One hundred miles west of London lies Bristol, in Wesley’s day a bustling port city of thirty thousand people and the second city in the United Kingdom. Located near the Welsh border, it was the coal-mining center which fed England’s booming industrial revolution. Blossoming trade with the New World—including slaves—was bringing prosperity and debauchery to the growing city. Ale houses flourished; by 1736 more than 300 were licensed, and this number grew to 384 by 1742.
George Whitefield (1714–1770), evangelist and former Oxford junior colleague of the Wesleys, had just returned from preaching in America. Soon barred from London pulpits, he set off for Bristol. There on February 17, 1739, he preached for the first time in the open air to about two hundred colliers (coal miners) at Kingswood. Within three weeks the crowds had mushroomed to ten thousand, and Whitefield called on Wesley for help.
Whitefield had been drawn to Bristol for three reasons. His home was nearby Gloucester on the Welsh border north of Bristol. He had been in touch with Howell Harris, leader of the Welsh revival which had begun some years earlier. Then, too, turmoil and rioting had recently broken out among the coal miners of the region, particularly at Kingswood. When two of their leaders were arrested on January 19, soldiers were called out to secure the prisoners “in the face of all the mobbing women and amid a barrage of stones.” (Halvey, Birth of Methodism, 69).
The rioting around Bristol was part of a larger pattern of unrest during the period 1738–40 sparked by high corn prices, low wages, and the oppressive poverty of the new class of urban workers. Although food riots erupted off and on throughout the century, historian Bernard Semmel notes that “the years 1739 and 1740, when Methodism erupted, were especially bad years” and the Kingswood miners were “regularly a source of difficulty.” (Semmel, Methodist Revolution, 13).
In these unsettled conditions Whitefield had immediate success in preaching among the neglected Kingswood colliers. The ever watchful Gentleman’s Magazine reported:
Bristol. The Rev. Mr. Whitefield . . . has been wonderfully laborious and successful, especially among the poor Prisoners in Newgate, and the rude Colliers of Kingswood, preaching every day to large audiences, visiting, and expounding to religious Societies. On Saturday the 18th Instant he preach’d at Hannum Mount to 5 or 6000 Persons, amongst them many Colliers. In the Evening he removed to the Common, where . . . were crowded . . . a Multitude . . . computed at 20,000 People. (May 1739)
Whitefield’s efforts did not go unnoticed or uncriticized. One alarmed London gentleman warned:
The Industry of the inferior People in a Society is the great Source of its Prosperity. But if one Man, like the Rev. Mr. Whitefield should have it in his Power, by his Preaching, to detain 5 or 6 thousands of the Vulgar from their daily Labour, what a Loss, in a little Time, may this bring to the Publick!— For my part, I shall expect to hear of a prodigious Rise in the Price of Coals, about the City of Bristol, if this Gentleman proceeds, as he has begun, with his charitable Lectures to the Colliers of Kingswood.8 (May 1739)
Whitefield sent for John Wesley, knowing his preaching power and organizing skill. Up to this point, however, Wesley had preached only in regular church services while in England. Should he accept Whitefield’s appeal and help with the open-air meetings in Bristol? Charles, his brother, thought not. But John submitted the decision to the Fetter Lane Society which cast lots and decided he should go.
Wesley’s Journal for Saturday, March 31, reads:
In the evening I reached Bristol and met Mr. Whitefield there. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday, having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.9
Sunday evening Wesley spoke to a little society on the Sermon on the Mount—“one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching,” he observed, “though I suppose there were churches at that time also.” The next day, Monday, Wesley reports:
At four in the afternoon I submitted to “be more vile” [2 Sam. 6:22], and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture on which I spoke was this . . . : “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
Characteristically, Wesley immediately began organizing. He formed a number of societies and bands and on May 9 acquired a piece of property where he built his “New Room” as a central meeting place. When Whitefield returned to America in August, Wesley was left totally in charge of the growing work. He divided his time between Bristol and London, concentrating on open-air preaching, organizing bands, and speaking at night to a growing number of societies.
The Wesleyan Revival had begun. From the beginning it was a movement largely for and among the poor, those whom “gentlemen” and “ladies” looked on simply as part of the machinery of the new industrial system. The Wesleys preached, the crowds responded, and Methodism as a mass movement was born.
Wesley soon discovered that some of his helpers had gifts for exhortation and preaching, and he put them to work. In 1744, he began a series of annual conferences with his preachers at which questions of doctrine, discipline, and strategy were discussed. The minutes of the first conference show that Wesley quickly developed a general strategy for the movement. The “best way of spreading the gospel,” Wesley concluded, was “to go a little and a little farther from London, Bristol, St. Ives, Newcastle, or any other Society. So a little leaven would spread with more effect and less noise, and help would always be at hand.” (Minutes for June 28, 1744)
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