John Wesley is a famous Eighteenth Century Theologian and is known as the founding father of the Wesleyan Tradition, and the Methodist Movement which he founded with his brother Charles Wesley. He is an Anglican cleric known for his efforts to create and organize Christian societies in the states of North America, Ireland and Great Britain. He is known for his abolitionism and his open-air preaching that gave him the following that we know today as The Methodists.
The Theology and church policies he formed caused conflicts with the Church of England, but his life’s work brought him the love and respect of all English Speaking World and he came to be known as “ the loved man in England” (Ross and Stacey). John Wesley’s evangelical theology placed him in direct conflict with Calvinism. He believed in Arminianism and argued that Christian perfection was the aim of Christian belief. This article is an attempt at creating a biography of perhaps one of the best known modern day Christian reformer, who gave Christianity a different face and earned a following that lives on to the present day.
John Wesley was born on 17 June, 1703 at Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. He was born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley, the fifteenth in line of nineteen children. Samuel Wesley was a Rector in the Church of England, an Anglican Cleric who has charged with the duties of a community and owns the contributions from it. At the age of five, the Rectory, John’s first home, burned down and young John was rescued. This near death escape made Wesley feel as if he was set apart and was “ a brand plucked from the burning” house (Wallace, 1997). At the age of eleven, John was admitted to Charterhouse School where he continued the religious life that began at his home. John entered the Christ Church in Oxford in the year 1720 and was given the title of Deacon 5 years later. Wesley’s career as a religious pioneer began with this achievement. He was awarded the Fellowship of Lincoln College, Oxford and two years later he rose to become a priest. He pursued a rigidly methodical and abstemious life, studied the Scriptures of Christianity deeply, and performed religious duties attentively, often generously giving away his savings in alms. John said that it was his way of beginning “ to seek after holiness of heart and life.”
The year 1729 marks the beginning of the rise of Methodism. The Holy Club was founded by John’s sibling, Charles with the help of some fellow students. George Whitefield was the most prominent amongst these fellow students and is known as one of the co-founders of Methodism along with Charles Wesley. The Holy Club was named the “ Methodist” club because of its meticulous and method perfect ways of following Christianity (Dreyer, 1999)
At the request of James Oglethorpe, the founder of the Savannah colony in the Province of Georgia, America, John and his brother Charles set sail on 14 October 1735, on behalf of the Trustees for the Establishment of the Colony of Georgia in America. Wesley was supposed to become the minister of the newly founded Savannah parish, a town planned and laid out according to the famous Oglethorpe Plan.
The voyage to The Province of Georgia was a turning point in John’s life. It was on this voyage that the Wesley brothers met the Moravian settlers. Wesley was influenced by their deep faith and spirituality rooted in pietism. This experience led Wesley to believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength which he or any Christian of that time for that matter, lacked (Ross and Stacey, 1990). This deeply personal religion that the Moravians practised had a lasting influence on Wesley’s theology of Methodism (Dreyer, 1999). The second experience that Wesley had on the very same voyage was a short romantic affair with a woman named Sophia Hopkey, which Wesley broke at the advice of a Moravian priest. This short lived relation was a lesson for Wesley, as Hopkey and her new husband William Williamson filed suit against Wesley for a broken pact of marriage that Wesley had once promised Hopkey. Though the trials ended in Wesley’s favour he was too humiliated and broken to stay in Georgia and openly wished to return to England.
Wesley spent an eventful life, joining the Moravians and later detaching from them to form The Methodist Society that he later helped spread to America. He believed in abolitionism and Arminianism. He even practised some medicine to heal the people he preached. He ended his days in poverty in London in the year 1791.
Theology and Importance in Christian History
As Wesley returned to England, he turned to Moravians for self-healing. He and Charles were counselled by a young Moravian missionary Peter Boehler, who was temporarily in England awaiting permission to depart for Georgia himself. Wesley found a deep semblance with the Moravian ways of preaching and piety. In 1738 he went to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, to further his studies in the Moravian way. Upon his return to England, Wesley described up rules for ” bands” that the Fetter Lane Society was divided in and published a collection of hymns.
