"The Preaching Power of John Wesley,"

By Frederick E. Maser, Pastor of Old St. George's Church, Philadelphia, Pa, first published in London Quarterly & Holborn Review (April 1957)

Editorial Note: This important message given by Frederick Maser at his church certainly has quite a lot to say about Hermeneutics, or the study of preaching effectively. Those students of the Emmaus Walk should bear in mind that John Wesley was one of the greatest evangelists who ever lived. He rates right up there beside any of the foremost evangelicals, past and present. His peers are Martin Luther, Paul, Billy Graham, and the like. The tremendous, nation-wide revival [even Billy Graham's preaching ministry has not brought revival so far to America) that his preaching brought to all of Great Britain kept that nation out of a French-style revolution complete with the guillotine and mob rule. The hopelessly corrupt and depraved and drunken British society was reformed top to bottom, with all sorts of laws being passed to alleviate conditions in mines with child labor, prisons with unspeakable conditions for the inmates (often families were thrown in with their fathers who had committed crimes to bear the same conditions), the widespread poverty and squalor in the big towns and manufacturing centers, the oppressive factories and mills that worked people to death with the long hours, low low pay, and unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, the many laws that exacted capital punishment even for children committing little acts of theft (one girl was executed for stealing a ring from her mistress, and men who wanted to feed families were executed for shooting a deer on some nobleman's estate). Britain was a terrible mess, and was going to dissolve into chaos and revolution and a bloodbath, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ, preached boldly across all of the country by John Wesley with his brother Charles at his side, enduring all the threats of magistrates to put him in jail for it (and he was jailed from time to time), all the abuse of clergymen who opposed such preaching, and even the thrown rocks and rotten produce heaved at him when he rose up to speak--it made all the difference for Britain. Britain was transformed within a generation, and rose to the greatness of the largest realm since the Roman Empire--a nation truly blessed since it had come under the rule of the Bible and the Gospel and the Lordship of Christ, thanks to the Wesleys.

While in Britain, I was taken in London by a young and very gracious Methodist minister in training to tour the Mother Church of Methodism, and at the museum inside I saw John Wesley's personal articles, such as his umbrella! My guide pointed out the position of the pulpit in the sanctuary, which was central, not off to the side, which he said indicated the central place that preaching the Word had in Wesley's time. It was a beautiful facility, and the Queen had come to the re-dedication after its restoration some years ago. But the most impressive thing is not a building or any of the tens of thousands of Methodist churches in the world today but John Wesley's Bible-based preaching, which reverberates now over 150 years since his preaching journeys recorded in his Journal. Sorry to say, there are few genuine Wesleyans today, just as there are few genuine Lutherans worthy of Luther's name. Neither Wesley or Luther wanted churches or followers named after themselves! For good reason, they valued their good names! Most Methodists and most Lutherans know scarcely anything about Wesley or Luther, merely presuming they do since they attend either Methodist or Lutheran Churches. Dr. James Kennedy remarked that the wouldn't want to be handcuffed to some of his parishioners when they died (he preached for many years in the well-known Presbyterian church of Coral Ridge, Florida). Pentecostal Churches too, have that name of Pentecostal, but true Pentecostalism, or Spirit-led Azuza Street reality, is not what you find inside them, for the most part. The true move of the Spirit cannot be institutionalized by man and all his gimmickry, or even his zeal, but that doesn't stop religious people from trying.--Ed.

Bear-baiting, boxing, cockfighting, and public hangings--not television--were John Wesley's lively competition.

To begin with, John Wesley's sermons have absolutely no entertainment value. They are swept as bare of illustrations or stories as a monk's cell is cleared of ornament or luxury. unlike the sermons of the Master, his meditions harbor no illuminating or pleasing parables, few word pictures.

This was not, of course, because he lacked material of this nature. His wide reading among both the classics and the authors of his own day opened for him a rich mine of helpful illustrations, if he had wished to use them.

