Wesleyan theology affirms the orthodox doctrines of Christ’s second advent, a general resurrection and general judgment, and the eternal states of heaven and hell. However, the early Methodists did not engage in prophetic speculation. Describing the Wesleyan- Methodist Magazine in the 1820s, W. H. Oliver said that of all the major religious reviews in England, this magazine “took the least interest in prophecy.” Prophecy in general was not a major emphasis within Methodism. D. N. Hempton concluded that among nineteenth-century interpreters of biblical prophecy, “Wesleyan Methodists are conspicuous by their absence.” In fact all that was necessary to join with the Methodist societies was a desire to flee the wrath to come.
Methodists devoted their ministry to proclaiming the Gospel and put little emphasis on speculative eschatology. None of the early Methodists wrote specialized treatments of eschatology. The few Methodist commentators who attempted to cover the whole Bible, merely repeated the prevailing historical approach within Protestantism. These five attempted to comment on Revelation because they were writing a commentary on the entire Bible. Even then, Wesley relied upon Johann Albrecht Bengel, Clarke utilized the help of a nephew, John Edward Clarke, Benson borrowed heavily from Wesley (and thus from Bengel). Coke and Sutcliffe relied on the standard Protestant commentators of their day.
Of 746 published sermons of early Methodists which I evaluated, none contained speculation on prophecy and only twelve, or 1.6% took a text from the book of Revelation. Thus, early Methodism did not emphasize speculative prophecy. They were historicists with regard to their approach to the book of Revelation and postmillennialists who held to a future millennium.
Yet the early Methodists were motivated by an eschatology of hope. In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley connected the pentecostal work of the Spirit in apostolic days with the great end time climax of the church.
But shall we not see greater things than these? Yea, greater than have been yet from the beginning of the world? Can Satan cause the truth of God to fail? Or his promises to be of none effect? If not, the time will come when Christianity will prevail over all, and cover the earth. Let us stand a little, and survey this strange sight, a Christian world.
Wesley then quoted Isaiah 2:2-4, Isaiah 11:6-12, and Romans 11:25-26 as primary descriptions of that Christian world. He preached,
Against hope believe in hope. It is your Father’s good pleasure yet to renew the face of the earth. Surely all these things shall come to an end, and the inhabitants of the earth shall learn righteousness. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they know war any more.” “The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains;” and all the kingdoms of the world shall become the kingdoms of our God. “They shall not” then “hurt or destroy in all his holy mountain.”
Wesley expressed the hope that the Methodist revival would not die. “No; I trust this is only the beginning of a far greater work — the dawn of “the latter day glory.” Wesley then expressed the belief that God “will carry it on in the same manner as he has begun.” Thus, Wesley expected the “latter day glory” to arrive gradually as the gospel was preached and all classes of people would be converted and enter into the kingdom of God. He spoke of this as “the grand Pentecost” fully coming. And so all Israel too shall be saved. They will be gathered into the Christian church and universal holiness and happiness will be reestablished on earth. This message, “The General Spread of the Gospel,” which foresaw the unleashing of a new worldwide missions effort was preached a full nine years before William Carey released his famous tract “An Inquiry into the Means for the Evangelization of the Heathen”
Wesley noted that Martin Luther believed that a revival of religion usually lasted about fifty years, but Wesley expressed the hope that the Methodist revival would continue until the millennium appeared. “We have therefore reason to hope that this revival of religion will continue, and continually increase, till the time when all Israel shall be saved and the fulness of the Gentiles shall come.”
Thomas Coke, the father ofMethodist missions, wrote, “Let us pray for the Universal Reign of Christ.” John Fletcher believed that the millennial reign of Christ was near at hand. He believed that God had raised up John Wesley and the Methodist movement as the forerunner to this coming kingdom of God on the earth. Fletcher felt the world would be evangelized beginning with the preaching of the Methodists. Whether this would involve a visible manifestation of Christ was an open question. However, this coming millennium was expected as a global Pentecost.
Fletcher’s wife, Mary, observed this emphasis of the coming millennium, when the world would be overspread with righteousness, was a theme of early Methodist preaching.
In his later sermons Wesley also preached of “an effusion of the Spirit” which would exceed the original Pentecost. He believed Methodism represented the beginning of the restoration of the early Church. Wesley believed the holy lives of Methodist believers as a Christian witness would constitute the greatest proof of the truth of Christianity. In this sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Wesley also declared, “The time is at hand when righteousness shall be as universal as unrighteousness is now.”
