Evangelist and Founder of the Methodistsby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Often one wonders why, week after week, the pastor gives the same invitation at the end of every service, even when there is no one new in the congregation. Would it not be shocking to see Mrs. Hollingsworth, the nice elderly Sunday school teacher who has attended the church longer than anyone could remember, come forward? Would it not be shocking if the preacher himself came forward? That is very nearly the story of John Wesley.
John Wesley was born on June 28, 1703, the fifteenth child out of nineteen. His father, Samuel Wesley, was a graduate of Oxford and a minister in the Church of England; although it was from his mother, Susanna Wesley, that John received many of his lifelong convictions. Educating all of her children at home, Susanna taught them to pray daily, to rely on the Lord in all situations, and to give one’s self in service to others. At the age of five John went through a frightening experience: his home caught fire. Unreachable from within the house, John was trapped in the attic and had to be rescued from the attic window. From that point in his life he always referred to himself as a “brand plucked from the fire.”
He began to attend Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1720, and he was ordained deacon in 1725. In 1726 he was ordained a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford; however, between 1727 and 1729 he left to help his father as a curate. In 1728 he was admitted to the priesthood of the Church of England. Returning to Oxford in 1729, he, along with his brother Charles Wesley, formed the Holy Club. The Holy Club, which was devoted to debating the scriptures, required each member to adhere to a strict set of daily religious practices, in addition to visiting the sick and holding services for prisoners in the local jail. Other college students saw the members of the club as being far too pious and methodical in their daily practices, and thus dubbed them as the “Methodists.”
In 1735 he was approached by James Oglethorpe, the governor of Georgia. James wanted both John and his brother Charles to travel to Georgia to work as ministers in the new parish of Savannah. During the journey across the Atlantic, a storm came up and threatened to sink the ship. As the Englishmen aboard began to despair, the German Moravian colonists aboard calmly sang hymns and prayed. Greatly impressed by the strength of their faith in such a situation, John Wesley realized that the Moravians possessed an inner strength that he lacked, even with his religious education and his participation in the Holy Club.
Both brothers had a hard time with their ministries in Georgia, and Charles became overwhelmed and left in 1736. John had a difficult time adjusting to ministering to the settlers, as many of his high-minded views of the church had no practical value to the colonists beginning a new life for themselves. As his job grew harder, he found himself increasingly attending Moravian services. He truly enjoyed time spent with them, and he admired their unshakeable faith. John’s time in Georgia began its end when he refused to administer communion to a woman on the basis that she had sinned and not repented before attempting to partake of the Lord’s Supper. Many people in Savannah thought that he had refused to administer communion to her for personal reasons, as she and John once had romantic relations that ended badly. Eventually, his reputation was so ruined, and so many people had turned against him, that he thought it was time for him to leave. Greatly discouraged and feeling as if he had accomplished nothing, he left Georgia to return to England in 1737. Some good had come of his time in Georgia though: through his friendship with the Moravians, he slowly began to piece together what was missing in his faith.
After his return to England he continually sought out the Moravians, and at a Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street, London, he was truly freed from sin. While listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface to his commentary on Romans, John Wesley accepted Christ into his heart. As he himself said, "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins." The previous ten years of his ministry he had fought against sin and attempted to fulfill the laws of the Bible, but he had never obtained freedom from sin. In his methodical ways he had attempted to gain salvation through works instead of faith. His conversion ignited a burning fire in him to spread this message to all that would hear it.
Soon after his conversion he devoted his life to evangelism. He spent a lot of time with the Moravians, and did not preach often as his simple message of salvation through faith alone was not accepted in most churches. His friend, George Whitefield, on his return from evangelizing in America, also found many church doors closed to his message. Whitefield did not allow this to discourage him, and he began to preach as an open air evangelist. Meeting with great success, he invited him to preach at an open-air evangelist session. Although John initially had reservations about preaching outside of the church, his first open-air sermon was received so well that he became convinced that field-preaching was the best way to reach the masses. Many of the English people were ready for a spiritual revival, and John Wesley’s message of personal salvation and faith was what the public needed and wanted to hear.
John, his brother Charles, his friend George Whitefield, and many of his converts all joined the Moravians, but late in 1739 many of the Moravians began to practice what John considered heresy. He and his followers were led to leave the Moravians and establish their own society; thus began the Methodist Society of London. Similar Methodist societies soon were formed throughout England. By 1742 the Methodists had expanded enough to require reorganization. Each society was divided into a class, and each class had its own leader; however, this restructuring led to another problem. The Methodists had a huge following, but they had invoked great hostility from the Church of England, and too few converts were ordained ministers to allow each class to be led by someone who was properly qualified. Wesley was called to do something that violated everything he had been taught while a minister of the Church of England: he allowed people who were not ordained to preach and carry out pastoral duties. In 1744 the Methodists began to hold annual meetings which were attended by the leaders of every class.
When he was 48 he married a widow, but things went badly for them and they were soon separated. Childless, he died in 1791 of an illness. By the time of his death the Church of England had lessened their hostility to the Methodists, and many people admired him. A prolific writer, he assembled over 20 collections of hymns, wrote more than 140 sermons, and published several books. At the end of his life over 135,000 people followed Methodist teachings. A man who lived ten years of his life preaching without faith went on to create a thriving denomination and helped to shape the spiritual revival of the eighteenth century.
1. “Island of Freedom – John Wesley” <http://www.island-of-freedom.com/ WESLEY.HTM> (September 20, 2005)
2. Ross, Kathy W. and Stacy, Rosemary “John Wesley and Savannah” <http://www.sip.armstrong.edu/Methodism/ wesley.html> (September 20, 2005)
3. Ravenhill, Leonard “John Wesley” <http://www.ravenhill.org/wesley.htm> (September 20, 2005)
4. “Wesley, John” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. XII: Trench – Zwingli <http://www.ccel.org/php/disp.php?authorID=schaff&bookID= encyc12&page=307&view> (September 20, 2005)