Portrait by George Romney (1789),
National Portrait Gallery, London
John Wesley (…) was an English cleric and theologian who, with his brother Charles and fellow cleric George Whitefield, founded Methodism.
Educated at Charterhouse School and Christ Church, Oxford, Wesley was elected a fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford in 1726 and ordained as an Anglican priest two years later. He led the “Holy Club”, a society formed for the purpose of study and the pursuit of a devout Christian life; it had been founded by his brother Charles, and counted George Whitefield among its members. After an unsuccessful ministry of two years at Savannah in the Georgia Colony, Wesley returned to London and joined a religious society led by 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 left the Moravians, beginning his own ministry.
A key step in the development of Wesley’s ministry was, like Whitefield, to travel and preach outdoors. In contrast to Whitefield’s Calvinism, Wesley embraced the Arminian doctrines that dominated the Church of England at the time. Moving across Great Britain and Ireland, he helped form and organise small Christian groups that developed intensive and personal accountability, 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 the abolition of slavery.
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 Church of England, insisting that the Methodist movement lay well within its tradition. In his early ministry, Wesley was barred from preaching in many parish churches and the Methodists were persecuted; he later became widely respected and, by the end of his life, had been described as “the best loved man in England”. In 2002, he was placed at number 50 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
Wesley’s “Aldersgate experience”
Wesley recounted his Aldersgate experience in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, 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.”
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.” Daniel L. Burnett writes: “The significance of Wesley’s Aldersgate Experience is monumental. It is the pivotal point in his life and the Methodist movement. Without it the names of Wesley and Methodism would likely be nothing more than obscure footnotes in the pages of church history.”
Burnett calls this event Wesley’s “Evangelical Conversion”. It is commemorated in Methodist churches as Aldersgate Day.
After Aldersgate: Working with the Moravians
When forbidden from preaching from the pulpits of parish churches, Wesley began open-air preaching.
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.
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.” 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 Wesley and his friends made converts wherever they went.
Persecutions and lay preaching
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.
Seeing that he and the few clergy co-operating with him could not do the work that needed to be done, Wesley 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
As his societies needed houses to worship in, Wesley began to provide chapels, first in Bristol at the New Room, then in London (first The Foundery and then Wesley’s Chapel) and elsewhere.
(…) in 1743 he drew up a set of “General Rules” for the “United Societies”. These were the nucleus of the Methodist Discipline, still the basis.
Wesley laid the foundations of what now constitutes the organisation of the Methodist Church.
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.
Ordination of ministers
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”.
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. 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.
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.
Doctrines, theology and advocacy
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 Christianity was revealed in Scripture; and the Bible was the sole foundational source of theological 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.
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.”
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.” 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 taught that conversion to Jesus is proved by practice (testimony), not by the emotions of the moment.
. Appreciation of the lay preachers who participated side by side with the clergy of the Mission of evangelization, assistance and training of other people.
. He affirms that the center of the Christian life is in the personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who saves us, forgives us, transforms us and offers us the abundant life of communion with God.
. It values and recovers in its practice the emphasis on the action and doctrine of the Holy Spirit as vital power for the Church.
. It recognizes the need to live the Gospel communally. John Wesley asserted that “to make the Gospel a religion alone is to destroy it”.
. He cares about the total human being. It is not only with spiritual well-being but also with physical, emotional, material well-being. That is why we must take care of our neighbor in its entirety, especially the needy and social marginalized.
. We can say that spiritual well-being is the result of the peace of Christ that reaches all areas of the Christian’s life. It is the result of physical, emotional, economic, family, community well-being. Everything is in God’s hands, we trust in Him and He is faithful in taking care of us. His salvation reaches us wholly.
. Emphasizes the passion for evangelization. We desire and should work with passion, perseverance and joy so that God’s love and mercy reach men and women everywhere and at all times.
. It accepts the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, as stated in the Apostles’ Creed (We believe in the Bible, in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the human being, in the forgiveness of sins, in the victory through disciplined life, in the centralization of love , in Christian safety and perfection, in the Church, in the Kingdom of God, in eternal life, in the second coming of Jesus, in the grace of God for all, in the possibility of the fall of divine grace, in intercessory prayer, in world missions. (the love of God), emphasizing the balance between acts of piety (acts of devotion) and acts of mercy (the practice of love for others).
Support for abolitionism
Later in his ministry, Wesley was a keen abolitionist, speaking out and writing against the slave trade. He published a pamphlet on slavery, titled 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”. Wesley influenced George Whitefield to journey to the colonies, spurring the transatlantic debate on slavery. Wesley was a friend of John Newton and William Wilberforce, who were also influential in the abolition of slavery in Britain.
Personality and activities
Wesley travelled widely, 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… ” 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, superintended schools and orphanages and published his sermons.
Wesley practised a vegetarian diet and in later life abstained from wine for health reasons. Wesley warned against the dangers of alcohol abuse in his famous sermon, The Use of Money, and in his letter to an alcoholic.
Though Wesley favoured celibacy than marital bond, he 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.” 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. (…)
Wesley on his deathbed: “The best of all is, God is with us”. Mezzotint by John Sartain.
Wesley died on 2 March 1791, at the age of 87. 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.” He was entombed at his chapel on City Road, London.
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.
Wesley wrote, edited or abridged some 400 publications. As well as theology he wrote about music, marriage, medicine, abolitionism and politics. 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 Forty-Four Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament (1755) are Methodist doctrinal standards. Wesley was a fluent, powerful and effective preacher; he usually preached spontaneously and briefly, though occasionally at great length.
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. He also was a noted hymn-writer, translator and compiler of a hymnal.
Commemoration and legacy
Wesley continues to be the primary theological influence on Methodists and Methodist-heritage groups 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, the Church of God (Anderson, IN), 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.
In 2002, Wesley was listed at number 50 on the BBC’s list of the 100 Greatest Britons, drawn from a poll of the British public.