The Life and Teachings of John Wesley (1703-1791)
John Wesley is recognized as the founder of Methodism. The term “Wesleyan” is still seen today in the names of churches, colleges, and theological concepts; it reflects the legacy established by this eighteenth-century preacher.
In 1703 John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England to Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His father was a rector in the Anglican Church. The young Wesley was educated at the Charterhouse in London, as well as Christ Church at Oxford, where he received his B.A. in 1724 and his M.A. in 1727. After graduation he joined his father at the parish in Wroot and was ordained to the ministry the following year. During his time at Oxford, Wesley was a serious student, with a keen interest in both logic and religion. However, it was not until 1725 that his “religious” conversion took place. That was a critical point in the young man’s life, as he was prompted to consider what direction he would go with his life. Through a number of important influences, including the encouragement of his mother and his reading of Thomas à Kempis, he decided that religion would be his life’s business.
Wesley’s decision to make religion his life business led to his ordination as a deacon in 1725 and then to joining his father in church work at Wroot. He was his father’s curate (a rector’s assistant) from 1727 to 1729, after which he returned to Oxford. At Oxford he took over the leadership of the “Holy Club,” a small group of students that had been organized by his brother Charles. That organization would later come to be called “Methodist,” picking up that name from their methodical approach to Bible study. They were also known for their strict self-denial, which included acts of charity. It was during that time at Oxford that both of the Wesley brothers came to be influenced by William Law, an English mystic. Wesley observed that at this point in his life he did not understand justification by faith, which led to his seeking justification through his own righteous works. It was also during this time that Wesley developed his views on Christian perfection, which later became recognized as a hallmark of the Methodist movement.
In 1735 Wesley left Oxford and traveled to Georgia as a missionary. His experience there was disastrous. Like his father, Wesley was a member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. The Society invited Wesley to be a volunteer missionary to Georgia, a colony that had been recently founded by his father’s friend Colonel James Oglethorpe. He became a parish priest in Savannah, an office in which he served with some success. However, he also became enthralled with Sophey Hopkey, the niece of Georgia’s chief magistrate, Thomas Causton. His failed courtship of Sophey caused him to become critical of both Causton and Oglethorpe, and he believed them to be guilty of mismanagement. Causton brought together a grand jury that indicted Wesley on trumped-up charges, which indictment prompted him to leave Georgia in 1737. He had, however, helped to strengthen the congregation in Savannah. Therefore, his experience in Georgia was not entirely a failure despite his somewhat dishonorable departure.
After returning to England, Wesley experienced an evangelical conversion at a society meeting in London on May 24, 1738. That experience changed his life. He became convinced that the activities of the Methodist society could be empowered by grace and the Holy Spirit, working through faith in Jesus Christ. A revival started less than a year after Wesley’s conversion and continued until his death in 1791. That revival began his fifty-two year itinerant preaching ministry. During that ministry, Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons while averaging 4,000 miles of travel each year. However, Wesley can be distinguished from other evangelists in that he did more than just preach. A unique feature of his ministry was the formation of societies to assist in the strengthening of the people who were awakened and converted during the revival. Those societies moved across the Atlantic in the 1760s. The Methodist Societies remained essentially a lay movement. However, in both America and England the societies were largely influenced by the style and discipline of Wesley himself.
The Methodist movement continued to grow in America, particularly under the leadership of Francis Asbury, who had been appointed by Wesley to serve in America. The American Methodists wrote to Wesley in 1784 and asked for assistance due to their numerical growth. Wesley’s response was the ordination of a number of men who would establish an independent Methodist Church in America. Those men had Wesley’s authority to ordain itinerants. The itinerants had the authority to preach, but not to serve the sacraments, not even to the many Methodists who did not have access to the sacraments. The birth of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America can be traced to the Christmas Conference of 1784.
At the Christmas Conference Wesley appointed men to lead the American Methodist movement in America. It was also at that conference that a number of other church-related documents known as Wesley’s “General Plan” were approved. Included in those approved documents, which were used as the doctrinal basis of British Methodism, were Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, as well as his abridged versions of the Articles of Religion. Most modern Wesleyan traditions still retain at least a trace of the “General Plan.” In the aftermath of the Christmas Conference Wesley’s direct church authority began to decline. His theological and spiritual legacy could still be seen in Methodism, but the American Methodists began to reject his direct involvement in their affairs. Wesley was still loved by the American Methodists, but he was losing his ability to have a direct role in the church in America. Throughout the years, Wesley’s influence has still been apparent in Methodism. Some of the specific emphases that Wesley passed on include social justice, pietistic holiness, evangelism, and discipline.
In his theology Wesley emphasized justification by faith alone. Another emphasis of his was the pursuit of holiness, with the goal of that holiness being what he called “Christian perfection” (the belief that it is possible for the Christian to not sin). He believed strongly in the supernatural, while also appealing to Scripture, reason, and the church fathers to support his intellectual claims. Later in his life he also increasingly appealed to experience to support his arguments. Wesley valued liturgical prayer, Eucharistic devotion, and extemporaneous worship. The personal characteristics that made him an effective leader include his magnetism, his organizational abilities, and his capacity for self-discipline. Another interesting characteristic of Wesley is his emphasis on charitable giving. He had a distrust of the rich and was aware of the (often negative) effects that wealth can have on the spiritual life. In his mind, the only legitimate reason to pursue money was for the sake of being able to give to those in need.
There are many movements and denominations that trace their roots back to Wesley and could therefore be characterized as being in the Wesleyan tradition. The legacy of Wesley can be seen primarily in the various Methodist denominations, although traces of his legacy can also be seen in other groups, including the Holiness movement, the Pentecostal movement, and the Church of the Nazarene. The Wesleyan tradition has historically been Arminian, as was Wesley himself. Free will was an important aspect of Wesley’s theology, and is an aspect that separates Wesleyans from Calvinists. However, the primary distinction between Wesleyans and Calvinists can be seen in sanctification. Wesley’s issue with Calvinism stemmed from his belief that justification should lead to sanctification, and that faith should lead to works. The theology of Wesley and the Wesleyan tradition could be summarized as using justification by faith as the “gateway” to holiness or sanctification.