Origins of the journey
It began on New Year’s Day, the first Sunday of 2017. We sang a hymn which the Gaither Vocal Band had popularised in the USA, but which had never really caught on in the UK. You can hear the song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsq3aDNhZIQ
Our pastor read the words, and at one point, as he explained what they meant he became quite overcome with emotion. We were invited to take the microphone and say what in this song had particularly spoken to us. As I looked at the words, the line that leapt out at me was “I know how fear builds walls instead of bridges”. I couldn’t help but think of the very scared little man who is about to assume leadership of the biggest western nation, and his threats to build a wall to keep Mexicans out, as well as his intention to expel all illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country.
I stood up and tried to explain this to the congregation – how one of Trump’s advisors, Monica Crowley, had tweeted a photograph of herself beside the Berlin Wall with the words, “At the Berlin Wall last week. Walls work.” That the trauma of separation caused by the wall, not to mention the oppression that took place behind it and the deaths of those who tried to escape its tyranny, should be seen as evidence that “walls work” should sound a note of the greatest alarm.
And this reminded me of the situation in France during the 18th century, when the increasing wealth and complacence of the rich while callously grinding the faces of the starving poor had spilled over, in 1789, into the French revolution, which not only overturned the establishment and the stranglehold on power of the monarchy and nobility, epitomised in the storming of the Bastille on July 14th, but often at times descended into a chaotic bloodbath, with the introduction of the guillotine.
I noted that social conditions in Britain, especially England, at the time were almost exactly parallel to those in France, and that it has often been said that what saved England from a bloody French-style revolution was the spiritual revival that took place under the Wesleys, George Whitefield and Charles Finney. And it struck me, pondering on the words of this hymn, that a few hundred sermons, preached here and there all over the country as John Wesley rode the length and breadth of the land, could not of themselves have been the bulwark that held back the tide of revolution and averted disaster. (Note: that is what I said in church; I have since learned that John Wesley delivered some 45,000 sermons during his ministry.) Rather, it must have been the many individual lives, transformed by the power of God, who returned to their communities and lived out the kingdom of God in their small, daily circle, that changed the history of the nation and brought about a peaceable change that, in the coming generations, could give rise to men like William Wilberforce and the eighth Earl of Shaftesbury, and women like Elizabeth Fry and Josephine Butler.
This reminded me of Jesus’ saying that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”. All it needed, in the Wesleys’ day, for revival to spread and transform the life of the nation, was for individuals indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to bring the kingdom of God into the homes and streets where they lived. And the same is true now. We might look at some worrying trends on the political stage here and abroad, and feel helpless to do anything about it. But that is not the truth. We are the leaven, scattered throughout the dough of society, which can leaven the whole lump, if we determine to bring the light and love of God’s kingdom to the places where we live and work.
After church, our pastor spoke to me. He agreed with my analysis of the situation, and said that the parallels were even greater than I realised – that if I read the history of the South Sea Bubble I would see similarities both with quantitative easing and the bank bailouts which had been done at the expense of the poorest in society, and with the recent exposure of tax avoidance in offshore funds by some of the nation’s wealthiest people. And he told me that it was estimated that twenty-eight thousand people came to faith in Jesus through John Wesley’s preaching – not a great proportion, considering that the population of Great Britain in Wesley’s time was around twelve million. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. If 2.3% of the population in Wesley’s time could change the course of the nation, what might we do today? We have the power in our hands to change the world, if we only realised it and prayed and acted accordingly.
I continued to ponder all this after I got home from church. I had, like John Wesley, known my heart “strangely warmed” on more than one occasion. I could recall times when my experience of Jesus echoed Charles Wesley’s lyrics “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee”. But I knew that in recent years my heart had begun to grow colder, and currently I could identify more with the words of William Cowper,
“Where is the blessedness I knew,
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul refreshing view
Of Jesus and His Word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.”
And somehow, as I sat contemplating all this, I felt God calling me to make a journey, both spiritual and physical, this year, in the footsteps of John Wesley. I spent some time researching places he had been. Some I already knew quite well – I had long been familiar with some of the sites in Cornwall where Wesley had stayed and preached, and I had often worshipped at Truro Methodist Church. My own grandfather on my mother’s side had been a Methodist minister, for a long time active in the circuit in East Hull, and pastoring at one of its churches. But I felt compelled to learn more about the Wesley brothers and their ministry, and in particular the secret of how they kept alive the flame of their relationship with Christ through a lifetime that was certainly not without its privations but which never wavered from devotion to the cause of Christ, the spread of His kingdom, and seeing lives transformed by His love and grace. Over the course of the year, I hope to chart my progress here.