Faithful Heroes: John Wesley

John Wesley is considered the father of Methodism. However, his religious training began as a young child under the tutelage of his mother, Susanna.

Samuel Wesley

John Wesley was born on June 18, 1703 in Epworth, England. He was the fifteenth child born to Samuel and Susanna Wesley.

His mother is described as “She was a woman of deep piety and brought her little ones into close contact with the Bible stories, telling them from the tiles about the nursery fireplace. She also used to dress the children in their best on the days when they were to have the privilege of learning their alphabet as an introduction to the reading of the Holy Scriptures.”

Susannah Wesley

He received his early education from his mother, learning Latin and Greek under her tutelage.

When he was five years old, the rectory in which they lived caught fire some time that evening. The sparks began to fall on the children’s beds and the cries of fire from the street woke the Wesley’s who managed to safely get all of their children, except John, out of the house. John was caught on the upper floor, with the stairs on fire and roof ready to collapse. A parishioner climbed to the second story window and lifted John out on his shoulders. This experience left an indelible impression on John. He would later describe the incident as “a brand plucked out of the fire” and quote Zechariah 3:2.

At the age of eleven, he was sent to the Charterhouse School in London.

John Wesley and Charles Wesley as young men

He entered Christ Church {Oxford University} in Oxford and eventually graduated with his Master’s. He was ordained as a deacon on September 25, 1725. He was ordained a priest three years later.

He left to serve with his father for a few years. When he returned to Christ Church, he became the head of a group his brother, Charles, had formed. The group was given to fasting, praying hourly, and reading the scriptures for three hours a day. The club was styled as the “Holy Club”.

John Wesley and Charles Wesley

While at Christ Church, John Wesley wrote a letter referring to the name “Methodist” saying “some of our neighbors are pleased to compliment us.” That same year, Wesley and his group were described by someone at the school as “The Oxford Methodists”. It is important to note that at this time the term methodist was meant as a derogatory term to “mock” John Wesley.

James Oglethorpe, who founded the colony of Georgia, requested that John and Charles become the minister of his new Savannah parish. The brothers sailed for the new colony on October 14, 1735.

On the voyage, the Wesley’s became acquainted with the Moravians and were amazed at their inner strength and calm when a storm came up. The “deep personal religion” and practices of the Moravian’s would greatly influence his theology of Methodism.

The brothers arrived in Georgia in February 1736. He spent time evangelizing to the Native American’s and leading small Bible studies.

John Wesley

While in Georgia, he published a Collection of Psalms and Hymns, the first Anglican hymnal published in America. This was also the first of many hymn books he would publish.

While there he fell in love with Sophia Hopkey, but she married another man, William Williamson. Afterward, he felt her zeal for the Christian faith declined and denied her Communion, for which legal proceedings began. In December 1737, John Wesley left Georgia and returned to England.

He was beaten and depressed when he returned to England, and sought the counsel from Peter Boehler, a young Moravian missionary.

John Wesley by George Romney

At a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street on May 24, 1738, John Wesley heard a reading of Martin Luther’s prefects to the Epistle of the Romans. This became known as his Aldersgate experience.

He wrote 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.”

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.”

At the encouragement of his friend and fellow evangelist, George Whitefield, John Wesley

Charles and John Wesley and Samuel and Susannah Wesley

preached his first sermon in the open air in April 1739. He struggled greatly with this at first but soon recognized he could reach men and women who would never enter a church. He 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.”

For the next fifty years, he spoke in churches when invited and “in fields, halls, cottages and chapels when churches would not receive him.”

John Wesley helped the Moravians form the Fetter Lane Society, but soon felt they fell into heresy for supporting the belief of quietism. He broke from the Moravian church in late 1739 and formed his own society.

John Wesley

“Thus,” he wrote, “without any previous plan, began the Methodist Society in England.” He also began to ordain lay preachers in the growth of Methodism.

John Wesley continued to work among the neglected and needy, but often suffered persecution by other clergy and magistrates for a variety of reasons.

“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.”

“Wesley laid the foundations of what now constitutes the organization of the Methodist Church. Over time, a shifting pattern of societies, circuits, quarterly meetings, annual Conferences, classes, bands, and select societies took shape.”

John Wesley was “described as below medium height, well proportioned, strong, with a

John Wesley

bright eye, a clear complexion, and a saintly, intellectual face.” “John Wesley was of but ordinary stature, and yet of noble presence. His features were very handsome even in old age. He had an open brow, an eagle nose, a clear eye, and a fresh complexion. His manners were fine, and in choice company with Christian people he enjoyed relaxation. Persistent, laborious love for men’s souls, steadfastness, and tranquility of spirit were his most prominent traits of character. Even in doctrinal controversies he exhibited the greatest calmness. He was kind and very liberal. His industry has been named already. In the last fifty-two years of his life, it is estimated that he preached more than forty thousand sermons.”

In 1744, John and Charles Wesley and eight other clergy or lay preachers met in what became known as the first Methodist conference.

The divide between Wesley and the Church of England, whom he never officially left continued to widen. He insisted his Methodist movement lay within the Church of England. 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.”

When the Church of England failed to send a Bishop to the United States, Wesley sent his own men. He ordained and sent Francis Asbury, Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Coke to the new world.

Wesley traveled widely, usually on horseback and often preached two or three times a 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.”

John Wesley

Wesley often warned about the dangers of alcohol abuse and practiced a vegetarian diet.

When he was forty-eight years old, he married Mary Vazeille, who was described as “a well-to-do widow and mother of four children”. The marriage is described as unhappy and yielded no children.

“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. Molly, as she was known, was to return and leave him again on several occasions before their final separation.” Wesley wryly reported in his journal, “I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.””

John Wesley

John Wesley continued to publish hymn books and wrote over 400 publications on the theology of a wide variety of topics. Included in his writings was an all-time best selling medical text on healthy living which is still relevant today. He also coined the term “agree to disagree”.

In the last year of his life, Wesley wrote “This day I enter into my eighty-eighth year. For above eighty-six years, I found none of the infirmities of old age: my eyes did not wax dim, neither was my natural strength abated. But last August, I found almost a sudden change. My eyes were so dim that no glasses would help me. My strength likewise now quite forsook me and probably will not return in this world.”

John Wesley died on March 2, 1791 at the age of eighty-seven. He was buried at his chapel on City Road in London.

John Wesley had outlived all of his siblings, but one sister, Martha “Patty” who died four months after John. wrote “An indication of his organizational genius, we know exactly

John Wesley

how many followers Wesley had when he died: 294 preachers, 71,668 British members, 19 missionaries (5 in mission stations), and 43,265 American members with 198 preachers. Today Methodists number about 30 million worldwide.”

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.

“Wesley’s house and chapel, which he built in 1778 on City Road in London, are still intact today and the chapel has a thriving congregation with regular services as well as the Museum of Methodism in the crypt.”


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