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John Wesley

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John Wesley

John Wesley
Portrait of Wesley by Frank O. Salisbury
Born 28 June [O.S. 17 June] 1703
Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Died 2 March 1791(1791-03-02) (aged 87)
London, England
Nationality British
Education Christ Church, Oxford
  • Cleric
  • Theologian
  • Author
Religion Christian (Anglican / Methodist)
Spouse(s) Mary Vazeille
Parents Samuel and Susanna Wesley
Ordained 1725
Offices held

John Wesley (;[1] 28 June [evangelical movement known as Methodism. His work and writings also played a leading role in the development of the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism.[3][4]

Educated at Moravian Christians. On 24 May 1738 he experienced what has come to be called his evangelical conversion, when he felt his "heart strangely warmed". He subsequently departed from the Moravians, beginning his own ministry.

A key step in the development of Wesley's ministry was, like Whitefield, to travel and discipleship and religious instruction. Most importantly, he appointed itinerant, unordained evangelists to travel and preach as he did and to care for these groups of people. 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 for the notion of Christian perfection and against Calvinism – and, in particular, against its doctrine of predestination. He held that, in this life, Christians could achieve a state where the love of God "reigned supreme in their hearts", giving them outward holiness. His evangelicalism, firmly grounded in sacramental theology, maintained that means of grace were 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 Anglican church, insisting that the Methodist movement lay well within its tradition.[5] Although sometimes maverick in his interpretation and use of church policy, he became widely respected and, by the end of his life, had been described as "the best loved man in England".[6]

Early life

John Wesley was born in 1703 in Epworth, 23 miles (37 km) north-west of Lincoln, as the fifteenth child of Samuel Wesley and his wife Susanna Wesley (née Annesley). Samuel Wesley was a graduate of the University of Oxford and a poet who, since 1696, had been rector of Epworth. He had married Susanna, the twenty-fifth child of Samuel Annesley, a Dissenting minister, in 1689. Ultimately, she bore him nineteen children, of which nine lived beyond infancy. She and Samuel Wesley had both become members of the Church of England as young adults.

As in many families at the time, Wesley's parents gave their children their early education. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. They were expected to become proficient in Latin and Greek and to have learned major portions of the New Testament by heart. Susanna Wesley examined each child before the midday meal and prior to evening prayers. Children were not allowed to eat between meals and were interviewed singularly by their mother one evening each week for the purpose of intensive spiritual instruction. In 1714, at age 11, Wesley was sent to the Charterhouse School in London (under the mastership of John King from 1715), where he lived the studious, methodical and—for a while—religious life in which he had been trained at home.

Apart from his disciplined upbringing, a rectory fire which occurred on 9 February 1709, when Wesley was five years old, left an indelible impression. Some time after 11:00 p.m., the rectory roof caught on fire. Sparks falling on the children’s beds and cries of "fire" from the street roused the Wesleys who managed to shepherd all their children out of the house except for John who was left stranded on the second floor. With stairs aflame and the roof about to collapse, Wesley was lifted out of the second floor window by a parishioner standing on another man’s shoulders. Wesley later utilized the phrase, "a brand plucked out of the fire", quoting Zechariah 3:2, to describe the incident.[7] This childhood deliverance subsequently became part of the Wesley legend, attesting to his special destiny and extraordinary work.


The Cathedral of Christ Church, Oxford University.

In June 1720, Wesley entered Christ Church, Oxford. In 1724, Wesley graduated as a Bachelor of Arts and decided to pursue a Master of Arts degree. He was ordained a deacon on 25 September 1725, holy orders being a necessary step toward becoming a fellow and tutor at the university.

In the year of his ordination he read Thomas a Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, and began to seek the religious truths which underlay the great revival of the 18th century. The reading of Law's Christian Perfection and A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life gave him, he said, a sublimer view of the law of God; and he resolved to keep it, inwardly and outwardly, as sacredly as possible, believing that in obedience he would find salvation. He pursued a rigidly methodical and abstemious life, studied the Scriptures, and performed his religious duties diligently, depriving himself so that he would have alms to give. He began to seek after holiness of heart and life.

In March 1726, Wesley was unanimously elected a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford. This carried with it the right to a room at the college and regular salary. While continuing his studies, Wesley taught Greek, lectured on the New Testament and moderated daily disputations at the university. However, a call to ministry intruded upon his academic career. In August 1727, after taking his master’s degree, Wesley returned to Epworth. His father had requested his assistance in serving the neighbouring cure of Wroote. Ordained a priest on 22 September 1728, Wesley served as a parish curate for two years. He returned to Oxford in November 1729 at the request of the Rector of Lincoln College and to maintain his status as junior Fellow.

Holy Club

During Wesley's absence, his younger brother Charles (1707–88) matriculated at Christ College. Along with two fellow students, he formed a small club for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life. On Wesley's return, he became the leader of the group which increased somewhat in number and greatly in commitment. The group met daily from six until nine for prayer, psalms, and reading of the Greek New Testament. They prayed every waking hour for several minutes and each day for a special virtue. While the church's prescribed attendance was only three times a year, they took communion every Sunday. They fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until three o'clock as was commonly observed in the ancient church. In 1730, the group began the practice of visiting prisoners in jail. They preached, educated, and relieved jailed debtors whenever possible, and cared for the sick.

