21st century America looks a lot like 18th century England. John Wesley brought hope to 18th century England in a way that we need now. They way he did it may surprise you…
As Hannah and I get closer to having our first child, due December 29, I’ve been thinking about the future and about what kind of world our son will grow up in.
It goes without stating that the past couple of years have been very difficult for America. Those of us who have stable jobs have a lot to be thankful for, but there seems to be a general malaise over our country. Some are angry. Most of us are skeptical of the government, religious leaders, companies, etc. The U.S. will be deeply in debt for years.
The future just doesn’t seem as bright as it did three or four years ago, and there is a real need for hope and optimism. Here are some thoughts about how the past might shed some light on our future and inspire a bright hope for a the 21st century…
18th century England was a time of uncertainty and change.
The people could barely keep up. The Industrial Revolution and even advances in farming technology changed life as they knew it. Migration changed where people lived. Life felt uprooted. Before the 18th century, for the past 8,000 – 10,000 years, most people lived in the country and worked on farms. Now, machines did things that people used to do.
Massive political change was on the horizon, culminating with revolutions in France and the 13 Colonies. England fought civil wars and wars with neighboring countries. They were the world’s superpower, but it came at a price for the poor. Only the rich companies and their owners benefitted. The future looked as though the chances of it being threatening were as good as being hopeful.
The world just didn’t feel right. Society seemed less than human.
The ultimate questions of life seemed unanswerable. The Age of Reason was supposed to have provided all of the answers, but while reason made new freedoms possible, it also left life feeling mechanical, like the new machines filling the cities.
The Church of England was wrapped up in politics and had become stale and out of touch with life. Religion just did not meet the needs felt by the people. Gin, the new affordable drink, was more temporarily effective.
With the arrival of the steam engine and other technologies, the poor flooded into cities seeking work. Child labor in factories became the norm. Slavery was big business. Public health was horrible. Sugar became the favorite food of the masses because it supplied temporary energy but resulted in bad health and fatigue. Smallpox was the feared disease. The gap between the rich and the poor was enormous, and the rich profited on the hard work and ill health of the poor.
It was into this world that John Wesley was born. The Oxford grad student and new clergyman in the Church of England felt the same emptiness that most people felt, but he was willing to take drastic measures to make life livable.
He believed that nurturing the soul through disciplines would bring a sense of warmth and life, but, like the new technology, discipline alone seemed to be coldly mechanical. Other grad students at Oxford made fun of Wesley’s methods of spiritual growth by calling him and his friends “Methodists”.
He was willing to go to great lengths to make the world a better place. He attempted to be a good person and live a good life by serving the Native Americans in the new colony of Georgia. After experiencing conflict with local political leaders and being rejected by the woman he proposed to, however, he realized that he could not even change himself, let alone the world.
As Wesley returned to England, he remembered what had happened on the ship to America. A severe storm had damaged the ship so badly that Wesley and some of the other passengers feared they might die. It was during this storm that Wesley witnessed what would eventually change his life…