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The Wesleys were of ancient Saxon lineage, the family history being traced backward to the time of Athelstan, when Guy Wesley, or Wellesley, was created a thane. John Wesley was the son of Samuel Wesley, a graduate of Oxford, and a minister of the Church of England, who had married in 1689 Susannah, twenty-fifth child of Dr. Samuel Annesley, and herself became a mother of nineteen; in 1696 he was appointed rector of Epworth, where John, the fifteenth child, was born. He was christened John Benjamin, but never used the second name.
At the age of six, John was rescued from the burning rectory. This escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he spoke of himself as a "brand plucked from the burning," and as a child of Providence.
The children's early education of was given by their mother. In 1713 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home. In 1720 he entered Christ Church College, Oxford (M.A., 1727). He was ordained deacon in 1725 and elected fellow of Lincoln College in the following year. He was his father's curate for two years, and then returned to Oxford to fulfil his functions as fellow.
In Oxford and Georgia
The year of his return to Oxford (1729) marks the beginning of the rise of Methodism. The famous "holy club" was formed by John's younger brother, Charles Wesley, and some fellow students, derisively called "Methodists" because of their methodical habits.
During his early years, John had enjoyed a deep religious experience. His biographer, Tyerman, says that he went to Charterhouse a saint; but he became negligent of his religious duties, and left a sinner. 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 Serious Call 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 devoted himself to a godly life.
When, in 1735, a clergyman "inured to contempt of the ornaments and conveniences of life, to bodily austerities, and to serious thoughts," was wanted by Governor James Oglethorpe to go to Georgia, Wesley responded, accompanied by his brother and follower, Charles, and remained in the colony for two years, returning to England in 1738. He had had an unhappy love affair and felt that his mission (to convert the Indians and deepen and regulate the religious life of the colonists) had been a failure. His High-church notions and strict enforcement of the regulations of the church, especially concerning holy communion, did not appeal to the colonists; and he left Georgia with several malicious indictments pending against him for alleged violation of church law.
Conversion; open-air preaching
Wesley's spiritual state is the key to his whole career. For ten years he had fought temptation and tried to fulfil the law of the Gospel, but had not, he wrote, obtained freedom from sin, nor the witness of the Spirit, because he sought it, not by faith, but "by the works of the law." He had learned from the Moravians that true faith was inseparably connected with a sense of forgiveness, and that saving faith is given in a moment. He obtained this faith on May 24, 1738, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, while listening to the reading of Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans, containing an explanation of faith and the doctrine of justification by faith. "I felt," he wrote, "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." A few weeks later he preached a remarkable sermon on the doctrine of present personal salvation by faith, which was followed by another, on God's grace "free in all, and free for all."
He never stopped preaching this doctrine and that of the witness of the Spirit. He allied himself with the Moravian society in Fetter Lane, and in 1738 went to Herrnhut, the Moravian headquarters in Germany, to learn more of a people to whom he felt deeply indebted. On his return to England he 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, upon his return from America, was also excluded from the churches of Bristol; and, going to the neighbouring village of Kingswood, preached in the open air, in February 1739, to a company of miners. Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield's earnest request to copy this bold step. Overcoming his scruples, he preached his first sermon in the open air, near Bristol, in April of that year.
He was still unhappy about the idea of field preaching, and would have thought, "till very lately," such a method of saving souls as "almost a sin." These open-air services were very successful; and he never again hesitated to preach in any place where an assembly could be got together, more than once using his father's tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit. He 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 organize the Fetter Lane Society ; and those converted by his preaching and that of his brother and Whitefield had become members of their bands. But finding, as he said, that they had fallen into heresies, especially quietism, he decided to form his own followers into a separate society. "Thus," he wrote, "without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England." Similar societies were soon formed in Bristol and Kingswood, and wherever Wesley and his friends made converts.
