Born at Topsham, Devon, he was influenced by reading the Puritan divines and especially Baxter's Saints' Everlasting Rest. Apprenticed to a Bristol jeweller whose wife was a Methodist, he was converted and joined the local society, finding peace with God after a lengthy period of spiritual anguish. Helped by a widowed relative, in 1779 he went to St Edmund Hall and then to Hertford College, Oxford. During vacations in London, John Wesley took him sick-visiting. He was ordained deacon in 1783 and was curate to Vincent Perronet, whose granddaughter Elizabeth Briggs he married. After other curacies in Notts and Lincs, in 1786 he was summoned to London by Wesley (who called him 'a very pious and sensible young man') to assist him at Wesley's Chapel.