Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our Content ratings (0-10): Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and weboast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
At last there is a film to replace the 1954 British film John Wesley, a very good thing because that film has not held up well. Interestingly, the new film about the founder of Methodism, simply named Wesley, was shot entirely in the USA, not in Britain, nor in Hollywood, but in Old Salem and Winston-Salem North Carolina. The English revivalist seems less of a stained glass saint in this version, thank goodness. Both include the dramatic rescue from the rectory fire at Epworth as well as the life-changing episode at Aldersgate Street. But what a difference between the films in the treatment of that episode! It is one of the silliest of scenes in the older film: As he feels the inner warmth, Wesley stands up, interrupting the proceedings and delivering a sermon, and then launching into a Watts hymn, the congregation quickly joining in. None of that nonsense in the new version, much of which is based on Wesley’s famous journals
When we see John Wesley (Burgess Jenkins) at Oxford, he is a meticulous believer rather smug in his faith and proud in his strict practice of devotions and good works. He dominates his brother Charles (Kevin McCarthy), even to the point of insisting that he accompany him to Georgia. This smugness dissipates during his trip across the sea when a terrible storm threatens to sink their ship. Only the group of Moravians is free of fear, singing their lively hymns to keep up their spirits.
The overly long section of Wesley’s unsuccessful ministry in Georgia focuses a little too much on his relationship with Sophy Hopkey (Carrie Anne Hunt), but it certainly reveals that he was not always successful in coping with difficulties. When he returns to England he is man wracked with self-doubt. Again it is a Moravian, Peter Boehler (Bill Oberst, Jr.) who counsels him, assuring him that he will discover that Christianity is more than knowing doctrine, that it is an inner matter of the heart. Finally we get to the Aldersgate experience in which his heart is “strangely warmed,” but thankfully, the experience is not sensationalized as in the already mentioned older film.
The remainder of the film is episodic, there being so much to tell of his long life. I was not aware of how much his mother Susanna Wesley (June Lockhart) took part in his expanding ministry. Preaching with a warm enthusiasm that shocked the staid establishment clergy, Wesley soon finds himself shut out of pulpits. Thanks to the counsel of his friend George Whitefield (Paul Miller). Wesley decides to follow George’s example of preaching in the open air wherever people gather. Before long he is preaching to thousands of people, the lower dregs of society who had never been inside an Anglican church. Charles is upset at this at first, and a bishop tries to forbid John from preaching within the bounds of his diocese, to which the evangelist gives his famous statement, “The world is my parish.”
Director John Jackman’s low budget shows at times, primarily in the scenes in which Wesley is supposedly preaching to thousands of people—you could put most of the actors into a good sized church bus, but this is a minor point. The film is so superior to the older film in so many ways, Wesley emerging as a flawed man capable of tremendous growth and adaptability, and supported by some talented men AND women devoted to him and to Christ. Except for a few supporting actors, the cast is very good (and what a coup to secure June Lockhart as Wesley’s mother!). Although of special interest to Methodists, the film should appeal to all who want (and ought) to know more about one of the most influential men of the 18th century. John Wesley belongs to the whole church, and thanks to this film, more will come to know of him and his great work.
- How is Wesley like the young Martin Luther in his religious zeal and effort to earn his salvation by good works? It is interesting to see that it was during the reading of Luther’s commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans that Wesley experienced his reawakening.
- What was it that attracted him to the Moravians? Or, what did they have that John Wesley did not?
- What is the spiritual state of the Anglican Church in the 18th century? Which class belonged to and supported it? Who were the “left outs”?
- What do you think of George Whitfield’s, and then of Wesley’s preaching in the out of doors? What precedent did they have for this? Does it seem hard to understand that Wesley was so slow to follow Christ’s example? How is the turning to the poor outside the church similar to what the apostle Paul did when the doors of the synagogues were shut to him?
- The film shows just a little of Charles Wesley the writer of hymns: how did his hymns help spread the movement?
- How does the film show that the Wesleys believed that the gospel is concerned with more than just the soul?
- Were you surprised that Wesley should be against a layman preaching the gospel? How do we see this as a case in which the followers lead the leader? Do you think that Methodism would have grown so much, especially in the new USA, had the laity been forbidden to preach?
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Reprinted from the May/June 2011 issue of VP.