Earlier in his life John believed that the method of saving souls through open air preaching, followed by the evangelist George Whitefield was ” almost a sin.”(Tomkins, 2003) but later recognised that the open-air services were very appreciated by men and women who would not have the chance to enter most of the churches. He then took any and every opportunity to preach wherever he could find an assembly, and he is known to have used his father’s tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit more than once. He continued preaching like this for fifty years, in churches where he was invited, and in fields, halls, cottages, and chapels, when churches would deny him entrance. All his followers joined the Moravian Fetter Lane Society and later joined him to form “ The Methodist” society when he broke off from the Moravians, because he found the Moravian quietism as heresy.
The Methodists received persecution from local clergymen who objected to the authority of most of the preachers, who unlike John were not ordained as priests. They were attacked in sermons, writings and by mobs, and were called as sinners and against the clergy of England at many occasions. But The Methodist society under Wesley’s guidance preached. However, his unordained local preachers became the key development of The Methodists.
Wesley used tickets, with names written on them by his own hand, to describe the membership of bands in The Methodist societies every three months to stop misbehaviour amongst followers. The ones who did not receive this ticket dropped out of the society without creating any disturbance.
The Methodists slowly spread in belief and popularity and spread to the new found English colonies of America. Wesley’s most noteworthy achievement came in the year1784, when he ordained Thomas Coke as superintendent of Methodists in the United States and Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters. The Church of England was disestablished in the United States, as The Church had not yet appointed a United States bishop. His ordained ministers were given the right to ordain preachers in the Americas (Stevens, 1858). Through this measure Wesley was able to free The Methodists in America from The Church of England, although he, his brother and his followers in England remained in their churches till the end.
He believed in the individualistic approach of Christianity. His doctrine called for an own experience of Jesus Christ and drew himself against Calvinism. Unlike his Methodist colleague Whitefield, who was a believer in Calvinism, Wesley believed and preached and advocated Arminianism. He was a doctrinal writer, clear and loud in thought and avoided dogmatic writing. He was an eminent organiser, a religious leader and a statesman. While traveling around places to bring God’s message, he found people ill of body and his pity for such illnesses drove him to become a doctor as well. In a way he healed people who came in his contact spiritually and physically. He was a major contributor to Evangelicalism through the Holiness movement and a major inspiration behind Pentecostalism. Although he worked for the reforms of the Anglican Church he maintained that his movement remained within the bounds of the Anglican Traditions. He was a firm believer in abolitionism, and stood up against slave trade with speeches and writings. He was a very charitable man. Upon his death at the age of 87 he left behind a good library of books and the Methodist church with over 500 Methodist preachers to carry on his life’s work. He died in London as a very poor man as he gave away all his earnings to the needy and the poor, an evidence of his generosity to the world.
Wesley set an example of how dedication to one’s own principles can have far reaching effects. He was able to reach out to generations 300 years later with his doctrines and messages recorded in the books that he wrote and through the preachers he left behind to spread his method of seeing Christianity. To this day, Wesley is celebrated by many as a person who stood up in a time when everyone shut their eye logic in faith and believed in what was dictated with questioning.
John Wesley was perhaps one of the most important of men in the development of Christian history. He was a strong advocate for reforms of practises in the church, and the beliefs of ways of access to salvation for everyone. His preaching that God’s love and grace is available to anyone that needs it as a source of inspiration to this day. Through his work throughout his life Wesley tried to spread the nature of Christianity as he saw it and reformed many practises in the Church of England. His Methodist society spread far and wide to spread the preaching of the Bible and God’s message to mankind. Wesley in many ways was the perfect example of a man who knew what his purpose in life was, and for Wesley it was the healing of the mind, body, soul and religion of the people of his day. One should draw an example from his life that failings can happen with anyone, but to rise from a fall is the rise to one’s purpose in life.
Ross, K. W. and Stacey, Rosemary (1990). ” John Wesley and Savannah”. Noorlander, D. Wesley Heritage Study Guide. Educational Opportunities Tours. Retrieved from: http://www. sip. armstrong. edu/Methodism/wesley. html.
Wallace, Charles Jr. (1997) Susanna Wesley: the complete writings, New York. Oxford University Press, p. 67, ISBN 0-19-507437-8
Dreyer, F. A. (1999). The Genesis of Methodism. Lehigh University Press. p. 27. ISBN 0-934223-56-4.
Stevens, Abel (1858). The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century, called Methodism I. Carlton & Porter. p. 155.
Tomkins, S. (2003). John Wesley: A Biography. Eerdmans. p. 69. ISBN 978-0-8028-2499-8.