1703 - 1791
John Wesley, English theologian
and evangelist, was a founder of Methodism.
Wesley was born in the rectory at Epworth,
Lincolnshire, on June 17, 1703, the 15th child
of the British clergyman Samuel Wesley. He
was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ
Church, University of Oxford. Ordained deacon
in 1725 and admitted to the priesthood of
the Church of England in 1728, John Wesley
acted for a time as curate to his father.
In 1729 he went into residence
at Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College.
There he joined the Holy Club, a group of
students that included his brother Charles
Wesley and, later, George Whitefield, who
was to become the founder of Calvinistic Methodism.
The club members adhered strictly and methodically
to religious precepts and practices, among
them visiting prisons and comforting the sick,
and were thus derisively called "methodists"
by their schoolmates. His Oxford days introduced
him not only to the rich tradition of classical
literature and philosophy but also to spiritual
classics like Thomas À Kempis's Imitation
of Christ, Jeremy Taylor's Holy Living and
Dying, and William Law's Serious Call.
In 1735 Wesley went to Georgia
as an Anglican missionary. On the ship to
Savannah he met some German Moravians, whose
simple evangelical piety greatly impressed
him. He continued to associate with them while
in Georgia and translated some of their hymns
into English. Except for this association,
Wesley's American experience was a failure.
On his return to England
in 1738, he again sought out the Moravians;
while attending one of their meetings in Aldersgate
St., London, on May 24, 1738, he experienced
a religious awakening that profoundly convinced
him that salvation was possible for every
person through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
After this spiritual conversion he devoted
his life to evangelism.
In March 1739, George Whitefield,
who had met with great success as an evangelist
in Bristol, urged Wesley to join him in his
endeavors. Despite his initial opposition
to preaching outside the church, Wesley preached
an open-air sermon on April 2, and the enthusiastic
reaction of his audience convinced him that
open-air preaching was the most effective
way to reach the masses. Few pulpits would
be open to him in any case, for the Anglican
church frowned on revivalism.
Wesley attracted immense
crowds virtually from the outset of his evangelical
career. His success also was due, in part,
to the fact that contemporary England was
ready for a revivalist movement; the Anglican
church was seemingly unable to offer the kind
of personal faith that people craved. Thus
Wesley's emphasis on inner religion and his
assurance that each person was accepted as
a child of God had a tremendous popular appeal.
On May 1, 1739, Wesley and
a group of his followers, meeting in a shop
on West St., London, formed the first Methodist
society. Two similar organizations were established
in Bristol the same month. Late in 1739 the
London society began to meet in a building
called the Foundry, which served as the headquarters
of Methodism for many years.
With the growth of the Methodist
movement, the need for tighter organization
became acute. In 1742 the societies were divided
into classes, with a leader for each class.
These class meetings contributed greatly to
the success of the movement, but equally important
were their leaders, many of whom Wesley designated
lay preachers. Wesley called the first conference
of Methodist leaders in 1744, and conferences
were held annually thereafter.
In 1751, at the age of 48,
Wesley married Mary Vazeille, a widow with
four children. The marriage was not successful,
and she finally left him; Wesley had no children
of his own.
Wesley's thought was based
on an Arminian interpretation of the Thirty-nine
Articles of the Church of England but emphasized
personal experience of conversion, assurance,
and sanctification. He held to the doctrines
of original sin, the atoning work of Christ
and the work of the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity.
These were the objective ground of the subjective
appropriation of salvation. Justification
was by faith alone, with good works as the
testimony and test of faith and therefore
a condition of final salvation. New birth
through the Holy Spirit was the beginning
of sanctification, which was to be brought
to a "Christian perfection" of entire
love towards God and neighbor. He believed
in the universal sufficiency and scope of
Christ's work, which restores to every man
a measure of free will that allows him to
accept the gospel and do its works.
Wesley discarded many tenets
of the Church of England, including the doctrine
of the apostolic succession (the maintenance
of an unbroken line of succession of bishops
of the Christian church beginning with St.
Peter), but he never voiced any intention
of establishing the movement as a new church.
His actions made separation inevitable, however.
In 1784 he issued the deed of declaration,
which provided rules and regulations for the
guidance of the Methodist societies. The same
year he appointed his aide Thomas Coke, an
Anglican clergyman, a superintendent of the
Methodist organization in the U.S., empowering
him to administer the sacraments; other ordinations
followed. Ordination represented the biggest
step in the direction of a break with the
Anglican church. Separation did not take place,
however, until after Wesley's death.
Wesley was deeply concerned
with the intellectual, economic, and physical
well-being of the masses. He was also a prolific
writer on a wide variety of historical and
religious subjects. His books were sold cheaply,
so that even the poor could afford to buy
them; thus he did much to improve the reading
habits of the general public. He aided debtors
and those trying to establish businesses and
founded medical dispensaries. He opposed slavery
and was interested in social reform movements
of all kinds.
Wesley compiled 23 collections
of hymns, edited a monthly magazine, translated
Greek, Latin, and Hebrew works, and edited,
under the title The Christian's Pattern, Kempis's
Imitation of Christ. His personal Journal
(1735-90) is outstanding for the frank exposition
of his spiritual development.
In the latter years of his
life the hostility of the Anglican church
to Methodism had virtually disappeared, and
Wesley was greatly admired. He died March
2, 1791, and was buried in the graveyard of
City Road Chapel, London. In Westminster Abbey
is a memorial plaque inscribed with his name.