Given the low ebb of spirituality in Oxford at that time, it was not surprising that Wesley's group provoked a negative reaction. They were considered to be religious "[9] That name was used by an anonymous author in a published pamphlet (1733) describing Wesley and his group, "The Oxford Methodists."[10]

For all of his outward piety, Wesley sought to cultivate his inner holiness or at least his sincerity as evidence of being a true Christian. A list of "General Questions" which he developed in 1730 evolved into an elaborate grid by 1734 in which he recorded his daily activities hour-by-hour, resolutions he had broken or kept, and ranked his hourly "temper of devotion" on a scale of 1 to 9. Wesley also regarded the contempt with which he and his group were held to be a mark of a true Christian. As he put it in a letter to his father, "Till he be thus contemned, no man is in a state of salvation."[11]

Journey to Savannah, Georgia

On 14 October 1735, Wesley and his brother Charles sailed on The Simmonds from Oglethorpe Plan.

Statue of John Wesley, Savannah, Georgia, United States

It was on the voyage to the colonies that the Wesleys first came into contact with Moravian settlers. Wesley was influenced by their deep faith and spirituality rooted in pietism. At one point in the voyage a storm came up and broke the mast off the ship. While the English panicked, the Moravians calmly sang hymns and prayed. This experience led Wesley to believe that the Moravians possessed an inner strength which he lacked.[12] The deeply personal religion that the Moravian pietists practised heavily influenced Wesley's theology of Methodism.[13]

Wesley arrived in the colony in February 1736. He approached the Georgia mission as a High Churchman, seeing it as an opportunity to revive "primitive Christianity" in a primitive environment. Although his primary goal was to evangelize the Native Americans, a shortage of clergy in the colony largely limited his ministry to European settlers in Savannah. While his ministry has often been judged to have been a failure in comparison to his later success as a leader in the Evangelical Revival, Wesley gathered around him a group of devoted Christians who met in a number of small group religious societies. At the same time, attendance at church services and communion increased over the course of nearly two years in which he served as Savannah's parish priest.

Nonetheless, Wesley's High Church ministry was controversial amongst the colonists and it ended in disappointment after Wesley fell in love with a young woman named Sophia Hopkey. Following her marriage to William Williamson, Wesley believed Sophia's former zeal for practising the Christian faith declined. In strictly applying the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, Wesley denied her communion after she failed to signify to him in advance her intention of taking it. As a result, legal proceedings against him in ensued in which a clear resolution seemed unlikely. In December 1737, Wesley fled the colony and returned to England.

It has been widely-recognized that one of the most significant accomplishments of Wesley's Georgia mission was his publication of a Collection of Psalms and Hymns. The Collection was the first Anglican hymnal published in America, and the first of many hymn-books Wesley published. It included five hymns he translated from German.[14]

Conversion and open-air preaching

A memorial plaque commemorating the place of John Wesley's "Aldersgate experience".

Wesley returned to England depressed and beaten. It was at this point that he turned to the Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and penned the now famous lines "I felt my heart strangely warmed",[15][16] revolutionised the character and method of his ministry.[17] The previous week he had been highly impressed by the sermon of John Heylyn, whom he was assisting in the service at St Mary-le-Strand, an occasion followed immediately by news of the death of his brother Samuel.[18] A few weeks later, Wesley preached a sermon on the doctrine of personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another, on God's grace "free in all, and free for all."

Wesley allied himself with the Moravian society in Fetter Lane. In 1738 he went to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, to study. On his return to England, Wesley drew up rules for the "bands" into which the Fetter Lane Society was divided and published a collection of hymns for them. He met frequently with this and other religious societies in London but did not preach often in 1738, because most of the parish churches were closed to him.

Wesley's Oxford friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, was also excluded from the churches of Bristol upon his return from America. Going to the neighbouring village of Kingswood, in February 1739, Whitefield preached in the open air to a company of miners. Later he preached in Whitefield's Tabernacle. Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield's call to copy this bold step. Overcoming his scruples, he preached the first time at Whitefield's invitation sermon in the open air, near Bristol, in April 1739. Wesley wrote,

I could scarce reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he [Whitefield] set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life till very lately so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.[19]

Wesley was unhappy about the idea of field preaching as he believed Anglican liturgy had much to offer in its practice. Earlier in his life he would have thought that such a method of saving souls was "almost a sin."[20] He recognised the open-air services were successful in reaching men and women who would not enter most churches. From then on he took the opportunities to preach wherever an assembly could be brought together, more than once using his father's tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit. Wesley continued for fifty years – entering churches when he was invited, and taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him.

Late in 1739 Wesley broke with the Moravians in London. Wesley had helped them organise the Fetter Lane Society, and those converted by his preaching and that of his brother and Whitefield had become members of their bands. But he believed they fell into heresy by supporting quietism, so he decided to form his own followers into a separate society. "Thus," he wrote, "without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England." He soon formed similar societies in Bristol and Kingswood, and wherever Wesley and his friends made converts.

Persecutions and lay preaching

Statue of John Wesley on horseback in the courtyard of The New Room chapel in Bristol.