Wesley was a man of broad experience and keen observation. He not only traveled much, but he also grasped the significance of what he saw and heard. Dean Hutton remarks: "It has been very well said that Wesley's journal of missionary travel would serve as a guide book to the Britishg Isles, and it is replete with romantic incident and graphic pictures of life and manners." [Having read Wesley's Journal, and enjoyed it immensely, I can vouch that this is absolutely true about it--Ed].

From these sources Wesley might easily have embellished his sermons with stories of dramatic interest. He might have written them in the form of well-turned tales after the manner of Charles Dickens; or he might have presented them as a fascinating series of clear-cut cameos of contemporary life. He decided differently.

A note, however, ought to be added concerning the theory that Wesley, when actually preaching from the pulpit, did often illustrate his sermions with anecdotes and stories, and that his written sermons are not respentative of his preaching.

Both Sir Walter Scott [the world-famous creator of the Waverly Novels and Ivanhoe] and John Hampson are sometimes quoted to support this contention. Scott, who as a boy of only 12 heard Wesley preach, says, "He told many excellent stories." And John Hampson in his biography writes: "Many have remarked that when he fell into anecdote and story telling, which was not seldom, his discourses were little to the purpose. The remark is true. We have scarcely ever heard from him a tolerable sermon, in which a story was introduced.

Wesley is always his own best commentator and in an entry in his Journal describing his preaching before a mob, he writes: "I called for a chair, the winds were hushed, and all was calm and still. My heart was filled with love and my mouth with arguments. They were amazed; they were ashamed; they were melted; they devoured every word." Note particularly the expression, "my mouth with arguments"--not "with incidents of God's grace," or "with stories of Christ's power to redeem," but "with arguments." How characteristic of Wesley--to persuade by reason and argument rather than by anecdote or illustration.

Nowhere in his 21 "advices relative to preaching" or in his famous "Letter on Preaching Christ" does Wesley in any way point to the possible use of illustrations or anecdotes for making the sermon effective. Moreover, in his Journal, he advises every young preacher "to form his style" by the "First Epistle of St. John." This is a most significant statement; for any preacher who himself frequently used anecdotes or stories to illustrate or popularize his sermons would more likely have pointed to Jesus rather than to John as a pattern for preaching.

No writer of the day or biographer of Wesley recalls or records a story told by Wesley in any of his sermons. This last is particularly significant; since stories and illustrations are the most easily remembered parts of a sermon and, had Wesley used many anecdotes or illustrations, at least some of them would have been caught up and recorded in the writings of other men.

All of these considerations, therefore, drive me to the inevitable conclusion that Wesley at the height of his powers used few, if any, stories or anecdotes to illustrate his sermon.

Wesley's sermons, secondly, were presented with little oratorical flair. In marked contrast to Whitefield's with his dramatic gestures and emotional pathos, Wesley was a master of the conversational manner of preaching [Today's T. D. Jakes of the Potter's House Church as well as Marcus Lamb, founder of Daystar Television Network, preach with oratorical flair, dramatic gestures, and emotional pathos, while Charles Stanley of Intouch Ministries is probably a contemporary example of the conversational manner of preaching practiced by John Wesley--Ed.]

"In all his life," writes Bishop Francis S. McConnell..."Wesley never resorted to anything even resembling sensationalism. He had no tricks by which to catch the crowd...That he became a master of natural speech before immense crowds is manifest from the fact that he declares again and again that such speech did not leave him tired, even after speaking to three or four audiences in a single day." When it is recalled that Wesley preached to as many as 20,000 or 30,000 people in one day, and often at one time, this fact is nothing short of astounding.

It is doubtful whether a man of Wesley's temperament could have been tempted to imitate Whitefield's oratorical extravagances; but had he so desired John Wesley could probably have mastered this method of preaching. For when he set out to learn something, he was an exceedingly teachable person. Rather, however, he would be himself--direct, frank, open, straightforward--and he would present his message with the natural power that resulted from the sincerity of his own fiery spirit.

This, however, makes his appeal more difficult to explain. Eighteenth-century England was not a mild, passive generation. It was a roaring, bustling, brutal entertainment-seeking age, and a man quietly, though authoritatively, preaching a sermon could hardly have expected a hearing.

