‘Was John Wesley deceived? Have our hymn writers been deceived in their immortal songs? Was Saul of Tarsus deceived? Have we all been deceived?’

One of the gifts presented to me during my 60th birthday Thanksgiving on Saturday, Jan 6 2024, was the book Wesley and Men Who Followed by Iain H. Murray. [1] Still in my birthday mood. Seeking God’s face for the next decade, this season in 1738, repeatedly referred to by Wesley as his conversion time, offers the opportunity to ask, ‘Have we all been deceived?’ for me, especially after 31 years in Methodist service and ministry. I had my youthful brush with Methodism under my grandmother, Alice Okegbile, and as a Christian Sons and Daughters member, Choirmaster, Methodist Church, Oke-Oja, Osu, the western part of Nigeria. I can recall much of our Sunday school Bible study and the annual Conference Youth Assembly across Nigeria with a clear presentation of the Gospel. I clearly remember being Joseph during the annual highlight of the Christmas Nativity Play. 

The first shock I experienced when I arrived for my studies at Cliff College, Calver, United Kingdom, in 2007 was that the Methodist Church is a far cry from anything from my home experience, ‘let alone John Wesley.’ Murray, in his book, ‘tells the story of how Methodism gradually drifted away from its evangelical origins.’ David Bebbington’s identification of four defining characteristics of evangelicalism provides a renewing origin of Methodism. The four characteristics are Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus; Activism, the expression and demonstration of the Gospel in missionary and social reform efforts; Biblicism, high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority and; Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

Methodism drifted away when conversion became less encouraged, and it became less experienced, hence the decline of membership and effective leadership. Christ Ritter aptly explained that ‘today the denomination (Methodism) is on life support.’ [2] In the same vein, ‘Biblicism’, as defined by Bebbington, is no longer the default position of the Methodist Church. John Wesley was ready to be called a ‘Bible bigot’. It a shame, ‘many of today’s Methodists would probably run a mile to get away from any such label. But that is nothing new. In 1965, Donald Soper was president of the Methodist Conference. Far from being a ‘Man of One Book’, he held that the Scriptures ‘represent an incubus’ and proposed a one-year ban on Bible reading for the year 1965; Leslie Weatherhead, one of the best-known of all Methodist authors, argued that ‘William Temple was just an inspired as Paul, and T. S. Eliot more inspired than the author of the Song of Solomon. According to Murray, ‘denying the divine inspiration of Scripture, twentieth-century Methodism denied its history. The real meaning of that history was lost. 

The truth was that the denomination’s leaders had adopted the very kind of thinking that had marked the chief opponents of the eighteenth-century awakening.’ [3] Thomas Cook attributed the different atmosphere in the churches to ‘the increased worldliness of the members, the lack of discipline, and the altered tone of preaching in many of our pulpits.’ [4] Using the words of Murray, ‘the power of Scripture to enlighten minds and remake lives is the power of God. The great effect of the Evangelical Revival upon national life is what Scripture would lead us to expect; the Bible came to stand supreme over mind and conscience. No Methodist doubted that ‘the Bible and the strength and godliness of England have gone hand in hand.’ The effect of Methodism has also been ‘acknowledged from the throne, by the successive monarch, and is the deep inwrought conviction of the wisest and been among all classes in the country, that Great Britain holds her present position among the nations of the earth, mainly through the influence of the Bible on the people.’ [5]

When Methodism drifted away, ‘one could believe or disbelieve whatever one liked, and the deity of Christ and the atonement were among Weatherhead’s dislikes. In the text, ‘Without shedding of blood is no remission of sin,’ Weatherhead declared, ‘In our modern view, this simply is not true.’ His biographer, recording this, smiled at the simplicity of an old-fashioned Methodist who wrote to ask, ‘Was John Wesley deceived? Have our hymn writers been deceived in their immortal songs? Was Saul of Tarsus deceived? Have we all been deceived? Murray’s book demonstrates that we are not deceived and points us ‘to the key to the recovery of authentic Christianity today.’

Murray writes, ‘The truth was that the men were now leading Methodism who would not have been received as probationers a hundred years earlier. Among the questions asked of candidates for the ministry in the old Methodism were these: ‘In what light do you regard the death of Christ? How do you define the nature of that atonement or propitiation which Jesus Christ made?’ [6] Murray explained, ‘At Plymouth in 1965, an amendment was moved at the Methodist Conference to restore such questions by recalling the Church to her own articles of faith, and to faith in the atonement, in particular. It was defeated by a vote of 601 to 14! It was no wonder that at the same period, an article in the Methodist Recorder, entitled, ‘The Old Methodism Gone Forever,’ argued that all the doctrines of justification, of saving faith, of assurance, and of holiness, ‘belong to an intellectual and theological world which is no longer ours. They describe experiences which are no longer normative for Methodist people,’ [7] hence the ‘evangelicals have been a minority group within the Methodism.’

