.
Later that same evening, with Whitefield having now left Bristol, Wesley expounded to a small indoor congregation from the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount - which he describes in the journal as "one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching." Less than 24 hours later, Wesley was to let himself go and embark upon this great new venture.
"At four in the afternoon," he wrote, "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 the city, to about 3,000 people." The eminence, where he often spoke from, is thought to be Hanham Mount, still viewable to this day.
His text for this, the first of many thousands of field sermons, was prophetic of the great things ahead: "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted; to preach deliverance to the captive, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty them that are bruised, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord."
Now, having made himself more vulnerable and preached his first field sermon, Wesley was not only in possession of the central doctrine of his campaign, but he also had discovered the chief vehicle of its expression. And from then on, there was no stopping him.
On his travels throughout Britain and Ireland, Wesley preached to thousands of ordinary people in market squares, under trees, on hills, in fields, on the streets, from tombstones (including his father's in Epworth churchyard), in yards, gardens, village greens, beaches or any open place where he could draw a crowd. And if he was not in the open air, he could be found preaching in houses, public buildings, military barracks, prisons - and in parish churches, when he was allowed. One of the best times for drawing a crowd was apparently at 5 a.m.
Across Britain, one can still find places where Wesley once preached. Not surprisingly, many of these spots remain unmarked, but it is still possible to come across places that have been handed down as being traditionally associated with Wesley. These include such local legends as "Wesley's rock," "Wesley's thorn bush," "Wesley's lodging house," "Wesley's tree" and "Wesley's steps."
This kind of preaching was a tremendous novelty in the 18th century. Some people - usually those in authority - were shocked and considered field preaching to be vulgar and dangerous (for those who listened). Some even stirred up violent persecution of the early Methodists, but many - especially among the poorer sections of society - flocked to hear Wesley and Whitefield preach and heard them gladly.
So from the earliest times it has always been a Methodist imperative to go where the people are and not to wait for them to come to us. It is a ministry that still continues today, in all sorts of ways. *Singleton, a writer with the weekly Methodist Recorder in London, is administrator for Methodist churches and social projects in the Tower Hamlets area of East London. He can be contacted by e-mail at: [email protected]
By John Singleton