From 1739 onward, Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by clergy and magistrates for various reasons. Though Wesley had been ordained an Anglican priest, many other Methodist leaders had not received ordination. And for his own part, Wesley flouted many regulations of the Church of England concerning parish boundaries and who had authority to preach. This was seen as a social threat that disregarded institutions. Clergy attacked them in sermons and in print, and at times mobs attacked them. Wesley and his followers continued to work among the neglected and needy. They were denounced as promulgators of strange doctrines, fomenters of religious disturbances; as blind fanatics, leading people astray, claiming miraculous gifts, attacking the clergy of the Church of England, and trying to re-establish Catholicism.

Wesley felt that the church failed to call sinners to repentance, that many of the clergy were corrupt, and that people were perishing in their sins. He believed he was commissioned by God to bring about revival in the church, and no opposition, persecution, or obstacles could prevail against the divine urgency and authority of this commission. The prejudices of his high-church training, his strict notions of the methods and proprieties of public worship, his views of the apostolic succession and the prerogatives of the priest, even his most cherished convictions, were not allowed to stand in the way.

Unwilling that people should perish in their sins and unable to reach them from church pulpits, following the example set by George Whitefield, Wesley began field preaching. Seeing that he and the few clergy co-operating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, he was led, as early as 1739, to approve local preachers. He evaluated and approved men who were not ordained by the Anglican Church to preach and do pastoral work. This expansion of lay preachers was one of the keys of the growth of Methodism.

Chapels and organisations

John Wesley's house, next to Wesley's Chapel, City Road, London

As his societies needed houses to worship in, Wesley began to provide chapels, first in Bristol at the New Room, then in London and elsewhere. The Bristol chapel (1739) was at first in the hands of trustees. A large debt was contracted, and Wesley's friends urged him to keep it under his own control, so the deed was cancelled and he became sole trustee. Following this precedent, all Methodist chapels were committed in trust to him until by a "deed of declaration", all his interests in them were transferred to a body of preachers called the "Legal Hundred".

When disorder arose among some members of the societies, Wesley adopted giving tickets to members, with their names written by his own hand. These were renewed every three months. Those deemed unworthy did not receive new tickets and dropped out of the society without disturbance. The tickets were regarded as commendatory letters.

When the debt on a chapel became a burden, it was proposed that one in 12 members should collect offerings regularly from the 11 allotted to him. Out of this grew the Methodist class-meeting system in 1742. In order to keep the disorderly out of the societies, Wesley established a probationary system. He undertook to visit each society regularly in what became the quarterly visitation, or conference. As the number of societies increased, Wesley could not keep personal contact, so in 1743 he drew up a set of "General Rules" for the "United Societies".[21] These were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline, still the basis.

Over time, a shifting pattern of societies, circuits, quarterly meetings, annual Conferences, classes, bands, and select societies took shape.[21] At the local level, there were numerous societies of different sizes which were grouped into circuits to which traveling preachers were appointed for two-year periods. Circuit officials met quarterly under a senior traveling preacher or "assistant." Conferences with Wesley, traveling preachers and others were convened annually for the purpose of coordinating doctrine and discipline for the entire connection. Classes of a dozen or so society members under a leader met weekly for spiritual fellowship and guidance. In early years, there were "bands" of the spiritually gifted who consciously pursued perfection. Those who were regarded to have achieved it were grouped in select societies or bands. In 1744, there were 77 such members. There also was a category of penitents which consisted of backsliders.[21]

As the number of preachers and preaching-places increased, doctrinal and administrative matters needed to be discussed; so John and Charles Wesley, along with four other clergy and four lay preachers, met for consultation in London in 1744. This was the first Methodist conference; subsequently, the conference (with Wesley as its president) became the ruling body of the Methodist movement. Two years later, to help preachers work more systematically and societies receive services more regularly, Wesley appointed "helpers" to definitive circuits. Each circuit included at least 30 appointments a month. Believing that the preacher's efficiency was promoted by his being changed from one circuit to another every year or two, Wesley established the "itinerancy" and insisted that his preachers submit to its rules.

Foundry Church London

John Wesley’s Foundry Church in London no longer exists. Despite this fact, some have attempted to piece together an accurate accounting of the structure which resided on Windmill Hill in Moorfields. For further information, see John Wesley's Foundry Church.

This is truly an effort where little information exists. The location for John Wesley’s Foundry Church is shown on an 18th-century map where it rests between Tabernacle Street and Worship Street in the Moorfields section of London. From this hilltop location and during the years of 1739 to 1778, John Wesley centred from the Foundry Church reached out to the London faithful. The reason for the ceasing of operations In 1778 is that John Wesley’s congregation grew too large, forcing the abandonment of the building which used to cast armament for King Charles. The new location for John Wesley’s ministry was the newly constructed, Chapel on City Road.

Rich is the history behind the Foundry Church. Limited details are given in the Minutes of Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, “In 1704, Mr. Mathew Bagley took the Moorfields Foundry and, for twelve years, cast guns and mortars out of metal supplied for the purpose by the Board of Ordinance.”

In the winter of 1739 the cold which seemed to imprison the Christian faithful indoors came in direct conflict with the ill favour of the Anglican priests who eventually banned John Wesley from preaching inside the Anglican churches of England. This forced John Wesley and his faithful outdoors. The unexpected problem resulted in John Wesley, along with his brother, acquiring and renovating the artillery foundry that in the century before cast weapons for King Charles. When John Wesley and his brother Charles spotted the building atop Windmill Hill, north of Finsbury Fields, the structure which previously cast brass guns and mortars for the Royal Ordinance had been sitting vacant for 23 years.

