Squelching the Power of the Universe

Februrary 2, 2017

realistic-universe_zJGY50Ld_LI’m sitting in my home on a warm January winter night in South Georgia, thinking about the church I love and wondering what happened to the power that used to be in Methodist services. A descriptive term from the 1800’s filters into my mind: Shouting Methodists.

We don’t talk about this too much today, but at one time, in the early 1800’s, this was a welcomed term. Apparently, Methodists had no trouble interrupting the preacher with shouts of “Praise the Lord,” “Hallelujah,” and “Amen.” One Methodist hymn book, dated 1807, records the initial thoughts of a convert: The Methodists were preaching like thunder all about, at length I went amongst them, to hear them groan and shout. I thought they were distracted, such fools I’d never seen, They’d stamp and clap and tremble, and wail and cry and scream. (Jesus Army Blog)

Shouting meant praising and rejoicing which eventually grew into songs. For some, a “shout” became a dance, a shuffling of the feet, a jerking of the head, a clapping of the hands. One of the Methodists’ spiritual songs read, “Shout, shout, we’re gaining ground. We’ll shout old Satan’s kingdom down.” (Jesus Army Blog)

A song in a Methodist songbook of 1807 continues with this theme: The world, the Devil and Tom Paine have tried their force, but all in vain. They can’t prevail, the reason is, the Lord defends the Methodist. They pray, they sing, they preach the best, and do the Devil most molest. If Satan had his vicious way, he’d kill and damn them all today. They are despised by Satan’s train, because they shout and preach so plain; I’m bound to march in endless bliss and die a shouting Methodist. (Methodist Songbook of 1807 by Stith Mead)

Frontier Americans cracked jokes about the shouting Methodists, but the Wesleyans wore the label as a badge of honor. They felt their own joy was one of the best advertisements for the truth of the message they preached. (Chris Armstrong, June 2003)

What did the early Methodists have to shout about? What caused the excitement, and is it possible to get that excitement back into our Methodist churches today?

John Wesley, from whom the Methodist church had its inception, wanted his converts to be holy and happy. Perhaps it was a combination of the two that partly led these early Methodists to be so exuberant in worship. Besides shouting, another phenomena happened. Wesley reported that people dropped on every side as thunderstruck as they fell to the ground, others with convulsions exceeding all description and many reported seeing visions. Some shook like a cloth in the wind, others roared and screamed or fell down with involuntary laughter.” (The Manifestations of the Spirit in Church History, People Get Ready) Today, we characterize this as being slain in the Spirit.

These early services in no way resemble any Methodist service I’ve ever attended, and you can likely echo the same. There is no record that John Wesley himself ever participated in shouting or falling down in the Spirit. In fact, John died on March 2, 1791, before the shouting Methodists became a buzz word in the early 1800’s. He also published his own song book called, A Collection of Psalms and Hymns. It was the first Anglican hymnbook published in America, and the title itself places Wesley’s hymnbook in a different category altogether than the early song book of the shouting Methodists.

Perhaps John Wesley was the catalyst for something that others, after his death, put into motion. Even though what we read of him does not seem to place him in the category of being emotional in any way, the movement he started was, after his death, moved by emotion. Have we lost emotion completely? Can we at least get a version of it back? Is it possible to get a congregant to shout a healthy “Amen” while the preacher speaks?

Wesley’s journal from January 1, 1739 reads, “About sixty of our brethren until three in the morning, the power of God came mightily on us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground.” John Wesley prayed, “Lord send us revival without its defects but if this is not possible, send revival, defects and all.” (The Manifestations of the Spirit in Church History, People Get Ready)

What gave Wesley a heart on fire? After what he felt was an unsuccessful trip to America in which he failed at converting the Indians, John Wesley came back to England a depressed man. He was in this state when he went to a service on May 2, 1738 at Aldersgate Street, London. God had used the Moravians before in John’s trip to Georgia. He admired their faith. He trusted them. Now, once again he was drawn to their meeting by a clear call from the Holy Spirit. What happened next brings us to the true depth of our movement, one that was not of outward emotion but of a quiet matter of the heart.

Who can know when the Holy Spirit will use the forces of His love and power to speak to a heart? After all, He is the force that created and runs the universe. I can’t imagine that Luther’s preface to Romans was filled with joy. Nor, can I imagine the leader reading this preface with anything other than a near monotone, totally unexpressive voice. God moves, however, in his own way and in his own time. This night was Wesley’s appointed night. Just at the angel Gabriel swept into the Temple, surprising Zachariah by announcing that he and Elizabeth would have a child, the Holy Spirit swept into the meeting house on Aldersgate Street and brought a message that would go down in history as Wesley’s defining moment. It should define us as well.

So important was this message that Wesley noted the exact minute it happened. At 8:45, as the reader described the change God makes in our heart through Christ, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed. That led to his assurance that he did trust Christ for his salvation, that Christ had taken away his sins and had saved him from the law of sin and death.

The Methodist Church was founded on the basis of one man’s heart being strangely warmed. We can define ourselves, then, as people whose hearts have been strangely warmed. If that hasn’t happened to us, then we need to call a meeting with the power of the Universe, the Holy Spirit. He is the only One who can warm our heart strangely. He is the power, I believe, that we have squelched in our churches.

Because accounts of shouting and falling down are documented, we cannot deny that they happened. But, I’m not looking for that in my life. Frankly, heavy emotion in this way makes me uncomfortable. But, if God chooses to act once again in that manner in our beloved church, I don’t have to understand. I just have to submit while He accomplishes His purposes for our church. Whatever the shouting Methodists had, it was more than enough to bring revival in their hearts.

I would welcome an exuberant “Amen” as I preach. I would delight in a manifestation of the power of God in our services. Mostly, I look for a revival brought about through a hunger for God. That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in. Welcoming Him into our services will make a difference. Too long, some churches have squelched the very power of the universe. Let’s invite Him into our worship. Let’s recognize the power of the Holy Spirit. Then, let’s pray with Wesley, “Lord send us revival without its defects, but if this is not possible send us revival, defects and all.”

“Lord Jesus, make us hungry for you. Make us hungry to know the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our church. Fill us anew with that same power that created the world, the power that created us in our mother’s womb. Come Holy Spirit. Fill our hearts. Amen.”

– BJ Funk