John Wesley was born on June 28, 1703 in Epworth, which is 23 miles from Lincoln, England. The fifteenth child of Samuel Wesley and Susanna Annesley, John faced a terrible incident in his childhood. At the tender age of 5, he was rescued from the burning church house. This incident left a deep impression on his mind. He started considering himself to be a fortunate being or one who was set apart. He did his schooling from Charterhouse School, London, wherein he lived a studious, methodical and religious life. There, he was traumatized by children of his own age. Further, he studied at Christ Church in Oxford, and was elected (1726) fellow of Lincoln College. He was ordained as a priest in 1728.
Though John had joined his brother Charles' Holy Club, a group that was hailed as the Methodists in Oxford, the belief did not last long. On returning to England from the new colony of Georgia, where John's view of high-church aroused resentment, in 1735, John's ship faced a terrible storm. While the English panicked, the Moravians were calm and composed. They sang hymns and prayed, which made John believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength. This thought was further strengthened after John attended a Moravian meeting, in which he heard a reading of Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans.
Alliance With Moravian Society
In 1738, John Wesley headed to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, to study. Though he met the Fetter Lane Society, along with other religious organizations, and published a collection of hymns for them, the gates of parish churches remained closed, when it came to preaching. It was not until his Oxford friend George Whitefield's first preaching in open air, to a company of miners, in 1739, that John gave his first sermon, in open air, near Bristol. Though the idea of preaching in open air seemed more a sin than a practice, this thought was soon dissolved. John found that open-air services were successful in reaching men and women, who would not enter most churches.
John capitalized on this realization and from, thence, preached wherever gathering could be formed. In 1739, Wesley cut off from the Moravians in London. The members of Fetter Lane Society, who had converted mainly because of Wesley's, his brother's and Whitefield's preaching, joined the former's bands. However, Wesley felt that, by supporting quietism, they had disagreed with him and he decided to form his own followers by forming a separate society, which came to be known as the 'Methodist Society' in England. Not much time later, he formed similar societies in Bristol and Kingswood as well.
Persecutions & Lay Preaching
The clergymen and magistrates persecuted Wesley and the Methodists in 1739, on the account that they were not ordained or licensed by the Anglican Church. While some attacked them in sermons, the others resorted to do so in print. However, this did not melt down either John or his followers' ambition. They continued to work amongst the neglected and needy. The clergymen claimed them to be promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances and blind fanatics, who were leading people astray. Wesley felt that the church failed to punish the sinners to repentance, leading to the perishing of the masses.
John Wesley believed that he was specially ordered by God to bring about a revival and no impediment could come in between him and the divine urgency and authority of this commission. He did not let anything stand in his way, be it his views of the apostolic succession or the prerogatives of the priest. Reluctant to let innocent people die because of the sins of clergymen, John preached in the fields, along with his followers. To broaden his reach, he evaluated and approved men and women who were not ordained by the Anglican Church to preach and do pastoral work. This expansion of lay preachers was the sole reason for the growth of Methodism.
Chapels & Organizations
John Wesley realized the need for a house of worship and, hence, built chapels in Bristol and London. He was the sole head of these organizations. He also adopted a method by which, in every three months, he would issue tickets, or commendatory letters, to the members. Those who were deemed unworthy would not receive the new tickets and, hence, would be dropped out of the society without any disturbance. To keep out the unruly from the society, John established a probationary system as well.
In 1743, when the society had grown large in number, John wrote a set of doctrine called 'General Rules' for the 'United Societies', which formed the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline. In 1744, he held a meeting, along with his brother, four clergymen and four preachers, known as the first Methodist conference. In it, they discussed the working of the group which had grown dramatically. In 1746, John appointed helpers, so that the preachers would work more systematically and the societies would receive services more regularly.
Ordination of Ministers
John Wesley was insisted on, by preachers and societies, to branch away from the church. However, he was of the opinion that to make peace with the clergy, he would make compromises, but only those which would be permitted by his conscience. After reading the Lord King on the Primitive Church, Wesley was convinced that the concept of the apostolic succession in the Anglican Church was a fiction. After waiting for a long time, for the Bishop of London to ordain, Wesley himself ordained preachers for Scotland, England and Americ,a giving them power to administer the sacraments in 1784. While Dr. Thomas Coke was appointed as a superintendent of Methodists in the United States, WesleyordainedRichard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters.
Advocacy of Arminianism
In contrast to Whitefield's belief in Calvinism, Wesley believed in Arminianism. The two separated in 1741, but were soon back on friendly terms. Wesley, in 1778, founded 'The Arminian Magazine', to preserve Methodists.
Doctrines and Theology
For John Wesley, the Holy Bible was the only foundation of theological or doctrinal development. Tradition was the second-most important aspect of the theology.Wesley lectured on the doctrine of personal salvation by faith and the witness of God's Spirit, with the belief that a person was a child of God. Much unlike the Calvinists, Wesley did not believe in pre-destination. For him, all persons were capable of being saved by faith in Christ. Wesley believed that this doctrine should be constantly preached, especially among the people called Methodists. He aspired to make Christians perfect in love i.e. they should be guided by a deep desire to please God and that they should have regards for other's welfare. He believed that by following this principle, a person will never be able to commit intentional or willful sin. Love for God, together with the love for neighbor, would lead a man to the fulfillment of the law of Christ.
Personality & Personal Life
John Wesley was continuously on the move, stopping only to preach two or three times a day. In his lifetime, John had done a number of things, like forming societies, constructing chapels, examining and commissioning preachers, administering aid charities, prescribing medicine for the sick, helping to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness and supervising schools and orphanages. Despite his wishes, Wesley married at the age of forty-eight to a widow, Mary Vazeille. The couple had no children. After fifteen years of marriage, Vazeille left him for the heaven abode.
John Wesley died a peaceful death. On March 2, 1791, he left for the heaven abode, leaving behind him 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers, under the name 'Methodists'. Wesley was buried in a small graveyard, behind Wesley's Chapel on City Road, London.
John Wesley is considered as theprimary theological interpreter for Methodists even today. Some of the largest Wesleyan bodies include the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Wesleyan Church. His teachings were used during the Holiness movement. John Wesley's heritage has been preserved in Kingswood School, to educate the growing number of Methodist preachers. Along with his brother Charles, John Wesley was honored in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He also features in some calendars of churches of the Anglican Communion. A house in St Marylebone Church of England School, London is also named after him. In BBC's list of 100 Greatest Britons, John Wesley has been listed in the 50th position.
- Notes on the New Testament (1755)
- The Poetical Works of John and Charles