John Wesley (1703-1791) was the greatest preacher of the 18th century. He founded the Methodist Church. This new Christian denomination first took root in Wales, where it is credited with a national revival of faith and piety.
John Wesley focused on the salvation of the poor, as well as on Christian Charity towards them. When he died, he was known as "The best loved man in England."
John Wesley was the son of Samuel and Susanna Wesley, and one of nineteen children. Susanna was the last of twenty-five children born to her pastor father and his wife.
When John Wesley was five years old he was miraculously saved from his burning home. He always felt that God had saved him for a purpose of His. Later in life, Wesley began to see the burning house as representative of the world perishing—with lost souls inside that needed to be rescued.
Wesley has a Revelation
In 1738, John Wesley, now a thirty-five year old Anglican minister, had a spiritual awakening after re-reading the Epistle to the Romans by St Paul, along with a preface by Martin Luther. He realized that true religion is seated in the heart. Wesley wrote: "The real nature of true religion did not consist in orthodox or right opinions, but deeper still, even in the hidden man of the heart."
John Wesley sought holiness of heart and correctness of outward deportment. The connecting link between the individual soul and God is genuine personal living faith. The Holy Spirit only confers wisdom on those who no longer live for themselves.
God's law extends beyond actions to words and thoughts. Grace will be manifested in obedience. John Wesley believed he was appointed by God to "proclaim the glad tidings of salvation" among a Christian people who had forgotten them.
John Wesley Goes on the Road
John Wesley went on tours throughout the remote sections of the British Isles to preach enthusiastically to the neglected masses. He began to preach the born-again gospel in open fields. Pandemonium broke loose at his revivals, which were complete with exorcisms, healings, and visions.
He would preach several times a day no matter the weather. He drew outdoor crowds of up to 32,000 people. Nothing like this had ever been witnessed before.
Wesley and his followers were sometimes beaten by mobs and bombarded with stones, bricks, and fruit. Apparently some took umbrage at his message of sin and salvation. And not just Wesley, John Smythe, "the Conjurer," was the most mobbed Methodist in Ireland and eventually murdered. William Seward was blinded and then torn to pieces by a mob in Hay. Methodist preaching houses were pulled down in many cities of England.
John Wesley Meets the Moravians
In 1735, John Wesley was on his way to preach in America when the ship was struck by a violent storm on the Atlantic Ocean. He was greatly moved by the demeanor he observed in a group of Moravians on board. John Wesley:
"I had long before observed the great seriousness of their behavior. Of their humility they had given a continual proof, by performing those servile offices for the other passengers which none of the English would undertake; for which they desired and would receive no pay, saying it was good for their proud hearts, and their loving savior had done more for them. And every day had given them occasion of showing a meekness which no injury could move. If they were pushed, struck, or thrown about, they rose again and went away; but no complaint was found in their mouth."
John Wesley Comes to America
John Wesley first brought his gospel message to America in Georgia. He taught the poor how to help themselves; he preached charity, piety, and literacy. Anglican bishops were not pleased with Wesley's call for missionaries to come to America; to ride through the backcountry and preach in fields.
John Wesley spoke out against the evils of slavery: "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."
John Wesley did not buy into the Calvinist view of the "elect." He was an Arminian, and believed that "God willeth all men to be saved."
Nonetheless, he had many Calvinist friends and saw no reason why doctrinal differences should impede friendship or working together for the good of the Kingdom of God. It was Wesley who coined the phrase "agree to disagree."
John Wesley the Circuit Riding Evangelist
John Wesley, even in his sixties, rode 3,000 miles a year on horseback to preach 800 sermons. In his lifetime, he traveled 250,000 miles on horseback and preached more than 40,000 sermons, some of which were three hours long.
John Wesley was effective. After his revivals whole towns relinquished drunkenness and violence in favor of singing hymns and studying the Bible. His appeal was especially strong with skilled artisans and small merchants.
John Wesley is the "father of the religious paperback." He published 5,000 sermons, tracts, and pamphlets. These writings brought in a large income, but he continued to live on an average workman's wage of thirty pounds a year. Wesley lived frugally, and gave away over 75,000 pounds of his income to spread the gospel.
His brother, Charles Wesley (1707-1788), would become one of the greatest hymn writers of all time, having written almost 8,000 hymns.
John Wesley Quotes
John Wesley defined the Church this way: "a body of men compacted together in order, first, to save each his soul, then to assist each other in working out their salvation."
It was soon noted that his converts prospered economically and socially. He had some anxiety about this and wrote:
"I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will the love of the world in all its branches. For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit as swiftly vanishes away."
In 1744, John Wesley held the first Methodist Conference. He produced regulations about clothes, ornamentation, money, business, language, charity, and Bible meetings. Offenders were to be excommunicated.
The hierarchy of the Anglican Church disapproved of all of this. The Methodists often divided families.
John Wesley preached against antinomianism, a teaching of modern educators that there is no unchangeable divine law as the standard of right, but that the standard of morality is indicated by society itself, and has been constantly subject to change. "I may not bring Scripture down to your taste," Wesley said.
John Wesley considered himself an Anglican to the end. He never wanted Methodists to split from the Anglican Church. His sermons endorsed the existing order of society. Wesley urged his converts to obey all laws; to be content with economic and political conditions. Methodism remained inside the Anglican Church until 1791 when it officially split off and the Methodist Church was born.
The Methodist Church
There numbered 500,000 Methodists when John Wesley left this world. They were and are heavily involved with charitable missions. After the Methodist Church was firmly established, it built grand houses of worship and abandoned itinerant preaching.
Through the tireless labors of John Wesley, multitudes have been lifted up from the ruin and degradation of sin to a higher and purer life. John Wesley was an exemplar of faith and humility, untiring zeal, self-sacrifice, and devotion as a servant of Christ.
John Wesley's last words were "Farewell." When he died he left behind one well-worn coat, two teaspoons, and one Methodist Church. He was 5'3".
My sources for this article include: A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson; Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture by Jaroslav Pelikan; and A Short History of Christianity by Stephen Tomkins.