John Wesley

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Religious figures and leaders

John Wesley

Born June 28, 1703 (1703-06-28)
Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Died March 2, 1791 (aged 87)
Nationality British
Education Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford
Religious beliefs Christian (Methodist)
Spouse Mary Wesley ( née Vazeille)
Parents Samuel & Susanna Wesley

John Wesley (IPA [ˈwɛslɪ]) ( June 28 [ O.S. June 17] 1703 – March 2, 1791) was an Anglican minister and Christian theologian who was an early leader in the Methodist movement. Methodism had three rises: the first at Oxford University with the founding of the "Holy Club"; the second while Wesley was parish priest in Savannah, Georgia; and the third in London after Wesley's return to England. The movement took form from its third rise in the early 1740s with Wesley, along with others, itinerant field preaching and the subsequent founding of religious societies for the formation of believers. This was the first widely successful evangelical movement in the United Kingdom. Wesley's Methodist connection included societies throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland before spreading to other parts of the English-speaking world and beyond. He divided his religious societies further into classes and bands for intensive accountability and religious instruction. Methodists, under Wesley's direction, became leaders in many social justice issues of the day including prison reform and abolitionism movements. Wesley's strength as a theologian lay in his ability to combine seemingly opposing theological stances. His greatest theological achievement was his promotion of what he termed "Christian perfection," or holiness of heart and life. Wesley insisted that in this life, the Christian could come to a state where the love of God, or perfect love, reigned supreme in one's heart. His evangelical theology, especially his understanding of Christian perfection, was firmly grounded in his sacramental theology. He continually insisted on the general use of the means of grace ( prayer, Scripture, meditation, Holy Communion, etc.) as the means by which God transformed the believer. Throughout his life, Wesley remained within the Church of England and insisted that his movement was well within the bounds of the Anglican Church. His maverick use of church policy put him at odds with many within the Church of England, though toward the end of his life he was widely respected.


"Remembering John Wesley", Wroot, near Epworth
"Remembering John Wesley", Wroot, near Epworth

John Wesley was born in Epworth, 23 miles (37 km) northwest of Lincoln, the son of Samuel Wesley, a graduate of Oxford, and a minister of the Church of England. In 1689 Samuel married Susanna Annesley, twenty-fourth child of Dr. Samuel Annesley. Both Samuel and Susanna had been raised in Dissenting homes before becoming members of the Established Church early in adulthood. Susanna herself became a mother of nineteen children. In 1696 Samuel Wesley was appointed rector of Epworth, where John, the fifteenth child, was born.

At the age of five, John was rescued from the burning rectory. This escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he regarded himself as providentially set apart, as a "brand plucked from the burning."

The Wesley children's early education was given by their parents in the Epworth rectory. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk, and talk. In 1714 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home.

During his early years, John Wesley had enjoyed a deep religious experience. His biographer, Tyerman, says that he went to Charterhouse a saint; but he became negligent of his religious duties, and left a sinner.

In Oxford and Georgia

John Wesley
John Wesley

In June 1720, Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford, with an annual allowance of £40 as a Charterhouse scholar. His health was poor and he found it hard to keep out of debt. A scheme of study which he drew up for 1722 with a time-table for each day of the week is still to be seen in his earliest diary. This first diary (of many) runs from April 5, 1725, to February 19, 1727. A friend describes Wesley at this time as "a young fellow of the finest classical taste, and the most liberal and manly sentiments." He was "gay and sprightly, with a turn for wit and humour."

He was ordained as a deacon in 1725 and elected fellow of Lincoln College in the following year. He received his Master of Arts in 1727. He was his father's curate for two years, and then he returned to Oxford to fulfill his functions as fellow.

Leading Wesley scholars point to 1725 as the date of Wesley's conversion. In the year of his ordination he read and began to seek the religious truths which underlay the great revival of the 18th century. The reading of William Law's Christian Perfection and Serious Call gave him, he said, a more sublime view of the law of God; and he resolved to keep it, inwardly and outwardly, as sacredly as possible. He pursued a rigidly methodical and abstemious life, studied the Scriptures, and performed his religious duties diligently, depriving himself so that he would have alms to give. It was during his Oxford days that Wesley began to discover the true practice of the Christian faith, an understanding, like so many others in his life, that would continue to develop both while he was in Georgia and after his subsequent return to England in 1738.

The year of his return to Oxford (1729) marks the beginning of the rise of Methodism. The famous "holy club" was formed by John's younger brother, Charles Wesley, and some fellow students, derisively called "Methodists" because of their methodical habits.

