On Luther, more later. But now another challenging question arises in our complex, post-Christian workplaces full of real, fallen people:
- Does practicing the virtues demanded by the working life (such as industriousness, self-control, service to others, obedience to rules and leaders) reduce us to drones or pawns in exploitive structures of modern work? Or, Does becoming a good Christian worker mean sacrificing social conscience for placid obedience—prophetic witness for financial security?
To help us answer this, we turn to our second past leader, England’s 18th-century evangelical pioneer, John Wesley.
Anyone remember the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics? As the spectacle started, before millions of worldwide viewers, England’s pastoral island paradise rose slowly into view from below ground, to the wafting strains of British composer Edward Elgar.
But then – suddenly – the paradise was shattered.
Like missiles from silos, belching smokestacks shot up to dominate the landscape, accompanied by violent drumming and harsh music. The Industrial Revolution had arrived. Legions of laborers overran the green land, marching and working rhythmically under the watchful eyes of black-coated capitalists. TV commentators gleefully quoted the Victorain poet William Blake, describing how the Industrial Revolution’s “Satanic mills” had brutalized the landscape and crushed workers. The ceremony’s creator, they told viewers, had titled this section “Pandemonium,” after the capital city of hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
This dramatic vignette sets the stage for our second question about whether Christians are capitulating to immorality if they lend their labor to the industries of a secular world. Certain historians have leveled exactly this charge against one of the most active British Christian movements during the time of the industrial revolution: the Methodists. These historians have argued that the early Methodists simply capitulated, like sheep and slaves, to the worst of the Industrial Revolution, perpetuating its abuses when they should have stood against them.
Methodism was born in the late 1730s—when the steady industrious virtue of the old Puritans and the new capitalist habits of long-term investment were beginning to build the commercial machine that would drive Western economic growth in the centuries to come.
Back at Christian History, we were working for a while on getting a series of “Christian History Minutes” together for airing on a certain network of Christian radio stations. The deal never went down, but today I stumbled across the small series of “minutes” that I wrote at that point as a demonstration of what we might do. I’ll post a few of these today. Here’s the first, on a key moment in John Wesley’s career:
As all of us do, John Wesley one day faced a “moment of truth.”
I’m Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History magazine.
The founder of Methodism had broken precedent by preaching outdoors. He had pioneered the “class meeting”—ancestor of today’s small group meetings. He had encouraged laypeople to travel as preachers.
But now some of those wanting to preach and lead class meetings were women. And John Wesley balked. This had never been done in England.
Then, he watched the ministry of class leaders like Mary Bosanquet. And he saw that the Holy Spirit was gifting these women. So, against his day’s prejudices, he decided to give their work his blessing.
An army of woman leaders and preachers filled England. And Wesley watched his beloved evangelical revival explode. He knew, despite often violent criticism, that he’d made the right decision.
This is a continuation of this article. Part III may be found here.
Edwards and the Awakening
The Great Awakening began in November of 1734, when Jonathan Edwards, a Massachusetts pastor-theologian, became concerned by a spreading tendency among Connecticut River Valley Christians to rely on their own abilities in seeking salvation from God. In response, Edwards preached a two-sermon series on “Justification by Faith Alone.” And in what Edwards believed was “a surprising work of God,” the people in Northampton and the surrounding area were, he said, “seized with a deep concern about their eternal salvation” so that “scarcely a single person in the whole town was left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world.”
Edwards organized small groups to encourage those experiencing such concern, and soon hundreds were converted and renewed. The revival spilled over into 1735, touching some 25 Massachusetts and Connecticut communities before its intensity began to wane that spring.
Meanwhile, back in England, several students at Oxford University, including the brothers John and Charles Wesley and their friend George Whitefield, founded a group that the undergraduates derisively called the “Holy Club.” Continue reading