The consensus of Methodist commentators was that there would be a future conversion of Israel. This hope was based on Romans 11:25-26. Wesley believed there would be a “vast harvest among the heathen.” The resulting prosperity will provoke the Jews to jealousy. The Jewish people as a whole will be converted “being convinced by the coming in of the Gentiles. But there will be still a larger harvest among the Gentiles, when all Israel is come in.”
Wesley continued to say that this strong confirmation of biblical prophecy would convince many deists and nominal Christians. Their conversion would be the means of a swift propagation of the gospel among the Muslims and pagan world, “who would probably have received it long ago, had they conversed only with real Christians.”The fact that this entire paragraph was included in
Joseph Benson’s Notes and that Thomas Coke made a very similar statement demonstrates a general belief among early Methodists that the Jews would be converted when they saw Christianity working among the Gentiles. Albert Outler concluded that Wesley was certain the chief hindrance to “the general spread of the gospel” was blatantly inhumane Wesley expressed the hope that the Methodist revival would continue until the millennium appeared. behavior of nominal and pseudo-Christians at home and abroad.
Joseph Sutcliffe foresaw that the Jews would remain in unbelief until Christian missionaries succeeded in largely converting the Gentiles of every name and nation and in disseminating the holy scriptures in every language. Amos Binney wrote that “the general conversion of the Gentiles will not only precede, but largely contribute to bring about, the general conversion of the Jews.
Thus the Methodist hope was that scriptural holiness would be spread over the land and this would result in real Christians whose lives would provoke the Jews to jealousy. The conversion of the Jews would result in a still larger harvest among Muslims and the pagan world. Thus the resurrection of the Church would result in the millennium or a Christian world established on earth.
Francis Asbury wrote in 1796, “The time certainly is drawing near when universal peace shall bless the earth: when distracted Europe, superstitious Asia, Blind Africa, and America shall more abundantly see the salvation of our God.” In 1799 he wrote, “The coming of Christ is near, even at the door, when he will establish his kingdom. He is now sweeping the earth, to plant it with righteousness and true holiness.” After forty-five years of labor, Asbury wrote in 1815, “We will not give up the cause — we will not abandon the world to infidels.
Peter Cartwright, writing in 1856 said,
Nothing but the principles of the Bible can save our happy nation or world, and every friend of religion ought to spread the Bible to the utmost of his power and means. Then let us look for the happy end of the universal spread of truth, when all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Nathanael Burwash articulated the predominate view of Canadian Methodism when he declared that John Wesley’s conception of the coming of Christ meant:
the extension of Christ’s spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men by individual conversion such as was taking place in his own day. This he expected to go on in still greater power till the world should be regenerated by the saving power of the Gospel which was doing its work in his own time.
This conviction led Wesley to declare, “Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergy or laymen, such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven upon earth.”
This millennial hope was based upon their belief in a universal atonement, the power of the Gospel, and the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. They were optimistic about what the grace of God could do in the individual and preached a Christian perfection. They were equally optimistic about what the grace of God could do collectively to redeem God’s creation. The terms “premillennial” and “postmillennial” do not appear in the writings of John Wesley, but his implicit postmillennialism became explicit in the next generation of Wesleyan theologians. This optimism of grace continued across two hundred years. No Wesleyan systematic theologian has been premillennial. In 1998 Gary Cutler issued a challenge to prove that any Wesleyan Holiness institution officially taught premillennialism before the 1920s. He verified last Fall that “my statement you refer to stands unchallenged.”
The standard Methodist view in England remained postmillennialist to the end of the nineteenth century. Nineteenth century American Methodism had “almost completely adopted postmillennialism.” As late as 1890 virtually all of the major evangelists within the holiness movement were committed to postmillennialism. In 1897 the National Holiness Association passed a resolution against those who made premillennialism their “hobby.” The first premillennial president, C. W. Butler, was not elected to the National Holiness Association until 1928. In fact, Stanley Horton claimed that the pretribulational premillennialism, held by early Pentecostals, was a bigger barrier between them and the older Methodist holiness groups than their interpretation of the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
This hope of a Christian world motivated the early Methodists and their movement spanned most of the eighteenth century. No other revival has lasted so long nor has had such a widespread international influence. From 1773-1790 the American population increased 75% and during the same period Methodism increased 5500%. By 1850, the Methodists were the largest Protestant church in American and one-third of all church members were Methodist.