Pentecostalism’s Unlikely Grandfather – John Wesley and the Organized Pursuit of More

When Vinson Synan’s book, The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States, was released in 1971, the first sentence of the first chapter read as follows:

“John Wesley, the indomitable founder of Methodism, was also the spiritual and intellectual father of the modern holiness and Pentecostal movements which have issued from Methodism within the last century.”

Synan had already said, in the preface to the book, “The overriding thesis of this work is that the historical and doctrinal lineage of American pentecostalism is to be found in the Wesleyan tradition.”

When the book was revised and republished in 1997 (as The Holiness-Pentecostal Tradition), Synan noted that his idea had met resistance, but he remained confident:

“One of the more controversial aspects of my thesis as stated in The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement (1971) was that Pentecostalism was basically a modified “second blessing” Methodist spirituality that was pioneered by John Wesley and passed down to his followers in the holiness movement, out of which came the modern Pentecostal movement. I believe that the passage of time and the research of many scholars have basically supported this position.”

What gives the thesis its edge is that John Wesley himself would have been shocked (and appalled, maybe) at the movement that would claim his parentage more than one hundred years after his death. Yet there is no doubt that the founders and early leaders of Pentecostalism considered themselves to be the theological heirs of John Wesley, faithfully pursuing the fullness of salvation along the path he had pioneered in the 1700s. They were part of a movement that had separated from the Methodist church over how to be faithful to Wesley’s vision. This theological debate was far from settled when the Pentecostal movement emerged in the early 1900s.

If we set the theological debate aside for the moment, we can see practical, historical reasons why John Wesley can be considered the unlikely grandfather of the Pentecostal movement. The legacy he left behind was the organized pursuit of more. The theological debate was over the definition of “more.” That definition evolved over time and received input from outside sources. But, however the goal was defined, there were no people better prepared to pursue it than the people John Wesley left behind.

“A Pentecostal Season Indeed”

Some have supposed that John Wesley was baptized in the Holy Spirit, as an experience subsequent to salvation, but that he just did not call it by that name. The date would have been January 1, 1739, and the time would have been about 3 a.m. It was at a prayer meeting of about seventy people, including John Wesley and his friend George Whitefield. This is how Wesley described it in his journal:

“Mr. Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hatchins, and my brother Charles, were present at our love-feast in Fetter-Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning, as we were continuing constant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, in so much that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his Majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.”

But Wesley had many similar experiences, and other powerful meetings, and he did not describe this one in Pentecostal language. George Whitefield, however, did use such language, as we can see in his account. We also see that the blessing extended over more than just one night:

“It was a Pentecostal season indeed, sometimes whole nights were spent in prayer. Often we have been filled as with new wine, and often I have seen them overwhelmed with the Divine Presence, and crying out, ‘Will God, indeed, dwell with men on earth? How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven!’”

Within three years of those meetings, the Fetter Lane group of seventy would be divided three ways. The Moravians of London would be led astray by a teaching Wesley called “stillness” (he also called it “the plague”) based on mysticism taken to ridiculous extremes. George Whitefield and John Wesley would divide over a theological issue. Whitefield became the leader of the Calvinist Methodists, while John Wesley and his brother Charles led the Arminian branch.

The Unlikely Grandfather

Now, imagine you had been there to observe those Pentecost-like meetings in late 1738. Imagine, also, that you knew that group was about to split three ways. Who would you guess would become the grandfather of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement? Not many people would have picked John Wesley.

Many would have picked the Moravians. As a missionary movement, they had been birthed out of a similar outpouring in Germany in 1727. John Wesley had visited their settlement in Germany and learned much from them, both about faith and about organizing a group of people. But the Moravians of London were soon infected by the plague of “stillness” teaching. This was the idea that, since a person could not be saved by works, therefore human activity could only hinder the miracle of true faith in the heart. Earnest seekers after salvation were discouraged from reading the Bible or praying. One could only wait in stillness until Jesus sent faith into their heart. The London Moravians, then, were in no shape to organize a pursuit for more of God.

George Whitefield also seemed like a great candidate to be the Pentecostal forerunner. He was the most gifted and popular preacher of his generation. He was the one who referred to those blessed prayer meetings as a “Pentecostal season indeed.” So why not him? For one thing, he divided his time between England and America, which made organizing difficult. Besides, he was not the relentless organizer that John Wesley was. Wesleyan Methodists liked to share an anecdote that quoted Whitefield as saying, “My brother Wesley acted wisely. The souls that were awakened under his ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.”

But there is another reason, besides Whitefield’s purely evangelistic calling. John Wesley was in pursuit of something more, a deeper experience of salvation, that Whitefield did not believe in.

The Organized Pursuit of What?

As Vinson Synan proposed, in the quotation above, John Wesley pioneered a “second blessing” spirituality. His vision of holiness set him apart in his generation. It guaranteed that controversy and ridicule would follow his ministry. To add to the controversy, many people whole-heartedly testified to the experience of the “second blessing,” but John Wesley himself did not. He preached it, first because he saw it in the Bible, then because he received the testimony of those who were so blessed.

Synan’s book traced the growth of the Holiness-Pentecostal tradition up to the late1900s. The tradition he described now encompasses half a billion people by some estimates. John Wesley remains one of their most significant spiritual forebears. His name has in no way been forgotten. His vision, for the most part, has.