If the debate in the seventeenth century had largely been between Puritans and “high churchmen”, that of the opening years of the eighteenth century was between Trinitarians and Deists. The writings of men such as Isaac Newton and John Locke had opened up the possibility of a universe not so much governed by a personal God as much as set in motion by a kind of absent watchmaker. Such beliefs were gaining in popularity among the upper class of England, who saw them as fashionable, and also among many of the clergy of the church. A central figure in this debate was Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), whose Analogy of Religion used all the powers of his great theological mind to discredit the claims of Deism. Butler’s work was significant in that he sought to use the scientific method of observation and analogy to advance Christian presuppositions.
At the same time as Butler was addressing the theological issues of Deism, William Law (1686-1761) was addressing the shallowness of much of the church’s spiritual life which had led to it in the first place. Law was a non-juror, but his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life was picked up, read and absorbed by many within the church. He advocated self-denial, personal holiness, humility and self-control in a life lived wholly to the glory of God.
One of those who read Law and took his message to heart was George Whitefield (1714-1770). Whitefield was a fervent and eloquent preacher, the like of whom England had not known in a very long time. His sermons brought such heartfelt reactions from their hearers that crowds that gathered were too large for most church buildings. This led Whitefield to begin preaching in the open air, a practice he continued with great success in both England and the American colonies for thirty years.
Today George Whitefield’s name is little known, eclipsed by his considerably more famous contemporaries, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley. The Wesleys were Church of England clergymen who, like many of their day, longed for an experiential faith, one which touched the heart and not merely the mind. After a disastrous ministry in Georgia with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, they returned to England in 1738. In his journal John Wesley wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? … I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled…” Wesley’s sought-after conversion occurred in the spring of that year when he attended a lecture on Romans given by a Moravian preacher. He wrote,
… while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Wesley soon began to follow the pattern of Whitefield, not limiting his preaching to church pulpits, but going where the people were, to the open air, where they listened to him and responded to his message in the tens of thousands. Greater perhaps than his gift of preaching was Wesley’s organizational ability. He recognized that those who were turning to Christ needed ongoing encouragement (which in most cases they were unlikely to find in their parish churches). He organized his followers into classes, which met regularly for Bible study, prayer and growth in practical holiness. It was this disciplined “method” which gave rise to the nickname “Methodist”.