Birthplace: Epworth, Lincolnshire, England
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Wesley's Chapel, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Founder of Methodism
English divine, born at Epworth Rectory on the 17th of June (Old Style) 1703. He was the fifteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley. His mother's training laid the foundation of his character, and under her instruction the children made remarkable progress. On February 9, 1709, the rectory was burnt down, and the children had a narrow escape. On the Duke of Buckingham's nomination, Wesley was for six years a pupil at Charterhouse. In June 1720 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, with an annual allowance of £40 as a Charterhouse scholar. His health was poor and he found it hard to keep out of debt, but he made good use of his opportunities. A scheme of study which he drew up for 1722 with a timetable for each day of the week is still to be seen in his earliest diary. The diary runs from April 5, 1725, to February 19, 1727. A friend describes Wesley at this time as "a young fellow of the finest classical taste, and the most liberal and manly sentiments." He was "gay and sprightly, with a turn for wit and humor."
The standard edition of Wesley's Journal (1909) has furnished much material for this period of Wesley's life, the Rev. N. Curnock having unraveled the difficult cipher and shorthand in which Wesley's early diaries were kept. He reached the conclusion that the religious friend who directed Wesley's attention to the writings of Thomas à Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, in 1725, was Miss Betty Kirkham, whose father was rector of Stanton in Gloucestershire. Up to this time Wesley says he had no notion of inward holiness, but went on "habitually and for the most part very contentedly in some or other known sin, indeed with some intermission and short struggles especially before and after Holy Communion", which he was obliged to attend three times a year. On the 25th of September 1725 he was ordained deacon, and on the 17th of March 1726 was elected fellow of Lincoln. His private diaries contain monthly reviews of Wesley's reading. It covered a wide range, and he made careful notes and abstracts of it. He generally took breakfast or tea with some congenial friend and delighted to discuss the deepest subjects. At the coffee house he saw the Spectator and other periodicals. He loved riding and walking, was an expert swimmer and enjoyed a game at tennis.
He preached frequently in the churches near Oxford in the months succeeding his ordination, and in April 1726 he obtained leave from his college to act as his father's curate. The material in the Journal describes the simple matter of his life. He read plays, attended the village fairs, shot plovers in the fenland, and enjoyed a dance with his sisters. In October he returned to Oxford, where he was appointed Greek lecturer and moderator of the classes. He gained considerable reputation in the disputation for his master's degree in February 1727. He was now free to follow his own course of studies and began to lose his love for company, unless it were with those who were drawn like himself to religion. In August he returned to Lincolnshire, where he assisted his father until November 1729. During those two years he paid three visits to the university. In the summer of 1729 he was up for two months. Almost every evening found him with the little society which had gathered around Charles.
When he came into residence in November he was recognized as the father of the Holy Club. It met at first on Sunday evenings, then every evening was passed in Wesley's room or that of some other member. They read the Greek Testament and the classics; fasted on Wednesday and Friday; received the Lord's Supper every week; and brought all their life under review. In 1730 William Morgan, an Irish student, visited the jail and reported that there was a great opening for work among the prisoners. The friends agreed to visit the Castle twice a week and to look after the sick in any parish where the clergyman was willing to accept their help. Wesley's spirit at this time is seen from his sermon on "The Circumcision of the Heart", preached before the university on the 1st of January 1733. In 1765 he said it "contains all that I now teach concerning salvation from all sin, and loving God with an undivided heart." Wesley rose at four, lived on £28 a year and gave away the remainder of his income. He already displayed those gifts for leadership which were to find so conspicuous a field in the evangelical revival. John Gambold, a member of the Holy Club, who afterwards became a Moravian bishop, says "he was blest with such activity as to be always gaining ground, and such steadiness that he lost none. What proposals he made to any were sure to charm them, because they saw him always the same." He wore an air of authority yet never lacked address, or "assumed anything to himself above his contemporaries." William Law's books produced a great impression on Wesley, and on his advice the young tutor began to read mystic authors, but he saw that their tendency was to make good works appear mean and insipid, and he soon laid them aside.