Bear-baiting was a common sport. Boxing, even among women, was a customary pastime. Matches continued almost indefinitely, or until one of the contestants was too severely pommeled or bleeding to continue. Cockfighting, gambling, drinking, and attending public hangings were popular amusements. What chance could there be for a quiet-spoken street preacher to capture a crowd? But Wesley did just that, and he never once raised his voice or descended to rude mannerisms to accomplish his purpose.

A third fact that should not be overlooked is that, although preaching for the most part to the lower classes, Wesley always couched his sermons in the finest English. He never appealed to his audiences by descending to their intellectual levels or to the colloquialisms of their speech. His sermons are clear, direct, and terse; his style is polished, even though it is also plain and chaste.

He removed from his preaching vocabularly those "nice" technical and erudite words which, while they might have impressed his hearers, would have obscured the meaning; and he presented his thought in a plain, sturdy English--always lifting his hearers to his own levels of speech and thought, rather than talking down to them.

While he labored "to avoid all words which are not used in common life," he did not use slang or provincialisms to express his thought [unlike many televangelists and mega-church preachers today, who like even to dress, if not in the latest and most expensive suits, then in "cool", washed out or fashionably faded jeans and just a shirt with no tie, using street language, even some swear words on occasion, adding gross incidents and vulgar man-woman allusions that almost becomes locker room talk as they try to identify with the worldly, carnal, casual, sexually-inclined contemporary culture!--Ed.]. Rather, he used short, clear Anglo- Saxon words, understandable to his hearers. He neither spoke in a pedantic manner of a scholar nor yet in the intimate fasion of a man talking over a pot of beer.

Thus Wesley rejected three possible techniques for holding an audience: the use of uncommon, colorful language, the display of oratorical power, and the presenting of entertaining or amusing illustrations and stories [such as you get with the preaching of John Hagee of Cornerstone Church, San Antonio, Texas--Ed].

Let us now turn to a more positive analysis of Wesley's preaching strength. To begin with--and this fact is paramount in any adequate explanation of his pulpit power--John Wesley was a biblical preacher. He had a firm grasp on biblical doctrines and theology and he proclaimned biblical truth not only in clear understandable Engloish but also by an intelligent use of scriptural quotations. In the preface to "Sermons on Several Occasions," Wesley marks this as his purpose in preaching.

In his famous sermon on "Justification by Faith" there are over 45 direct quotations from the Bible, and this number of biblical references in one sermon is not unusually large [not for Wesely, but, yes, for most preachers today!--Ed.]

In emphasizing this aspect of Wesley's ministry, I am not pleading for an indiscriminate use of biblical passages in preaching. I do not think that a man should splatter his sermons with scriptural references in the nonchalant way that he might pepper an egg [I have also heard certain preachers give an entire message consisting of scripture, nothing but scripture, and it was deadly dull hearing them, and I had to wonder why they were preaching, as we could go and read the Bible ourselves, not have to listen to a routine litany of scriptures with no argument or persuasion of the preacher's own to help connect it with the hearers; this method of theirs, like class recitation of a printed passage in a book, is an instance of the letter of the law, however correct and orthodox, as a killing instrument, whereas the spirit and the word together give life.-- Ed].

I am saying, however, that a preacher is called to explain what the Bible reveals about the great issues of life and death--about God, sin, redemption, immortality, et ernal life. To this end he must be straightforward and honest, possessing the courage to present biblical truth even though it clashes with his own ideas on the subject or runs afoul of his congregation's preconceived notions of religion.

I am insisting, moreover, that when a man sets forth eternal truth by an intelligent use of the Bible, he is providing an important medium for the Holy Spirit to act upon the hearts of his listeners and to accomplish those miracles of conviction and conversion which result in a regenerated spirit. This discovery, I believe, is one of the great contributions to Christian preaching of the Wesleyan revival and the Lutheran reformation.

The word is a tool--a tool used by the Holy Spirit to accomplish his purpose in the hearts of hearers. This, as preachers, we too often forget. When our sermon is seemingly successful, we feel it is due to the logical cogency of our argument, or the ingenuity or novelty of our presentation. It is more likely that we preached the Word of God directly, like a steel blade, and that the Holy Spirit used this best weapon in his armor to convict men of sin and righteousness and judgment.

