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The Methodist Church of Sri Lanka is 188 years

by Ransiri Fernando - Daily News Saturday June 29 2002

The Methodist church of Sri Lanka was established 188 years ago on 29th June 1814. It is with great gratitude that we remember the indefatigable effort and the courageous stand of the Missionaries. We also remember their successors and thank God for their sacrificial service.

John Wesley was the founder of Methodism. He was born in June 1703 in a small village called Epworth in England. He became a priest at the age of 23 and later qualified as a Master of Classics and Philosophy. This was the time that England underwent several changes. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to transform the villages into towns. London was a crowded city, stricken with poverty, drunkenness, gambling and riots. Angry riots squads roamed the streets indulging in violence. The prisons overflowed with criminals and the hospitals were crowded with patients of various diseases due to utter neglect and dire poverty. This was an era where moral principles lost its distinctiveness and paralysing fears harrowed people. It was to these depressed outclasses community tone with strife and disunity that John Wesley took the good tidings of salvation.

His message was that "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God". No matter how soiled your past, no matter how uncertain your present, no matter how hopeless your future seems to be, there is a way out. There is a sure, safe, everlasting way out. You can decide right now to wipe out your sinful past and make new start, a fresh start, and a right start. In order to start new or born again one should change or turn away from sin and walk in the opposite direction. One should undergo a complete change, which involves the intellect, the emotion and the will.

John Wesley never hesitated to say that the spirit of the God was upon him. So on a Monday, April 2nd in 1739, his first open air sermon was on the text "The spirit of the Lord was upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor". His message was mainly for the poor. His primary aim was to awaken every man and woman. He wanted them to realise their sin, the unworthiness and the blindness and turn to Jesus for mercy.

The great mission Wesley started was a "Rising of the poor" in the sense that it was an organisation of the poor people, claiming for themselves a place within the religion of that time, which they have been otherwise denied, and creating for themselves societies and associations to support and extend their new-found consciousness. The poor cried out from dire distress and sought a real change. In this sermon on "National Sins and Miseries" in 1775, which is even remembered today Wesley says: "That the people suffer none can deny".

Thousands of people are unemployed. I have seen them standing on the streets, with pale looks, hollow eyes and lifeless limbs, or creeping up and down like lifeless shadows. They even pick up turnips, which the cattle had left. This type of sermon no doubt offended the political and the religious leaders of the day. John Wesley was threatened but continued to fight for the poor and the underprivileged and became their friend. He was prepared to live with them, share a meal with them and to observe their world from his eyes.

A close relationship was developed and a gradual but steady awakening was noticed. The people were convinced that John Wesley had a great vision and he was a true servant of God. He educated most of them and appointed a group of preachers to speak to the others. Preachers were very ordinary people. A list of preachers that visited Bristol in the year 1741 consisted of 2 weavers, 2 house carpenters, 2 masons, 2 mariners and a baker.

Wesley "sat at their feet", tought them and encouraged them. The English press condemned them as raw, young inexperienced men (Journal - 16 June 1755). He never demanded education from his preachers. He gave them enormous freedom to function as they were called. He trusted their call, and believed that God was at work and utmost faith continued. So day in and out Wesley became incarnate among the poor people, labouring artisans and the underprivileged. He completely believed in their worth. The poor grew to love him more. He fitted into their world. So much was this true that he no longer felt at ease among the Oxford and the London upper classes, where he began.

They wanted to form secret societies and wanted to indulge in violence and terrorism. Wesley was able to speak to them and requested them to refrain from acts of tyranny. He was keen to develop and maintain a capacity to forgive in every human being. He advised them that it is foolish to defeat or humiliate the enemy but it is great to win his friendship and understanding. Finally he was able to drive the point that returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a society full of darkness.

Darkness cannot drive out hate only love can do that.

Historians argued that Methodism not only saved England from a French revolution but also diverted into religious channels energies that could have gone completely astray. Recently a journalist by the name of Bernard Semmel said Methodism was in fact the British form of Democratic Revolution. Thus Methodism may have helped to block a violent English counterpart to the French Revolution.

Dr. Coke's enthusiasm was very high and he began to plan his voyage almost immediately. Two other missionaries William Ault and Martin Harvard accepted his invitations to go to Ceylon. The Methodist of Ireland offered three volunteers in James Lynch, George Erskine and John Mckenny. Dr. Coke was overjoyed and wrote to his friends "I am now dead to Europe and alive to Ceylon, God himself has said to me to take the living Gospel to Ceylon". There was bitter opposition from certain groups. The main questions being the raising of money and that Coke was 66 years old and whether his health would permit him to undertake such strenuous tour. Thomas Coke was determined.

He offered 6000 pounds almost all the money he had to defray the expenses. At last the British methodist Church gave him the blessing to tour Sri Lanka with five other missionaries. The party set off on 31st January 1813 on two ships namely "Cabalva" and "Lady Melville". The group had to face fierce gales and many of them felt very ill. Dr. Coke was deeply involved in studying Portuguese, translating hymns and Bible quotations into that languages because he thought most Sri Lankans were familiar with Portuguese. On 2nd May 1814 Dr. Coke appeared to be feeble and went to bed early. The next morning the steward was shocked to see him dead on the floor of his cabin.

Sir Robert Brownrigg was the Governor of Ceylon and he was delight to hear that the Methodist Missionaries were on the way to this beautiful Island. He advised the Galle harbour to give them the best attention. Two boats were sent to meet the missionaries coming on "Cabalva" and "Lady Melville". The strong winds and tides carried the boat in which Ault Erskine and Clough travelled to Weligama Bay. A massive search was made and they were fetched around 3 a.m. in the morning of June 29th 1914 unhurt. Lynch and Squance stepped on the wharf in the evening of 29th June. So this was the first step taken with regard to the establishment of the Methodist Mission in Sri Lanka. No sooner they reached the shores of Ceylon, Rev. George Bisset a special messenger from Governor Brownrigg interviewed them.

He suggested that they should open schools to teach English, and that will give a chance of meeting the people directly. Colombo had enough English teachers and therefore suggested Jaffna, Mannar, Batticaloa, Galle and Matara. This was only a suggestion and the missionaries were given the liberty to accept or reject it. They pondered over this new suggestion and on a Monday 11th July decided to take the gospel to several places in Ceylon. They appointed each Missionary to take over certain area. From the inception Methodism branched out to all parts of this country.

188 years have passed since the seeds of Methodism were sown. There is no doubt that the pioneers built well. We have had successes and failures. Let us "Rise and build".

The joy of the Lord is our strength. So let us

1. Open ourselves to be moved by the realities of life today and become passionate servants of Christ to help heal them.

2. Find the people suffering from oppression and disadvantage and stand beside them as they rise up to fuller humanity.

3. Concentrate the attention on the small places at the bottom and find new ways in which such groups could be uplifted doing exactly as Wesley did getting small groups in any place to create societies not necessarily in a building.

4. All understand that only forgiveness and love can change a person, a society or a country. Love has the power to create and build up nations, races that are divided, there will be no permanent solution to any ethnic or racial problem until men develop the capacity to forgive and love. Forgiveness is very costly and one must be prepared to pay the sacrifice. Even though there may be political and ideological differences, we got to sit down together at the table of brotherhood, Methodist should truly believe in the validity and sacredness of human personality and should not exploit anyone.

For what is presently being accomplished we thank God, for what will be achieved in the future we relay upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the hand that lead us will not doubt guide us in the future. So Methodists should march forward with hope and vigour keeping the lamp burning bright.