Wesley had not yet found the key to the heart and conscience of his hearers. He says, "From the year 1725 to 1729, I preached much, but saw no fruit to my labor. Indeed it could not be that I should; for I neither laid the foundation of repentance nor of preaching the Gospel, taking it for granted that all to whom I preached were believers, and that many of them needed no repentance. From the year 1729 to 1734, laying a deeper foundation of repentance, I saw a little fruit. But it was only a little; and no wonder: for I did not preach faith in the blood of the covenant. From 1734 to 1738, speaking more of faith in Christ, I saw more fruit of my preaching." Looking back on these days in 1777, Wesley felt "the Methodists at Oxford were all one body, and, as it were, one soul; zealous for the religion of the Bible, of the Primitive Church, and, in consequence, of the Church of England; as they believed it to come nearer the scriptural and primitive plan than any other national church upon earth." The number of Oxford Methodists was small and probably never exceeding twenty-five. John Clayton, afterwards chaplain of the Collegiate Church of Manchester, who remained a strong High Churchman; James Hervey, author of Meditations among the Tombs, and Theron and Aspasio; Benjamin lngham, who became the Yorkshire evangelist; and Thomas Broughton, afterwards secretary of the S.P.C.K., were members of the Holy Club, and George Whitefield joined it on the eve of the Wesley's departure for Georgia.
Wesley's father died on April 25, 1735, and in the following October John and Charles took ship for Georgia, with Benjamin Ingham and Charles Delamotte. John was sent out by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and hoped to labor as a missionary among the Indians, but though he had many interesting conversations with them the mission was found to be impracticable. The cabin of the "Simmonds" became a study for the four Methodists. The calm confidence of their Moravian fellow passengers amid the Atlantic storms convinced Wesley that he did not possess the faith which casts out fear. Closer acquaintance with these German friends in Savannah deepened the impression. Wesley needed help, for he was beset by difficulties. Mrs. Hawkins and Mrs. Welch poisoned the mind of Colonel Oglethorpe against the brothers for a time. Wesley's attachment to Miss Hopkey also led to much pain and disappointment. All this is now seen more clearly in the standard edition of the Journal. Wesley was a stiff High Churchman, who scrupulously followed every detail of the rubrics. He insisted on baptizing children by trine immersion, and refused the Communion to a pious German because he had not been baptized by a minister who had been episcopally ordained. At the same time he was accused of "introducing into the church and service at the altar compositions of psalms and hymns not inspected or authorized by any proper judicature." The list of grievances presented by Wesley's enemies to the Grand Jury at Savannah gives abundant evidence of his unwearying labors for his flock. The foundation of his future work as the father of Methodist hymnody was laid in Georgia. His first Collection of Psalms and Hymns (Charlestown, 1737) contains five of his incomparable translations from the German, and on his return to England he published another Collection in 1738, with five more translations from the German and one from the Spanish. In. April 1736 Wesley formed a little society of thirty or forty of the serious members of his congregation. He calls this the second rise of Methodism, the first being at Oxford in November 1729. The company in Savannah met every Wednesday evening "in order to a free conversation, begun and ended with singing and prayer." A select company of these met at the parsonage on Sunday afternoons. In 1781 he writes, "I cannot but observe that these were the first rudiments of the Methodist societies."
In the presence of such facts we can understand the significance of the mission to Georgia. Wesley put down many severe things against himself on the return voyage, and he saw afterwards that even then he had the faith of a servant though not that of a son. In London he met Peter Böhler who had been ordained by Zinzendorf for work in Carolina. By Böler Wesley was convinced that he lacked "that faith whereby alone we are saved." On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, he went to a society meeting in Aldersgate Street where Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans was being read. "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." Mr. Lecky points out the significance of that event. "It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that the scene which took place at that humble meeting in Aldersgate Street forms an epoch in English history. The conviction which then flashed upon one of the most powerful and most active intellects in England is the true source of English Methodism" (History of England in Eighteenth Century, ii 558).
