WALKING w/ WESLEY & Planting the First Official Church in Georgia

by Bob Whitesel, D.Min., Ph.D., 2/7/16. Excerpted from the upcoming 40-day devlotional guide: Walking w/ Wesley: The 40-day METHOD for Turning Trials into Triumphs.

Week 2, Day 1…………………………………… Planting the First Official Church in Georgia

Turning trials into triumphs created a degree of fame for the Wesleys. John, who was now a teaching fellow at Lincoln College in Oxford, came to the attention of James Oglethorpe. We encountered Oglethorpe earlier, when his efforts for prison reform had opened up the Oxford prison to the ministry of the Wesleys and their friends.

But now Oglethorpe had a bigger vision. He was a founder of the colony of Georgia, covering roughly the northern half of today’s State of Georgia. It was there that he envisioned a haven for people who had been imprisoned in debtor prisons. In this vast area there was no official Church of England or a designated pastor. In 1735, John Wesley became Oglethorpe’s choice to plant the first church in the colony.

To Wesley, this was an opportunity to experience Christ more deeply by preaching to others in the unpretentious, natural environs of the new world.[1] Little did he realize, it was going to be one of his greatest trials.

This church launch was well organized. Financial support was secured in advance and a meetinghouse in Savannah was designed. As they embarked from Gravesend, England, John felt everything was in order. Physically everything was in order, but in hindsight John would recall that spiritually, his house was not in order.

Accompanying them on the voyage were German Christians, called Moravians after the area from which they came. They believed that humility coupled with quiet, reflection upon scriptures and Christ were helpful methods to strengthen faith. Wesley had the opportunity to observe their method firsthand when the ship encountered several unusually destructive storms. As one relentless storm de-masted the ship, hardened sailors abandoned their posts and cried out to God for mercy.

John had a similar fear of death, which had developed prior to Oxford when he attended Charterhouse School in London. In the same building as the schoolhouse was a hospital where daily he watched individuals die, some in comfort, others in fear. Yet, as the ship appeared to be sinking with all hands doomed to death, the Moravians showed not fear, but trust. They sang and praised God with a confidence and calm that moved John to declare this was one of most glorious things he had ever seen.[2]

Still, John’s reaction in the doomed ship soon showed him he was no different from the fainthearted sailors. He too was “unwilling to die” and shaking with fright crying out to God to save him.[3] This was not the example he wanted to show those that traveled with him. Nonetheless, it was who Wesley was at this stage of his life.[4]

A similar experience loomed before the prophet Ezekiel.

Exiled into Babylon as a young man of twenty, like Wesley he had been trained to be a priest like his father. However now Ezekiel found himself in a new land with a new role. At age thirty, about the age of Wesley, God revealed his all-seeing and all-knowing power in a vision (Ezekiel 1:4-3:15). This made Ezekiel realize the inevitability of judgment upon each person’s sins and how Jerusalem’s fall was God’s punishment. But in Ezekiel 37 God shows another vision, that though his people felt as good as dead, God can take dry, sun-bleached skeletons and create a living, healthy humans again:

He said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, Dry bones, hear the Lord’s word! The Lord God proclaims to these bones: I am about to put breath in you, and you will live again.  I will put sinews on you, place flesh on you, and cover you with skin. When I put breath in you, and you come to life, you will know that I am the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:4-6)

Wesley must have felt the same way. Though he had early success, when the threat of death came near he found himself empty and unprepared. He would later call this fair-weather faith, stating:

I went to America, to convert the Indians; but O! Who shall convert me? Who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near, but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled.[5]

From these stories emerge at least two lessons.

First, early successes can propel one to think too much of oneself and of one’s own ability. Most people may encounter early successes, which they may never again be able to replicate. It’s important not to live in the past or on past glory. The lesson for Wesley and for every enthusiast is that God may give you early triumphs – to be later followed by many trials. God does promises to bring about triumphs again, if we allow our faith to mature. During this week, you will see Wesley wrestle several more times with fair-weather faith. Though he will feel like his life and career are dried up, fair-weather faith can be reinvigorated again if God does the reinvigoration.

Secondly, we are reminded that the fear of death can be a test of Christian experience. The Scriptures abound with reminders that death is not an end, but a gateway (see the verses below). Take from these stories the lesson that a fair-weather faith must be replaced by “a mind calmed by the love of God.”[6]

Lessons 1 & 2

For personal devotion, read the questions and meditate upon each and write down your responses. For group discussion, share as appropriate your answers with your group and then discuss the application.

(Lesson 1) Have you found yourself thinking back to past successes, maybe even more than dreaming about future opportunities?

  • Recall a time in the past when you had a spiritual breakthrough. How did it make you feel? What lessons did you learn? Write a one paragraph summary.
  • Now picture in you mind a future success that could make you feel the same way. Write a one paragraph description of what this might look like.
  • Compare the two paragraphs. Use this rule of thumb: in the future for each minute that you spend thinking about past successes, spend two minutes dreaming about what God can do.

(Lesson 2) Ask yourself, “When have I been near death and how did I feel about standing before God?” Were you timid? Were you fearful? Were you happy? Wesley would write years later to a friend, “A Christian is not afraid to die. Are you? Do you desire to depart and to be with Christ?”[7]

Write a paragraph about how you feel about Wesley’s questions. Then meditate on the verses below. Repeat them, memorize them and read them in context. Then write another paragraph describing how these verses make you feel.

Psalm 23:4

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger because you are with me.

Your rod and your staff—

they protect me.

Matthew 10:28

28 Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.

John 5:24

24 “I assure you that whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and won’t come under judgment but has passed from death into life.

John 14:1-6

“Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too. You know the way to the place I’m going.” Thomas asked, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”Jesus answered, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Hebrews 2:14-15

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death—the devil—by dying. 15 He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

Revelation 21:4

           4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Footnotes:

[1] Frank Baker, The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial ed., vol. 25, Letters (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), p. 439.

[2] Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, ed.s The Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial ed., vol. 18, Journals and Dairies (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 143.

[3] Ibid. p. 140.

[4] John experienced similar terrifying storms on the voyage, as well as in America; all resulting in the same fright that lead him to declare regarding himself, “How is it that thou hadst no faith?” Ibid., p. 169

[5] John Wesley, The Heart of John Wesley’s Journal (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), p. 51.

[6] Ibid., p. 165.

[7] John Telford, ed., The Letters of John Wesley, A.M., 8 vols. (London: Epworth Press, 1931), 6:30-31.

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