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John Wesley – Bane or Blessing?

Category Articles
Date January 6, 2003

"I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath, And when my voice is closed in death Praise shall employ my nobler powers."

At the Westminster Conference, Westminster Chapel, Wednesday 11th December 2002, Geoff Thomas gave a paper on "John Wesley – Bane or Blessing?" This is how he commenced his address:

When John Wesley was almost seventy years of age he was preaching in Cornwall and had an evening engagement in a chapel in St. Ives. He had lunch in the London Inn at Redruth and then got into his carriage and proceeded to the Hayle estuary to cross the ford which would take them to the evening service. The carriage was driven by a local man called Peter Martin, the hostler of the London Inn. He had put the two horses that pulled Wesley’s carriage into their shafts, and then had mounted the right-hand animal to drive the carriage the twelve miles to Hayle. Wesley was inside reading and writing.

The wind blew more strongly as they reached the coast, and as the road dipped and petered out into beach and pebbles the prospect had a threatening appearance. The tide was on the turn and the shore line was growing narrower and the expanse of water steadily widening. St Ives could be seen in the northwest on its low cliff opposite them, with their road emerging from the sea. The estuary that lay between the carriage and that town was now quickly filling with a surge of rough water and powerful currents. Peter Martin stopped the carriage at the water’s edge and weighed up the situation. He called back to John Wesley and advised him that this was going to be a dangerous crossing. While he was speaking to Wesley a sea captain walked up to the carriage (the man was waiting for the tide to come in for his boat to set sail) and this sailor counselled them, "Don’t even consider it." Wesley listened politely to the hostler and the captain, smiled and then said loudly, "Take the sea! Take the sea!"

So the hostler cracked his whip, spurred on the lead horse on which he was seated, and the carriage splashed into the estuary. Peter Martin never forgot that crossing, describing it thus some years afterwards, "The horses were now swimming, and the carriage became nearly overwhelmed with the tide, as its hinder wheels not infrequently merged into the deep pits and hollows in the sands. I struggled hard to maintain my seat in the saddle, while the poor affrighted animals were snorting and rearing in the most terrific manner and furiously plunging through the opposing waves. I expected every moment to be swept into eternity, and the only hope of escape I then cherished was on account of my driving so holy a man."

John Wesley put his head out of the window and shouted to him above the noise, and the hostler turned with some difficulty. He saw Wesley’s face, wet with the spray and waves; his hair was soaking. But the preacher was looking calmly out of the windows interested in everything that was happening, quite unperturbed by the tumult and storm. What did Wesley want?" "Driver, what is your name?" he called out. "Peter," said the hostler. "Peter, fear not," said Wesley, "thou shalt not sink," and he pulled his head in again. Peter Martin urged the horses on and indeed they crossed to the other side. "I’ll always say it was a miracle," said the driver. Then he added, "Mr. Wesley’s first care was to see me comfortably lodged at the tavern. He procured me warm clothes, a good fire, and excellent refreshments. Nor were the horses forgotten by him. Totally unmindful of himself, he proceeded, wet as he was, to the chapel, and preached according to the appointment." The scene is so illustrative of Wesley’s constraining love of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. How easily men today will cancel an appointment to preach the word of life at a church.

Wesley continued to preach for another eighteen years, sometimes a thousand sermons in twelve months. His last message in the open air was preached in the autumn of 1790. He was 87 years of age. He had become so feeble that each side of him a minister stood holding him up. His voice was weak, but his countenance was seraphic, his long white hair reaching to his shoulders. There he stood under a great tree in Winchelsea. A tree stands there today which was a cutting from the original tree. Wesley’s text was, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand: repent and believe the gospel." When he reached the end and pronounced the benediction the congregation were aware that this was probably the last time they would hear him. The tears of the people flowed freely.

John Wesley died four months later, three years after his brother Charles, twenty-one years after George Whitefield. John Wesley often repeated these words in his last illness, "I the chief of sinners am, but Jesus died for me." The hymn he sang on his deathbed (occasionally quite strongly) was not one of his own, nor his brother’s. It was not even composed by a Methodist, but rather Isaac Watts’ appropriate hymn of hope and expectation at the end,

"I’ll praise my Maker while I’ve breath, And when my voice is closed in death Praise shall employ my nobler powers."

His last words were, "The best of all is God is with us."

The entire address will be published in the summer with the other five addresses of the Conference.

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