WESLEY, JOHN (1703–1791)
English evangelist; theologian; cofounder of Methodism
Born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England, John Wesley was the fifteenth child and second surviving son of Susanna and Samuel Wesley. Samuel was a former Nonconformist and rector at Epworth who, with Susanna, raised his children in an atmosphere of piety and Puritan discipline. John’s dramatic rescue at age five from a fire that destroyed his father’s rectory gave occasion for him in later life to refer to himself as “a brand plucked from the burning [fire].”
Wesley was educated at the Charterhouse School, London, and Christ Church, Oxford. He was elected fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1726, and received his M.A. in 1727. Wesley’s short tenure as assistant to his father as curate at Wroote (1727–1729) was his only experience in a parish. A letter from the rector of Lincoln brought Wesley back to his duties at Oxford, where he joined his brother Charles, George Whitefield, and others in a venture that was to be the cradle of the Methodist movement.
These earnest young men caused a sensation at Oxford by frequently meeting together for Bible study, communion, and prayer. They were derisively referred to as the Holy Club, Sacramentarians, Bible moths (feeding on the Bible as moths on cloth), Bible bigots, and Methodists. John was called the “curator” or “father” of the Holy Club.
Charles had started the group while John was away serving at Wroote. He said the word Methodist “was bestowed on himself and his friends because of their strict conformity to the method of study prescribed by the university.” John did not care for the nickname but wore it as a badge of honor and in an early sermon spoke of his associates as “the people in derision called Methodists.” Later, in his English Dictionary, he defined a Methodist as “one that lives according to the method laid down in the Bible.”
On January 1, 1733, in the midst of the controversy surrounding the “Oxford Methodists,” John preached his second university sermon, “The Circumcision of the Heart.” This sermon helped establish him as a theologian because it won approval from both the vice-chancellor and the rector of Lincoln. In it Wesley set forth the two doctrines that were basic to his position at that time: Christian perfection and the witness of the Spirit (that we are the children of God—Rom. 8:16).
Although the Methodist fracas cost him the loss of earnings, of friends, and of reputation, John Wesley placed higher value on “a clean heart, a single eye, a soul full of God! A fair exchange, if by loss of reputation we can purchase the lowest degree of purity of heart!” In 1735 John and his brothers were summoned to the deathbed of their father. There Samuel Wesley said to John, “The inward witness, son, the inward witness—this is the proof, the strongest proof of Christianity.”
That same year the Holy Club began to dissolve when John, Charles, and two others of its members sailed for the American colony of Georgia. John was to be missionary to the native Americans and pastor of the Savannah parish, but his na‹ve pursuit of a romance with Sophia Hopkey, niece of the chief magistrate of Savannah, contributed to the failure of this endeavor. Sophia, rejected by John, married another man and Wesley excluded her from Holy Communion. Wesley had faithfully served his flock but had exhibited a stiff high churchmanship that antagonized the parish. The Hopkey affair produced enough misunderstanding and persecution to cause John to flee Georgia and return to England.
John Wesley failed decisively in Georgia, but the experience proved to be important to his future career. The preface to this American disaster came during a violent storm on the voyage from England. Wesley was cowering in fear of death yet witnessed the unexplainable peace experienced by a group of Moravian Brethren who were his fellow travelers. An interview with the Moravians’ leader upon landing in Georgia set in motion John’s search for the living reality of the doctrines he preached.
Wesley left Georgia on December 2, 1737. On January 24, 1738, he wrote in his Journal: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but O! who shall convert me? Who, what is he that shall deliver me from this evil heart of unbelief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, ’To die is gain.’ … I show my faith by my works by staking my all upon it.… O who will deliver me from this fear of death?”