John left for Savannah, Georgia in 1735, several months after the death of his father, with the intent to to convert the Indians and deepen and regulate the religious life of the colonists. While in Georgia, he began the first Sunday school, at Christ Church, while his brother Charles served in Governor Oglethorpe's administration. John's time in Georgia was unfortunate and short-lived. He had an unhappy love affair, which culminated in John's refusal to serve communion to his prospective wife and her husband. Her husband charged John with slander for disgracing his wife's honour. Upon being released upon his own recognizance, John left Georgia under cover of darkness and sailed from South Carolina back to England.

One positive result of John's time in Georgia was the relationship he developed with the Moravians, a sect of reformists dating back to Jan Hus. In the midst of a devastating storm on the way to Georgia, Wesley was deeply impressed by a group of Moravians who remained calm by singing hymns. His relationship with the Moravians, and the Arminian movement in general, deeply affected his personal life and theology.

Some of the charges brought against him were on account of his unusual liturgical “experiments”. A journal entry in 1735 reports that he spent 3 hours “revising” the Book of Common Prayer. This indicates that Wesley’s intense reading of the Church Fathers and Eastern Orthodox Church writers influenced his approaches and baffled those who knew him. They only knew he did not fit into what they expected or wanted. He returned to England in 1738.

The beginning of the revival

John Wesley's house on City Road, London. (January 2006)
John Wesley's house on City Road, London. (January 2006)

Wesley returned to England depressed and beaten. It was at this point that he turned to the Moravians. Wesley had encountered the Moravians three years earlier on his voyage to Georgia. At one point in the voyage a storm came up and broke the mast off the ship. While the English aboard all panicked the Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. This experience led Wesley to believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength which he lacked. His Aldersgate experience of May 24, 1738, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and penned the now famous lines "I felt my heart strangely warmed", revolutionized the character and method of his ministry. The previous week he had been highly impressed by the pentecostal sermon of Dr John Heylyn whom he was assisting in the service at St Mary-le-Strand, an occasion followed immediately by news of the death of his brother, Samuel. A few weeks later Wesley preached a remarkable sermon on the doctrine of present personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another, on God's grace "free in all, and free for all."

Though his understanding of both justification and the assurance matured, he never stopped preaching the importance of faith for salvation and the witness of God's Spirit with the spirit of the believer that they were, indeed, a child of God.

He allied himself with the Moravian society in Fetter Lane, and in 1738 went to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany. On his return to England he drew up rules for the "bands" into which the Fetter Lane Society was divided, and published a collection of hymns for them. He met frequently with this and other religious societies in London, but did not preach often in 1738, because most of the parish churches were closed to him.

Wesley's Oxford friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, upon his return from America, was also excluded from the churches of Bristol; and, going to the neighbouring village of Kingswood, preached in the open air, in February 1739, to a company of miners and later in Whitefield's Tabernacle. Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield's earnest request to copy this bold step. Overcoming his scruples, he preached his first sermon in the open air, near Bristol, in April of that year.

He was still unhappy about the idea of field preaching, and would have thought, "till very lately," such a method of saving souls as "almost a sin." These open-air services were very successful; and he never again hesitated to preach in any place where an assembly could be gotten together, more than once using his father's tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit. He continued for fifty years — entering churches when he was invited, and taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him.

Late in 1739 Wesley broke with the Moravians in London. Wesley had helped them organize the Fetter Lane Society; and those converted by his preaching and that of his brother and Whitefield had become members of their bands. But finding, as he said, that they had fallen into heresies, especially quietism, he decided to form his own followers into a separate society. "Thus," he wrote, "without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England." Similar societies were soon formed in Bristol and Kingswood, and wherever Wesley and his friends made converts.

Persecutions; lay preaching

From 1739 onward Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by clergymen and magistrates. They were attacked in sermons and in print and at times attacked by mobs. They remained always at work among the neglected and needy. They were denounced as promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances; as blind fanatics, leading people astray, claiming miraculous gifts, attacking the clergy of the Church of England, and trying to reestablish Catholicism.

Feeling, however, that the church failed in its duty to call sinners to repentance, that many of the clergymen were corrupt and that souls were perishing in their sins, Wesley regarded himself as commissioned by God to bring about revival in the church; and no opposition, or persecution, or obstacles could prevail against the divine urgency and authority of this commission. The prejudices of his High-church training, his strict notions of the methods and proprieties of public worship, his views of the apostolic succession and the prerogatives of the priest, even his most cherished convictions, were not allowed to stand in the way.