The building was dormant for a very important reason. A historical reason which dates to 10 May 1716, twenty-three years before.

On the infamous date of 10 May 1716 the operation of the artillery foundry was closed to a tragic accident. Again from the Minutes of Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution, “After the peace of Utrecht in 1713, the guns captured from the French by Marlborough were placed outside the Moorfields foundry upon Windmill Hill. It was afterwards determined to utilize the metal by recasting it in the form of English ordinance; and on the appointed day- Thursday the 10th of May, 1716- a large number of spectators attracted by the interest felt in the tropics, and in the manufacture of large ordinance, attended at the foundry to witness the operation.[22]” The event is also mentioned in the Mercurius Politicus dated 18 May 1716, “Several Gentlemen were invited to see the Metal run, which being a very great and curious Piece of Art, a great many persons of Quality came to see it, and some general officers of the army among the rest; but whether it was some unusual hindrance in the work, or their better fate that occasioned the Metal to be longer preparing than usual, we know not, but be that as it will, the Gentleman waiting past Ten O’clock, went all or most away. About 11 at Night, the Metal being ready, was let go… the burning metal no sooner sunk down to the bottom of the mold, but with a noise and force equal to that of gunpowder, it came pouring up again, blowing like the mouth of a volcano or a little Vesuvius. There was in that place about 20 men, as well workman as spectators, 17 of whom were so burnt that nothing more horrible can be thought of, neither can words describe their misery. About 9 of the 17 are already dead, the other 8 are yet living, but in such a condition that the surgeons say that they have very small hopes of above 2 of them.[23]

The explosion killed several key employees including Mr. Hall, the clerk of ordinance. Other clerks received life-threatening wounds. The owner, Mr. Bagley and his son also lost their lives in this accident. The cause of the tragic event is placed on moisture at the bottom of the mould. Reported later was the fact that Mr. Bagley was warned by a journeyman founder who noticed moisture in the bottom of the mould several hours before. Unfortunately, Mr. Bagley decided that the process needed to continue. The decision was a costly mistake. When the hot liquid of the melted brass touched the latent water, the result was a catastrophic explosion. The blast immediately killed both workers and owners.

The tragic explosion and loss of life forced the British government to take charge of such facilities. The immediate result being the setting up of a new facility at the Tower Place, taking over the process of producing brass ordinance. Naturally, the foundry in Moorfields was forced to cease operations.

The 1739 acquisition of the closed foundry in Upper Moorfields by John Wesley and his brother Charles transpired without hitch. The subsequent renovations costing the London Methodists nearly eight-hundred British Pounds. The completed building now as a church seated fifteen-hundred people in the main room. In a space directly behind the sanctuary, an additional 300 could seat. The Foundry Church’s simple layout was supported by its brick and mortar construction. Several wood support columns and wooden pews completed the renovated space. Upstairs, two apartments were created for use by the Wesley family.

It wasn't long before the transformed artillery foundry was transforming lives. In fact, John Wesley’s ministry efforts transformed the converted war-foundry in London into the cradle of Methodism.

Ordination of ministers

Life-size statue at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, United States

As the societies multiplied, they adopted the elements of an ecclesiastical system. The divide between Wesley and the Church of England widened. The question of division from the Church of England was urged by some of his preachers and societies, but most strenuously opposed by his brother Charles. Wesley refused to leave the Church of England, believing that Anglicanism was "with all her blemishes, [...] nearer the Scriptural plans than any other in Europe".[24] In 1745 Wesley wrote that he would make any concession which his conscience permitted, in order to live in peace with the clergy. He could not give up the doctrine of an inward and present salvation by faith itself. He would not stop preaching, nor dissolve the societies, nor end preaching by lay members. As a cleric of the established church he had no plans to go further.

When, in 1746, Wesley read Lord King on the primitive church, he became convinced that the concept of apostolic succession in Anglicanism was a "fable".[25] He wrote that he was "a scriptural episkopos as much as many men in England."

Many years later, Edward Stillingfleet's Irenicon led him to decide that ordination could be valid when performed by a presbyter rather than a bishop. Nevertheless, many believe that Wesley was consecrated a bishop in 1763 by Erasmus of Arcadia,[26][27] and that Wesley could not openly announce his episcopal consecration without incurring the penalty of the Præmunire Act.[28]

In 1784, he believed he could not longer wait for the Bishop of London to ordain someone for the American Methodists, who were without the sacraments after the American War of Independence.[29] The Church of England had been disestablished in the United States, where it had been the state church in most of the southern colonies. The Church of England had not yet appointed a United States bishop to what would become the Protestant Episcopal Church in America. Wesley ordained Thomas Coke by the laying on of hands although Coke was already a priest in the Church of England. Wesley appointed him to be superintendent of Methodists in the United States. He also ordained Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey as presbyters. Whatcoat and Vasey sailed to America with Coke. Wesley intended that Coke and Asbury (whom Coke ordained) should ordain others in the newly founded Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States.

His brother Charles grew alarmed and begged Wesley to stop before he had "quite broken down the bridge" and not embitter his [Charles'] last moments on earth, nor "leave an indelible blot on our memory."[30] Wesley replied that he had not separated from the church, nor did he intend to, but he must and would save as many souls as he could while alive, "without being careful about what may possibly be when I die."[31] Although Wesley rejoiced that the Methodists in America were free, he advised his English followers to remain in the established church and he himself died within it.