Back in London John met Peter Bohler, a Moravian who instructed him in the assurance of salvation by faith. This and his reading of Luther’s commentary on Galatians, which emphasized justification by faith alone, prepared him for the day he attended a Moravian meeting near his old school, Charterhouse. What followed is described in the famous entry for May 24, 1738, in John Wesley’s Journal:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Charles Wesley had preceded John in forming the Holy Club and in true faith in Jesus Christ. But now at last they were together prepared to lead the great Methodist revival that revolutionized English society. On June 11, 1738, eighteen days after Aldersgate and one week before his thirty-fifth birthday, John preached at Oxford University his famous sermon “By Grace Ye Are Saved through Faith” and struck the chord that was to be the theme of his life thereafter.
Wesley immediately left for Germany, where he visited the Moravian Brethren leader Count Zinzendorf. He returned to England in September 1738, joining Charles in preaching the truth of the gospel wherever he was permitted. Such places were becoming harder to find, since the Anglican congregations soon closed their doors to the Wesleys because of their enthusiasm, but they were invited to the religious societies that existed at that time within the Church of England. In May 1738 they had founded their own “little society” on Fetter Lane, London. By autumn the Fetter Lane society numbered fifty-six men and eight women.
Encouraged by an account of the Great Awakening in New England by Jonathan Edwards and by George Whitefield’s successes at outdoor preaching, Wesley swept away his ecclesiastical and High Church views and began preaching in fields at Bristol (1739). The Methodist revival in England had begun. “I look upon the world as my parish,” he wrote, “Thus far, I mean, that in whatever part I am in, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear the glad tidings of salvation.”
Wesley was a member of the Church of England until his death. He would not schedule Methodist meetings to conflict with Anglican services. However, during the following fifty years John Wesley rode 250,000 miles on the roads of England, Scotland, and Ireland to preach 42,000 sermons. Besides this he published 233 books. His tireless and incessant activity changed the face of British society and the nature of its religion forever.
In 1739 Wesley bought and renovated an abandoned cannon foundry near London. Seating fifteen hundred, the foundry served as the Methodists’ headquarters for thirty-eight years until, in 1777, City Road Chapel was built.
John followed his younger brother Charles in evangelical conversion and George Whitefield in outdoor preaching, but his unique practical genius, seen in his ability to organize, preserved his work as the Methodist societies. In 1742 he organized “class meetings,” with admission only to those holding “society tickets,” to exclude undesirables. He published Rules for the Methodist societies in 1743 to avoid the scandal of unworthy members. In 1744 the societies imitated the primitive church in holding love feasts and broke new ground by gathering in the first annual conference. This gathering of preachers at Wesley’s invitation developed into a sort of parliament deciding doctrinal and administrative questions. The conference perpetuated Wesley’s authority among the British Methodists after his death.
The Methodist Revival caused great tumult in England. Rioting mobs often threatened the lives of Wesley and his followers. Methodism eventually emerged as an evangelical order within the Church of England, though it was never appreciated or approved by the Church hierarchy. Church doors continued to be closed to Wesley’s teaching. This produced a poignant and triumphant scene at Epworth in May 1742. Refused the pulpit in the parish where he was born and where his father devoted nearly forty years to the service of God, John stood on his father’s tombstone in the churchyard and preached for eight evenings to the greatest crowds Epworth had ever seen. He returned to London and described the scene to his ailing mother. Susanna Wesley died in July 1742, happy to have witnessed the revival of religion her husband had long desired.
Wesley broke the mold of the settled Anglican curate and became a widely traveled itinerant preacher. Most ordained clergymen of the day had no taste for this approach to the service of God. So Wesley was forced to enlist a band of dedicated laymen who also became itinerant preachers and administrators of the Methodist societies. These Methodist “circuit riders” became an important element in American life after the American Revolution.
