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The Sermons of John Wesley

John Wesley (1703-1791) founded Methodism. A prolific writer, he printed several volumes of his sermons during his lifetime. The published sermons either were rewritten from ones that he had  preached or were written specifically for print.

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The Reformation of Manners

By John Wesley

Sermon 52

(text from the 1872 edition - Thomas Jackson, editor)

(Page 1 of 2)


Who will rise up with me against the wicked? Psalm 94:16

1. In all ages, men who neither feared God nor regarded man have combined together, and formed confederacies, to carry on the works of darkness. And herein they have shown themselves wise in their generation; for by this means they more effectually promoted the kingdom of their father the devil, than otherwise they could I have done. On the other hand, men who did fear God, and desire the happiness of their fellow-creatures, have, in every age, found it needful to join together, in order to oppose the works of darkness, to spread the knowledge of God their Saviour, and to promote his kingdom upon earth. Indeed He himself has instructed them so to do. From the time that men were upon the earth, he hath taught them to join together in his service, and has united them in one body by one Spirit. And for this very end he has joined them together, "that he might destroy the works of the devil;" first in them that are already united, and by them in all that care round about them.

2. This is the original design of the Church of Christ. It is a body of men compacted together, in order, first, to save each his own soul; then to assist each other in working out their salvation; and, afterwards, as far as in them lies, to save all men from present and future misery, to overturn the kingdom of Satan, and set up the kingdom of Christ. And this ought to be the continued care and endeavour of every member of his Church; otherwise he is not worthy to be called a member thereof, as he is not a living member of Christ.

3. Accordingly, this ought to be the constant care and endeavour of all those who are united together in these kingdoms, and are commonly called, The Church of England. They are united together for this very end, to oppose the devil and all his works, and to wage war against the world and the flesh, his constant and faithful allies. But do they, in fact, answer the end of their union? Are all who style themselves "members of the Church of England" heartily engaged in opposing the works of the devil, and fighting against the world and the flesh? Alas! We cannot say this. So far from it, that a great part, I fear the greater part of them, are themselves the world, -- the people that know not God to any saving purpose; are indulging, day by day, instead of "mortifying the flesh, with its affections and desires;" and doing, themselves, those works of the devil, which they are peculiarly engaged to destroy.

4. There is, therefore, still need, even in this Christian county, (as we courteously style Great Britain,) yea, in this Christian church, (if we may give that title to the bulk of our nation,) of some to "rise up against the wicked," and join together "against the evil doers." Nay, there was never more need than there is at this day, for them "that fear the Lord to speak often together" on this very head, how they may "lift up a standard against the iniquity" which overflows the land. There is abundant cause for all the servants of God to join together against the works of the devil; with united hearts and counsels and endeavours to make a stand for God, and to repress, as much as in them lies, these "floods of ungodliness."

5. For this end a few persons in London, towards the close of the last century, united together, and after a while, were termed, The Society for Reformation of Manners; and incredible good was done by them for near forty years. But then, most of the original members being gone to their reward, those who succeeded them grew faint in their mind, and departed from the work: So that a few years ago the Society ceased; nor did any of the kind remain in the kingdom.

6. It is a society of the same nature which has been lately formed. I purpose to show,

I. First, the nature of their design, and the steps they have hitherto taken:

II. Secondly, the excellency of it; with the various objections which have been raised against it:

III. Thirdly, what manner of men they ought to be who engage in such a design: And,

IV. Fourthly, with what spirit, and in what manner, they should proceed in the prosecution of it.

V. I shall conclude with an application both to them, and to all that fear God.


I.

1. I am, First, to show the nature of their design, and the steps they have hitherto taken.

It was on a Lord's Day, in August, 1757, that, in a small company who were met for prayer and religious conversation, mention was made of the gross and open profanation of that sacred day, by persons buying and selling, keeping open shop, tippling in alehouses, and standing or sitting in the streets, roads, or fields, vending their wares as on common days; especially in Moorfields, which was then full of them every Sunday, from one end to the other. It was considered, what method could be taken to redress these grievances; and it was agreed, that six of them should, in the morning, wait upon Sir John Fielding for instruction. They did so: He approved of the design, and directed them how to carry it into execution.

