This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on Feb. 25, 1939.
A book may be a greater event than a battle!
When a book can put a microscope over a whole period of history and make the reader see the people of that day at work, at play, eating, drinking, talking, hoping, suffering, drifting and fumbling, with all the odds against them and then can picture one man, with courage and vision, who comes into the life of the whole nation, changing people from within, and through them changing society, the result is a book that is more dynamic than a submarine or a bombing plane.
The book is called England Before and After Wesley, by J.W. Bready, a Canadian, now living in England.
At this time when we hear so much of the downfall and decay of the British Empire, it is comforting to know that there have been crises before, when the ship of state was caught on the rocks and every aspect of life seemed hopeless, and yet something happened to prevent disaster.
In 1738, Bishop Berkeley, addressing “magistrates and men in authority,” pleaded with them to mend their ways. He said conditions in England were the worst that had ever been known in a Christian country and he feared “the age of monsters was not far off.”
This was the year that John Wesley began his career as a preacher, reformer and revolutionary. England had been going from bad to worse, morally, following the restoration of Charles II. An anti-puritan purge had driven out the leaders of the church; 2,000 of them had been expelled and turned adrift. Religious services were forbidden in any but the established church. Exile was the punishment for those who disobeyed.
John Milton at this time was imprisoned and Paradise Lost was burned by the public hangman. Kidnapping, piracy, press gangs prevailed, and the church was powerless to arouse the public conscience. The fox hunting and drinking parson cared more for his own comfort than for the souls of his people. Bull-baiting, cock-fighting, public hangings brutalized the people. Fraudulent schemes for making money robbed them. Court life under the first two Georges was full of jealousy and indecencies. Children suffered neglect and abuse, and no one seemed to care.
Time alone does not bring progress — there is no inherent remedy in time. Things do not just come right.
Conditions in England were changed largely by the life of one man — John Wesley, the immaculate Oxford don whose speech was always classical English, but in whose heart there burned a flame of love for his fellow men that drove him into their service for 52 years. He rode enough miles to circle the globe eight times, never slept more than five hours a night, wrote more books and pamphlets than any man of his time, and preached daily, sometimes four times a day.
Historians are unanimous in declaring that the Wesleyan revival saved England from collapse. Dr. Temperley in Modern Cambridge History writes: “The earliest half of the 18th century in England was an age of materialism and expiring hopes. Before the middle of the century, its character was transformed. There appeared a movement headed by a mighty leader, who brought forth water from the rock to make a barren land live again.”
Bready’s book England Before and After Wesley makes good reading for these days of doubt and misgivings. The comfort of the book lies in its revelation of the wonderful way the gospel spread its healing rays to the very darkest places, even in the face of the opposition of the established church.
John R. Green, the historian, whose Short History of the English People is still a school text, says the Wesley revival changed England, purified our literature, reformed prisons, abolished the slave trade, and gave the first impulse to popular education.
Now one naturally wonders what it was that John Wesley had to make it possible for him to influence his generation so deeply. Bready’s book answers that fully and clearly. He was like the Apostle Paul. He had something to give.
Had Wesley died in his 37th year, he would have been an unremembered man, unloved and well-nigh unlovable. Soon after his ordination as a minister of the established church, he went to Georgia to convert the Indians, and found to his dismay he had nothing to give them, and he came back to England a defeated man, thoroughly miserable. On the boat returning from America, he met some Moravian people who asked him to join them in their prayer meeting, but he had no joy in this fellowship. He discovered that the Moravians had a faith in God much stronger than his, and he resented it.
After his return to England, he became more and more dissatisfied with himself.
“Who will convert me?” he cried out in his bitterness.
Two events are linked with his conversion. One was the singing of an anthem in St. Paul’s Cathedral on the afternoon of May 24, 1738; the other one was a meeting that evening that “very unwillingly” he attended.
“The leader (one of the Moravians) was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans,” he writes, “and when he was describing the change which God works in the heart of man through faith, at about a quarter to nine, I felt my heart strangely warmed. Then I began to pray for those who had despitefully used me and persecuted me.”
Out from that little meeting went a changed John Wesley, ready to meet any condition of life, no longer depressed or discouraged. Then began the great work of the reformation of England.
Fortunately, Wesley kept diaries all through his long life, and from these pages, the author quotes freely. They make good reading.
On one occasion when he had been visiting the poor in London in their wretched hovels, he wrote in his diary: “Such scenes as this could not be seen in a pagan country. The Indians of Georgia gave what they had to their friends in need. Oh! Who will convert the English into honest heathens?”
Bready’s book is not only a life of Wesley. It is a picture of a period in English history, and a record of a great spiritual movement that found expression in changed laws, changed conditions and new forces for righteousness, which are still at work today.
This book should be put into the hands of ministers everywhere — an ideal Easter present. Frayed and worn by cold weather, frozen radiators, colds in the head and people who cough in church, ministers need something to put iron in their blood and in their preaching. Here it is.