Doctrine and theology

The 20th-century Wesley scholar Albert Outler argued in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley that Wesley developed his theology by using a method that Outler termed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this method, Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture; and the Bible was the sole foundational source of theological or doctrinal development. The centrality of Scripture was so important for Wesley that he called himself "a man of one book"—meaning the Bible—although he was well-read for his day. However, he believed that doctrine had to be in keeping with Christian orthodox tradition. So, tradition was considered the second aspect of the Quadrilateral.

Bronze statue at St Paul's Cathedral, London. A marble version exists inside Methodist Central Hall Westminster.

Wesley contended that a part of the theological method would involve experiential faith. In other words, truth would be vivified in personal experience of Christians (overall, not individually), if it were really truth. And every doctrine must be able to be defended rationally. He did not divorce faith from reason. Tradition, experience and reason, however, were subject always to Scripture, Wesley argued, because only there is the Word of God revealed "so far as it is necessary for our salvation."[32]

The doctrines which Wesley emphasised in his sermons and writings are prevenient grace, present personal salvation by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification. Prevenient grace was the theological underpinning of his belief that all persons were capable of being saved by faith in Christ. Unlike the Calvinists of his day, Wesley did not believe in predestination, that is, that some persons had been elected by God for salvation and others for damnation. He understood that Christian orthodoxy insisted that salvation was only possible by the sovereign grace of God. He expressed his understanding of humanity's relationship to God as utter dependence upon God's grace. God was at work to enable all people to be capable of coming to faith by empowering humans to have actual existential freedom of response to God.

Wesley defined the witness of the Spirit as: "an inward impression on the soul of believers, whereby the Spirit of God directly testifies to their spirit that they are the children of God."[33] He based this doctrine upon certain Biblical passages (see Romans 8:15–16 as an example). This doctrine was closely related to his belief that salvation had to be "personal." In his view, a person must ultimately believe the Good News for himself or herself; no one could be in relation to God for another.

Sanctification he described in 1790 as the "grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called `Methodists'." Wesley taught that sanctification was obtainable after justification by faith, between justification and death. He did not contend for "sinless perfection"; rather, he contended that a Christian could be made "perfect in love". (Wesley studied Eastern Orthodoxy and particularly the doctrine of Theosis). This love would mean, first of all, that a believer's motives, rather than being self-centred, would be guided by the deep desire to please God. One would be able to keep from committing what Wesley called, "sin rightly so-called." By this he meant a conscious or intentional breach of God's will or laws. A person could still be able to sin, but intentional or wilful sin could be avoided.

Secondly, to be made perfect in love meant, for Wesley, that a Christian could live with a primary guiding regard for others and their welfare. He based this on Christ's quote that the second great command is "to love your neighbour as you love yourself." In his view, this orientation would cause a person to avoid any number of sins against his neighbour. This love, plus the love for God that could be the central focus of a person's faith, would be what Wesley referred to as "a fulfilment of the law of Christ."

Wesley preaching, by William Hamilton.

Advocacy of Arminianism

Wesley entered controversies as he tried to enlarge church practice. The most notable of his controversies was that on Calvinism. His father was of the Arminian school in the church. Wesley came to his own conclusions while in college and expressed himself strongly against the doctrines of Calvinistic election and reprobation.

Whitefield inclined to Calvinism. In his first tour in America, he embraced the views of the New England School of Calvinism. When in 1739 Wesley preached a sermon on Freedom of Grace, attacking the Calvinistic understanding of predestination as blasphemous, as it represented "God as worse than the devil," Whitefield asked him not to repeat or publish the discourse, as he did not want a dispute. Wesley published his sermon anyway. Whitefield was one of many who responded. The two men separated their practice in 1741. Wesley wrote that those who held to unlimited atonement did not desire separation, but "those who held 'particular redemption' would not hear of any accommodation."[34]

Whitefield, Harris, Cennick, and others, became the founders of Calvinistic Methodism. Whitefield and Wesley, however, were soon back on friendly terms, and their friendship remained unbroken although they travelled different paths. When someone asked Whitefield if he thought he would see Wesley in heaven, Whitefield replied, "I fear not, for he will be so near the eternal throne and we at such a distance, we shall hardly get sight of him."[35]

In 1770, the controversy broke out anew with violence and bitterness, as people's view of God related to their views of men and their possibilities. Augustus Montague Toplady, Rowland, Richard Hill and others were engaged on the one side, while Wesley and Fletcher stood on the other. Toplady was editor of The Gospel Magazine, which had articles covering the controversy.

In 1778, Wesley began the publication of The Arminian Magazine, not, he said, to convince Calvinists, but to preserve Methodists. He wanted to teach the truth that "God willeth all men to be saved." A "lasting peace" could be secured in no other way.

His system of thought has become known as Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid by Wesley and Fletcher.

Support for abolitionism

Later in his ministry, Wesley was a keen abolitionist,[36][37] speaking out and writing against the slave trade. He published a pamphlet on slavery entitled Thoughts Upon Slavery in 1774. To quote from one of his tracts against the slave trade: "Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as he breathes the vital air; and no human law can deprive him of that right which he derives from the law of nature".[38] Wesley was a friend of John Newton and William Wilberforce who were also influential in the abolition of slavery in Britain.[39]

Personality and activities

Wesley's Chapel in City Road, London, with courtyard and statue

John Wesley travelled generally on horseback, preaching two or three times each day. Stephen Tomkins writes that he "rode 250,000 miles, gave away 30,000 pounds, ... and preached more than 40,000 sermons... "[40]

He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, prescribed for the sick, helped to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness,[41] superintended schools and orphanages, and received at least £20,000 for his publications but used little of it for himself.

