John Wesley

1703-1791. Founder of Methodism.* He was the fifteenth child of Epworth rector Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna. Although John's father was a staunch High Churchman of the old school, both his grandparents were Puritan Nonconformists. Educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, John Wesley was elected in 1726 to a fellowship at Lincoln College in the same university. He had been ordained deacon the previous year and had preached his first sermon in South Leigh. On two separate occasions he served as his father's curate. In 1728 he was ordained priest by John Potter.

Returning to Oxford, he found that his brother Charles had gathered a few undergraduates, including George Whitefield,* into a society for spiritual improvement. The scope of what was nicknamed the “Holy Club”* was widened when John Wesley joined it and eventually took over the leadership. Its members met for prayer, the study of the Greek Testament, and self-examination. To their devotional exercises were added works of charitable relief.

In 1735 the Wesleys accepted an invitation from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel to undertake a mission to the Indians and colonists in Georgia. The project proved a fiasco, and when he got back to England in 1738 Wesley wrote: “I went to America to convert the Indians; but, oh, who shall convert me?”

On the journey to America the Wesleys had met a company of twenty-one German Moravians whose simple faith had made a considerable impression on them. When, therefore, John Wesley was introduced in London to another Moravian, Peter Boehler,* he was predisposed to lean toward him. In the event, Boehler was to be the pedagogue to bring Wesley to Christ. As a result of conversations with Boehler, Wesley was “clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.” On 24 May 1738, his heart was “strangely warmed” as he listened to a reading from Luther's preface to Romans at a meeting in Aldersgate Street. This experience made him an evangelist. “Then it pleased God,” he declared, “to kindle a fire which I trust shall never be extinguished.”

Shortly after his conversion, Wesley visited the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut and met Count Zinzendorf.* He returned to England and embarked on his life-work. His objective was clear. He set out “to reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land.” He declared that he had only “one point of view-to promote so far as I am able vital, practical religion; and by the grace of God to beget, preserve, and increase the life of God in the souls of men.” Wesley knew himself to be an apostolic man, sent by God with an extraordinary commission to evangelize Great Britain.

In April 1739 he took to open-air preaching at the instigation of Whitefield. It was at Kingswood, Bristol, that he ventured on “this strange way of preaching in the fields,” as he described it. But the most effective medium for reaching the masses had been discovered, and Wesley was to exploit it for the rest of his itinerancy. It gave him a flexibility which could have been acquired in no other way and brought him face to face with the common people who heard him gladly. The churches were increasingly reluctant to welcome him on account of his evangelical doctrine, and henceforward his preaching was largely extramural.

To conserve the gains of evangelism, Wesley formed societies in the wake of his missions. The organization of Methodism was thus a direct outcome of his success in preaching the Gospel. London, Bristol, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne represented the three points of a triangle so far as his itineration in England was concerned. He soon extended his journeys to include Ireland and Scotland. Wales was left to Howel Harris.* Although Wesley himself did not again visit North America, he sent preachers there and in 1784 ordained Thomas Coke* to superintend the work. Wesley's own account of his mission to the nation and beyond is contained in his now classic Journal. His other published writings consist of sermons, letters, expositions, treatises, tracts, translations, histories, and abridgments.

Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament (1754); T. Jackson (ed.), Works (3rd ed., 14 vols., 1829-31); L. Tyerman, The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley (3 vols., 1870-71); J. Telford, The Life of John Wesley (1899); N. Curnock (ed.), Journal (8 vols., 1909-16); E.H. Sugden (ed.), Sermons (2 vols., 1921); J. Telford (ed.), Letters (8 vols., 1931); M.L. Edwards, John Wesley and the Eighteenth Century (1933); G.C. Cell, The Rediscovery of John Wesley (1935); M. Piette, John Wesley in the Evolution of Protestantism (ET 1937); T.W. Herbert, John Wesley as Editor and Author (1940); W.R. Cannon, The Theology of John Wesley (1946); R.W. Burtner and R.E. Chiles (eds.), A Compend of Wesley's Theology (1954); W.L. Doughty, John Wesley: Preacher (1955); C.W. Williams, John Wesley's Theology Today (1960); V.H.H. Green, The Young Mr. Wesley (1961); M. Schmidt, John Wesley: A Theological Biography, vol. I (ET 1962); A.C. Outler (ed.), John Wesley (1964); A.S. Wood, The Burning Heart (1967).