His rejection of the doctrine of election caused a temporary split with George Whitefield in 1741 and the division of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists in 1743. Wesley organized societies in Ireland on forty-two trips beginning in 1747 and in Scotland on twenty-two trips beginning in 1751. In 1770 he sent Francis Asbury to America to strengthen and enlarge the societies there and in 1772 ordained Thomas Coke as general superintendent of the Methodists in America. Coke then ordained Asbury. This development horrified Charles, who said that his brother had “assumed the episcopal character.” John later ordained several others “to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper according to the usage of the Church of England …” yet continued to hold that Methodism was simply a society of Christians who would remain loyal to their own church or denomination.
Wesley had another serious problem—a difficult marriage. His wife, Mary, had a troubled spirit. She lied about her husband, destroyed his papers, and resented the regimen he followed in his work. In 1771 she left without warning. Attempts at reconciliation were made, but when his wife was buried on October 12, 1781, John had not even heard of her death.
Wesley enjoyed good health for most of his long life. His Journal records the sources of his bodily strength: (1) the power of God, fitting Wesley for his calling; (2) traveling four or five thousand miles a year; (3) the ability to sleep at command, day or night; (4) having risen at four in the morning for over sixty years; (5) having preached at five in the morning for over fifty years; (6)“Lastly, evenness of temper. I feel and grieve, but by the grace of God I fret at nothing. But still, ’the help that is done upon earth He doeth it Himself.’ And this He doeth in answer to many prayers.”
His “desire to furnish poor people with cheaper, shorter and plainer books” caused Wesley to become a prolific author of educational treatises, translations from Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, histories of Rome and England, an ecclesiastical history, and biblical commentaries. He edited Imitation of Christ and works by Bunyan, Baxter, Edwards, Rutherford, and Law; he compiled an English dictionary, published twenty-three collections of hymns, and recorded his activities, travels, and spiritual life in his Journal (1735–1790). His medical handbook Primitive Physick went through twenty-three editions in his lifetime and nine after his death. Concerning his publications he wrote, “Some of these have such a sale as I never thought of; and by this means I became unawares rich.” He gave all of the riches away.
Beginning in the days of the Holy Club until his death Wesley was concerned “to reform the nation.” He pioneered or participated in most of the good causes of his day: legal and prison reform, the abolition of slavery, civil rights, and popular education. In fact, his last act was to dictate a letter to William Wilberforce, who was fighting in Parliament to abolish the slave trade. He encouraged the young man’s “glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England and of human nature … O be not weary in well doing! Go on, in the name of God in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
At age eighty-six Wesley preached a hundred sermons in sixty towns in nine weeks. On October 7, 1790, he preached his last outdoor sermon under an ash tree in the churchyard of Rye in Kent. On February 23, 1791, he preached from Isaiah 55:6, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near,” in Kingston House in the country village of Leatherhead. This was the last time the world heard John Wesley raise his voice to proclaim the glad tidings of Jesus Christ.
At ten o’clock on Wednesday morning, March 2, 1791, John Wesley spoke his final word, “Farewell,” and the beloved servant of God entered the joy of his Lord. Thousands filed by his open coffin in City Road Chapel. At the funeral John Whitehead preached, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” (2 Sam. 3:38). Memorial services were held throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland. Newspapers and magazines published scores of sermons and articles. One, the Gentleman’s Magazine, a secular publication that had often criticized Wesley, was most eloquent:
Where much good is done we should not mark every little excess. The great point in which his name and mission will be honored is this: he directed his labors towards those who had no instructor; to the highways and hedges; to the miners in Cornwall and the colliers in Kingswood.… By the humane and active endeavors of him and his brother Charles, a sense of decency, morals, and religion was introduced into the lowest classes of mankind; the ignorant were instructed; the wretched relieved; and the abandoned reclaimed.…—Though his taste was classic, and his manners elegant, he sacrificed that society in which he was particularly calculated to shine; gave up those preferments which his abilities must have obtained, and devoted a long life in practicing and enforcing the plainest duties. Instead of being “an ornament to literature,” he was a blessing to his fellow creatures; instead of “the genius of the age,” he was the servant of God!
D. Partner, “Wesley, John,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 709–712.