2. They first delivered petitions to the Right Honourable the Lord Mayor, and the Court of Aldermen; to the Justices sitting at Hick's Hall; and those in Westminster; and they received from all these honourable benches much encouragement to proceed.

3. It was next judged proper to signify their design to many persons of eminent rank, and to the body of the Clergy, as well as the Ministers of other denominations, belonging to the several churches and meetings in and about the cities of London and Westminster; and they had the satisfaction to meet with a hearty consent and universal approbation from them.

4. They then printed and dispersed, at their own expense, several thousand books of instruction to Constables and other Parish Officers, explaining and enforcing their several duties: And to prevent, as far as possible, the necessity of proceeding to an actual execution of the laws, they likewise printed and dispersed in all parts of the town dissuasives from Sabbath-breaking, extract from Acts of Parliament against it, and notices to the offenders.

5. The way being paved by these precautions, it was in the beginning of the year 1758, that, after notices delivered again and again, which were as often set at naught, actual informations were made to Magistrates against persons profaning the Lord's day. By this means they first cleared the streets and fields of those notorious offenders who, without any regard either to God or the king, were selling their wares from morning to night. They proceeded to a more difficult attempt, the preventing tippling on the Lord's day, spending the time in alehouses, which ought to be spent in the more immediate worship of God. Herein they were exposed to abundance of reproach, to insult and abuse of every kind; having not only the tipplers, and those who entertained them, the alehouse keepers, to contend with, but rich and honourable men, partly the landlords of those alehouse keepers, partly those who furnished them with drink, and, in general, all who gained by their sins. Some of these were not only men of substance, but men in authority; nay, in more instances than one, they were the very persons before whom the delinquents were brought. And the treatment they gave those who laid the informations naturally encouraged "the beasts of the people" to follow their example, and to use them as fellows not fit to live upon the earth. Hence they made no scruple, not only to treat them with the basest language, not only to throw at them mud or stones, or whatever came to hand, but many times to beat them without mercy, and to drag them over the stones, or through the kennels. And that they did not murder them was not for want of will; but the bridle was in their teeth.

6. Having, therefore, received help from God, they went on to restrain bakers likewise, from spending so great a part of the Lord's day in exercising the work of their calling. But many of these were more noble than the victuallers. They were so far from resenting this, or looking upon it as an affront, that several, who had been hurried down the stream of custom to act contrary to their own conscience, sincerely thanked them for their labour, and acknowledged it as a real kindness.

7. In clearing the streets, fields, and alehouses of Sabbath-breakers, they fell upon another sort of offenders, as mischievous to society as any; namely, gamesters of various kinds. Some of these were of the lowest and vilest class, commonly called gamblers; who make a trade of seizing on young and unexperienced men, and tricking them out of all their money; and after they have beggared them, they frequently teach them the same mystery of iniquity. Several nests of these they have rooted out, and constrained not a few of them honestly to earn their bread by the sweat of their brow and the labour of their hands.

8. Increasing in number and strength, they extended their views, and began, not only to repress profane swearing, but to remove out of our streets another public nuisance, and scandal of the Christian name, common prostitutes. Many of these were stopped in their mid career of audacious wickedness. And in order to go to the root of the disease, many of the houses that entertained them have been detected, prosecuted according to law, and totally suppressed. And some of the poor desolate women themselves, though fallen to

The lowest line of human infamy,

have acknowledged the gracious providence of God, and broke off their sins by lasting repentance. Several of these have been placed out, and several received into the Magdalene Hospital.

9. If a little digression may be allowed, who can sufficiently admire the wisdom of Divine Providence, in the disposal of the times and seasons so as to suit one occurrence to another? For instance: Just at a time when many of these poor creatures, being stopped in their course of sin, found a desire of leading a better life, as it were in answer to that sad question, "But if I quit the way I now am in, what can I do to live? For I am not mistress of any trade; and I have no friends that will receive me:" -- I say, just at this time, God has prepared the Magdalen Hospital. Here those who have no trade, nor any friends to receive them, are received with all tenderness; yea, they may live, and that with comfort, being provided with all things that are needful "for life and godliness."

