Wesley, John

Born on 17 June 1703 (OS), he was the second surviving son of the family at Epworth rectory. His classical education as a 'gown-boy' at the Charterhouse, London (1713-1720) built on foundations his mother had laid and prepared him for his years at Christ Church, Oxford (1720-1724). The influence of a 'religious friend' (probably Sally Kirkham at Stanton, Glos) and his reading of Thomas à Kempis and Jeremy Taylor, together with the prospect of taking holy orders, cause him in 1725 to become more serious in his religious life and as part of his self-discipline he began to keep a diary in which he plotted his spiritual health.

Ordained deacon in 1725 and priest in 1728, in 1726 he was elected Fellow of Lincoln College, but was soon absent helping his father in his two Lincolnshire parishes. He returned to Oxford in 1729 to find his brother Charles involved with other religiously inclined students in the activities of what became known as the 'Holy Club' and by seniority and natural ability became its leader. He was influenced at this time by the writings of William Law, especially his Christian Perfection (1726) and Serious Call (1729), distancing himself more and more from 'worldly' pursuits and pleasures and beginning to distinguish in his own mind and in his preaching between mere 'formal' religion and wholehearted devotion to God. But his own relation with God was, as he would later put it, still that of a servant rather than of a son.

Although he had found reasons for refusing a plea that he should leave Oxford in favour of the Lincolnshire livings, quite soon after his father's death in 1735 he agreed to go out with James Oglethorpe to the newly established colony of Georgia as a volunteer missionary to evangelize the Indians. However, the shortage of clergy in the colony largely limited his work to serving as parish priest to the European settlers in Savannah. Wesley went to Georgia as a High Churchman determined to restore primitive Christianity in a primitive environment. He experienced some success with rising attendance at Church and communion services and with a number of religious societies which were thriving by the summer of 1737. His ministry was disrupted and eventually ended in disappointment in the midst of legal proceedings against him in the controversy following his denial of communion to Sophia Williamson, a young woman he had fallen in love with. One of his most significant accomplishments was the publication of his first hymn-book (the 'Charlestown Hymn-book') with five hymns he had translated from German.

Above all, he had encountered the simple faith of the Moravians and on his return to London early in 1738 was actively seeking it for himself. Influenced by Peter Böhler and others, on 24 May 1738, at a meeting of a religious society in Nettleton Court, Aldersgate Street, and through hearing the words of Martin Luther, he felt his heart 'strangely warmed' by a realisation that the love of Christ, focused in the Cross, was for him personally. This did not bring an immediate end to his seeking, but did mark a significant turning point. Whether 'Aldersgate Street' or his newly acquired seriousness in 1725 is to be accounted a 'conversion' experience has been debated at length and is largely a matter of definition.It is now commemorated by the 'John Wesley Conversion Place Memorial' ouside the entrance to the Museum of London.

The peripatetic ministry which occupied his remaining years did not begin immediately. He first visited the Moravian settlement at Herrnhut in Saxony, where he observed the community life and worship. En route he met its leader, Count Zinzendorf. On his return he began to travel more widely, though at first only between London, Oxford and Bristol, with occasional visits to Salisbury, where his widowed mother was now living with the Westley Halls. In March 1739 he was persuaded by George Whitefield to 'become more vile' and begin field preaching in Bristol, and soon afterwards undertook the building of the 'New Room' to house two religious societies which looked to him for leadership. In London his relations with the Fetter Lane Society became strained as it increasingly embraced what he deemed to be the dangerous doctrine of stillness and in July 1740 he led a number of the members in a secession, forming a new society in the Foundery, which became his London headquarters for the next 40 years.

The Evangelical Movement had already begun, especially in Wales, before John Wesley's return from Georgia, and he and his brother Charles were now caught up in it. Societies looking to him for leadership began to be formed further and further afield and it was not only evangelical zeal, but the need for pastoral care of (and the exercise of discipline among) those who looked to him for spiritual guidance which led to his ever-increasing journeys throughout the British Isles. He defended his intrusion into other men's parishes by asserting that, as Fellow of an Oxford college, he looked upon the whole world as his parish. In 1742 he made his first visits to the north of England, where Newcastle was to become his northern headquarters. In 1743 he first visited the West Midlands, soon to be the cradle of the industrial revolution, and paid the first of many visits to Cornwall. In 1747 he crossed to Ireland and in 1751 went north into Scotland, despite the strong presence of a Calvinistic Kirk. In many cases his first visit to a locality was in response to invitations from individuals or from groups which were already in existence and were happy to be linked with other societies 'in connexion with Mr. Wesley'.

While he could not match the eloquent preaching of Whitefield, Wesley was a born organizer and leader and so was able to consolidate the results of his own preaching and that of others, including the lay preachers on whom he increasingly relied to exercise spiritual oversight in his absence. His societies were provided with Rules and the members periodically examined to ensure that they were 'walking worthily' of the faith they professed. Because the danger of antinomianism was a serious bugbear to anyone proclaiming justification by faith, Wesley constantly reiterated the need to spread 'scriptural holiness' and to pursue the easily misinterpreted 'Christian perfection'.