Wesley spent some time during the summer of 1738 in visiting the Moravian settlement at Herrnhuth and returned to London on September 16, 1738, with his faith greatly strengthened. He preached in all the churches that were open to him, spoke in many religious societies, visited Newgate and the Oxford prisons. On New Year's Day, 1739, the Wesleys, Whitefield and other friends had a Love Feast at Fetter Lane. In February Whitefield went to Bristol, where his popularity was unbounded. When the churches were closed against him he spoke to the Kingswood colliers in the open air, and after six memorable weeks wrote urging Wesley to come and take up the work. Wesley was in his friend's congregation on April 1, but says, "I could scarcely reconcile myself to this strange way of preaching in the fields... having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every other 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." Next day Wesley followed Whitefield's example. His fears and prejudices melted away as he discerned that this was the very method needed for reaching the multitudes living in almost heathen darkness. He already had the means of shepherding those who were impressed by the preaching. On the 1st of May 1738 he wrote in his journal: "This evening our little society began, which afterwards met in Fetter Lane." Among its "fundamental rules" we find a provision for dividing the society into bands of five or ten persons who spoke freely and plainly to each other as to the "real state" of their hearts. The bands united in a conference every Wednesday evening. The society first met at James Hutton's shop, "The Bible and Sun", Wild Street, west of Temple Bar. About the 25th of September it moved to Fetter Lane. Wesley describes this as the third beginning of Methodism. After the field preaching began converts multiplied. They found all the world against them, and Wesley advised them to strengthen one another and talk together as often as they could. When he tried to visit them at their homes he found the task beyond him, and therefore invited them to meet him on Thursday evenings. This meeting was held in the end of 1739 at the Foundery in Moorfields which Wesley had just secured as a preaching place. Grave disorders had arisen in the society at Fetter Lane, and on the 25th of July 1740 Wesley withdrew from it. About 25 men and 48 women also left and cast in their lot with the society at the Foundery. The centenary of Methodism was kept in 1839, a hundred years after the society first met at the Foundery.
Wesley's headquarters at Bristol were in the Horse Fair, where a room was built in May 1739 for two religious societies which had been accustomed to meet in Nicholas Street and Baldwin Street. To meet the cost of this Captain Fox suggested that each member should give a penny per week. When it was urged that some were too poor to do this, he replied, "Then put eleven of the poorest with me; and if they can give anything, well: I will call on them weekly, and if they can give nothing I will give for them as well as for myself." Others followed his example and were called leaders, a name given as early as the 5th of November 1738 to those who had charge of the bands in London. Wesley saw that here was the very means he needed to watch over his flock. The leaders thus became a body of lay pastors. Those under their care formed a class. It proved more convenient to meet together and this gave opportunity for religious conversation and prayer. As the society increased Wesley found it needed "still greater care to separate the precious from the vile." He therefore arranged to meet the classes himself every quarter and gave a ticket "under his own hand" to every one "whose seriousness and good conversation" he found "no reason to doubt." The ticket furnished an easy means for guarding the meetings of the society against intrusion. "Bands" were formed for those who wished for closer communion. Love-feasts for fellowship and testimony were also introduced, according to the custom of the primitive church. Watchnights were due to the suggestion of a Kingswood collier in 1740. Wesley issued the rules of the united societies in February 1743. Those who wished to enter the society must have "a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins." When admitted they were to give evidence of their desire for salvation "by doing no harm; by doing good of every possible sort; by attending upon all the means of grace." It was expected that all who could do so would contribute the penny a week suggested in Bristol, and give a shilling at the renewal of their quarterly ticket. Wesley had at first to take charge of the contributions, but as they grew larger he appointed stewards to receive the money, to pay debts, and to relieve the needy. The memorable arrangement in Bristol was made a few weeks before Wesley's field of labor was extended to the north of England in May 1742. He found Newcastle ripe for his message. English Christianity seemed to have no power to uplift the people. Dram-drinking was spreading like an epidemic. Freethinkers' clubs flourished. "The old religion", Lecky says, "seemed everywhere loosening round the minds of men, and indeed it had often no great influence even on its defenders." Some of the clergy in country parishes were devoted workers, but special zeal was resented or discouraged.
