Who Was John Wesley?

John Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, England, the 15th child of Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna Wesley. His father was a graduate of the University of Oxford and a Church of England rector. In 1689 Samuel had married Susanna, the 25th child of Samuel Annesley, a Dissenting minister. Wesley’s parents had both become members of the established Church of England early in adulthood. Susanna bore Samuel Wesley 19 children, but only nine lived. In 1696 Wesley’s father was appointed the rector of Epworth.

At the age of five, John Wesley was rescued from the burning parsonage. This escape made a deep impression on his mind and his mother Susanna regarded John’s rescue as being a miracle as a “branded plucked from the burning” quoting Zechariah 3:2. As in many families at the time, Wesley’s parent gave their children their home schooling. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. In 1714, at age 11, John Wesley was sent to the Charterhouse School in London (under the mastership of John King from 1715). It was there he lived the studious, methodical and – for a while – religious life in which he had been trained at home.

In June 1720, Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1725 and elected fellow of Lincoln College in the following year. He received his Masters of Arts in 1727. He was his father’s curate for two years, and then returned to Oxford to fulfill his functions as fellow.

The year of his return to Oxford (1729) marks the beginning of the rise of Methodism. The Holy Club was formed by John’s younger brother, Charles Wesley, and some fellow students, including George Whitefield. The Holy Club met weekly and they systematically set about living a holy life. They were branded as “Methodist” by students at Oxford who derided the methodical way they ordered their lives.

John Wesley traveled to Savannah, George as a missionary to the Native Americans, but it didn’t turned out the way he had hoped. In fact, he left in shame, escaping back to England from those who sought to put him on trial for not giving communion to a woman whom he liked, but she ended up marrying someone else.

John Wesley was a broken man, but he found faith and hope in the example of his Moravian friends. For example, John Wesley was onboard a ship bound for the Georgia colony in early 1736 when a ferocious storm shredded the main sail and flooded the decks.

Many of the English passengers aboard screamed in terror that they would soon be swallowed by the deep. But a group of Moravian missionaries from Germany calmly sang throughout the squall. They were unafraid of death, an astounded John Wesley later recounted in his journal.

That journey marked Wesley’s first significant encounter with a small Protestant movement that would have an enormous influence on his ministry and the Methodist movement he started.

Two years later, a disheartened Wesley was back in England wrestling with his Christian faith after a miserable time in Georgia. On May 24, 1738, friends prevailed upon him to attend a Moravian society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. It was then that everything changed for John.

Wesley took to open-air preaching in a similar manner to George Whitefield. In contrast to Whitefield’s Calvinism, Wesley embraced the Arminian doctrines that were dominant in the 18th-century Church of England. Methodism in both forms became a highly successful evangelical movement in Britain and later in the United States. His work also helped lead to the later development of the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism.

Wesley helped to organize and form societies of Christians throughout Great Britain, North America and Ireland as small groups that developed intensive, personal accountability, discipleship and religious instruction among members. His great contribution was to appoint itinerant, unordained preachers who travelled widely to evangelize and care for people in the societies. Under Wesley’s direction, Methodists became leaders in many social issues of the day, including prison reform and abolitionism.

Although he was not a systematic theologian, Wesley argued in favor of ‘Christian perfection’ and opposed Calvinism, notably the doctrine of predestination. He held that, in this life, Christians could come to a state in which the love of God “reigned supreme in their hearts,” allowing them to attain a state of outward holiness. His evangelical theology was firmly grounded in sacramental theology and he continually insisted on a means of grace as the manner by which God sanctifies and transforms the believer, encouraging people to experience Jesus Christ personally.

Throughout his life Wesley remained within the Established Church and insisted that his movement was well within the bounds of the Anglican tradition. 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 and referred to as “the best loved man in England.”