The “New Room” in Bristol, England is the oldest Methodist chapel in the world. Built in 1739 by John Wesley, it has since been renovated to include rooms where Wesley and other ministers lived, a library and most recently, a museum has been added to commemorate the work of Wesley and the other founders of Methodism.
Originally, Wesley did not intend to establish a new church. He was an ordained Anglican minister and remained such until his death. He founded a series of religious societies to create a revival within Anglicanism. To foster this, his societies met at other times than those used by the Anglican church for worship so as not to cause a schedule conflict. Seen as fanatical by his critics, his call for repentance among those in the “church” was accepted by many, leading ultimately to the founding of the Methodist church.
In the museum above the “New Room” there is a sign, “John Wesley’s Advice on How to Preach.” Among the very practical points, like suiting the subject of a sermon to the audience, sticking to the text and not rambling, beginning and ending on time (within the hour), avoiding awkwardness, clownishness and screaming while preaching, one finds what may be one of his most important pieces of advice. “Don’t just say ‘I read only the Bible’ in order to preach, read the most useful books, and that regularly and constantly… at least five hours in twenty-four… or return to your trade.” It is evident that Wesley believed that preachers should be as widely read and well-informed as possible.
From time to time, we hear of those who say they will not use or even look at books and other materials that were not written by those from within the brotherhood. We understand and support their desire to consume only the pure milk of God’s word and avoid unbiblical teaching. However, we need to also wonder about the wisdom of this. That someone is somehow part of the brotherhood is not necessarily a guarantee that their teaching is Biblical or accurate, or, conversely, that someone affiliated with a denomination is necessarily unbiblical and false. Originally, the leaders of the Restoration Movement were associated with various denominations. As they grew in knowledge of the scriptures, they came to question what they had once believed and taught, and changed. Today, we can find similar people whose study has moved them from what they previously understood.
Taking this further, there is almost no book that has not been influenced by the denominational world, even our Bibles. The much loved and widely accepted King James Version was the product of the Anglican Church and was called the Authorized Version because it was authorized to be used in the Anglican churches. Virtually every translation is taken from Greek texts that were the result of work by textual scholars from denominational backgrounds. Similarly, while commentaries and Bible study materials may reflect particular denominational biases, they may also bring out vital Biblical truths. For example, while we might disagree with many of his conclusions, William Barclay’s little book on conversion in the book of Acts concludes that baptism was expected of a new convert— that it was for an adult believer, by immersion, for the forgiveness of sins, reception of the Holy Spirit and admission to the church. Similarly, while a Baptist pastor, Robert Shank wrote two significant books challenging the Calvinistic doctrines of once saved always saved and election. The test should not be based on who wrote the material, but rather whether or not it is the truth.
The Apostle Paul was familiar with both Jewish and pagan sources. When it was relevant and useful, he referred to them. He quoted Athenian philosophers, Cretans, and rabbis.
John Wesley’s thought seems to be that those who preach need to be as widely read as possible, that they should know the scriptures and the world in which they live and teach. Perhaps Wesley’s suggestion of spending five hours per day of such studies may be a little much, but the need is real. Sincerity in the study of God’s word does not justify ignoring larger areas of study. We need to be as well-informed as possible so we can effectively preach to the church and to the world.