Relations with his brother Charles were intimate, but never easy, especially after Charles Wesley's gradual withdrawal from their joint itinerant ministry following his marriage in 1749. Charles was the stauncher Churchman and grew increasingly distressed and alarmed by the signs that his brother was drifting out of the Church.

From the outset Wesley had seen his mission in terms of the spiritual renewal of a lethargic Church of England and had no intention of creating a new denomination. He could, after all, claim merely to be extending to national level what other clergy had done locally in their oversight of religious societies. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the movement, reinforced by the limited response from within the Church, not least among his fellow clergy, meant that a gap steadily widened between them and was virtually, if still not formally, complete by the time of his death. The succession of irregularities (such as field preaching coupled with his peripatetic ministry, the employment of lay preachers and, later, his ordinations for America and elsewhere) into which he was persuaded in response to changing circumstances and challenges made an eventual separation inevitable. Neverthe less a significant minority of 'Church Methodists' continued well into the 19th century.

Politically, Wesley was a Tory and a loyal Hanoverian; hence his support of the Government against the American colonists in 1775, despite his earlier counsels of moderation. In matters of doctrine he went to great lengths to insist that he taught nothing that was not part of Anglican teaching, citing the Articles and Homilies extensively to support that claim. It has been an academic commonplace that he was no theologian, i.e. that he produced no systematic theology to which his name could be attached. More recently A.C. Outler has promoted him as a 'folk-theologian' whose teaching, though designed to instruct the masses, had its own coherence. R.L. Maddox has shown the extent to which, despite his repeated claim to consistency over decades, Wesley's teaching was modified in some key respects, in response to changing circumstances and to incorporate new insights. Maddox and other American scholars have demonstrated that his theology, however pragmatic and pastorally motivated, warrants serious scholarly attention. Wesley was steering a middle course between the moralistic heresy of salvation by works and the ultra-Protestant, potentially antinomian heresy of salvation by faith alone, to arrive at a doctrine of salvation by grace which left room for both divine initiative and human response: from one point of view a characteristically Anglican via media. 'Faith working by love' (Gal. 5:6) was one of his favourite phrases. His preoccupation with the process of salvation justifies the view that his teaching was not so much a theology as a soteriology.

An aspect of both Wesley brothers that was underplayed or conveniently overlooked by nineteenth century Wesleyanism is their sacramentalism. A century before the Oxford Movement, and in the face of a widespread neglect of the [[Entry:1743 Eucharist in the eighteenth century Church, Wesley urged 'constant communion' on his followers. He himself both received and administered the Lord's Supper as often as circumstances allowed, seeing it as a 'converting ordinance' and a vital 'means of grace'. He published his brother's sacramental hymns in Hymns on the Lord's Supper (1745), stressing the 'real [though spiritual] presence of Christ, and the sacrament as a 'sacrifice' in a way uncharacteristic of eighteenth century Anglicanism as a whole.

His hesitant and ineffectual approaches to marriage culminated in the tangled affair with Grace Murray, which Charles Wesley aborted in 1749 by marrying her off to John Bennet, to his brother's deep distress. Just over a year later, on the rebound, he precipitately married Mrs Mary Vazeille, the widow of a City banker. The marriage was probably doomed from the outset by his determination not to travel one mile or preach one sermon less than before and was embittered by his wife's understandable jealousy of his intimate (albeit innocent) correspondence with women friends. When she died in 1781 they had been separated for some years. Wesley himself died at his house in City Road on 2 March 1791.

John Wesley was a man of his age in at least two contrasted ways. His instinctive appeal to reason and experiential evidence was characteristic of the Enlightenment, though in his public debates it often took the form of logic-chopping as much as reasoned argument. At the same time, he shared the popular belief in witchcraft and was given to finding the hand of providence in an escape from accidents or a timely change in the weather. Throughout his life he remained the Oxford tutor, e.g. in his concern for the education of the itinerant preachers and his society members as a whole, in his educational ventures and above all in his writing and publishing (notably in the Christian Library). Pamphlets and more substantial volumes on a wide variety of subjects and totalling around 500 titles poured from his pen, despite his extensive travels.

The object in earlier years of many and varied charges, ranging from 'hypocrite' and 'charlatan' to 'Jacobite' and 'Papist', and above all 'enthusiast', John Wesley outlived most of his critics (except for the new generation of Calvinists exemplified by Richard and Rowland Hill and Augustus M. Toplady) and came to be seen as a venerable institution of the national life, even by many who held aloof from Methodism itself. Seven years before he died he made provision for the continuance of the movement through the Deed of Declaration; but his own stance remained sufficiently equivocal to provide his heirs and successors with a legacy of conflicting attitudes towards the Church from which he had never formally separated or been excluded, despite flouting its lax discipline whenever it hindered the progress of his mission.

