John Wesley Biography


(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Wesley founded the Methodist church and presaged the entire Evangelical movement which followed in England and America.

Early Life

John Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in the rustic Lincolnshire town of Epworth. His father, Samuel, was the Anglican minister of the surrounding rural parish. His mother, Susanna, was the daughter of a Dissenter minister. She was schooled in an independent manner at home and was taught to formulate her own answers to life’s questions. As a mother, she developed a stringent code of behavior for her children, for whom she provided an elementary education at home. She was a rigorous disciplinarian who required her children to cry softly and keep busy every waking hour. She succeeded in making an indelible mark on her children. Susanna is thus accorded much credit for the ultimate success of John and his younger brother, Charles. Indeed, Methodism’s emphasis on self-discipline and mutual improvement can be traced to John’s first eleven years of schooling at home.

Wesley’s secondary education at Charterhouse in London, beginning in 1714, was without incident except as a preparation for Oxford. He entered Christ Church College in 1720, and his brother Charles followed a few years later. The Oxford that John and Charles attended in the early 1720’s was a bastion of High Anglicanism whose faculty members were really clergymen intent upon imparting good manners in preference to religious zeal. During his course of study, John Wesley came under the influence of an exceptional thinker, William Law, who railed against the “almost Christians” he saw around him.

Wesley was unusual among students of the day in that he worked hard at his studies and tutoring. He soon absorbed the religious enthusiasm of medieval ascetics and began to follow a monklike regimen. In 1729, Charles Wesley founded the Holy Club among an ardent group of undergraduates, one of whom, George Whitefield, was destined to become one of England’s greatest orators. It was a small group whose prayers and practices were completely alien to the surrounding environment. John Wesley, who had already taken his degree, was senior to the group. He assumed the leadership role. He soon guided them through a very full schedule of prayer, fasting, and good works among the local community. Wesley led by an example of rigorousness and explained what was required for the Holy Club members to save their souls. He urged them to “methodize” their witness for Christianity, to methodize every hour of the day. The two Wesley brothers, Whitefield, and the rest of that small group of religion students were ridiculed by the Oxford student body. Hence, the term “Methodist” arose in mockery.

In 1729, John was also elected a Fellow of Lincoln College. He was a diligent teacher, but the Christian witness he sought was difficult to find among the Oxford students. By 1730, John and Charles began the practice of visiting prisons and proselytizing prisoners. There, in the corrupt jails of Oxford and its environs, they found a means to broaden the reception of their religious views. Charles became a good friend of the social-reform zealot Colonel James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia in 1732 with the refuse of the British prisons. Charles became his secretary and John was invited to go as a chaplain to Georgia with Charles and Oglethorpe in 1735. The prospect of shepherding the colonists, and more important, of winning converts among the Indians, appealed greatly to Wesley. He began a journal in which he wrote faithfully for the next fifty-five years.

On the trip over, the ship ran into a bad storm and Wesley, like all the English passengers, cowered and shrieked in panic as the ship lurched and the ocean cascaded within. In the corner of the hold, however, a group of German Moravians stood close together and calmly sang their hymns without betraying any fear of dying. Wesley was deeply impressed by the fortitude of the Moravians and lapsed into a monthlong slump of self-criticism and examination. “I was unfit because I was unwilling to die,” he wrote in his journal entry of December 23, 1735.

Among the difficulties that Wesley encountered in Georgia was an unfulfilled love affair with Sophia Hopkey in which Wesley waited too long to propose. When Hopkey married another man, Wesley took revenge by denying Hopkey Communion on a technicality, thus casting her in a bad light. Hopkey and her family brought suit against Wesley, and a grand jury found for her. Wesley had to sneak out of Georgia soiled by scandal. “Shook the dust off my feet and left Georgia,” he recorded on December 2, 1737.

Wesley’s main problem in dealing with the colonists stemmed from the authoritarian and officious manner in which he treated them. He badgered them as if he were dealing with schoolboys. They responded by rejecting his ministry. As for the Indians, he lamented in his journal on October 7, 1737, that he never met any who gave the slightest sign of “wanting the Christian word.”

During his return voyage to England, Wesley realized that his failure with the Indians and the colonists was really within. “I went to America to convert Indians,” he recorded in his journal entry of February 24, 1738, “but oh who shall convert me?” “I went to Georgia to convert others,” he wrote the next week, “but myself never converted to God.”

Life’s Work

Wesley returned to London spiritually shaken. He soon took up with some Moravians. Their emphasis upon a loving God and uncomplicated theology of redemption directly through Jesus Christ had a profound impact upon him. Indeed, Wesley owed his born-again religious experience to them. On May 24, 1738, he noted in his journal that, while attending a service, “. . . I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation.” Wesley was then almost thirty-five. He had completed an arduous spiritual journey which in turn would fuel another. Over the next half century, he would travel on horseback a quarter of a million miles. He would write 233 books, edit more than one hundred others, and deliver forty thousand lectures across the British Isles.

Wesley’s Methodist movement arose as a great awakening of Christian spirit within a year of his rebirth. His message of Christ’s love and of the democratic nature of salvation was readily grasped by those who heard him. The partners in the early story of his revivalist success—his brother Charles and George Whitefield—shared in the transformation of his message into a movement.

The Evangelical piety generated by Wesleyite sermons produced a backlash among the church establishment. The general...

(The entire section is 2780 words.)