Portrait of John Wesley. © Shutterstock
John Wesley, a clergyman of the Church of England, originally did not intend to create a new Protestant denomination. However, circumstances resulted in a new Protestant tradition known as Methodism in the late 1700’s. Wesley and his brother Charles began a reforming movement within the Church of England, the church into which they were born, in the 1720’s. Eventually, with the aid of John’s impressive organizational skills, the movement spread throughout the United Kingdom and to America. The movement became an independent denomination with strong roots in Anglicanism, the tradition that includes the Church of England.
John Wesley was born on June 17, 1703, in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. His father, Samuel, was an Anglican clergyman. Samuel and his wife, Susanna, were committed to the Church of England. However, both came from Nonconformist families that had left that church. Thus, John appreciated both the importance of the organized church, and of a Puritan tradition of inward religion and a direct relationship with God. In the 1720’s, John attended Oxford University, where he eventually became a fellow (governing member) of Lincoln College. In 1728, Wesley was ordained a priest in the Church of England. At Oxford, Wesley and his brother Charles organized small groups of students to help one another to be disciplined and methodical in their study, spiritual devotion, and practical good works. They drew ridicule from other students, who called them “The Holy Club.” They also gained the nickname “Methodists,” which stuck. Their practice of accountability in small groups became the basic model of later Methodism.
In the 1730’s, John and Charles spent several years as missionaries in Savannah, Georgia. There, they were influenced by some Moravian Brethren, German Protestant missionaries who stressed personal faith and disciplined Christian living. After returning to England in 1738, John experienced a kind of conversion during a religious society meeting in London. He wrote about this experience in his journal: “…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.”
Not long after this experience, Wesley began “field preaching,” or preaching in the open air. This method of preaching became characteristic of Methodism. Wesley’s preaching stressed the need for life-changing religious experience and living a holy life. His message invited all to respond to God’s gracious reconciliation through Jesus Christ. Wesley’s ministry drew many people. He organized his followers into Methodist societies, which expanded and developed as a well-structured movement. As the movement grew, Wesley enlisted lay (unordained) preachers as assistants. In 1744, he started an annual conference to deal with matters of doctrine and practice. Wesley’s unconventional ministry drew criticism from Anglican clergy, as well as from other evangelical reform movements. It sometimes met with public hostility, and even violence.
Wesley wanted Methodism to remain a reforming movement within the Church of England. But the need to provide pastoral supervision for his followers in America led to a separation from the church. In 1784, Wesley made Thomas Coke the first superintendent of the Methodist church in America. That same year, the Methodist Episcopal Church was formed in the United States, with Coke and Francis Asbury as its first bishops. By the time of Wesley’s death on March 2, 1791, Methodism had expanded to include 294 preachers and 71,668 members in Britain; 19 missionaries and 5,300 members in mission stations; and 198 preachers and 43,265 members in America. It is no wonder the movement grew as it did. A tireless preacher, Wesley is estimated to have traveled some 250,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons in his lifetime. Throughout his career, he also worked to help the poor and was concerned with such social issues as education, prison reform, and slavery. Wesley is buried in London.