“It is impossible to tell from a typical sermon whether the preacher is a follower of Confucius, Muhammad, or Jesus Christ.”
Sir William Blackstone made this observation over 200 years ago, “after visiting the churches of every major clergyman in London,” reports Chuck Stetson in his 2007 foreword to the reprint of William Wilberforce’s manifesto, A Practical View of Real Christianity.
By the time Blackstone toured London's churches in the 1700s, he “did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero,” relates Stetson.
What led to Blackstone’s observations? For one thing, vicious anti-Puritan legislation was passed by the British Parliament in 1661. As a result, ministers who were Puritans (1/5th of all British clergy) were expelled from the Church of England.
But the effects of persecution are unpredictable, as in the case of early 20th-Century Korea, after the anti-Christian Japanese imperialists imprisoned 2,000 Korean Christ-followers who refused to bow the knee to the Japanese Emperor-god.
In England, after John Wesley's heart had been “strangely warmed” by the Holy Spirit in 1739, he began to preach a different message in his open-air meetings, outside the institutionalized church. Over the next fifty years, Wesley (1703-1791) commissioned many preachers who were not ordained or licensed by the Church of England.
At the same time, Wesley organized groups of believers to meet for the mutual strengthening of their faith through a structured approach to discipleship, beyond the purview of the ecclesiastical establishment. Wesley's "method" of advancing real Christianity via structured discipleship groups became a hallmark of “Methodism.”
In 1786, when the Methodist movement was in high gear, William Wilberforce experienced his own personal spiritual awakening, just five years before Wesley passed on. Wilberforce called this his “great change.”
If it had not been for the persecution-stirred awakening of 18th Century England in which John Wesley played such a significant role, I wonder if William Wilberforce’s conversion would have taken place.
I also wonder what effects John Wesley's method of group discipleship had on Wilberforce’s Clapham Circle, where believing friends practiced the kind of "real Christianity" they were not hearing about in church.
|Lifesize statue of John Wesley at Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. Photo by Adam Davenport. This file, from Wikipedia, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported, 2.5 Generic, 2.0 Generic and 1.0 Generic license.|