Persecutions; lay preaching
From 1739 onward Wesley and the Methodists were persecuted by clergymen and magistrates; attacked in sermons and in print, mobbed, often in controversy, yet always at work among the neglected and needy, and ever increasing. 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 reestablish Catholicism. Wesley and his followers were often physically attacked. Feeling, however, that the church failed in its duty to call sinners to repentance, that its clergymen were corrupt and that souls were perishing in their sins, he regarded himself as commissioned by God to warn men; and no opposition, or 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 men should perish in their sins and unable to reach them from church pulpits, he began field-preaching. Seeing that he and the few clergymen cooperating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, he was led, as early as 1739, to approve of lay preaching; and men who were not episcopally ordained were permitted to preach and do pastoral work. Thus one of the great features of Methodism, to which it has largely owed its success, was adopted by Wesley in answer to a necessity.
Chapels and organizations
As his societies needed houses to worship in, Wesley began to provide chapels, first in Bristol, 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, he adopted the plan of 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 twelve members should collect offerings regularly from the eleven allotted to him. Out of this, under Wesley's care, grew, in 1742, the Methodist class-meeting system. In order to keep the disorderly out of the societies, Wesley established a probationary system, and undertook to visit each society regularly: the quarterly visitation, or conference. As the societies increased, he could not keep up contact effectively; so he drew up in 1743 a set of "General Rules" for the "United Societies," which were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline, and still exist.
As the number of preachers and preaching-places increased, doctrinal and administrative matters needed to be discussed; so the two Wesleys, with four other clergymen and four lay preachers, met for consultation in London in 1744. This was the first Methodist conference. Two years later, in order that the preachers might work more systematically and the societies receive their services more regularly, Wesley appointed "helpers" to definitive circuits, each of which included at least thirty appointments a month. Believing that their usefulness and efficiency were promoted by being changed from one circuit to another every year or two, he established the "itinerancy", and insisted that his preachers submit to its rules. When, in 1788, some objected to the frequent changes, he wrote, "For fifty years God has been pleased to bless the itinerant plan, the last year most of all. It must not be altered till I am removed, and I hope it will remain till our Lord comes to reign on earth."
Ordination of ministers
As his societies multiplied, and the elements of an ecclesiastical system were gradually adopted, the breach between Wesley and the Church of England widened. The question of separation from that church, urged, on the one side, by some of his preachers and societies, but most strenuously opposed by his brother Charles and others, needed to be considered, but was not settled. In 1745 Wesley wrote that he would make any concession which his conscience permitted, in order to live in harmony with the clergy, but could not give up the doctrine of an inward and present salvation by faith alone. He would not stop preaching in private houses and the open air or dissolve the societies or end lay preaching. He had no plans to go further. "We dare not," he said, "administer baptism or the Lord's Supper without a commission from a bishop in the apostolic succession."
But the next year he read Lord King on the Primitive Church, and was convinced by it that apostolic succession was a fiction, and that he [Wesley] was "a scriptural episcopos as much as any man in England." Some years later Stillingfleet's Irenicon led him to renounce the opinion that Christ or his apostles prescribed any form of church government, and to declare ordination valid when performed by a presbyter. It was not until about forty years later that he ordained by the laying on of hands; but he considered his appointment of his preachers an act of ordination.
When he had waited long enough, and the Bishop of London had refused to ordain a minister for the American Methodists who were without the ordinances, Wesley ordained preachers for Scotland and England and America, with power to administer the sacraments. He also consecrated, by laying on of hands, Dr. Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, as presbyters of the Church of England, to be superintendents or bishops in America, and a preacher, Alexander Mather , to the same office in England. He intended that Coke, Asbury, and Mather should ordain others. This alarmed his brother Charles, who begged him 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." 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." Although he 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.
Advocacy of Arminianism
Wesley was a strong controversialist. The most notable of his controversies was that on Calvinism. His father was of the Arminian school in the church; but John decided for himself while in college, and expressed himself strongly against the doctrines of election and reprobation.
Whitefield inclined to Calvinism. In his first tour in America, he embraced the views of the New England School of Calvinism; and when Wesley preached a sermon on Free Grace, attacking predestination as blasphemous, representing "God as worse than the devil," Whitefield asked him (1739) not to repeat or publish the discourse, not wanting a dispute. Wesley's sermon was published, and among the many replies to it was one by Whitefield. Separation followed in 1741. Wesley wrote that those who held universal redemption did not desire separation, but "those who held particular redemption would not hear of any accommodation."