The doctrine of election had led to a separation between Whitefield and the Wesleys in 1741. Wesley believed that the grace of God could transform every life that received it. He preached the doctrine of conscious acceptance with God and daily growth in holiness. Victory over sin was the goal which he set before all his people. He made his appeal to the conscience in the clearest language, with the most cogent argument, and with all the weight of personal conviction. Hearers like John Nelson felt as though every word was aimed at themselves. No preacher of the century had this mastery over his audience. His teaching may be described as Evangelical Arminianism and its standards are his own four volumes of sermons and his Notes On The New Testament.
Up until 1742 Wesley's work was chiefly confined to London and Bristol, with the adjacent towns and villages or the places which lay between them. On his way to Newcastle that year Wesley visited Birstal, where John Nelson, the stonemason, had already been working. On his return he held memorable services in the churchyard at Epworth. Methodism this year spread out from Birstal into the West Riding. Societies were also formed in Somerset, Wilts, Gloucestershire, Leicester, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire and the south of Yorkshire. In the summer Charles Wesley visited Wednesbury, Leeds and Newcastle. Next year he took Cornwall by storm. The work in London was prospering. In 1743 Wesley secured a west-end center at West Street, Seven Dials, which for fifty years had a wonderful history. In August 1747 Wesley paid his first visit to Ireland, where he had such success that he gave more than six years of his life to the country and crossed the Irish Channel forty-two times. Ireland has its own conference presided over by a delegate from the British conference. Wesley's first visit to Scotland was in 1751. He paid twenty-two visits, which stirred up all the Scottish churches.
Such extension of his field would have been impossible had not Wesley been helped by a heroic band of preachers. Wesley says: "Joseph Humphreys was the first lay preacher that assisted me in England, in the year 1738." That was probably help in the Fetter Lane Society, for Wesley then had no preaching place of his own. John Cennick, the hymn-writer and schoolmaster at Kingswood, began to preach there in 1739. Thomas Maxwell, who was left to meet and pray with the members at the Foundery during the absence of the Wesleys, began to preach. Wesley hurried to London to check this irregularity, but his mother urged him to hear Maxwell for himself, and he soon saw that such assistance was of the highest value. The autobiographies of these early Methodist preachers are among the classics of the Evangelical Revival. As the work advanced Wesley held a conference at the Foundery in 1744. Besides himself and his brother, four other clergymen were present and four "lay brethren." It was agreed that "lay assistants" were allowable, but only in cases of necessity. This necessity grew more urgent every year as Methodism extended. One of the preachers in each circuit was the "assistant", who had general oversight of the work, the others were "helpers." The conference became an annual gathering of Wesley's preachers. In the early conversations doctrine took a prominent place, but as Methodism spread the oversight of its growing organization occupied more time and more attention. In February 1784 Wesley's deed of declaration gave the conference a legal constitution. He named one hundred preachers who after his death were to meet once a year, fill up vacancies in their number, appoint a president and secretary, station the preachers, admit proper persons into the ministry, and take general oversight of the societies. In October 1768, a Methodist chapel was opened in New York. At the conference of 1769 two preachers, Richard Boardman and Joseph Pilmoor, volunteered to go out to take charge of the work. In 1771, Francis Asbury, the Wesley of America, crossed the Atlantic. Methodism grew rapidly, and it became essential to provide its people with the sacraments. In September 1784 Wesley ordained his clerical helper, Dr. Coke, superintendent (or bishop), and instructed him to ordain Asbury as his colleague. Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey were ordained by Wesley, Coke and Creighton to administer the sacraments in America. Wesley had reached the conclusion in 1746 that bishops and presbyters were essentially of one order.
He told his brother in 1785: "I firmly believe that I am a scriptural episcopos as much as any man in England or in Europe; for the uninterrupted succession I know to be a fable, which no man ever did or can prove." Other ordinations for the administration of the sacraments in Scotland, the colonies and England followed. The interests of his work stood first with Wesley. He did everything that strong words against separation could do to bind his societies to the Church of England; he also did everything that legal documents and ordinations could do to secure the permanence of that great work for which God had raised him up. In the words of Canon Overton and Rev. F. H. Relton, "It is purely a modern notion that the Wesleyan movement ever was, or ever was intended to be, except by Wesley, a church movement." Despite his strong sayings, it was Wesley who broke the links to the church, for, as Lord Mansfield put it, "ordination is separation."
