In the 18th century [1701 to 1800] in Europe Christianity was still tied to the ruling state/government: one denomination per country (Europe). The state religion became every citizens religion e.g. anyone born in Germany automatically became a Lutheran, England automatically Anglican, Italy automatically Catholic etc. Church membership became a mixture of sheep and goats.
In the New World the European migrants decided to break-free from the control of their originating European power (mainly England) for a self-governing United States of America. Just like in Africa two hundred years later, Britain would not let go of her colonies without a fight, resulting in the American war of Independence. The difference with African experience was that in America it was not the locals independence but European-Americans descendants today called ‘Americans’ while every other has to carry a prefix (e.g. African-American, Asian-American) including the original Americans now called Native-Americans. One of the great by-product of American federation was a clear separation of the Church and State in the famous American constitution whose political model (democracy e.t.c) dominates the world today.
That however, did not stop colonization of Africa in the following century and with it the church-attached-to-state model. In many African countries the state church building e.g. Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran is not far from the colonial Parliament building. In Africa it was during decolonization that the American model slowly took root, also influenced by the new Pentecostal movement of the 20th century that led to new independent denominations.
In church history the 18th century is beget the mother of all non-state affiliated churches i.e. the Methodist movements, primarily led by John Wesley who in the mid 1700s pioneered (or restored) the model used by most independent churches today. Things we now take for granted like personal conversion, sanctification, open-air street preaching by anyone, cell groups, church planting etc.
But it was a small band of little known but cool radicals on the religious peripheries German Moravians (a pietism movement) who were the stepchildren of the Reformation.
John Wesley was an Anglican cleric who with his friends started prayer group what was later derogatorily called a ‘holy club’ as students at and later labeled ‘Methodists’ by critics because they were so methodical in their discipleship. One day while crossing the Atlantic Ocean between America and England on a preaching trip in 1736 a terrible storm ravaged their ship. With everyone panicking, he noticed this group who remained calm. After the storm, puzzled Wesley engaged them. One account puts it this way:
“Moravians: “John Wesley, are you born again?”
“I’m an ordained Anglican clergyman,” he responded.
“That is not what we asked you, John. Are you born again of the Spirit of God?”
John replied, “I’ve been working with prisoners, helping the poor and doing all kinds of good deeds since I graduated from seminary.” (John was trying to avoid this “Heaven or Hell” issue.)
The Moravians kept pressing him. “John Wesley! Jesus said, ‘ye must be born again.'”
Confronted over and over on this question, John Wesley spent a great deal of the
remainder of the voyage re-reading his New Testament…
Convinced that his church, his seminary professors and his missionary board had
let him down by not making certain he had been born again of the Spirit of God John began his search for spiritual reality.
Eventually Wesley had his personal ‘born again’ experience and spent the remaining years ministering this faith to others. With his fellow holy brother (who settled in America) they preached with conviction urged their hearers to immediately commit to Christ and be sure of their Salvation, setting English-speaking western world on fire.
At a time where Christianity was for and by the well up, in respectable parishes, they went to the slums, drunkards, addicts, slaves (black people forced from Africa and not considered worthy) preaching the Gospel like the Moravians. They organized their converts into small/cell groups and a group of these in a circuit. This obviously upset the established religious order of the day and in protest George Whitefield declared the whole world as his “parish.”
Powerful preaching aimed at the unconverted characterized this mid-century era and is now hailed internationally as the First Great Awakening figures like Jonathan Edwards though at the time the religious establishment called it the Great Noise.
“God was merciful” Whitefield proclaimed “Men and women were not predestined to damnation, but could be saved by repenting of their sins ” – a statement that runs against his Calvinist upbringing/beliefs. Unlike Wesley, Whitefield remained a Calvinist though he was more focused communication of the Gospel and conversion by persuasion strong conviction preaching instead of state/force.
“Wesley’s theology focused on sanctification and the effect of faith on the character of a Christian. Distinguishing Methodist doctrines include an assurance of salvation, imparted righteousness, the possibility of perfection in love, the works of piety and the primacy of Scripture. Most Methodists teach that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for all of humanity and that salvation is available for all; – in theology, this view is known as Arminianism.”
Wesley refused to leave the Anglican until his death. He didn’t want to split the church, he wanted to renew it. His followers – despised by main church – became a denomination soon after his death.
In all his exploits, Wesleys biggest contribution to the Body of Christ is the [restoration of] doctrine of Sanctification.
Ralph Mahoney put it this way:
“He taught that God wants not only to FORGIVE us our sins but also to SAVE US FROM THE POWER OF SIN. Luther taught God’s remedy for the PENALTY and GUILT of sin. Wesley taught
God’s remedy for the POWER and HABIT of sin. Luther taught us our glorious POSITION we are acceptable to God through the atonement of Christ (the making amends for our sin and paying the penalty). Wesley taught that God wants our righteousness to be evident in our ACTIONS. Wesley taught that God wants to bring our thoughts, words and actions into agreement with our legal standing of righteousness before God. He taught that it is important that we LIVE RIGHTEOUSLY because we have been given righteousness as a gift. ”
Wesley and his colleagues became the fathers of the modern evangelical churches (who believe in personal salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ). *Unrelated terms not to be confused – Evangelical refers to above category of denominations while Evangelist is an individuals title (e.g pastor).
This wasnt possible without the deep influence of the unsung Moravians to renewal in Protestant Faith can be likened to the Jesuits influence in the Roman Catholic church. Another major contribution which came from the Moravians was music – expressive contemporary hymns. The Moravians were writing all sorts of Christ-centered, grace-centered, conversion-centered hymns. Charles Wesley (Johns brother) wrote great hymns becoming one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. The hymns were the Christian instruction and the Christian language of ordinary people and had a tremendous impact, both as expressing and teaching the rudiments of the newfound evangelical faith.
to be continued
This is part 9 of #ThisGospel a Church history series by Talent Mbedzi (Whatsapp +27624740015)