I had forgotten how young the Wesleys were when they started the work that led to the Methodist movement.
On our visit to Oxford today, we were reminded of the story. John had already graduated from Christ Church and been ordained deacon and priest at Christ Church Cathedral. He was 27. Charles, the younger brother, was a student at Christ Church. He was 22. As the story was related to us, Charles was walking a bit on the wild side. He enjoyed going to London for theater and was spending time with actresses. There is some thought that his professors spoke with him about his behavior and urged him to think about what he was doing with his life. In 1729, he chose to become much more devout. He gathered a group of friends to encourage one another in leading a religious life.
His brother John had been made a Fellow at Lincoln in 1726 and was now a tutor at the college, so they sought his advice. He encouraged them to read and discuss scripture and devotional works. He advised them to take communion every week (Christ Church was one of few churches offering weekly Eucharist at that time). He told them to keep diaries about their life with God. John began joining the group for their meetings. Their reading and conversation led them all to want to reach out to others in love, so they started visiting the prisons in Oxford. The “Holy Club” was born. By 1732, others started calling them “Methodists” to make fun of them. The name stuck.
You have to wonder if the city may have inspired their zeal. Oxford is a city of martyrs. Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, and Thomas Cranmer were imprisoned at the city prison, tried at St. Mary’s Church, and burned at the stake in Oxford during the reign of Queen (Bloody) Mary. Even more were killed during the reign of her sister Elizabeth. A plaque at St. Mary’s lists 23 people martyred for their faith, all before the Wesleys arrived.
But Oxford is first and foremost a university town. For nearly 1000 years, students have come to Oxford to learn and prepare for their life’s work. In Wesley’s time and now, Oxford is a city of young adults living through what may be the most impressionable stage in their lives.
Throughout history, great movements for freedom and change have often been led by young adults. Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Gandhi were all young when they got started. Many leaders in today’s Black Lives Matter movement are young adults.
But young adults can also become lost at this crucial stage. In his book Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel wrote about why he started Interfaith Youth Corps. He began by recalling acts of terrorism – from Eric Rudoph and the Atlanta Olympic bombing to the 9/11 attackers. All of the atrocities he mentioned were committed by young adults recruited and groomed by religious extremists during an impressionable stage in their lives. Yet, he said, people of a more moderate religious bent in all religions are often reluctant to try to shape and form young people in the faith, preferring to give them space to figure out their religious values on their own. Patel (who is an American Muslim) believes religious leaders need to work to cultivate religious values of love and openness to others in young adults. He does this by gathering young adults from different religious traditions to do community service together and reflect on what they experience through the lens of their religious traditions.
Seeing Oxford today impressed on me again the great potential of young adults in the church and our need to nurture their faith – in church, on campuses, wherever they gather. The approach the Wesleys used works well today – gather in groups, encourage one another in spiritual practices, seek to serve others. It’s a method young adults in my congregation are following when they meet.
The power of young adults in Oxford arose again about a hundred years after the Wesleys. A group of young adults at different university colleges became concerned about the power the government held over the Church of England and about the church’s growing secularism. They called for a return to the liturgical patterns of the earlier church. They sought to reinstate monastic life. They emphasized the centrality of the Eucharist in Christian worship. They appreciated beauty and encouraged worship to reflect the beauty of God’s intent for this world. They worked among the poor and were very concerned about social policy. They wrote tracts to spread their ideas.The influence of “The Oxford Movement,” as they came to be called, is with us still.
Thank God for young adults.
Here are some pictures from the day.
Courtyard at Christ Church
The Great Hall at Christ Church (and Hogwarts)
John Wesley’s portrait in the Great Hall, said to be the best likeness of him available today (no, it doesn’t talk)
The altar at Christ Church, where both Wesleys were ordained deacon and John was ordained priest
The plaque at St. Mary’s listing the martyrs
The spot where Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer were burned at the stake
The Castle, which in the Wesley’s day contained a prison and where they visited
Pusey Chapel, opened as a memorial to Edward Bouverie Pusey, a leader of the Oxford Movement, in the hopes of continuing their work at the university.