17 June 1703–2 March 1791
JOHN WESLEY, the Father and Founder of Methodism, was the son of the Rev. Samuel Wesley, Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. He was born in the thatched rectory of that lowly parish, June 17, 1703. His mother, Susannah, was the daughter of the distinguished Puritan, the Rev. Samuel Annesley, LL.D. John was her fourth son, the second and third sons having died in infancy. Samuel, the eldest son, was thirteen years older, and Charles, the youngest, five and a half years younger, than John. When the parsonage was burned down (1709), John very narrowly escaped an early death. Such was his devoutness and thoughtfulness as a child, that his father admitted him to the Lord’s Supper at eight years of age.
He was educated, until his eleventh year, by his accomplished mother. Through the patronage of the Duke of Buckingham, he was admitted, January 28, 1714, to a scholarship in the Charterhouse School, London, whither he now removed. In 1716, his brother, Samuel, having finished his undergraduate course, at Oxford, became a teacher at Westminster School, and acted as guardian of the boy, John, who, part of the time, was a member of his family. Though John Wesley “entered the School as the poor child of an impoverished parish priest,” by his diligence and progress in knowledge, he obtained the high respect of his teachers and companions in study. In his seventeenth year, he was elected, June 24, 1720, to a scholarship in Christchurch College, Oxford, worth £40 per annum. Here, also, he distinguished himself by his literary proficiency. He is described, at the expiration of four years, as “the very sensible and acute collegian, a young fellow of the finest classical taste, of the most liberal and manly sentiments.”
Not until his twenty-second year did he determine to comply with his father’s wishes, and enter holy orders. He had thus far been only a nominal Christian. The reading of The Christian Pattern (by Thomas à Kempis), and Rules of Holy Living and Dying (by Jeremy Taylor), and the companionship of a godly friend, led to an entire recast of his daily life. He kept a strict watch over his thoughts and actions, communicated (at the Lord’s Supper) every week, and strove to be a Christian in all things. Having pursued a suitable course of theological study, and taken his degree of B.A., he was ordained a deacon, September 19, 1725, by the Rev. Dr. John Potter, Bishop of Oxford. He preached, for the first time, a few days later, at South Leigh, about ten miles west of Oxford. He was elected, March 17, 1726, a Fellow of Lincoln College. The summer following he spent with his parents; and, returning to his college in September, he was chosen, November 7, Greek Lecturer and Moderator of the Classes. He graduated, M.A., February 14, 1727, with a high reputation for scholarship.
Leaving Oxford, August 4, 1727, he returned to Epworth, and officiated, both there and at Wroote, as his father’s chaplain, until November 22, 1729. He was ordained priest, September 22, 1728, by Bishop Potter, at Oxford. On his return to Oxford, in November, 1729, “The Godly Club” had been formed by his brother Charles and two other friends, to whom had already been applied, sportively, the name of “Methodists.” John gladly united with them, and became the recognized leader of the movement. Early in 1730, he obtained a curacy (for three or six months), about eight miles from Oxford. His tutorship and his studies engrossed the most of his time, which was spent after the most exact method. In this he was the more confirmed by William Law’s Christian Perfection, and his Serious Call to a Holy Life, both of which he read with avidity.
His father died, April 25, 1735; and, in September of the same year, John and Charles Wesley concluded to cast in their lot with Oglethorpe’s colonists in Georgia. They embarked, October 14, 1735, but did not set sail until December 10th. They derived great spiritual benefit from the pious Moravians, with whom they crossed the ocean. John Wesley was stationed at Savannah, but ere long, by reason of a love affair, was involved in great trouble and litigation. He concluded to return home, and set sail, December 22, 1787, arriving at Deal, England, February 1, 1788.