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 thenceforth unbroken, though they traveled different paths. Occasional publications appeared on Calvinistic doctrines, by Wesley and others; but in 1770 the controversy broke out anew with violence and bitterness. Toplady, Berridge, Rowland, Richard Hill, and others were engaged on the one side, and Wesley and Fletcher on the other. Toplady was editor of The Gospel Magazine, which was filled with the controversy. Wesley in 1778 began the publication of The Arminian Magazine, not, he said, to convince Calvinists, but to preserve Methodists and to teach the truth that "God willeth all men to be saved." A "lasting peace" could be secured in no other way.
Doctrines / Theology
20th century Wesley scholar Albert Outler argued in his introduction to the 1964 collection John Wesley (ISBN 0195028104) that Wesley developed his theology by using what Outler termed the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. In this method, Wesley interpreted Scripture through the lens of Church Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience.
The doctrines which Wesley emphasized in his sermons and writings are prevenient grace, present personal salvation by faith, the witness of the Spirit, and sanctification. He 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."
Sanctification he spoke of (1790) as the "grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called `Methodists'." Wesley taught that sanctification was obtainable instantaneously by faith, between justification and death. It was not "sinless perfection" that he contended for; but he believed that those who are "perfect in love" feel no sin. He was anxious that this doctrine should be constantly preached for the system of Wesleyan Arminianism, the foundations of which were laid by Wesley and Fletcher (see Jacob Hermann, Arminianism).
Two comparatively recent works which explain Wesley's theological positions are Randy Maddox's 1994 book Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology (ISBN 0687003342) and Thomas Oden's 1994 book John Wesley's Scriptural Christianity: A Plain Exposition of His Teaching on Christian Doctrine (ISBN 031075321X).
Personality and activities
Wesley travelled constantly, generally on horseback, preaching twice or thrice a day. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered discipline, raised funds for schools, chapels, and charities, prescribed for the sick, helped to pioneer the use of electric shock for the treatment of illness, superintended schools and orphanages, wrote commentaries and other religious literature, replied to attacks on Methodism, conducted controversies, and carried on a prodigious correspondence. He is believed to have travelled more than 250,000 miles in the course of his ministry, and to have preached more than 40,000 times.
The number of works he wrote, translated, or edited, exceeds 200, including sermons, commentaries, hymns, a Christian library of fifty volumes, grammars, dictionaries, and other textbooks, as well as political tracts. He is said to have received at least £20,000 for his publications, but used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means. He died poor. He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle if he could help it.
In his Journal, Wesley bemoaned the decline of superstition, the advance of human thought and the more peaceable reign of Christ on the earth, in the following words: "It is true likewise, that the English in general, and, indeed, most of the men of learning in Europe, have given up all accounts of witches and apparitions as mere wives' fables. I am sorry for it. . . . The giving up of witchcraft is in effect giving up the Bible!"
He is described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face. He married very unhappily, at the age of forty-eight, a widow, Mary Vazeille, and had no children; she left him fifteen years later. He died peacefully, after a short illness, leaving as the result of his life-work 135,000 members, and 541 itinerant preachers under the name "Methodist."
Wesley was a logical thinker, and expressed himself clearly, concisely and forcefully in writing. His written sermons are characterized 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 organizer, an 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 masked 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.
Besides his Sermons and Notes already referred to, 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 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. 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.
Today, many follow Wesley's teachings. He continues to be the primary theological interpreter for Methodists the world over; the largest Wesleyan body being The United Methodist Church. The teachings of Wesley also served as a basis for the Holiness movement, from which Pentecostalism and the Christian and Missionary Alliance are offshoots. Wesley's call to personal and social holiness continues to challenge Christians who struggle to discern what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.
- An Online Exhibition
- Online works
- John Wesley as a British abolitionist
- John Wesley at CCEL
- John Wesley info from the United Methodist Church
- Wesley Center Online at Northwest Nazarene University
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