Wesley's account of his itinerancy is given in his famous Journal, of which the first part appeared about 1739. Mr. Birrell has called it "the most amazing record of human exertion ever penned by man." It is certainly Wesley's most picturesque biography and the most vivid account of the evangelical revival that we possess. The rapid development of his work made a tremendous strain upon Wesley's powers. He generally travelled about 5000 miles a year and preached fifteen sermons a week. He had constant encounters with the mob, but his tact and courage never failed. His rule was always to look a mob in the face. Many delicious stories are told of his presence of mind and the skilful appeals which he made to the better feeling of the crowd.
Wesley's writings did much to open the eyes of candid men to his motives and his methods. Besides the incomparable Journal, his Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion also produced an extraordinary effect in allaying prejudice and winning respect. He constantly sought to educate his own people. No man in the 18th century did so much to create a taste for good reading and to supply it with books at the lowest prices. Sir Leslie Stephen pays high praise to Wesley's writings, which went "straight to the mark without one superfluous flourish." As a social reformer Wesley was far in advance of his time. He provided work for the deserving poor, supplied them with clothes and food in seasons of special distress. The profits on his cheap books enabled him to give away as much as £1400 a year. He established a lending stock to help struggling businessmen and did much to relieve debtors who had been thrown into prison. He opened dispensaries in London and Bristol and was keenly interested in medicine.
Wesley's supreme gift was his genius for organization. He was by no means ignorant of this. "I know this is the peculiar talent which God has given me." Wesley's special power lay in his quickness to avail himself of circumstances and of the suggestions made by those about him. The class-meeting, the love-feast, the watch-night, the covenant service, leaders, stewards, lay preachers, all were the fruit of this readiness to avail himself of suggestions made by men or events. Wesley skilfully wove these into his system, and kept the whole machinery moving harmoniously. He inspired his preachers and his people with his own spirit and made everything subordinate to his overmastering purpose, the spread of scriptural holiness throughout the land.
In 1751 Wesley married Mary Vazeille, a widow, but the union was unfortunate and she finally left him. John Fletcher, the vicar of Madeley, to whom Wesley had turned as a possible successor, died in 1785. He had gone to Wesley's help at West Street after his ordination at Whitehall in 1757 and had been one of his chief allies ever since. He was beloved by all the preachers, and his Checks to Antinomianism show that he was a courteous controversialist. Charles Wesley died three years after Fletcher. During the last three years of his life John Wesley reaped the harvest he had sown. Honors were lavished upon him. His people hailed every appearance among them with delight, and his visits to various parts of the country were public holidays. His interest in everything about him continued unabated. He had a wealth of happy stories which made him the most delightful of companions in the homes of his people. Robert Southey never forgot how Wesley kissed his little sister and put his hand on his head and blessed him. Alexander Knox says, "So fine an old man I never saw! The happiness of his mind beamed forth in his countenance. Every look showed how fully he enjoyed 'The gay remembrance of a life well spent.' Wherever Wesley went, he diffused a portion of his own felicity." He preached his last sermon in Mr Belson's house at Leatherhead on Wednesday, the 23rd of February 1791; wrote next day his last letter to William Wilberforce, urging him to carry on his crusade against the slave trade; and died in his house at City Road on the 2nd of March 1791, in his eighty-eighth year. He was buried on the 9th of March in the graveyard behind City Road chapel. His long life enabled him to perfect the organization of Methodism and to inspire his preachers and people with his own ideals, while he had conquered opposition by unwearying patience and by close adherence to the principles which he sought to teach.
Father: Samuel Wesley (d. 25-Apr-1735)
Brother: Charles (b. 1707, d. 1788)
Wife: Mary Vazeille (m. 1751)
High School: Charterhouse School, London
University: MA, Christ Church College, Oxford University (1727)
Proxy Baptism: Mormon St. George, UT (Aug-1877)
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