Unwilling that people should perish in their sins and unable to reach them from church pulpits, he began field-preaching. Seeing that he and the few clergymen cooperating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, he was led, as early as 1739, to approve of lay preaching; men and women who were not episcopally ordained were permitted to preach and do pastoral work. Thus one of the great features of Methodism, to which it has largely owed its success, was adopted by Wesley in answer to a necessity.

Chapels and organizations

As his societies needed houses to worship in, Wesley began to provide chapels, first in Bristol, at the New Room then in London and elsewhere. The Bristol chapel (1739) was at first in the hands of trustees; a large debt was contracted, and Wesley's friends urged him to keep it under his own control, so the deed was canceled, and he became sole trustee. Following this precedent, all Methodist chapels were committed in trust to him until by a "deed of declaration" all his interests in them were transferred to a body of preachers called the "Legal Hundred."

When disorder arose among some members of the societies, he adopted the plan of giving tickets to members, with their names written by his own hand. These were renewed every three months. Those deemed unworthy did not receive new tickets, and dropped out of the society without disturbance. The tickets were regarded as commendatory letters.

When the debt on a chapel became a burden, it was proposed that one in twelve members should collect offerings regularly from the eleven allotted to him. Out of this, under Wesley's care, grew, in 1742, the Methodist class-meeting system. In order to keep the disorderly out of the societies, Wesley established a probationary system, and undertook to visit each society regularly: the quarterly visitation, or conference. As the societies increased, he could not keep up contact effectively; so he drew up in 1743 a set of "General Rules" for the "United Societies," which were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline and still exist.

General Rules: It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,

First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind . . . ;

Secondly: By . . . doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all . . . ;

Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God

As the number of preachers and preaching-places increased, doctrinal and administrative matters needed to be discussed; so the two Wesleys, with four other clergymen and four lay preachers, met for consultation in London in 1744. This was the first Methodist conference. Two years later, in order that the preachers might work more systematically and the societies receive their services more regularly, Wesley appointed "helpers" to definitive circuits, each of which included at least thirty appointments a month. Believing that their usefulness and efficiency were promoted by being changed from one circuit to another every year or two, he established the "itinerancy", and insisted that his preachers submit to its rules. When, in 1788, some objected to the frequent changes, he wrote, "For fifty years God has been pleased to bless the itinerant plan, the last year most of all. It must not be altered till I am removed, and I hope it will remain till our Lord comes to reign on earth."

Ordination of ministers

As his societies multiplied, and the elements of an ecclesiastical system were gradually adopted, the breach between Wesley and the Church of England widened. The question of separation from that church, urged, on the one side, by some of his preachers and societies, but most strenuously opposed by his brother Charles and others, needed to be considered. Still, Wesley refused to leave the Church of England, believing the Anglican church to be "with all her blemishes, [...] nearer the Scriptural plan than any other in Europe". In 1745 Wesley wrote that he would make any concession which his conscience permitted, in order to live in harmony with the clergy, but could not give up the doctrine of an inward and present salvation by faith alone. He would not stop preaching or dissolve the societies, or end preaching by lay members. As a clergyman within the Established Church, he had no plans to go further. "We dare not," he said, "administer baptism or the Lord's Supper without a commission from a bishop in the apostolic succession."

But the next year he read Lord King on the Primitive Church. Wesley was convinced by this that apostolic succession was a fiction, in fact that he was "a scriptural episcopos as much as any man in England." Some years later Stillingfleet's Irenicon led him to renounce the opinion that neither Christ or his apostles prescribed any form of church government, and to declare ordination valid when performed by a presbyter. It was not until about forty years later that he ordained by the laying on of hands, and even then only for those who would serve outside of England.

When he had waited long enough, but the Bishop of London still refused to ordain a minister for the American Methodists who were without the ordinances, in 1784 Wesley ordained preachers for Scotland and England and America, with power to administer the sacraments. Though Thomas Coke was already a presbyter in the Church of England, Wesley consecrated, by laying on of hands, Dr. Thomas Coke to be superintendent in America. He also ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters. He intended that Coke, and Asbury (who Coke would subsequently consecrate in America) should ordain others in the newly founded Methodist Episcopal Church. This alarmed his brother Charles, who begged him to stop before he had "quite broken down the bridge," and not embitter his [Charles'] last moments on earth, nor "leave an indelible blot on our memory." Wesley replied that he had not separated from the church, nor did he intend to, but he must and would save as many souls as he could while alive, "without being careful about what may possibly be when I die." Although he rejoiced that the Methodists in America were free, he advised his English followers to remain in the established church; and he himself died within it.

Advocacy of Arminianism

Wesley was a strong controversialist. The most notable of his controversies was that on Calvinism. His father was of the Arminian school in the church; but John decided for himself while in college and expressed himself strongly against the doctrines of election and reprobation.

