WESLEY BROTHERS . John Wesley, English clergyman (1703–1791), attempted to revive the spiritual life of the Church of England but instead founded Methodism, a worldwide family of independent churches. His father, Samuel (1662–1735), and his mother, Susanna Annesley (1669–1742), changed their allegiance to the Church of England quite independently of each other before their marriage in 1688. John was probably their fifteenth child, and his brother Charles (1708–1788) the eighteenth. John was educated at the Charterhouse School, London, going on to Christ Church, Oxford; Charles attended Westminster School, and also went on to Christ Church, as had their elder brother Samuel (1691–1739), an ordained clergyman, a schoolmaster at Westminster and Tiverton, and a competent minor poet.
John Wesley's preparations for ordination in 1725 led to a deepened spiritual awareness. He was elected fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford, in 1726, served two years as his father's curate at Epworth and Wroot in Lincolnshire, and returned to Oxford in 1729 to resume his tutorial duties. He also took over the leadership of a religious study group organized by Charles. Similar groups soon arose. They were collectively known as "The Holy Club" and "Methodists," because of the methodical way in which they immersed themselves in the devotional classics and attempted to recreate the life of the apostolic church. In 1735 his sense of a mission to Oxford caused Wesley to refuse nomination at Epworth as his dying father's successor, but later that year he agreed to assume the spiritual leadership of the new colony of Georgia, recruiting as colleagues several Oxford Methodists, including his brother Charles, who was speedily ordained for the task.
John Wesley returned from Georgia after two frustrating years, realizing that his ministry lacked the spark of the personal assurance of salvation which he had witnessed among the Moravians there. Spurred on by another Moravian, Peter Böhler (1712–1775), who was in England on his way to America, he prayed for and received this spiritual certainty on May 24, 1738: "I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."
After a three-month pilgrimage to the Moravian headquarters in Germany, Wesley persuaded many of the old religious societies in London to adopt his modification of the Moravian "choirs" to form cells known as "bands" for intensive spiritual sharing among five or six persons of the same sex and marital status. This fostered his own eager attempts to bring others to a personal experience of Christ as Savior and Lord—which offended more formal church people as "enthusiasm." He also formed new societies from those who asked for his spiritual direction. He enriched his followers' faith and worship with song, and with his brother Charles published a new volume of hymns and sacred poems every year from 1737 to 1742.
Pulpits were repeatedly closed to Wesley because he preached on salvation by faith. Encouraged by his former pupil, George Whitefield (1714–1770), on April 2, 1739, in Bristol, he "proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation … to about three thousand people." Nor did he respect parish boundaries, writing, "I look upon all the world as my parish." His "field-preaching" was supported by a wide-ranging preaching itinerancy, spreading from London to Oxford and Bristol, and thence in 1739 to Wales, in 1742 to Newcastle, in 1743 to Cornwall, in 1747 to Ireland, and in 1751 to Scotland.
To aid him in his task Wesley strove to enlist other clergy in a similar preaching itinerancy, or at least to convince them to maintain deeply spiritual ministries in their own parishes. it soon became clear that his ordained colleagues were too few for the proliferating societies, and Wesley turned to laymen as preaching helpers, thereby scandalizing many otherwise sympathetic clergy. In 1744 he invited the handful of cooperating clergy to meet with him in London to confer about the whole work and its lay helpers, the first of the annual conferences which in 1784 he incorporated as the governing body for Methodism after his death. The early conferences defined Methodist teaching on sin and salvation, teaching which he embodied especially in his Sermons. The Sermons formed a major part of his huge publishing enterprise, begun at Oxford, which undergirded Methodist private devotions, public worship, evangelistic mission, and the organization of the network of society and preachers.
From the outset Wesley's purpose had been to revive his beloved church from within. However, he was not content to go through normal channels—so frustratingly slow—but maintained an unshaken determination to follow what he believed to be providential guidance in experimentation. Thus he began field-preaching, the employment of lay preachers, the development of his own "connexion" of societies not answerable to church authorities, the building of his own "preaching-houses," the constitution of his own administrative annual assembly, legally incorporated in 1784, the ordination of his own preachers in that same year, as well as his publication of a revised Book of Common Prayer. All these things, together with his eventual readiness to open his own buildings during normal times of worship in the established church, proved that although he protested to his dying day that he was a loyal member and minister of the Church of England, his loyalty was certainly not to the church's outward form as it was familiar to him, but to what he considered its essence. Yet there seems little doubt that his remarkable ministry of sixty-five years brought about not only the formation of a new denomination but also the desired reformation of his native church.
Works by John Wesley
Under my editorial supervision, a new edition of The Works of John Wesley (Oxford, 1975–1983; Nashville, 1984–) is in progress. Thirty-five volumes are projected, of which volumes 1, 2, 7, 11, 25, and 26 have so far appeared. The most useful selection of Wesley's theological writings currently available is to be found in John Wesley, edited by Albert C. Outler (New York, 1964).
Works about John Wesley
No one has yet succeeded in presenting a full and fair portrayal of John Wesley in one volume, even a large one, although biographies by both Colwyn E. Vulliamy and Vivian H. H. Green can be recommended. Vulliamy's John Wesley (London, 1931) will please the general reader; Green's John Wesley (London, 1964), a more penetrating though brief study, will suit the scholar. Both will perhaps benefit from my own book, John Wesley and the Church of England (Nashville, 1970), in which I trace Wesley's life against the background of his gradual and largely unacknowledged estrangement from the established church.
Frank Baker (1987)