Amongst the fascinating questions surrounding John Wesley is the difficulty of honouring a remarkable Christian without devaluing him by well-meaning but unnecessary hagiography. His faults, like his virtues, were reassuringly human with the usual complications of his own mixed motives, the distortions of other people's partisan opinions and prejudices imposed on an already complex personality, and the flow of a narrative that has to weigh the changing continuities of an unusually long, energetic and mutli-faceted life.
Wesley's Journal is a case in point. Is it accurate reporting of facts or revival propaganda? Is it a field-preacher's travelogue or a vindication of his divine calling? Does it present the real Wesley, or construct a presented Wesley? Should the reader hear Wesley's voice, and if so which voice - the personal voice of religious devotion, the formal voice of a religious leader, the informative voice of an organisational strategist, the combative voice of an innovator under pressure, the self-justifying voice of a controverisal figure? Well, all of them, and at different times in his life these varying voices were more or less dominant. Compared to many religious journals, Wesley's Journal is less an account of inner spiritual states, and more a record of evangelical activism expressed in one long continuous narrative, written like (and often reading like) an audit trail of activity, achievement and strategic planning intended ultimately as a statement of life purpose pursued with persistent faithfulness and relentless attention to detail. The 7 Volumes of the Bicentennial Edition of The Journal and Diaries of John Wesley, are a marvel of scholarly detail, providing in the critical notes the kind of information needed to understand Wesley in the context of his own life experience, against the background of his times, and providing persepctives and correctives that do justice to his position as leader of a movement that changed the religious landscape of Christian Britain, America and beyond.
Richard Heitzenrater is one of the remarkable Wesleyan scholars whose work underlies the editing of the Bicentennial Edition of Wesley's Works. He was one of the supervising Editors for the Journal, and the author of one of the best resources in trying to understand John Wesley, his aptly named book, The Elusive Mr Wesley. For years now I've been a student of Wesleyan theology and spirituality - (and, as a matter of balance, a student of Jonathan Edwards 's thought and spirituality). What intrigues me about Wesley is precisely the word Heitzenrater used, "elusive". There is something comfortingly frustrating about a Christian leader who fits no neat categories, who inspires loyalty and opposition, who claimed lifelong allegiance to his Church, but shaped a dissenting movement, whose written sermons read like treatises and whose preaching while not electrifying like Whitefield's nevertheless carried a potently persuasive voice.
So wherever I go in my travels, I'm looking for Wesley's footprints. And I found a huge one at Gwennap Pit. Methodism made a deep and lasting impact on Cornwall, in the villages, amongst the tin mining communities,and in the main towns. usually liability to subsidence makes a piece of real estate a dodgy deal - but this piece of sunken ground, probably caused by settling over underground mine workings, provided what Wesley later called his amphitheatre. You can read about it here. (http://www.methodistrecorder.co.uk/cornwall.htm)
For myself, I was happy to be in a place so steeped in early Evangelical experience. It's far too easy to dismiss the importance of place, as if there was no such thing as sacred geography. What makes a place like Gwennap Pit special is the story of what happened there, its significance in the story of thousands of hearers, many of whom heard the Gospel, met God, wrestled with their own angels. Indeed that story of Jacob at Peniel, told in one of Charles Wesley's greatest hymns, is a story about an encounter with God that made the place special. Sacred geography, remembered place, where the ground is holy because God was found there, and found to be worth finding.
A couple of extracts from John Wesley's Journal show how Wesley, ever the pragmatist, saw both the practical use, and the sacred purpose, of a hole in the ground!
Sun. Sep 11, 1768 "At five I took my old stand at Gwennap, in the amphitheatre. I suppose no human voice could have commanded such an audience on plain ground; but the ground rising all round gave me such an advantage that I believe all could hear distinctly."
Sun Sep 3 1775 "At five in the evening I preached in the amphitheatre at Gwennap. I think this is the most magnificent spectacle which is to be seen on this side of heaven. And no music is to be heard upon earth comparable to the sound of many thousand voices, when they are all harmoniously joined together singing praises to God and the lamb".
Wish I'd been there, then!