Whitefield inclined to Calvinism. In his first tour in America, he embraced the views of the New England School of Calvinism; and when Wesley preached a sermon on Free Grace, attacking predestination as blasphemous, representing "God as worse than the devil," Whitefield asked him (1739) not to repeat or publish the discourse, not wanting a dispute. Wesley's sermon was published, and among the many replies to it was one by Whitefield. Separation followed in 1741. Wesley wrote that those who held universal redemption did not desire separation, but "those who held particular redemption would not hear of any accommodation."

Whitefield, Harris, Cennick, and others, became the founders of Calvinistic Methodism. Whitefield and Wesley, however, were soon back on friendly terms, and their friendship remained thenceforth unbroken, though they travelled different paths. Occasional publications appeared on Calvinistic doctrines, by Wesley and others; but in 1770 the controversy broke out anew with violence and bitterness. Toplady, Berridge, Rowland, Richard Hill, and others were engaged on the one side, and Wesley and Fletcher on the other. Toplady was editor of The Gospel Magazine, which was filled with the controversy. Wesley in 1778 began the publication of The Arminian Magazine, not, he said, to convince Calvinists, but to preserve Methodists and to teach the truth that "God willeth all men to be saved." A "lasting peace" could be secured in no other way.

Doctrines and theology

20th century Wesley scholar Albert Outler argued in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley ( ISBN 0-19-502810-4) that Wesley developed his theology by using a method that Outler termed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this method, Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture; and the Bible was the sole foundational source of theological or doctrinal development. The centrality of scripture was so important for Wesley that he called himself "a man of one book" -- meaning the Bible -- although he was a remarkably well-read man of his day. However, doctrine had to be in keeping with Christian orthodox tradition. So, tradition became in his view the second aspect of the so-called Quadrilateral.

Believing, as he did, that faith is more than merely an acknowledgment of ideas, Wesley contended that a part of the theological method would involve experiential faith. In other words, truth would be vivified in personal experience of Christians (overall, not individually), if it were really truth. And every doctrine must be able to to defended rationally. He did not divorce faith from reason. Tradition, experience and reason, however, were subject always to scripture, Wesley argued, because only there is the Word of God revealed 'so far as it is necessary for our salvation.'

The doctrines which Wesley emphasized in his sermons and writings are prevenient grace, present personal salvation by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification. Prevenient Grace was the theological underpinnings of his belief that all persons were capable of being saved by faith in Christ. Unlike the Calvinists of his day he did not believe that some persons had been elected by God for salvation and others for damnation. However, he understood that Christian orthodoxy insisted that salvation is only possible by the sovereign grace of God. Hence, he came to express his understanding of humanity's relationship to God as utter dependence upon God's grace. God was at work to enable all people to be capable of coming to faith by empowering humans to have actual existential freedom of response to God.

He defined the witness of the Spirit as: "an inward impression on the soul of believers, whereby the spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are the children of God." He based this doctrine upon certain biblical passages (see Romans 8:15-16 as an example). This doctrine was closely related to his belief that salvation had to be "personal." In his view, a person must ultimately believe the Good News for himself or herself; no one could be in relation to God for another.

Sanctification he spoke of (1790) as the "grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called `Methodists'." Wesley taught that sanctification was obtainable after justification by faith, between justification and death. He did not contend for "sinless perfection;" rather he contended that a Christian could be made "perfect in love." This love would mean, first of all, that a believer's motives would be guided by the deep desire to please God. One would be able to keep from committing what Wesley called, "sin rightly so-called." By this he meant a conscious or intentional breach of God's will or laws. A person could still be able to sin, but intentional or willful sin could be avoided.

Secondly, to be made perfect in love meant, for Wesley, that a Christian could live with a primary guiding regard for others and their welfare. He took as the basis for this Christ's quote that the second great command is "to love your neighbor as you love yourself." In his view, this orientation would cause a person to avoid any number of sins against his neighbour. This love, plus the love for God that could be the central focus of a person's faith, would be what Wesley referred to as "a fulfillment of the law of Christ."

He was anxious that this doctrine should be constantly preached in England of his day, especially among the people called Methodists. In fact, he contended that the very purpose of the Methodist movement was to "spread scriptural holiness across [England]." His system of thought has become known as Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid by Wesley and Fletcher (see Jacobus Arminius, Arminianism).

Two comparatively recent works which explain Wesley's theological positions are Randy Maddox's 1994 book Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology ( ISBN 0-687-00334-2) and Thomas Oden's 1994 book John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine ( ISBN 0-310-75321-X).