10. But to return.

The number of persons brought to justice, from August, 1757, to August, 1762, is.....................9,596

From thence to the present time: --


For unlawful gaming, and profane swearing.......................40
For Sabbath-breaking............................................................400
Lewd women, and keepers of ill houses...........................550
For offering to sale obscene prints..........................................2
______________________________________________

In all.....................................................................................10,588


11.
In the admission of members into the Society, no regard is had to any particular sect or party. Whoever is found, upon inquiry, to be a good man is readily admitted. And none who has selfish or pecuniary views, will long continue therein; not only because he can gain nothing thereby, but because he would quickly be a loser, inasmuch as he must commence subscriber as soon as he is a member. Indeed, the vulgar cry is, "These are all Whitefieldites." But it is a great mistake. About twenty of the constantly subscribing members are all that are in connection with Mr. Whitefield; about fifty are in connexion with Mr. Wesley; about twenty, who are of the Established Church, have no connexion with either; and about seventy are Dissenters; who make, in all, an hundred and sixty. There are, indeed, many more who assist in the work by occasional subscriptions.


II.

1. These are the steps which have been hitherto taken in prosecution of this design. I am, in the Second place, to show the excellent thereof, notwithstanding the objections which have been raised against it. Now this may appear from several considerations. And, First, from hence, -- that the making an open stand against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness which overspread our land as a flood is one of the noblest ways of confessing Christ in the face of his enemies. It is giving glory to God, and showing mankind that even in these dregs of time,

There are, who faith prefer
Though few, and piety to God.

And what more excellent than to render to God the honour due unto his name? To declare by a stronger proof than words, even by suffering, and running all hazards, "Verily there is a reward for the righteous; doubtless there is a God that judgeth the earth."

2. How excellent is the design to prevent in any degree the dishonour done to his glorious name, the contempt which is poured on his authority, and the scandal brought upon our holy religion by the gross, flagrant wickedness of those who are still called by the name of Christ! To stem in any degree the torrent of vice, to repress the floods of ungodliness, to remove in leisure those occasions of blaspheming the worthy name hereby we are called, is one of the noblest designs it can possibly enter into the heart of man to conceive.

3. And as this design thus evidently tends to bring "glory to God in the highest," so it no less manifestly conduces to the establishing "peace upon earth." For as all sin directly tends both to destroy our peace with God by setting him at open defiance, to banish peace from our own breasts, and to set every man's sword against his neighbour; so whatever prevents or removes sin does in the same degree, promote peace, -- both peace in our own soul, peace with God, and peace with one another. Such are the genuine fruits of this design, even in the present world. But why should we confine our views to the narrow bounds of time and space? Rather pass over these into eternity. And what fruit of it shall we find there? Let the Apostle speak: "Brethren, if one of you err from the truth, and one convert him" (not to this or that Opinion, but to God!) "let him know that he who converteth a sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and hide a multitude of sins." (Jas. 5:19, 20.)

4. Nor is it to individuals only, whether those who betray others into sin or those that are liable to be betrayed and destroyed by them, that the benefit of this design redounds, but to the whole community whereof we are members. For is it not a sure observation, "righteousness exalteth a nation?" And is it not as sure on the other hand that "sin is a reproach to any people?" Yea, and bringeth down the curse of God upon them? So far therefore as righteousness in any branch is promoted, so far is the national interest advanced. So far as sin, especially open sin, is restrained, the curse and reproach are removed from us. Whoever therefore they are that labour herein, they are general benefactors. They are the truest friends of their king and country. And in the same proportion as their design takes place, there can be no doubt but God will give national prosperity, in accomplishment of his faithful word, "Them that honour me, I will honour."