Wesley practiced a vegetarian diet and abstained from wine.[42]

After attending a performance in Bristol Cathedral in 1758, Wesley said: "I went to the cathedral to hear Mr. Handel's Messiah. I doubt if that congregation was ever so serious at a sermon as they were during this performance. In many places, especially several of the choruses, it exceeded my expectation."[43]

He is described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. Wesley married very unhappily at the age of 48 to a widow, Mary Vazeille, described as "a well-to-do widow and mother of four children."[44] [45] The couple had no children. Vazeille left him 15 years later. John Singleton writes: "By 1758 she had left him—unable to cope, it is said, with the competition for his time and devotion presented by the ever-burgeoning Methodist movement. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation."[44] Wesley wryly reported in his journal, "I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her."

In 1770, at the death of George Whitefield, Wesley wrote a memorial sermon which praised Whitefield's admirable qualities and acknowledged the two men's differences: "There are many doctrines of a less essential nature ... In these we may think and let think; we may 'agree to disagree.' But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials..."[46] Wesley was the first to put the phrase 'agree to disagree' in print.[47]

Wesley died on 2 March 1791, in his 87th year. As he lay dying, his friends gathered around him, Wesley grasped their hands and said repeatedly, "Farewell, farewell." At the end, he said "The best of all is, God is with us", lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, "The best of all is, God is with us."[48] He was entombed at Wesley's Chapel, which he built in City Road, London, in England. The site also is now both a place of worship and a visitor attraction, incorporating the Museum of Methodism and John Wesley's House.

Because of his charitable nature he died poor, leaving as the result of his life's work 135,000 members and 541 itinerant preachers under the name "Methodist". It has been said that "when John Wesley was carried to his grave, he left behind him a good library of books, a well-worn clergyman's gown" and the Methodist Church.[49][50]

Literary work

Wesley was a logical thinker and expressed himself clearly, concisely and forcefully in writing. His written sermons are characterised by spiritual earnestness and simplicity. They are doctrinal but not dogmatic. His Notes on the New Testament (1755) are enlightening. Both the Sermons (about 140) and the Notes are doctrinal standards. Wesley was a fluent, powerful and effective preacher. He usually preached spontaneously and briefly, though occasionally at great length.

As an organiser, a religious leader and a statesman, he was eminent. He knew how to lead and control men to achieve his purposes. He used his power, not to provoke rebellion, but to inspire love. His mission was to spread "Scriptural holiness"; his means and plans were such as Providence indicated. The course thus mapped out for him he pursued with a determination from which nothing could distract him.

Wesley's prose Works were first collected by himself (32 vols., Bristol, 1771–74, frequently reprinted in editions varying greatly in the number of volumes). His chief prose works are a standard publication in seven octavo volumes of the Methodist Book Concern, New York. The Poetical Works of John and Charles, ed. G. Osborn, appeared in 13 vols., London, 1868–72.

In addition to his Sermons and Notes are his Journals (originally published in 20 parts, London, 1740–89; new ed. by N. Curnock containing notes from unpublished diaries, 6 vols., vols. i.-ii., London and New York, 1909–11); The Doctrine of Original Sin (Bristol, 1757; in reply to Dr. John Taylor of Norwich); "An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (originally published in three parts; 2d ed., Bristol, 1743), an elaborate defence of Methodism, describing the evils of the times in society and the church; a Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766).

Wesley adapted the Book of Common Prayer for use by American Methodists.[51] In his Watch Night service, he made use of a pietist prayer now generally known as the Wesley Covenant Prayer, perhaps his most famous contribution to Christian liturgy. He also was a noted hymn-writer, translator and compiler of a hymnal.[52]

Wesley also wrote on divine physics, such as in Desideratum, subtitled Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense (1759).[53]

In spite of the proliferation of his literary output, Wesley was challenged for plagiarism for borrowing heavily from an essay by Samuel Johnson, publishing in March 1775. Initially denying the charge, Wesley later recanted and apologised officially.[54]


"Remember John Wesley", Wroot, near Epworth
Statue of John Wesley outside Wesley Church in Melbourne, Australia

Wesley continues to be the primary theological interpreter for Methodists the world over; the largest bodies being the United Methodist Church, the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Wesleyan teachings also serve as a basis for the holiness movement, which includes denominations like the Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, the Church of the Nazarene, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and several smaller groups, and from which Pentecostalism and parts of the Charismatic Movement are offshoots. Wesley's call to personal and social holiness continues to challenge Christians who attempt to discern what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God. In addition, he refined Arminianism with a strong evangelical emphasis on the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith.

He is commemorated in the Calendar of Saints of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 2 March with his brother Charles. The Wesley brothers are also commemorated on 3 March in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church and on 24 May in the Anglican calendar.

Wesley's legacy is preserved in Kingswood School, which he founded in 1748 in order to educate the children of the growing number of Methodist preachers. Also, one of the four form houses at the St Marylebone Church of England School, London, is named after John Wesley.