This Wesley always did. He had a comprehensive knowledge of the Bible and a fluent use of biblical truth. It is here that we find the ultimate secret of his effectiveness. No other explanation of his preaching power is adequate. No other explanation accounts for its tremendous success.

There are, however, other factors which are important in any analysis of Wesley's preaching. These include both the simplicity and clarity of his message and the personal, decisive character of his appeal. Wesley's sermons are orderly, logical, and direct. They resemble a windswept landscape, cleared of all luxuriant but distracting undergrowth, upon which his thoughts stand out like widely-spaced trees, plain, start, inevitable. One is never in doubt as to Wesley's meaning on any subject. He knows what he wants to say and says it.

His messages, furthermore, contained a distinctly personal note, and they were delivered with a profound sincerity which impressed each individual in his audience with the personal nature of their content.

The fact is, no one could listen very long to Wesley's preaching without being brought to a place of decision. Nor could one listen long without uncomfortably realizing how short he fell of the kind of Christian life God expected him to live. Wesley's preaching drove home to his listeners that they were at a place of crisis in their lives and that it was a matter of life or death to them whether or not they decided for Christ.

In his hands the Gospel became not merely a means for improving society or making bad men good and good men somethat better. It became a boundary dividing men into two kingdoms, the saved and the lost; a rock splitting the river of humanity into two streams, those who possessed Christ and those who denied him. But above all, it became a dynamic, a power with the strength and the authority to translate those who willed from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of Light. It became the greatest creative force of the 18th century.

A final significant truth about Wesley's preaching is that it carried with it the glow of hope. Bishop McConnell has rightly said, "Over all--I am speaking now of the types of persons to whom Wesley most commonly preached--there was a cloud of tragedy. Life was hard without much to soften it. Into all this came the preaching of Wesley which, with all its acceptance by inheritance of the stiff stuff of orthodoxy, was full of hope and that, too, for every man. In the circumstances, the Gospel has never been more worthy of its title of good news than in the sermons of John Wesley. The deists of the age virtually said that there was no news from God; the sterner Calvinists made the Gospel bad news, except for themselves. It was the task of Wesley to convince the masses of his time that there was at hand news from God, and that the news was good, or better than deism or Calvinism."

Thus his sermons are filled with comforting passages like this:

"This is a 'very full of comfort' to all self-destroyed, self-condemned sinners. That 'whosoever believeth on Him shall not be ashamed: that the same Lord over all, is rich unto all that call upon Him.' Here is comfort, high as Heaven, stronger than death! What! Mercy for all? For Zaccheus, a public robber? For Mary Magdalene, a common harlot? [Good news for Madonna, or Paris Hilton, and would have been Good News too to the late Anna Nicole Smith if someone could have brought the saving Gospel to her!--Ed.]. God will not cast out thy prayer. Nay, perhaps He may say the next hour, 'Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee'; so forgiven, that they shall reign over thee no more; yea, and that the 'Holy Spirit shall bear witness with they spirit that thou art a child of God.' O glad tidings! Tidings of great joy, which atre sent unto all people! 'Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters: Come ye, and buy without money and without price.' Whatsoever your sins be, 'though red like crimson,' though more than the hairs of your head, 'return ye unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon you; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon.'"

The glow of hope which radiates from this gracious invitation must have warmed the heart of each of his listeners. It came upon them like the glory of the morning sunrise after a night of cold, chilling rain.

Finally, we must not forget that John Wesley was a man especially chosen by God for a peculiar task. Few men achieve what Wesley accomplished, probably because few men are called to do with Wesley did. In him we see burning that divine fire which flames forth brilliantly and inexplicably on the altar of some men's lives to illuminate the great temple of humanity. We cannot explain men like this, except to say that in them the rays of divine revelation were, for a moment, drawn to a focus, and were thus revealed to their own and succeeding generations with a new and penetrating power.

But while we cannot explain a man like Wesley, we can thank God for him and see, in some small measure, to try to follow his leadership.

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Text: (c) 1959 Lovick Pierce

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