Personality and activities

Statue of John Wesley at Wesley's Chapel City Road, London. (January 2006)
Statue of John Wesley at Wesley's Chapel City Road, London. (January 2006)

Wesley travelled constantly, generally on horseback, preaching two or three times a day. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, prescribed for the sick, helped to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness, superintended schools and orphanages, received at least £20,000 for his publications, but used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means. He died poor. He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle if he could help it.

He is described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. He married very unhappily at the age of forty-eight to a widow, Mary Vazeille, and had no children. Vazeille left him fifteen years later. He died peacefully, after a short illness, leaving as the result of his life-work 135,000 members, and 541 itinerant preachers under the name "Methodist." He is buried in a small graveyard behind Wesley's Chapel in City Road, London.

Despite his achievements, he never quite overcame profound self-doubt. At the age of 63, he wrote to his brother, "I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen...And yet, to be so employed of God!"

Wesley died on Wednesday March 2, 1791, in his eighty-eighth year. As he lay dying, his friends gathered around him, Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, "Farewell, farewell." At the end, summoning all his remaining strength, he cried out, "The best of all is, God is with us," lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, "The best of all is, God is with us."

Literary work

Wesley was a logical thinker, and expressed himself clearly, concisely and forcefully in writing. His written sermons are characterized by spiritual earnestness and simplicity. They are doctrinal but not dogmatic. His Notes on the New Testament (1755) are enlightening. Both the Sermons (about 140) and the Notes are doctrinal standards. Wesley was a fluent, powerful and effective preacher. He usually preached spontaneously and briefly, though occasionally at great length.

As an organizer, a religious leader and a statesman, he was eminent. He knew how to lead and control men to achieve his purposes. He used his power, not to provoke rebellion, but to inspire love. His mission was to spread "Scriptural holiness"; his means and plans were such as Providence indicated. The course thus mapped out for him he pursued with a determination from which nothing could distract him.

Wesley's prose Works were first collected by himself (32 vols., Bristol, 1771–74, frequently reprinted in editions varying greatly in the number of volumes). His chief prose works are a standard publication in seven octavo volumes of the Methodist Book Concern, New York. The Poetical Works of John and Charles, ed. G. Osborn, appeared in 13 vols., London, 1868–72.

Besides his Sermons and Notes already referred to, are his Journals (originally published in 20 parts, London, 1740-89; new ed. by N. Curnock containing notes from unpublished diaries, 6 vols., vols. i.-ii., London and New York, 1909-11); The Doctrine of Original Sin (Bristol, 1757; in reply to Dr. John Taylor of Norwich); "An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (originally published in three parts; 2d ed., Bristol, 1743), an elaborate defence of Methodism, describing the evils of the times in society and the church; a Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766).

Wesley adapted the Book of Common Prayer for use by American Methodists. In his Watch Night service, he made use of a pietist prayer now generally known as the Wesley Covenant Prayer, perhaps his most famous contribution to Christian liturgy.

In spite of the proliferation of his literary output, Wesley was challenged for plagiarism for borrowing heavily from an essay by Samuel Johnson, publishing in March 1775. Initially denying the charge, Wesley later recanted and apologized officially [See Abelove, H. 1997. John Wesley’s plagiarism of Samuel Johnson and its contemporary reception. The Huntington Library Quarterly, 59(1) 73–80].


Statue of John Wesley outside Wesley Church in Melbourne, Australia
Statue of John Wesley outside Wesley Church in Melbourne, Australia

Today, many follow Wesley's teachings. He continues to be the primary theological interpreter for Methodists the world over; the largest Wesleyan bodies being the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Wesleyan Church. The teachings of Wesley also served as a basis for the Holiness movement, from which Pentecostalism, parts of the Charismatic movement, the Church of the Nazarene and the Christian and Missionary Alliance are offshoots. Wesley's call to personal and social holiness continues to challenge Christians who struggle to discern what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.

Wesley's legacy is also preserved in Kingswood School which he founded in 1748 in order to educate the children of the growing number of Methodist preachers. He is also commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on March 2 with his brother Charles Wesley and in some calendars of churches of the Anglican Communion.

One of the four form houses at The St Marylebone Church of England School, London are named after John Wesley.

Wesley is listed as #50 on the BBC's list of the 100 Greatest Britons.

"Lord God, who didst inspire thy servants John and Charles Wesley with burning zeal for the sanctification of souls, and didst endow them with eloquence in speech and song: Kindle in thy Church, we beseech thee, such fervor, that those whose faith has cooled may be warmed, and those who have not known thy Christ may turn to him and be saved; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen."

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