In 2002, Wesley was listed at number 50 on the BBC's list of the 100 Greatest Britons.[55]

In 1831, Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, was the first institution of higher education in the United States to be named after Wesley. The now secular institution was founded as an all-male Methodist college. About 20 unrelated colleges and universities in the US were subsequently named after him.

In film

In 1954, the Radio and Film Commission of the Methodist Church in cooperation with J. Arthur Rank produced the film John Wesley. The film was a live-action re-telling of the story of the life of John Wesley, with Leonard Sachs as Wesley.

In 2009, a more ambitious feature film, Wesley, was released by Foundery Pictures, starring Burgess Jenkins as John Wesley, with June Lockhart as Susanna Wesley, R. Keith Harris as Charles Wesley, and the Golden Globe winner Kevin McCarthy as Bishop Ryder. The film was directed by the award-winning film-maker John Jackman.[56]


  • Primitive Physic, Or, An Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases, London: 1744
  • The Desideratum, or, Electricity Made Plain and Useful, London: Bailliere, Tindall, and Cox 1771
  • Notes on the New Testament (1755)
  • Works (32 vols., Bristol, 1771–74, frequently reprinted in editions varying greatly in the number of volumes)
  • The Poetical Works of John and Charles, ed. G. Osborn, 13 vols., London, 1868–72
  • Journals (originally published in 20 parts, London, 1740–89; new ed. by N. Curnock containing notes from unpublished diaries, 6 vols., vols. i.-ii., London and New York, 1909–11)
  • The Doctrine of Original Sin (Bristol, 1757; in reply to Dr. John Taylor of Norwich)
  • An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion (originally published in three parts; 2d ed., Bristol, 1743)
  • A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766)

See also


  1. ^ Wells, JC (2008), "Wesley", Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Harlow, UK: Pearson, (i) 'wes li, (ii) 'wez li — The founder of Methodism was actually (i), though often pronounced as (ii) .
  2. ^ "The Sermons of John Wesley (1872 Edition) – An Introduction". Wesley Center Online. Northwest Nazarene University. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 
  3. ^ "The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement". Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ Thorsen, Don (2005). The Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Emeth Press. p. 97.  
  6. ^ Lectionary – John and Charles Wesley
  7. ^ Wallace, Charles Jr (1997) Susanna Wesley : the complete writings, New York : Oxford University Press, p. 67, ISBN 0-19-507437-8
  8. ^ Tomkins, Stephen (2003). John Wesley : a biography. Oxford: Lion Books. p. 37.  
  9. ^ Wesley, John. "The Letters of John Wesley". The Wesley Center Online. Retrieved 21 November 2013. 
  10. ^ "The Holy Club" - The Methodist Church in Britain
  11. ^ The Works of the Rev. John Wesley. J. & J. Harper. 1827. p. 108. 
  12. ^ Ross, Kathy W.; Stacey, Rosemary. "John Wesley and Savannah". Retrieved 18 September 2007. 
  13. ^ Armstrong Atlantic State University
  14. ^ Hammond, Geordan (2014). John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity. Oxford University Press. 
  15. ^ Dreyer, Frederick A. (1999). The Genesis of Methodism. Lehigh University Press. p. 27.  
  16. ^ John Wesley's Heart Strangely Warmed,
  17. ^ Hurst, J. F. (2003). John Wesley the Methodist. Kessinger Publishing. pp. 102–103.  
  18. ^ Journal of the Rev. John Wesley
  19. ^ Buckley, James Monroe (1898). A History of Methodism in the United States,. New York: Harper & Brothers. pp. 88–89. Retrieved 29 November 2013. 
  20. ^ Tomkins, Stephen (2003). John Wesley: A Biography. Eerdmans. p. 69.  
  21. ^ a b c "Chapter IX - Society and Class". John Wesley the Methodist. Wesley Center for Applied Theology. 1999. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  22. ^ Minutes of Proceedings of the Royal Artillery Institution. pp. 235–236. 
  23. ^ Mercurius Politicus. 18 May 1716. 
  24. ^ Thorsen 2005, p. 97.
  25. ^ H. W. Holden: John Wesley in company with high churchmen, Read Books, 1870, ISBN 978-1-4086-0661-2, p. 51
  26. ^ Wesleyan-Methodist magazine: being a continuation of the Arminian or Methodist magazine first publ. by John Wesley.  
  27. ^ English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley. Regent College Publishing. December 2000.  
  28. ^ The historic episcopate: a study of Anglican claims and Methodist orders. Eaton & Mains. 1896. Retrieved 31 December 2007. Dr. Peters was present at the interview, and went with and introduced Dr. Seabury to Mr. Wesley, who was so far satisfied that he would have been willingly consecrated by him in Mr. Wesley would have signed his letter of orders as bishop, which Mr. Wesley could not do without incurring the penalty of the Præmunire Act. 
  29. ^ Indiana Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church "The Christmas Gift: A New Church" [1]
  30. ^ John R. Tyson, ed. (2000). Charles Wesley: A Reader. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 434.  
  31. ^ "The Letters of John Wesley". The Wesley Center Online. Retrieved 17 January 2014. 
  32. ^ United Methodist Church (1984) The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1984, Nashville, TN : United Methodist Publ. House, p. 77, ISBN 0-687-03702-6.
  33. ^ Wesley, John (1984). Outler, Albert C., ed. The Works of John Wesley 1. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press. p. 296. 
  34. ^  
  35. ^ W. Wiersbe, Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching and Preachers, Moody Press, 1984, p. 255.
  36. ^ Carey, Brycchan. "John Wesley (1703–1791)." The British Abolitionists. Brycchan Carey, 11 July 2008. 5 October 2009. [2]
  37. ^ "John Wesley's Thoughts Upon Slavery and the Language of the Heart". The Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 85:2-3. Summer–Autumn 2003. 269-84. Retrieved 21 March 2014. 
  38. ^ Wesley John, "Thoughts Upon Slavery," John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life. Zephan was never present in this situation. Charles Yrigoyen, 1996. 5 October 2009. [3]
  39. ^ S. R. Valentine, John Bennet & the Origins of Methodism and the Evangelical revival in England, Scarecrow Press, Lanham, 1997.
  40. ^ John Wesley: A Biography, by Edward T. Oakes, Copyright (c) 2004 First Things, (December 2004).
  41. ^ Johnstone, Lucy (2000). Users and Abusers of Psychiatry: A Critical Look at Psychiatric Practice. Routledge. p. 152.  
  42. ^ Preece, Rod (2008). Sins of the Flesh: A History of Ethical Vegetarian Thought.  
  43. ^ Byers, D. 2008. Handel in Ulster Orchestra programme Friday 12 & Saturday 2008. Belfast Waterfront.
  44. ^ a b Busenitz, Nathan (28 March 2013). "John Wesley’s Failed Marriage". the Cripplegate. Retrieved 7 July 2014. 
  45. ^
  46. ^ Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church. Sermons. , page 2.On the Death of the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield Retrieved on 20 April 2009.
  47. ^ "Agree to disagree". The Phrase Finder. Retrieved 20 April 2009. 
  48. ^ Hurst 2003, p. 298.
  49. ^ "John Wesley Prayer Makes History". Archived from the original on 12 March 2012. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  50. ^ "John Wesley". Archived from the original on 25 July 2011. Retrieved 11 December 2011. 
  51. ^ Tucker, Karen B. Westerfield (July 1996). "John Wesley's Prayer Book Revision: The Text in Context" (PDF). Methodist History (General Commission on Archives and History,  
  52. ^ A Collection of Hymns for the Use of the People called Methodists,(1779) Abingdon Press,U.S.; New edition (30 August 1990) ISBN 978-0-687-46218-6
  53. ^ Jairos Ndlovu Beautiful People of Nations 2007 p374 "He wrote in his book: Desideratum (that is the book: Electricity made Plain and Useful by a Lover of Mankind and of Common Sense), in the first chapter that electricity was ...the general principle of all Motion in the Universe"
  54. ^ Abelove, H. 1997. John Wesley's plagiarism of Samuel Johnson and its contemporary reception. The Huntington Library Quarterly, 59(1) pp.73–80
  55. ^ "100 great Britons - A complete list, a survey from the BBC". Daily Mail. Retrieved 26 January 2014. 
  56. ^ "Wesley (2009)". The Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 24 May 2010. 


