Eighteenth-century England was ripe for an awakening. What was soon to be called “The Methodist Revival” brought warmth, piety, and zeal to a church mired in lethargy.
John Wesley, the leader and founder of the Methodist church, was the 15th child born to Samuel and Susannah Wesley. Brother Charles, the great hymn writer, was the 18th child in a family of 19. Both grandfathers had been involved in the Puritan reform movement of the 17th century. The father, Samuel, was a priest of the Church of England, and their mother was a spiritual tower of strength. Susannah was no doubt the most powerful religious influence in the life of all her children.
When John was six he was saved from a fire that destroyed his family’s home. Dramatically, a neighbour stood on the shoulders of a friend and grabbed John from a second-story window just moments before the building collapsed. Samuel Wesley called to all who were watching the fire. “Come, neighbours, let us kneel down. Let us give thanks to God. He has given me all my children. Let the house go. I am rich enough.”
As time passed John Wesley believed he had been saved for a purpose. Quoting the Old Testament book of Zechariah, he said, “I was a brand plucked out of the fire.”
At age 17, John Wesley enrolled at Christ College, Oxford. Four years later he was ordained a deacon. At Oxford he mastered Greek, German, French, Italian, and Spanish, and developed an appetite for knowledge that was never satisfied. Most significantly, however, John began to read devotional literature and developed a deep desire to lead a holy life. Through the writings of Thomas A. Kempis and William Law he began to seek “purity of intention.” True religion, he believed, included a significant experience of the heart, not just a confession of the lips.
In 1775 John went home for two years to assist his ailing father in his parish at Epworth. When he returned to Oxford, he became involved with a group formed by brother Charles. Initially the group existed for educational purposes. As John became involved and assumed leadership, the group, soon known as The Holy Club, began to concern itself with spiritual improvement. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this,” wrote the author of James, “To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That pretty well summed up the activities of The Holy Club. In addition to continued prayer and praise in their meetings, the group regularly visited prisoners, particularly those under the sentence of death. With the exception of John Howard, the great prison reformer of the 18th century, John Wesley knew more about the inside of jails than any man of his time.
Though the term “Methodists” was coined by their detractors, it was a most apt description of the very orderly Holy Club members and their leader. Wesley is not only remembered for his remarkable God-consciousness but is hailed for his administrative and organizational genius. Every hour of the day had its allotted task in his life. Every program he began was tightly monitored. Even in the mundane things of life he could not stand to have anything at loose ends.
In 1735 John Wesley left for the American colony of Georgia with dreams of converting the Indians and establishing The Holy Club among the “noble savages.” The dream soon became a nightmare. In many ways the Georgia experience was a crushing failure, perhaps the low point of his life. Not only was he denied the opportunity to preach to the Indians by Governor Oglethorpe, he did not even relate well to the colonists.
Still, the Georgia trip was a turning point in his life. Wesley had long sought total devotion to God and felt as if he had reached his goal. On the trip to Georgia he came into contact with Moravian missionaries who seemed to possess the spiritual commitment he so desperately desired. He witnessed the serenity of the Moravian women and children in the midst of a life-threatening storm and was enchanted with their spiritual zeal.
Back in England, Peter Bohler, another Moravian, counseled the searching Wesley to “preach faith until you have it and then because you have it you will preach faith.” Wesley followed his teacher’s advice. On May 24, 1738, Wesley went, with some reluctance, to a meeting on Aldersgate Street where the leader was reading from Martin Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. Wesley’s journals describe the evening. “About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation.”
No one ever sought assurance of salvation more urgently than John Wesley. Finally, like Luther before him, when he stopped trying to do things on his own and simply accepted the gift of God, the very thing he sought—assurance—came. He discovered he was no longer a slave in the kingdom, he was a son. The Aldersgate experience marked another turning point in Wesley’s life. For the next 52 years he preached salvation by faith throughout the British Isles. His was a message announcing the pure grace of God in Jesus Christ. He seized every opportunity to help people discover the riches of God.
