Wednesday, November 28, 2012
All historians agree that the most vital spiritual movement in 18th Century
England came with the Methodist Revival. John Wesley, born and nurtured
in the bosom of the Church, reacted against the peurility of the
established way. At the age of 35, after much strugglewith various forms of
religious unreality, he found a newlevel of truth; at Aldersgate "his heart was
Soon he followed his fellow Methodist, George Whitefield, to Bristol where
he began field preaching. (This happened some two decades before Blake's
birth.) For the next fifty years Wesley averaged two sermons a day and led
thousands, primarily from the underclass, into a heartfelt experience of grace.
Wesley remained until his death an Anglican priest, but after his heart warming
experience he rapidly lost standing in conventional religious circles, and one by
one the doors of England's churches closed against his enthusiasm. In response
he claimed the world as his parish and proceeded to organize his converts in
Methodist Societies. They became after his death the second largest English
Many historians believe that the Methodist Revival prevented a social and
political revolution in England. The Methodists filled the vacuum of spiritual
authority manifested by the dead formalism of the established Church and the
lukewarmness of the ageing dissenting groups.
Blake and Wesley had a great deal in common. Each combined high intelligence
and spiritual vision with an uncompromising temperament. These qualities led
both men to a spiritual struggle continuing into middle life and reaching its
climax in what I have called a Moment of Grace.
Wesley described his as a heart warming experience. Afterward his preaching
led to a similar experience in the lives of thousands. It became in fact the
normative religious experience of the spiritually vital segment of the English
population, both in and out of the established Church. The resemblance to the
experience of George Fox is both obvious and remarkable. (The same could be
said of Paul and Augustine.)
The poem which Blake wrote in October of 1800 to his friend, Butts, certainly
describes what we may call a heartwarming experience. Always an individualist
Blake had too critical a mind to identify himself consciously with the Methodists
(who founded a new denomination),but without question his Moment of Grace
owed much to the Methodist movement.
In the most fundamental spiritual progression of their lives Wesley and Blake
were twins. Uncompromising individuals they both refused the easy spiritual
path of the majority of their fellows and struggled alone until the light came.
Each achieved a breakthrough to an outstanding level of spiritual creativity.
Quite close in background and basic values, the two men were miles apart in
the style of their response. Both of Wesley's grandfathers had been
non-Conforming ministers. His father had returned to the established Church
and served the Anglican parish of Epworth; John helped him with it for several
years. Wesley knew the Church as an insider; he believed in the established
procedures, and remained a part of them. But with his heart warming
experience he won the freedom to break the rules when the Spirit so directed.
Two instances deserve special attention:
First, his irregular preaching was in defiance of the Church's rules; like Luther
he 'could do no other'. Second, when the American Revolution caused a
shortage of Anglican priests in America, Wesley decided that he, as a presbyter,
had authority to ordain ministers for his American societies. This more than
anything else led to the creation of the Methodist Church.
In spite of these infractions Wesley believed in and belonged to the Anglican
Church. He had made free with some of its rules, but he was rigid about the
rules which he imposed upon his converts. And right there of course he and
Blake parted company. Blake just didn't believe in rules; he thought they all
came from the devil. He admired Wesley's spirit and held his rules in contempt.
Blake and Wesley each had an an acute social conscience; they were both
friends of the common man, but in different ways. Wesley wanted to improve
men's lot using religious means. Blake felt that men were victimized by tyranny,
and he wanted it stopped. Neither of them shared the conventional genteel
attitude that the lower classes, ordained by God to their station, should be
encouraged to remain docile and expect their reward in the hereafter. They
believed rather that men have the freedom to rise to whatever level their gifts
and character may allow.