Soon after his arrival at London (February 3d), he met with the Moravian, Peter Böhler, and, by frequent conversations with this excellent man, became convinced that his religious experience was both defective and erroneous. He connected himself with the Moravian society meeting in Fetter Lane, and, May 24, 1738, he obtained “joy and peace in believing.” This he regarded as the date of his conversion. He evidently became, from this period, a new man, and entered upon a life of holy faith and ardent zeal, to which he had previously been a stranger. In June of the same year, he left England, in order to visit the Moravian head-quarters at Herrnhut, Saxony, returning to London in September, having, in the meantime, conferred with Count Zinzendorf, as to the views and policy of “The Brethren.”
In April, 1739, Mr. [George] Whitefield having already set the example of open-air or field-preaching, at Bristol, Mr. Wesley went down to help him, and commenced his field-preaching career. He had already been excluded from the pulpits of most of the churches of London, and he seemed to be shut up to this course of labor. A great work was accomplished among the colliers of Kingswood. In the autumn, he returned to London, preached to thousands in Moorfields, Sunday, November 11, purchased the old “Foundry” building, near by, had it fitted up, and made it the headquarters of Methodism. A separation from the Moravians followed, and the new society entered upon its grand career.
John Wesley then and thus began his truly evangelistic labors, as an Itinerant preacher. From London and Bristol as the centres of his operations, he went everywhere throughout England and Wales, with occasional excursions to Scotland and Ireland, preaching the word of life wherever he could get an audience, often encountering much opposition and even personal violence; and inaugurated a great religious revival, affecting all classes of society in and out of The Church, and extending itself eventually throughout the world.
Ordinarily, and until the infirmities of age compelled the use of a chaise, he travelled on horseback, or journeyed on foot. During the fifty-three years of his wonderful career as an itinerant preacher, he travelled, it is thought, about 225,000 miles, or more than 4,000 miles yearly. He seldom preached less than two sermons daily, and often delivered three or four sermons or addresses the same day. The whole number of his preaching-services has been estimated at not less than 40,000, besides “an infinite number of exhortations to the societies after preaching, and in other occasional meetings.” He lived to see the little brotherhood of 1739 expanded, in 1791, to 216 Circuits, served by 511 preachers, and counting 120,000 members.
Mr. Wesley retained his Fellowship in Lincoln College, Oxford, until February 18, 1751, when he forfeited it by his marriage to Mrs. Vizelle, a widow with four children and a considerable fortune, residing in Threadneedle Street, London. It proved to be an unhappy connection, and was practically terminated, by her leaving him (1771) ten years before her death.
Until past four-score, he seemed scarcely conscious of any decline of vigor; but early in 1790, he felt himself to be “an old man, decayed from head to foot.” He took cold, February 17, 1791, after preaching at Lambeth. On the 23d, he preached his last sermon, in the dining-room of a magistrate, at Leatherhead, eighteen miles from London, on the text, “Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.” Returning home to London, he lingered until Wednesday, March 2, 1791, when he rested from his labors on earth. His remains were interred in a vault, behind the Chapel in City Road. He left no children.
Like his brother, Wesley was below the medium size, spare, well-proportioned, muscular, and strong. He had a clear, smooth forehead, an aquiline nose, and piercing bright eyes. His complexion was fresh, and his step firm and strong. He was a pattern of neatness and simplicity. His benevolence was remarkable. Everything that he earned by his numerous publications, he expended on the Lord’s work. In general scholarship and knowledge, he had few superiors. His familiarity with the original Greek of the New Testament was remarkable. In the pulpit, his ‘attitude was graceful and easy; his action calm, natural, pleasing, and expressive; and his voice, not loud, but clear and manly.” Conciseness, brevity, and perspicuity characterized his style as a writer.
He made great and constant use of the press; and wonderful as were his labors as a preacher, he was continually writing, compiling, and publishing. His Works were published, shortly after his death, in thirty-two volumes octavo. He made numerous abridgments of voluminous publications, for the use of his Societies. His Christian Library; or Extracts and Abridgments, etc., from various Writers, was published in fifty volumes. The Wesleyan Literature to which he gave birth is of immense proportions. As a poet, John Wesley, though correct and classical, does not compare with his brother Charles. While in college, he indulged in versification as a recreation, but confined himself almost exclusively to translations from other languages.
by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)