Celebrating Life of Churchman Who Helped Shape England; BILLY KENNEDY, News Letter Churches Correspondent, Examines the Tremendous Religious and Social Legacy of 18th Century Churchman John Wesley, and His Pastoral Missions in Ireland

Article excerpt


METHODIST Church founder John Wesley is described as one of the foremost architects of modern England, with significant influence several centuries after his death.

In Ireland, 18th century preacher Wesley made considerable impact, too, and his frequent pastoral visits here are recorded in detail in a fascinating book to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth.

The book - John Wesley: A Brand from the Burning - written by former Northern Ireland minister and Labour politician Roy Hattersley, charts Wesley's role in shaping British society from the framework of the new industrial working classes.

It also examines the passion and belief that forced John Wesley to detach himself from the authority of the Church of England and lead Methodism on the path towards a worldwide faith which presently has many millions of adherents, including an estimated nine million in the United States, resulting from Wesley's celebrated Revival trips to colonial America in the mid-18th century.

Hattersley records that it took more than a decade for Methodism to become established in Ireland, after it was first mooted in England.

The Rev George Whitefield, one of John Wesley's preaching contemporaries, had stopped briefly in Presbyterian stronghold Belfast on his way to Georgia in America in 1738.

Wherever George Whitefield stopped he preached, and he effectively paved the way for Wesley to come to Ireland and gain a firm foothold for his Methodist creed.

John Wesley maintained the Irish "were more teachable than the English", but he also discovered they were a people of "independent disposition".

This resulted in a separate Methodist organisation being formed in Ireland with the promise of its own conference. By 1748, it was reported there were 350 "raw, undisciplined soldiers" in Ireland who Wesley feared would "without great care, desert their old master".

John Wesley presided at what amounted to the first Irish Methodist conference in Dublin in August, 1752, and he succeeded in persuading the conflicting interests to unite behind a precise doctrine with strictly enforced rules and discipline.

The seeds of Irish Methodism had been sown and the development of congregations ran parallel with an incredible growth of Wesleyan societies in England, particularly in large urban working class areas.

John Wesley, born in Lincolnshire the 15th child of the Rev Samuel and Susannah Wesley, always maintained Methodism was an evangelical wing of the Church of England and throughout his life it was an organisation of societies.

Charles Wesley, John's brother, wrote many hymns which have become great standards for Protestant denominations and he was a powerful intellectual force in the Christian theology of the period.

In contrast to the Irish mission, the Wesley doctrine never penetrated Presbyterian Scotland. Indeed, the great religious reformer, according to Roy Hattersley, only occasionally ventured north from England, chastened as he was by the experience of George Whitefield, who did not subscribe to the "extreme" Calvinist position which Presbyterians held. …