If the Wesleys were excited about their recent experience (Charles had preceded his brother in an “evangelical conversion”), the churches in England were not. Along with their friend George Whitefield, England’s most dynamic preacher, the Wesleys were denied access to English pulpits. However, if it seemed as if the Church of England had closed a door to the “Methodists,” it soon appeared that God was opening another.
Denied opportunities to preach indoors, George Whitefield began to preach outdoors to miners as they got off work and to other common people. The response was so overwhelming that he invited John to join him. A new movement had begun. Soon the Wesleys and George Whitefield were preaching to enthusiastic crowds all over the London area. John felt he would never have a parish again. That was not so bad, for he discovered that, in his words, “The world is my parish.”
The outdoor preaching movement quickly grew. In June of 1739 an old foundry that could seat 1500 was rebuilt, and it served both as a preaching place and the Wesley headquarters for the next 38 years. When The Foundry no longer was sufficient to meet the needs of the organization, the City Road Chapel was built just 200 yards away.
Wesley was not a great innovator. He seldom developed a new idea on his own. He was a genius, however, at recognizing a good idea when someone else presented it. Still, most of his “Methodist” ideas developed out of necessity as he found one road after another blocked by circumstances.
In late 1739, a group of people asked Wesley to meet with them for weekly prayer and counsel. The group began with 12 men and soon grew to over 100. From this group the Methodist Society of England developed. Soon a number of small societies sprang up.
When it was necessary to raise money to pay for The Foundry, men were divided into groups of 12 in order to collect a penny a week. This group of 12, called a “Class” was soon used as a means for special guidance and prayer. Wesley knew the groups needed leadership, so he met each Tuesday with one from each group to equip them for their meeting later in the week.
When Wesley could not find qualified ordained clergy from the Church of England to preach at all the places that requested speakers, he was forced to turn to “lay ministers.” What began with a single request from Thomas Maxwell turned into an entire society of over 700 who carried the message of salvation by faith throughout England, Ireland, Scotland, and later to the United States.
Not everyone welcomed the “New England Revival.” Opposition from the established Church of England quickly surfaced, and the Methodist preachers often encountered hostile crowds in their open meetings. Occasionally people became violent and hurled both words and stones at the tiny preacher (Wesley stood five feet four inches and weighed 125 pounds). Many times John was hit, and once he was even left for dead in an alley.
Wesley became a master at dealing with the hostility. He learned to defuse the people’s anger by looking them directly in the eyes and even walking into their midst and confronting their leaders.
Though faced with hardships and criticism, the movement spread beyond England to the colonies, where, under the leadership of Francis Asbury, it found fertile soil.
Nearly every minute of Wesley’s long life was carefully planned. For 60 years he always rose at 4:00 a.m. and almost always went to bed promptly at 10:00 p.m. For 50 years he preached at 5:00 a.m. He learned to use every small piece of the day for learning and prayer. He read and wrote while riding horseback. How did he do it? “I rode with slack rein,” he explained. In the more than 40 years he spent on horseback, Wesley traveled more than a quarter of a million miles and preached 42,000 sermons.
His incredibly disciplined life allowed him time to write history books on England and Rome as well as volumes on logic and health. He prepared grammars on Greek, French, and English and completed an excellent English dictionary. He even wrote hymns, though brother Charles was the master hymn writer, penning more than 6000 hymns of beautiful poetry, often for an illiterate public.
At age 77, Wesley’s vigor remained. He rode 100 miles in 48 hours, a feat he duplicated 10 years later. He complained at 83 that he could not write for more than 15 hours without hurting his eyes. At 86 he traveled throughout Ireland for nine weeks, preaching 100 sermons in 60 towns, often in the open air.
Though we will remember him for his writing and vigorous stands on social issues (he was very vocal in his opposition to slavery), Wesley will be best remembered for his organizational genius and his passion to know and experience the love of God. “We are saved by faith,” he declared thousands of times. “God is gracious and loving.” This message and his fervent desire for people to live righteous lives is a word that the church in our own day still needs to hear.