Wesley’s First Open-Air Sermon
By the first half of the 18th century religion in Britain, more particularly in England, was in a poor state: the Restoration backlash against Puritanism in the previous century, and the effects of Charles II’s ebullient immorality had surely begun the slide. The established church reflected political life, and with the worldly (some would say venal) Walpole de facto Prime Minister since 1721 it gained placemen and pluralists but lost preachers.
Inevitably there was a reaction to this state of affairs. At Christ Church College in 1729 Charles Wesley had formed what was nicknamed the Oxford Methodists, joined soon by his brother John. After unsuccessful missionary travels to America John Wesley returned to England in 1738. His zeal increased through contact with the Moravian sect, but zealotry was unwelcome in most Church of England pulpits. A younger preacher of similar stamp, George Whitefield , showed John Wesley the way by preaching open air sermons in the Bristol area, attracting increasing crowds of working-class worshippers: his first meeting in Kingswood was witnessed by perhaps 200; soon he drew 20,000. As Whitefield like Wesley before him was bound for Georgia, he invited his friend to take his place.
Thus on April 2 1739, in St Philip’s Marsh near Bristol, Wesley preached his first open air sermon. It was the start of what became known as The Great Awakening. The following month he began building the first Methodist chapel – The New Room – in the Horsefair, Bristol; and soon converted the Foundry in London’s Moorfields to a headquarters and chapel. But for Wesley his way was more often itinerant, with 250,000 miles of travel and some 40,000 sermons in his long life, the majority outside Church of England buildings though he never alienated himself from that organisation.
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