How Martin Luther Changed the Course of English History

by Rev. Peter McIntyre - Clogher Valley Free Presbyterian Church
Martin Luther and the Reformation call us to return to the Gospel
How Martin Luther Changed the Course of English History
In 1738, more than 200 years after the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, two brothers, who were destined to become among the most famous names in British history, were earnestly seeking peace for their souls. Since their days in Oxford University, where their little society was nicknamed "The Holy Club", John and Charles Wesley had, through good works and religion, been attempting to earn their favour with God. They had high hopes when they sailed to Georgia, in the New World, now ordained as Church of England Priests, to engage in missionary work. They returned to England, however, as failures, grappling with the reality that all of their efforts to achieve peace with God through their own means would never be sufficient.

In many respects, the testimonies of John and Charles Wesley mirrored the spiritual journey of Martin Luther, the German Monk. He, too, had attempted to discover peace through religion, vows, fasting, good works and ordination. Yet John and Charles, unlike Martin Luther, were ordained Priests within a Protestant Church, a movement that had been reformed as a consequence of the movement which the German Monk commenced in 1517. It seems that, 200 years after the English Reformation, salvation by good works and human merit had taken root once again. The Church of England had fallen into lethargy and corruption. A new reform movement was necessary, and the spiritual journey of the Wesley brothers would be the catalyst.

It was therefore appropriate that these two unlikely reformers would be deeply influenced by the writings of Martin Luther. When sailing to Georgia and while living in the colony, John and Charles had been challenged by members of the Moravian Movement, which owed its origins to a German, Count Zinzendorf. On their return home, and in a state of dejection and conviction, it was natural that the Wesleys should seek spiritual help from Moravians in London. The desire for God was so intense on the part of John and Charles that they were in touch with Peter Bohler, who was leading the Moravian Meetings at Fetters Lane on an almost daily basis. One of these interviews with Peter Bohler is described by Arnold Dallimore in his biography of Charles:

"Charles and John were in almost daily contact with Bohler. He asked Charles 'Do you hope to be saved? He replied, 'I do!' 'For what reason do you hope it?' 'Because I have used my best endeavours to serve God.' Charles reports, 'He shook his head, and said no more. I thought him very uncharitable, saying in my heart, 'What, are not my endeavours sufficient ground of hope? Would he rob me of my endeavours? I have nothing else to trust to.'"

It was while reading Martin Luther's Commentary to the Galatians on Pentecost Sunday, 21st May 1738, that Charles became convinced of Justification by Faith alone. This was genuine new birth, a once in a lifetime experience. He would later write, "I found myself convinced...I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ...I was in a new heaven and a new earth".

The many hymns with which Charles Wesley has enriched the English language have been drawn from the well which he discovered when reading the writings of Martin Luther. In his own words, 21st May 1738 was the moment when:

  1. "Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
    Fast bound in sin and nature's night;
    Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray-
    I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
    My chains fell off, my heart was free,
    I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

  2. No condemnation now I dread;
    Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
    Alive in Him, my living Head,
    And clothed in righteousness divine,
    Bold I approach th' eternal throne,
    And claim the crown, through Christ my own."

John was stirred when he heard his brother's conversion:

"I received the surprising news that my brother had found rest to his soul."

Three days later, John would record these words, which surely are among the most influential in British if not in World Church History:

"In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death." (John Wesley's Journal, May 24th 1738, Vol. 1. p.103)

Just as Luther's long struggle to reach the light had given him the conviction and passion to bring reform and revival, so it was with John Wesley. His preaching captured the soul of a nation and his incomparable organisational abilities banded the converts together in structured societies. His work challenged the complacency of the Established Church and laid the foundations of the Methodist Movement, which transformed English Society.

The Wesley Brothers lived during years of upheaval and change in Europe. England was only one of five major European Nations that did not erupt into bloody revolution in the 18th Century. Yet the social deprivations and causes of grievance in England were, for example, similar to France. Methodism, however, gave the English working classes a purpose which Catholicism could not give the French Peasants - a dynamic living faith. Yes, there were other forces at work within 17th Century England, but one cannot understand the history of those times without 'The Evangelical Revival' in which the Wesley Brothers played such a clear and demonstrative role.

Yet, their inspiration and mentor was Martin Luther, whose 500th Anniversary we are celebrating.

Who can deny that the Church in our United Kingdom is not in need of another Reformation? With our nation in the grip of atheistic secularism, with established Protestant churches over-run by liberalism, and with evangelical churches powerless to stem the tide, the need for spiritual renewal has never been greater. Just as Martin Luther's teachings sparked the 'Methodist Revolution' 200 years ago, the teachings he expounded continue to have the power to transform lives and alter the course of nations spiritually, socially, morally, and politically.

Martin Luther and the Reformation call us to return to the Gospel with the prayer for Revival.

"It is time for thee, LORD, to work: for they have made void thy law." Psalm 119:126
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