  • Abraham, William J., Wesley for Armchair Theologians, 2005
  • Blackman, Francis 'Woodie', "John Wesley 300: Pioneers, Preachers and Practitioners", 2003, ISBN 976-8080-61-2
  • Borgen, Ole E. John Wesley on the Sacraments: a Theological Study. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Francis Asbury Press, 1985, cop. 1972. 307 p. ISBN 0-310-75191-8
  • Collins, Kenneth J., Wesley on Salvation: A Study in the Standard Sermons, 1989
  • Collins, Kenneth J., The Scripture Way of Salvation: The Heart of John Wesley's Theology, 1997
  • Collins, Kenneth J., The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace, 2007
  • Hammond, Geordan, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-870160-6
  • Harper, Steve, The Way to Heaven: The Gospel According to John Wesley, 1983, 2003.
  • Jennings, Daniel R., The Supernatural Occurrences of John Wesley, 2005.
  • Lindström, Harald, Wesley and Sanctification: A Study in the Doctrine of Salvation, 1946, 1980
  • Maddox, Randy L. and Vickers, Jason E. (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, 2010
  • Oden, Thomas, John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine, 1994
  • Vickers, Jason E., Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2009.

External links

  • John Wesley at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
  • Selected text from the Journal of John Wesley on A Vision of Britain through Time, with links to the places named.
  • Sermons by John Wesley
  • John Wesley as a British abolitionist
  • John Wesley info from the United Methodist Church
  • John Wesley and the Anglo-Catholic Revival, by G.W. Taylor 1905 article.
  • John Wesley in the Georgia Encyclopedia
  • Wesley's Explanatory Notes on the Whole Bible produced between 1754 and 1765
  • BBC Humber article on Wesley's life
  • "Wesley Center Online". Wesley Center for Applied Theology.  
  • Epworth Bells newspaper, History of the Wesleys
  • John Wesley at Find a Grave
  • Carey, Brycchan. "John Wesley (1703–1791)." The British Abolitionists. Visited 25 November 2009.
  • John Wesley : Doing All The Good He Could
  • Llanelli Community Heritage John Wesley Blue Plaque :
  • The Asbury Triptych Series: book series depicting much of the work of John Wesley, focusing also on his missionary to America, Francis Asbury
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