|Wesley, John (1703-91), English theologian, evangelist, and founder of Methodism.
Wesley was born in the rectory at Epworth, Lincolnshire, on June 17, 1703, the 15th child of the British clergyman Samuel Wesley. He was educated at Charterhouse School and Christ Church, University of Oxford. Ordained deacon in 1725 and admitted to the priesthood of the Church of England in 1728, John Wesley acted for a time as curate to his father. In 1729 he went into residence at Oxford as a fellow of Lincoln College. There he joined the Holy Club, a group of students that included his brother Charles Wesley and, later, George Whitefield, who was to become the founder of Calvinistic Methodism. The club members adhered strictly and methodically to religious precepts and practices, among them visiting prisons and comforting the sick, and were thus derisively called “methodists” by their schoolmates.
In 1735 Wesley went to Georgia as an Anglican missionary. On the ship to Savannah he met some German Moravians, whose simple evangelical piety greatly impressed him. He continued to associate with them while in Georgia and translated some of their hymns into English. Except for this association, Wesley's American experience was a failure.
On his return to England in 1738, he again sought out the Moravians; while attending one of their meetings in Aldersgate St., London, on May 24, 1738, he experienced a religious awakening that profoundly convinced him that salvation was possible for every person through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
In March 1739, George Whitefield, who had met with great success as an evangelist in Bristol, urged Wesley to join him in his endeavors. Despite his initial opposition to preaching outside the church, Wesley preached an open-air sermon on April 2, and the enthusiastic reaction of his audience convinced him that open-air preaching was the most effective way to reach the masses. Few pulpits would be open to him in any case, for the Anglican church frowned on revivalism.
Wesley attracted immense crowds virtually from the outset of his evangelical career. His success also was due, in part, to the fact that contemporary England was ready for a revivalist movement; the Anglican church was seemingly unable to offer the kind of personal faith that people craved. Thus Wesley's emphasis on inner religion and his assurance that each person was accepted as a child of God had a tremendous popular appeal.
On May 1, 1739, Wesley and a group of his followers, meeting in a shop on West St., London, formed the first Methodist society. Two similar organizations were established in Bristol the same month. Late in 1739 the London society began to meet in a building called the Foundry, which served as the headquarters of Methodism for many years.
With the growth of the Methodist movement, the need for tighter organization became acute. In 1742 the societies were divided into classes, with a leader for each class. These class meetings contributed greatly to the success of the movement, but equally important were their leaders, many of whom Wesley designated lay preachers. Wesley called the first conference of Methodist leaders in 1744, and conferences were held annually thereafter.
In 1751, at the age of 48, Wesley married Mary Vazeille, a widow with four children. The marriage was not successful, and she finally left him; Wesley had no children of his own.
An indefatigable preacher and organizer, Wesley traveled about 8000 km (5000 mi) a year, delivering as many as four or five sermons a day and founding new societies.
Wesley parted with the Moravians in 1740 because of doctrinal disagreements, and he rejected the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, thus breaking with Whitefield. He also discarded many tenets of the Church of England, including the doctrine of the apostolic succession (the maintenance of an unbroken line of succession of bishops of the Christian church beginning with St. Peter), but he never voiced any intention of establishing the movement as a new church. His actions made separation inevitable, however. In 1784 he issued the deed of declaration, which provided rules and regulations for the guidance of the Methodist societies. The same year he appointed his aide Thomas Coke, an Anglican clergyman, a superintendent of the Methodist organization in the U.S., empowering him to administer the sacraments; other ordinations followed. Ordination represented the biggest step in the direction of a break with the Anglican church. Separation did not take place, however, until after Wesley's death.
Wesley was deeply concerned with the intellectual, economic, and physical well-being of the masses. He was also a prolific writer on a wide variety of historical and religious subjects. His books were sold cheaply, so that even the poor could afford to buy them; thus he did much to improve the reading habits of the general public. He aided debtors and those trying to establish businesses and founded medical dispensaries. He opposed slavery and was interested in social reform movements of all kinds.
Wesley compiled 23 collections of hymns, edited a monthly magazine, translated Greek, Latin, and Hebrew works, and edited, under the title The Christian's Pattern, the noted medieval devotional work De Imitatione Christi, generally ascribed to the German ecclesiastic Thomas à Kempis. His personal Journal (1735-90) is outstanding for the frank exposition of his spiritual development.
In the latter years of his life the hostility of the Anglican church to Methodism had virtually disappeared, and Wesley was greatly admired. He died March 2, 1791, and was buried in the graveyard of City Road Chapel, London. In Westminster Abbey is a memorial plaque inscribed with his name.1