Did you know that if not for the Methodists, there might not be a United States of America? It’s true! The Methodist movement got started at Oxford University when two brothers, John and Charles Wesley, felt like they were spiritually stuck. They became part of a small group that met regularly for service, study, and prayer. Other students mockingly referred to these young men as “Method-ists,” that is, people who did the same thing over and over again.
One member of this group, George Whitefield, went on to become a priest in the Church of England. The young Whitefield wanted to become a missionary, and he set sail for the American colonies. Whitefield started traveling up and down the colonies, preaching along the way. Whitefield was a dynamic and dramatic preacher at a time when sermons were mostly long, dusty lectures. He called on people to be born again, and they were, in droves!
Whitefield became the most famous person in the colonies. There are many historians who believe that his travels and revivals laid the foundation for independence. Before George Whitefield, people didn’t think of themselves as Americans - they thought of themselves as Pennsylvanians, Rhode Islanders, or Georgians. Whitefield’s revivals gave the Americans their first truly shared experience, an event that transcended any one colony, something they had gone through together. Without that sense of “us-ness,” it’s possible that the Americans never would have been able to put aside their differences and unite in independence.
Ironically, John Wesley opposed the American Revolution. Wesley preached sermons and wrote pamphlets calling on the Americans to seek peace. Wesley was concerned about the atmosphere of division and bloodshed that was developing in America. He saw that people were afraid to speak their opinions freely for fear of violence. Wesley also pointed out how ironic it was for Americans to use the language of freedom and liberty while keeping their African brothers and sisters in chains. Because he spoke for peace, Wesley became deeply unpopular in America - he was called a sheep in wolf’s clothing, a madman, and a traitor.
As you celebrate American independence this week, take a moment to give thanks for the courage of missionaries like George Whitefield, without whom there would be no United States of America. Give thanks also for people who, like John Wesley, call America to live up to the highest ideals of peace and justice, even when those words are unfashionable. Most of all, pray that this generation of believers would fill the shoes of those heroes who came before us!
Your servant in Christ,