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John Wesley (June
17, 1703 – March 2, 1791) was an 18th-century Anglican clergyman
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 so-called "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.
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, and 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.
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 six,
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, beginning at the age
of five. In 1713 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.
Wesley spread Methodism
all over Europe without gaining the Anglican church as an enemy and
he was widely respected by the end of his holy work.
In Oxford and Georgia
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 at 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 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. While
in Georgia, he began the first Sunday school. He had had an unhappy
love affair and felt that his mission (to convert the Indians and deepen
and regulate the religious life of the colonists) had been a failure.
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
The Beginning of
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", is but one of many experiences
in Wesley's journey of faith. A few weeks later he 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
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.
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. 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.
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.
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, 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,
but Wesley refused to leave the Church of England. 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 lay preaching. 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, and Wesley was convinced
by it that apostolic succession was a fiction, and 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
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, and the Bishop of London had refused to ordain a minister
for the American Methodists who were without the ordinances, Wesley
ordained preachers for Scotland and England and America, with power
to administer the sacraments in 1784. Though 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.
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.
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."
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, illumined by tradition,
vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture,
Wesley argued, is primary, revealing the Word of God '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. 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."
spoke of (1790) as the "grand depositum which God has lodged with
the people called `Methodists'." Wesley taught that sanctification
was obtainable instantaneously by faith, between justification and death.
It was not "sinless perfection" that he contended for; but
he believed that those who are "perfect in love" feel no sin.
He was anxious that this doctrine should be constantly preached for
the system of Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid
by Wesley and Fletcher (see Jacob Hermann, Arminianism).
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
Personality and activities
Statue of John Wesley at Wesley's Chapel City Road, London. (January
2006)Wesley travelled constantly, generally on horseback, preaching
twice or thrice 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, a widow, Mary Vazeille, and had
no children; she 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,
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!" (Quoted, Tomkins
John Wesley: A Biography (Eerdmans, 2003) 168.)
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
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, AustraliaToday,
many follow Wesley's teachings. He continues to be the primary theological
interpreter for Methodists the world over; the largest Wesleyan body
being The United Methodist Church. The teachings of Wesley also served
as a basis for the Holiness movement, from which Pentecostalism, parts
of the Charismatic movement, 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.
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.