The English evangelical clergyman, preacher, and writer John Wesley (1703-1791) was the founder of Methodism. One of England's greatest spiritual leaders, he played a major role in the revival of religion in 18th-century English life.
The 18th century found the Church of England out of touch with both the religious and social problems of the day. Its leadership was constituted largely by political appointees, its clergy were riddled with ignorance, and churchmen of genuine concern were rare. The influence of rationalism and deism even among dedicated clergymen caused the Anglican Church to be unaware of the spiritual needs of the masses. John Wesley's great achievement was to recognize the necessity of bringing religion to this wide and neglected audience.
Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, on June 17, 1703. He was the fifteenth of the 19 children of Samuel Wesley, an Anglican minister who took his pastoral duties seriously and instilled this idea in his son. John's mother, a woman of great spiritual intensity, molded her children through a code of strict and uncompromising Christian morality, instilling in John a firm conception of religious piety, concern, and duty.
In 1714 Wesley entered Charterhouse School, and in 1720 he became a student at Christ Church, Oxford. Receiving his bachelor of arts degree in 1724, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1725 and was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1726. He became curate to his father in the following year and was ordained a priest in 1728. Returning to Oxford in 1729, Wesley, in addition to the duties of his fellowship at Lincoln, became active in a religious club to which his younger brother Charles belonged. The Holy Club, nicknamed "Methodists" by its critics, met frequently for discussion and study. Its members engaged in prayer, attended church services, visited prisoners, and gave donations to the needy. The Holy Club was one of Wesley's formative influences, and he soon became its acknowledged leader.
Ministry in Georgia
Buoyed by his years at Oxford and desirous of putting the principles of the Holy Club to work elsewhere, Wesley in 1735 accepted the invitation of James Oglethorpe to become a minister in the recently founded colony of Georgia. Accompanied by his brother Charles, Wesley spent two disappointing years in the New World. Despite his zeal to bring them the Gospel, he was rebuffed by the colonists and received unenthusiastically by the Indians. Moreover, he became involved in an unsuccessful love affair, the aftermath of which brought him the unwanted publicity of a court case. In 1737 Wesley returned to England.
Wesley's stay in Georgia was, however, not without benefit. Both on his trip over and during his two-year stay, he was deeply influenced by Moravian missionaries, whose sense of spiritual confidence and commitment to practical piety impressed him.
Conversion and Preaching
In England, Wesley continued to keep in close touch with the Moravians. At one of their meetings—in Aldersgate Street, London, on May 24, 1738—he experienced conversion while listening to a reading of Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation, " Wesley wrote, "and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
Through this personal commitment Wesley, though he later broke with the Moravians, became imbued with the desire to take this message to the rest of England. Finding the bishops unsympathetic or indifferent and most clergymen hostile to the point of closing their churches to him, Wesley, following the example of such preachers as George Whitefield, began an itinerant ministry that lasted more than 50 years. Forced to preach outside the churches, he became adept at open-air preaching and, as a result, began to reach many, especially in the cities, about whom the Church of England had shown little concern.
A small man (he was 5 feet 6 inches in height and weighed about 120 pounds), Wesley always had to perch on a chair or platform when he preached. He averaged 15 sermons a week, and as his Journal indicates, he preached more than 40, 000 sermons in his career, traveling the length and breadth of England—altogether more than 250, 000 miles—many times during an age when roads were often only muddy ruts. A contemporary described him as "the last word … in neatness and dress" and "his eye was 'the brightest and most piercing that can be conceived."'
Preaching was not easy; crowds were often hostile, and once a bull was let loose in an audience he was addressing. Wesley, however, quickly learned the art of speaking and, despite opposition, his sermons began to have a marked effect. Many were converted immediately, frequently exhibiting physical signs, such as fits or trances.
Organization of Methodism
From the beginning Wesley viewed his movement as one within the Church of England and not in opposition to it. As he gained converts around England, however, these men and women grouped themselves together in societies that Wesley envisioned as playing the same role in Anglicanism as the monastic orders do in the Roman Catholic Church. He took a continual and rather authoritarian part in the life of these societies, visiting them periodically, settling disputes, and expelling the recalcitrant. Yearly conferences of the whole movement presented him with the opportunity to establish policy. Under his leadership each society was broken down into a "class, " which dealt with matters of finance, and a "band, " which set standards of personal morality. In addition, Wesley wrote numerous theological works and edited 35 volumes of Christian literature for the edification of the societies. A tireless and consummate organizer, he kept his movement prospering despite a variety of defections.
Yet the continual opposition of the Anglican bishops, coupled with their refusal to ordain Methodist clergy, forced Wesley to move closer to actual separation toward the end of his life. In 1784 he took out a deed of declaration, which secured the legal standing of the Methodist Society after his death. In the same year he reluctantly ordained two men to serve as "superintendents" for Methodists in North America. He continued the practice to provide clergymen for England but very sparingly and with great hesitation. Wesley always maintained that he personally adhered to the Church of England.
Methodism had a significant impact on English society. It brought religion to masses of people who, through the shifts of population brought about by the industrial revolution, were not being reached by the Anglican Church. In addition, it had a beneficial effect on many within both the Church of England and dissenting congregations. By emphasizing morality, self-discipline, and thrift to the deprived classes, Wesley has been credited by some historians as being a major force in keeping England free of revolution and widespread social unrest during his day. He himself was politically conservative, a critic of democracy, and a foe of both the American and French revolutions.
Throughout his life Wesley's closest confidant was his brother and coworker Charles, the composer of a number of well-known hymns. Wesley, always extraordinarily healthy, remained active to the end, preaching his final sermon at an open-air meeting just 4 months before his death on March 2, 1791, in London.
Further Reading on John Wesley
The best source for an understanding of Wesley is The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, edited by Nehemiah Curnock (8 vols., 1909-1916). J. H. Overton, John Wesley (1891), is a short, sympathetic, well-written biography. Francis J. McConnell, John Wesley (1939), is a full reinterpretation and reevaluation of Wesley in the light of modern experience and research. Valuable background material is in Basil Williams, The Whig Supremacy, 1714-1760 (1939; 2d ed. rev. 1962), and Elie Halevy, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century (4 vols., 1961). The economic changes of the Wesley era are well treated in T. S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830 (1948; rev. ed. 1964).