See also Wesley, John, portraits; Wesley, John, statues and sculpture; Wesleyanism


'I was constantly with him for a week. I had an opportunity of examining narrowly his spirit and conduct; and, I assure you, I am more than ever persuaded, he is a none such. I know not his fellow, first for abilities, natural and acquired; and, secondly, for his incomparable diligence in the application of these abilities to the best of employments. His lively fancy, tenacious memory, clear understanding, ready elocution, manly courage, indefatigable industry, really amaze me. I admire, but wish in vain to imitate, his diligent improvement of every moment of time; his wonderful exactness, even in little things; the order and regularity wherewith he does and treats everything he takes in hand; together with his quick dispatch of business, and calm, cheerful serenity of soul.'

Joseph Benson, quoted by A.G. Ives, Kingswood School in Wesley's Day and Since (1970) p.71, from Methodist Magazine, 1825 p.386

  • The earliest biographies were by John Hampson (3 vols, 1791), a hastily compiled official biography by Thomas Coke and Henry Moore (1792) and its rival by John Whitehead (2 vols, 1793, 1796). In the early nineteenth century there were lives by Henry Moore (2 vols, 1824, 1825) by Richard Watson (1831) and, from outside Methodism, by Robert Southey (2 vols, 1820). Later major works include Luke Tyerman (3 vols, 1870-71; 4th edition 1878), John S. Simon (5 vols, 1921-34) and Martin Schmidt (3 vols, 1962, 1972, 1973). Single-volume lives, both popular and scholarly, have continued to appear, most recently Reasonable Enthusiast by Henry Rack (1989, revised 1992; also his article in the Oxford DNB), Wesley and the People Called Methodists by Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville, 1995), John Wesley: the evangelical revival and the rise of Methodism in England by John Munsey Turner (2002) and John Wesley, a Personal Portrait by Ralph Waller (2003).
  • For an important study of Wesley's Georgia ministry, see Geordan Hammond, John Wesley in America: Restoring Primitive Christianity (2014). For the significance of his 'conversion', see The Conversion of the Wesleys by J. Ernest Rattenbury (1938); Aldersgate Reconsidered, ed. Randy L. Maddox (Nashville, 1990) and 'John Wesley's Conversion at Aldersgate' by John H. Tyson, in Kenneth J. Collins and John H. Tyson (eds.), Conversion in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville, 2001) pp.27-42.
  • Collected editions of Wesley's Works appeared in 1771-74, 1809-13 (edited by J. Benson) and 1829-31 (edited by T. Jackson, 'with the last corrections of the author', several times reprinted). [For fuller details see Wesley F. Swift in WHS Proceedings 31 pp.173-77.] Editions of his Journal (edited by Nehemiah Curnock, 1909-16), his Sermons (edited by E.H. Sugden, 1921) and his Letters (edited by John Telford, 1931) are in the process of being superseded by the on-going Oxford (now Bicentennial) Edition of Wesley's Works, begun in 1975, but are still valuable.
  • Wesley as preacher is dealt with in John Wesley, Preacher by W.L. Doughty (1955), The Sermons of John Wesley, Bicentennial Edition, ed. Albert C. Outler (Oxford, 1984), Richard P. Heitzenrater, 'John Wesley's Principles and Practice of Preaching', in Methodist History, 37:2 (January 1999) pp.89-106 (also in R. Sykes (ed.), Beyond the Boundaries (Oxford, 1998) pp. 12-40). See also WHS Proceedings, 39 pp.77-85.
  • His theology is examined in John Wesley's Theology Today by Colin W. Williams (1960), John Wesley by Albert C. Outler (Oxford, 1964) and The Wesleyan Theological Heritage (Grand Rapids, 1991), The Limits of Love Divine by W. Stephen Gunter (Nashville, 1989), Responsible Grace: John Wesley's Practical Theology by Randy L. Maddox (Nashville, 1994), Windows on Wesley: Wesleyan Theology in Today's World, ed. Philip R. Meadows (Oxford, 1997) and Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy love and the shape of grace (Nashville, 2007).
  • Wesley's moral theology is dealt with by D. Stephen Long in John Wesley's Moral Theology: the quest for God and goodness (Nashville, 2005). For his social ethics see John Wesley's Social Ethics: Praxis and Principles by Manfred Marquardt (Nashville, 1992). For his relations with the Church of England, see John Wesley and the Church of England by Frank Baker (1970).
  • Two titles which examine Wesley from a wide variety of perspectives:
  • John Wesley: contemporary perspectives, ed. John Stacey (1988)
  • The Cambridge Companion to John Wesley, edited by Randy L. Maddox and Jason E. Vickers (2010)