Summary: John Wesley's faith-journey and his efforts to revitalize faith in England and America, which led to the establishment of the Methodist Church.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was born in 1703 from a devout Anglican family in Epworth, England. His father Samuel was a minister; his mother Susanna spent quality time with each child and was determined to bring her many children to a clear understanding of Christian teachings. Both of Wesley’s grandfathers were Puritan preachers, part of a dissenting tradition in opposition to the established church.
At the age of six, John had to be rescued from a fire at the parsonage. He was taken from a second-story window by a parishioner standing on another man’s shoulders; he nearly didn’t make it. He later described his deliverance as God’s work and often referred to himself with a sense of destiny as “a brand snatched from the burning.”
At the age of 10 he was sent to London for schooling, followed by entrance into Oxford. He followed his father into the Anglican priesthood. In these days, one chose the clergy like any other profession, without any sense of calling. While in college he joined a society founded by his brother Charles that was derisively called the “Holy Club” by other students. They ministered to prisoners and helped the poor. Wesley spent three hours a day studying the Bible, but often felt he was merely going through the motions of Christianity without any real experience of a transformed life.
In 1735, Wesley was traveling to America from England by ship, which was always a hazardous venture. One night the weather changed, fierce winds battered the sails, and rain came down in torrents. Wesley feared for his life, but then he spotted a group of German Moravians who were calmly singing hymns. When the storm passed, he asked their leader about their serenity amid the storm. The Moravian pastor asked Wesley if he had faith in Christ, and Wesley haltingly claimed he did, but inwardly he wondered if “they were vain words.”
In the American colonies Wesley attempted to do mission work, but his efforts to impose the strict disciplines he was following on the new believers failed. He admitted, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but who shall convert me?” Then a woman he hoped to marry ended up marrying someone else. And so he returned to England a bitter, disillusioned man. He concluded that he lacked true saving faith. He said, “I was fighting continually but not conquering; I fell and rose and fell again.”
Back in London, Wesley attended what we’d call a Bible study at Aldersgate Street. While they were discussing the change God works in our hearts through trust in Christ, John noted: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt trust in 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.”
Shortly after this, John was invited by another member of the “Holy Club”, George Whitefield, to assist in outdoor evangelistic work in Bristol. When criticized for preaching outside of churches, Wesley replied: “The world is my parish.” With Whitefield’s fiery preaching and Wesley’s organizational skills, a reform movement was born. Wesley was so organized that he had to have a reason for everything he did. As a child when offered a treat, he would say, “I need to think about that.” Many were converted and nurtured through “United Societies” which Wesley methodically organized, hence the name Methodist. Although credited with founding the Methodist Church, Wesley remained an Anglican his whole life. He didn’t intend to start a new denomination; he was promoting renewal within the Church of England, and helping the poor. The informal chapels he established, however, became the nucleus of an emerging, separate Protestant denomination.
Wesley organized the spiritual societies he founded into a “circuit” under the leadership of a “superintendent.” Clergy and lay-preachers visited the chapels as “Circuit Riders” for three-year terms. There weren’t enough Anglican priests to minister to these new converts. Wesley tirelessly travelled 4,000 miles by horseback annually and preached some 40,000 sermons in his lifetime. The movement had its critics, and protesters were paid to disrupt meetings and threatened Wesley’s life. Methodists were derisively called “enthusiasts,” i.e. fanatics. Wesley was denied permission to speak in church at his father’s funeral, and had to preach from the graveside. He had to register his lay preachers as non-Anglicans. Nonetheless, he avidly recruited workers, declaring, “Give me 100 preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God; such alone will shake the gates of hell.”
Methodism gradually separated from the Church of England, and caught on dramatically in the American colonies. From Methodism sprang other denominations, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Pentecostal Church, and the Salvation Army. Wesley opposed slavery, and his message was popular among slaves in the American south. He started a revival that changed the American spiritual landscape. Wesley regretted the many divisions among churches and sought unity. He wrote: “Though we can’t all think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”