The prophet of experience


Three hundred years after John Wesley's birth, Dudley Levistone Cooney looks at the Irish legacy of the founder of Methodism

The English Methodists did not like it; they complained that their founder, the Rev John Wesley, spent far too much time in Ireland, but Wesley continued to come, and on Tuesday Ireland's Methodist community will celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth. Between 1747 and 1789, he made 21 visits to this country. In all, he spent about five-and-a-half years here, visiting almost every part of the country.

There were times when the Irish exasperated Wesley, and he described some of them as "wild as asses' colts untamed", but more often he wrote warmly of their loving nature.

He met with a measure of opposition, and had to face mobs in Cork, Waterford and Enniskillen, but mostly his visits provoked great curiosity. A Church of England clergyman preaching in assembly rooms and courthouses or in marketplaces and fields was an oddity. But many of his listeners were gathered into Methodist societies.

In Irish cities, the Methodists were, with some exceptions, recruited from the artisan and shopkeeping classes. In the rural areas, he received support from some of the landed gentry. They recognised the value of the Methodist teaching in making their tenants more industrious and more diligent in their attendance at the services in the Established churches, for Methodism had not then become a separate denomination. The gentry therefore encouraged their tenants to join Methodist societies, though only a few of them became members themselves.

Wesley failed to appreciate the value of the Irish language, and Irish Methodists did not begin to take the Irish language seriously until 1799. By the time of Wesley's death in 1791 there were more than 14,000 Methodists in Ireland, and the number rose to 60,000 in the 20th century. It has since tended to vary between 50,000 and 60,000, but far more people than Methodists have been influenced by Wesley. Many early trade unions had Methodists as their principal organisers, and some of their language is of Methodist origin. Printing unions still call branches "chapels", and the use of the term "brother" is another example.

It was Irish Methodists - Philip Embury and Barbara Heck from the Limerick Palatines and Robert Strawbridge from Leitrim - who introduced Methodism to New York and Maryland. After the War of Independence, the American Methodist Church grew exponentially.

Prof Dee Andrews of California State University has argued that it was one of the most important influences on the development of the new republic. Citing Nathan Hatch: "\ remains the most powerful religious movement in American history, its growth a central feature in the emergence of the United States as a republic."

Recent scholarship has been reassessing Wesley's theology. To the Anglican criteria of scripture, tradition and reason, Wesley added experience. Human experience cannot always be fitted into a logical system, and it is now being argued that Wesley's experiential approach may offer a more effective way for the Christian church to communicate with those outside. It has been suggested that nobody who lived in the 18th century has influenced more people in the years since than John Wesley, and in the dissemination of that influence Irish people have played a significant role.

The Rev Dudley Levistone Cooney is a Methodist minister. He is president of the Wesley Historical Society in Ireland, president of the Old Dublin Society, and chairman of the Association of Church Archivists of Ireland. He is author of The Methodists in Ireland (2001)