The founder of Methodism; b. Epworth Rectory, Lincolnshire, June 27, 1703; d. City Road, London, March 2, 1791. He was the 15th of 19 children of Rev. Samuel Wesley (1662–1735), Vicar of Epworth, and Susanna Annesley Wesley (1669–1742), who came from nonconformist stock but who were themselves high churchmen. The vicar's ardent arminianism deeply affected his children. Susanna was a pious and well-educated woman, devoted to her children's education and welfare. In 1714 John was sent to Charterhouse School, London, and in 1720, to Oxford. As a collegian he led a strict life and arose at 4 a.m., a habit he retained until his death. Wesley received his B.A. in 1724 and M.A. in 1727. A year later he was ordained an Anglican priest, and in 1729 he assumed his duties as fellow and tutor at Oxford. There he led the Holy Club, established by his younger brother Charles, whose members prayed, fasted, and received communion frequently, and engaged in philanthropic and evangelical work. The period of "Oxford Methodism" ended with the dispersal of the club in 1735.
John and Charles left for Georgia upon the invitation of James Oglethorpe in 1736. John did not achieve his goal of converting Native Americans and of ministering to the colonists, who resented his high-church services and insistence on puritanical conduct. He had to leave Georgia hurriedly to escape a suit brought against him by an angry husband for defamation of character of his wife. The young clergyman arrived in London Feb. 1, 1738.
Origins of Methodism. The Georgia Moravians influenced him on his trip to America, and following his return, he met a disciple of Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Peter Böhler, who convinced him that Christ had died for him. Wesley adhered to a Moravian-inspired Society in Fetter Lane and, on May 24, 1738, "at a quarter to nine," experienced "conversion." But Wesley came to object to the Moravian doctrines of justification by faith alone and of the instantaneous effects of the New Birth. After being excluded from the pulpit in Fetter Lane, he took his followers and formed a society at the Foundry (July 1740) that was completely under his control, and by 1743 he had established two more chapels in London.
Wesley was one of the evangelicals in the Church of England. His fame rests in part on his extraordinary preaching and missionary tours. Following the example of George Whitefield, he preached in the fields or wherever he might assemble an audience. He and his brother Charles formed a partnership for sharing the work of ministering to their followers in London and Bristol and of evangelical tours of the British Isles. John's travels on horseback covered about 225,000 miles, and he gave more than 40,000 sermons. His message was simple: salvation is through Jesus Christ. A new life awaits every man who loves Jesus, believes in the Atonement, repents his sins, and lives according to His law. His audiences were frequently deeply moved and reacted emotionally. Although Methodist preaching affected some of the country's leaders, through Selina Hastings, Countess of
Huntingdon, its appeal was primarily to the poor and the uneducated.
The partnership of the brothers was weakened by personal and religious differences. Charles opposed John's marriage to a widow, Mrs. Mary (Molly) Vazeille (1710–81); it proved an unhappy marriage. John's ordination of ministers for America also angered Charles because he regarded it as defiance of the revered Church of England. Much of their mutual affection and joint efforts on behalf of Methodism remained unaffected, however.
Wesley's great gift was not only for preaching but for organizing Methodist Societies everywhere in the British Isles. He adopted the idea of having members make one-penny weekly contributions. Leaders of the "classes" not only collected the contributions but inquired into personal behavior and could thus ferret out "disorderly walkers." Wesley was the driving spirit and inspiration of the Societies. Through the Deed of Declaration (1784), he named 100 preachers to constitute the legal body of the "people called Methodists," which he continued to lead until his death.
Teachings and Doctrine. In view of the fact that he did not want to create a sect, Wesley hoped that other evangelical-minded clergymen of the Church of England would help him shepherd the Methodist flocks. He enjoined his followers to attend services in their parishes and receive communion monthly. At the close of his life, he could say, "I live and die a member of the Church of England." Some of his utterances and actions, however, severed the fragile ties to Anglicanism. The Methodist movement appealed to many who did not conform, and these Wesley wished to reach. "Church or no church," he said, "we must attend to the work of saving souls." He opposed the parochial system because no one clergyman could minister to a congregation, which needed a change of teacher. As for himself, "the world was his parish." His employment of lay preachers and his ordinations of preachers further alienated him from the church. It was his conviction that bishops and presbyters were of the same order. In 1784 he "set apart as a superintendent" (bishop) the Rev. Thomas Coke for the American missions. He ordained preachers for America in 1784; for Scotland, in the following year; for Ireland, in 1786; and for England, in 1789. After his death, the churches divided into national units.
Wesley did not seek doctrinal innovation. In preaching justification by faith, he rejected Calvinistic predestination. In assigning a role to free will, he differed from George Whitefield and the Calvinistic Methodists. He belived that the reconciled sinner experiences real inward changes; for completely eradicating inward sin, a man must experience a second change or a New Birth, which he called "the great work which God does in us, in renewing our fallen nature." According to Father M. Piette (436), the pivot around which all Wesley's doctrine revolves is experience of the love of God: faith as it is lived, felt, and experienced. As for some of Wesley's other ideas, the rule of faith was "the Law and the Testimony," which meant his interpretation of the Bible. He believed in special providential dispensation, and he often opened the Bible at random to find a clue concerning the action he should take.
During his long journeys he read and wrote extensively. He translated German hymns; collaborated with Charles in writing hymns; published his sermons; produced 50 volumes of English practical divinity; compiled a dictionary; abridged Milton; and wrote manuals of history, philology, and medicine which were widely read. He kept a Journal and wrote numerous Letters (ed. J. Telford, 8 v. London 1931). Critics aver that his writings reached persons who had never read before; but because they were dedicated only to moral reform, they were utilitarian and at times Philistine.
In politics he was royalist and a stanch advocate of law and order. He denounced the inequities of political representation and the slave trade, yet opposed toleration of Roman Catholics. "I wish them well," but "I dare not trust them." Ironically, he was frequently charged with being a Roman instrument of subverting Anglicanism.
Bibliography: j. wesley, The Journal …, ed. n. curnock, 8 v. (London 1909–16). m. piette, John Wesley in the Evolution of Protestantism, tr. j. b. howard (New York 1937). r. southey, The Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, ed. m. h. fitzgerald, 2 v. (London 1925). r. a. knox, Enthusiasm (New York 1950). n. sykes, Church and State in England in the XVIIIth Century (Cambridge, Eng. 1934). w. j. townsend et al., eds., A New History of Methodism, 2 v. (London 1909). r. n. stromberg, Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth–Century England (London 1954). m. l. edwards, Methodism and England (London 1943). h. e. luccock and p. hutchinson, Story of Methodism (New York 1949). j. s. simon, John Wesley, the Master Builder (London 1927). d. d. thompson, John Wesley as a Social Reformer (New York 1898). a. b. lawson, John Wesley and the Christian Ministry (London 1963). m. schmidt, John Wesley: A Theological Biography, v.1 From 17th June, 1703 until 24th May, 1738, tr. n.p. goldhawk (Nashville 1962). a. c. outer, John Wesley (New York 1964).
[g. l. vincitorio]