This year we are looking at some of the key turning points in Wesley’s theology and ministry. We have seen that in 1725 he became convinced the goal of salvation was to restore us to the image of God in which we were created, such that we wholeheartedly love God and our neighbor — what he called holiness of heart and life, or Christian perfection. Then in 1738, by way of the Moravian Brethren and the meeting on Aldersgate Street, he recognized that salvation is a gift of grace received by faith in Jesus Christ. As a result, he also learned that justification (the forgiveness of sins) is the doorway to sanctification (the new life in Christ centered in love).
Wesley now had a message to proclaim but limited opportunity to do it. He did not pastor a church, and was not often welcome in the pulpits of others — his preaching justification was thought to undercut moral accountability, and his talk of the heart sounded too experiential for many. His preaching, then, was limited to a few friendly churches and smaller groups of willing listeners. But all this would soon change, and the catalyst would be George Whitefield.
Whitefield had been a member of the Holy Club at Oxford. His poor background led many there to look down on him, but the Wesley brothers welcomed him as a friend and fellow seeker of salvation. Before becoming a Christian Whitefield had been an aspiring actor, and it was that training he now brought to his preaching. In both England and America, he electrified audiences, drawing enormous crowds of eager listeners. In March of 1739 Whitefield was preaching in Bristol, but was soon to leave England and return to America. Whitefield urged John Wesley to come and continue the work he had begun. Though reluctant, Wesley finally agreed.
What he found when he arrived was unsettling: Whitefield was preaching outdoors. The accepted practice in the Church of England was for peaching to only occur within a building consecrated for that purpose by a bishop. What Whitefield was doing was highly irregular. Nor was he seeking the prior permission of the parish priest for his open-air preaching. Arriving on March 31, Wesley wrote, “I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he 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” (Journal).
Sunday night (April 1) he spoke at society meeting on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, “one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching….” Then on April 2, he “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 three thousand people…” (Journal). The response to his preaching was unlike any he had seen before. John Wesley continued the practice of field preaching throughout his life, and within a month after John’s sermon in Bristol his brother Charles began doing it as well.
It was in 1740 that a layperson in one of Wesley’s societies, Thomas Maxfield, began preaching. This was another turning point for John Wesley. His initial reluctance turned to an embrace of lay preachers, believing they had an extraordinary call of God. In time, Wesley had around a hundred lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout England. Now Wesley had a connection of preachers devoted to the mission which he believed God had given to them all: “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and spread scriptural holiness over the land” (“The Revised Disciplinary Minutes 1753–89” [Works 10:845]).