Murray’s book corroborates Professor Bryan Turner’s view in his 1970 doctoral thesis titled The Decline of Methodism. Turner explained that the decline of Methodist beliefs, practices, and experience has been the root cause of our membership decline. Under two levels of analysis, Turner examined and historically traced the decline of Methodism in individual religious commitment in the dimensions of belief, practice and experience, and church and leadership organisations. The neglect and redefinitions of these beliefs and practices to suit the seductions of today’s cultures point to the increasing speed of Methodist decline,[8] a departure from the early standard of Methodism, especially organisational failure to recruit new members. This formed the organisational implication of Methodism’s withdrawal from revivalism, a ‘shift in emphasis that Methodism became increasingly dependent on an inherited rather than converted membership.’ [9] The early Methodist growth and spirituality relate to faithfulness to Methodist beliefs in communal scriptural holiness and practices.

Sinclair B. Ferguson described Murray’s book as a ‘Thrilling history and biography, the bringing to light of forgotten men of extraordinary faith and energy for Christ; shrewd analysis; a challenge to the contemporary Church. Wesley and Men Who Followed has it all. I enjoyed it greatly – a breath of spiritually fresh air and vitality comes through wonderfully. I found it uplifting, challenging, and gratitude-creating – and a great read.’ John Wesely never lacks biographers, and beyond his leading role in the Evangelical Revival, Murray’s book, ‘Wesley and Men Who Followed, is more concerned with the spiritual explanation of a movement which, far from dwindling at his death, increased in momentum, breadth and transforming power. Drawing from original and often little-known Methodist sources, Iain Murray’s thrilling study leads to conclusions of great relevance for the contemporary Church.’

The hand that rocks the cradle often rules the world and grows the Church. Murray’s spotlight on John’s mother, Susanna, who helped forge Wesley’s theological views, emphasises the place of home in Methodist spirituality and growth. I wrote in one of my books, Stop the Funeral, Reverse Methodist Decline, that Methodist society started as a Church in the house, where ‘families shared their homes and gave time and devoted service … gathered together, and children instructed in the doctrines, privileges, and duties of the Christian religion.’ John and Charles Wesley owed their spiritual upbringing and development to their mother’s diligent home training. Indeed, they were not deceived but disciplined, a model of authentic Christianity and Bible Methodism for today. Susannah’s is a model of Bible Methodism that grows in peoples’ homes, and before ever, it could be accommodated in a separate building.’

The death of Wesley and some men who were once in view to succeed him is not the demise of Methodism. However, Methodism remains the most extended revival and renewal movement with the potential for authentic Christianity today. Wesley connexion meeting houses, especially in England and Ireland[10], with a guarantee of success and successors remain a distinctive missional network for effective mission, evangelism, mentoring, and discipleship that would spread to the ends of the earth. The grand conservative principle of Methodism was shaped by the fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit through the pulpit, the class, or the prayer meeting, which was intended for personal salvation and those who heard them. According to George Smith, ‘here was the secret of its vitality, power, and growth, under circumstances which would have destroyed any mere ecclesiastical or political organisation.’ [11]

The proposed question set down by way of answer in the note of a discussion by Irish missioners at their annual Conference in 1804 could provide a renewing reflection to conclude this write-up:

  1. Let us humble ourselves before God. The revival must begin with ourselves. Let us use self-denial.
  2. Let us be more careful in giving to God, through Jesus Christ, the entire glory of all the good wrought in and by us. He must be our “all in all.”
  3. Let us, as preachers, be more simple, evangelical, practical, and zealous in our preaching.
  4. Let us not aim at what sermon-hunters call fine preaching in order to be popular.
  5. Let us frequently insist on the doctrine of original sin. It is not stale or worn out; it is fundamental.
  6. Let us, above all things, be zealous to bring our hearers to the fountain opened for sin and uncleanness.
  7. Let us press upon believers the necessity of increasing in holiness, and of dying daily and walking with God.
  8. Let us faithfully preach practical holiness and tear the mask from the face of the hypocrite.
  9. Let us never omit a pointed, faithful, yet loving application at the close of our sermons.[12]

Preachers like Gideon Ouseley, Thomas Collins, and William Bramwell, among others who were possessed with a spiritual common sense, to them, ‘Preachers are fishers, they catch men. Some fishers like to have full nets but do not like the toiling to fill them. If their nets never contained fish but of their own catching, they would be empty indeed. Be not ye like unto them … Preachers are hunters. Hunters do not wait for the game to come to them; they go in quest of it.’ According to Charles Graham, ‘We do more in spreading truth in one fair or market day than in weeks or months in private places.

O Lord, send Your revival, in the sense of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, bringing large numbers suddenly into Your kingdom.

 [1] Murray, Iain, I, Wesley and Men Who Followed (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), pp. 3-106.

[2] Chris Ritter cited in Okegbile, Deji, Stop the Funeral: Reverse Methodists Decline (London: Supertec, 2017), p. 17.

[3] Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, pp. 261

[4] Thomas Cook cited in Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 262.

[5] George Smith, Methodism, cited in Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 258

[6] Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 258.

[7] John C. Vincent, Methodist Recorder, Sept 7, 1961, cited in Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 259.

[8] http://dejiokegbile.com/wesleys-day-only-in-name-decline-in-methodist-beliefs-practices

[9] http://dejiokegbile.com/on-track-to-die-out-the-mother-church-of-world-methodism-learning-from-its-offspring/

[10] Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, pp. 107-216

[11] Smith, Methodism, cited in Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 110.

[12] Campbell, Graham, cited in Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, p. 172.