5. But it is objected, "However excellent a design this is, it does not concern you. For are there not persons to whom there pressing these offenses and punishing the offenders properly belong? Are there not Constables, and other Parish Officers, who are bound by oath to this very thing?" There are. Constables and Churchwardens, in particular, are engaged by solemn oaths to give due information against profaners of the Lord's day, and all other scandalous sinners. But if they leave it undone, -- if, notwithstanding their oaths, they trouble not themselves about the matter, it concerns all that fear God, that love mankind, and that wish well to their king and country, to pursue this design with the very same vigour as if there were no such Officers existing; it being just the same thing, if they are of no use, as if they had no being.

6. "But this is only a pretence: Their real design is to get money by giving informations." So it has frequently and roundly been affirmed; but without the least shadow of truth. The contrary may be proved by a thousand instances: No member of the Society takes any part of the money which is by the law allotted to the informer. They never did from the beginning; nor does any of them ever receive anything to suppress or withdraw their information. This is another mistake, if not wilful slander, for which there is not the least foundation.

7. "But the design is impracticable. Vice is risen to such an head that it is impossible to suppress it; especially by such means. For what can an handful of poor people do in opposition to all the world?" "With men this is impossible, but not with God." And they trust, not in themselves, but him. Be then the patrons of vice ever so strong, to him they are no more than grasshoppers. And all means are alike to Him: It is the same thing with God "to deliver by many or by few." The small number, therefore, of those who are on the Lord's side is nothing; neither the great number of those that are against him. Still He doth whatever pleaseth him; and "there is no counsel or strength against the Lord."

8. "But if the end you aim at be really to reform sinners, you choose the wrong means. It is the Word of God must effect this, and not human laws; and it is the work of Ministers, not of Magistrates; therefore, the applying to these can only produce an outward reformation. It makes no change in the heart."

It is true the Word of God is the chief, ordinary means, whereby he changes both the hearts and lives of sinners; and he does this chiefly by the Ministers of the gospel. But it is likewise true, that the Magistrate is "the minister of God;" and that he is designed of God "to be a terror to evil-doers," by executing human laws upon them. If this does not change the heart, yet to prevent outward sin is one valuable point gained. There is so much the less dishonour done to God, less scandal brought on our holy religion; less curse and reproach upon our nation; less temptation laid in the way of others; yea, and less wrath heaped up by the sinners themselves against the day of wrath.

9. "Nay, rather more; for it makes many of them hypocrites, pretending to be what they are not. Others, by exposing them to shame, and putting them to expense, are made impudent and desperate in wickedness; so that in reality none of them are any better, if they are not worse than they were before."

This is a mistake all over. For, (1.) where are these hypocrites? We know none who have pretended to be what they were not. (2.) The exposing obstinate offenders to shame, and putting them to expense, does not make them desperate in offending, but afraid to offend. (3.) Some of them, far from being worse, are substantially better, the whole tenor of their lives being changed. Yea, (4.) some are inwardly changed, even "from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God."

10. "But many are not convinced that buying or selling on the Lord's day is a sin."

If they are not convinced, they ought to be: it is high time they should. The case is as plain as plain can be. For if an open, wilful breach both of the law of God and the law of the land is not sin, pray what is? And if such a breach both of divine and human laws is not to be punished because a man is not convinced it is a sin, there is an end of all execution of justice, and all men may live as they list.

11. "But mild methods ought to be tried first." They ought: And so they are. A mild admonition is given to every offender before the law is put in execution against him; nor is any man prosecuted till he has express notice that this will be the case unless he will prevent that prosecution by removing the cause of it. In every case the mildest method is used which the nature of the case will bear; nor are severer means ever applied, but when they are absolutely necessary to the end.

12. "Well, but after all this stir about reformation, what real good has been done?" Unspeakable good; and abundantly more than anyone could have expected in so short a time, considering the small number of the instruments, and the difficulties they had to encounter. Much evil has been already prevented, and much has been removed. Many sinners have been outwardly reformed; some have been inwardly changed. The honour of him whose name we bear, so openly affronted, has been openly defended. And it is not easy to determine how many and how great blessings even this little stand, made for God and his cause against his daring enemies, may already have derived upon our whole nation. On the whole, then, after all the objections that can be made, reasonable men may still conclude, a more excellent design could scarce ever enter into the heart of man.

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